CPA-vs-CMA

What’s the difference between a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) and a CMA (Certified Management Accountant) certification?

It’s one of the most common questions we hear, and it’s usually followed by, “Which certification will get me further along in my career?”. Let’s take a closer look.

What is a CMA?

A CMA has expertise in financial accounting and strategic management, allowing them to make business decisions for their employer based on financial information.

What is a CPA?

A CPA is uniquely qualified as an accounting expert and performs/signs audits, most often representing companies during IRS audits.

Both certifications require a bachelor’s degree, work experience, and passing a licensing exam. Both certifications are respected and present unique opportunities for the licensed, but the CPA certification is generally regarded as the more difficult and prestigious of the two.

The decision to pursue either a CMA certification or CPA certification is ultimately a decision on what career path is the best fit for you. If you are more inclined to manage people and provide business counsel in the private sector, you’re likely to pursue a CMA certification. If you’re interested in the raw data and prefer to prepare in-depth analysis and reporting, you’re likely to pursue a CPA certification.

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Those are general descriptors, and you should consult with professors, advisors, mentors, and work superiors to figure out the right path for your situation. Here are a few more factors to consider:

Exam Length

  • CMA: 2-part exam
  • CPA:  4-part exam


Exam Cost

  • CMA:  ~$650 (varies by state)
  • CPA :  ~$775 (varies by state)


Exam Pass Rate

  • CMA: 43%
  • CPA: 50%


Continuing Professional Education Requirement (CPE)

  • CMA: 30 hours per year
  • CPA: 40 hours per year


Experience requirements to become fully licensed

  • CMA: 2 years
  • CPA: 1-2 years (varies by state)


Average starting salary

  • CMA: $61,000
  • CPA: $66,000

Average salary

  • CMA: $102,500
  • CPA: $119,000

Both certifications require a bachelor’s degree, work experience, and passing a licensing exam. Both certifications are respected and present unique opportunities for the licensed, but the CPA certification is generally regarded as the more difficult and prestigious of the two.

Having either certification will give you a leg up on your competition -- particularly in the recruiting and interviewing stages of your first job search as well as future promotions.

But it’s important to remember that your path is up to you. Whether you decide to become a CMA or a CPA, it’s your character, values, and work ethic that will determine your value. 

We feel it's our obligation to remind you that most people outside of the accounting industry know are most familiar with the CPA certification. Although they might not know what the acronym stands for, they understand that it accompanies highly motivated, reliable experts in the accounting field. The CMA certification comes with less familiarity and prestige. In addition, in our experience, most employers:

  • Prefer a CPA over a CMA
  • Pay more for a CPA over a CMA (as seen above)
  • Require a CPA more often than they require a CMA

Obtaining the CPA license is more difficult and takes more time, but you can see that it's worth it. That said, do your research and go with the certification will serve your career best. Both certifications are worthy pursuits, and if you’d like to obtain both, we say go for it!

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