Preparing for a CPA Career

It’s never too early to start thinking about your future—especially in terms of where you’d like to be headed after you graduate. But there’s also one large three lettered word that hangs around your peripherals if not at the family dinner table: CPA. And while the CPA Exam may be daunting (or, in most cases, the thing that really holds most students back), don’t let it intimidate you from a career that’s rewarding financially, professionally, and personally. It’s a decision you won’t regret, and will be something you need in order to advance in the accounting industry.

Preparing for a CPA Career

Obtaining your CPA License gives you an advantage in the job market. Having the credential showcases your drive and commitment to achieve such a difficult specialization. It also helps you stand out to future employers. ​​​​​​​

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Education is the first stop you’ll need to make when considering a career as a CPA. You’ll need a bachelor’s degree plus additional courses to meet the educational requirements to become a CPA. Most accounting majors consider a master’s degree in Accounting (MAcc) to ensure they meet the 150 semester hours of college coursework requirements, which is desirable to accounting firm recruiters.

However, a MAcc is not required. And, 150 semester hours is 30 hours more than a typical bachelor’s degree Also, the more education you have as a CPA, the more money you’ll make during your career.

Educational Requirements

In order to be eligible to sit for the CPA Exam, you must fulfill your state’s educational requirements, which generally require the following:

  • Bachelor’s degree
  • 150 semester units (most states)
  • At least 24 Semester units in accounting

Keep in mind that educational requirements vary by state. And there are some states that allow you to sit for the exam before meeting all the requirements (known as provisionary states). Check our state requirement’s page for requirements for each of the 55 states and jurisdictions.

Recommended Undergraduate Accounting Courses

If you are enrolled in an accredited accounting program, you will be required to take courses on many of the topics that will later show up on the CPA Exam. These classes include (but are not limited to) introduction to accounting principles, intermediate accounting 1 and 2, individual tax, corporate tax, auditing, cost accounting and managerial accounting.

While you obviously need to complete these core accounting classes to complete your degree, most schools allow accounting majors and minors to select a variety of accounting class electives. This is a great opportunity to pick classes that cover topics on the Exam so that you can begin to feel comfortable with the material.

Below is a list of common courses (both required and electives) that most accredited Accounting Programs offer. Keep in mind all accounting programs have unique names for their individual accounting programs, so use this list as a topic guideline, not as a strict checklist.

Choose your electives carefully and pick courses that cover topics in the following areas.

Financial Accounting

  • Intermediate 1, 2, (some schools even have intermediate 3)
  • Government & Non-Profit (often referred to as Advanced Accounting)

Auditing

  • Principles of Auditing
  • Audit Standards and Planning
  • Internal Audit & Control
  • Audit Sampling & Reports
  • Auditing Compilations & Reviews

Business & Environmental Concepts

  • Econ Micro & Macro
  • Cost Accounting
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Accounting Info Systems

Regulation

  • Individual Taxation
  • Corporate Taxation
  • Business Law

Make sure you do the research now to ensure your future success on the CPA Exam. There is no magical list of exactly what courses you should take to pass the exam, nor are there any exact required classes to sit for the exam (just general areas like accounting, business, etc.) But enrolling in accounting electives that focus on Exam topics can only help you down the road and give you a first look at the information.

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There are 55 jurisdictions in the United States that have their own Boards of Accountancy. The State Boards of Accountancy determine their own requirements to becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the United States. They're also responsible for providing the CPA License to those who fulfill all requirements to become a CPA. 


Although the steps to obtain a CPA license vary by jurisdiction, there are some general CPA license requirements that are similar across all states. Those requirements include:


  1. Completing a certain number of educational semester/quarter units. CPA candidates are required to pass a certain number of semester/quarter units from an accredited college or university, usually by obtaining a bachelor’s degree. The number of units required by the State Boards of Accountancy might require someone working towards their CPA credential to continue into a master’s degree program to fulfil all the educational units needed. However, there are several other ways to obtain the extra educational units that don’t require completing a master’s degree. 

  2. Passing the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination. Each CPA Candidate must successfully pass each section of the CPA Exam with a score of 75 or higher. There are four section of the CPA Exam: Auditing & Attestation (AUD), Business Environment & Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). You are allowed take any section of the CPA Exam in any order, but you must complete all four sections within an 18 month window. 

  3. Fulfill public accounting experience under a licensed CPA. Many states require that CPA candidates complete a certain number of hours working under a licensed CPA. Some states also require that candidates take Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours. Be sure to check with your State Board of Accountancy to find out experience requirements. 

  4. Pass the CPA ethics exam. The CPA ethics exam is administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and many State Boards of Accountancy accept the AICPA ethics course and exam for this requirement. The ethics exam can be taken before or after taking the CPA Exam. It’s a 40-question, multiple-choice test that can be taken by CPA Candidates either online or on paper. The benefit of taking it online is that you’ll receive your score immediately. If you take the ethics exam on paper, you must request the exam be mailed to you and then once completed, mail the exam back to the AICPA and wait a few weeks to receive your score. Not all states require a CPA ethics exam to get a CPA License, so be sure to check with your State Board of Accountancy as you work towards the CPA credential.
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  5. Submit Your Paperwork for Your CPA License. Once you have finished obtaining your work experience, it’s finally time to submit your paperwork for your CPA license! And voila—you’re officially a Certified Public Accountant—with a literal license to make the world a better place of financial integrity!


So, whether you just entered college or are graduating this year, here are some steps you can take to give you a great advantage in preparing to pass the exam get a jump start in your career as a CPA.

  1. Get your degree

This first step is an obvious one. The most popular degree for CPA Exam candidates is Accounting since it ensures you meet all the required coursework. Normally, a bachelor’s degree only accounts for 120 credit hours, and most states now require 150 credit hours. To make up for the extra 30 credit hours you will need to qualify to sit for the CPA Exam, many consider going on to get their master’s degree in accounting or taking extra courses at an accredited university.

  1. Pick a Specialty

Many CPAs specialize in one or more areas in the practice. The two most widely known are public accounting or corporate/business accounting. Frequently, the specialty you decide to go with corresponds to the accounting degree you received. You’ll find that picking a specialty not only gives you an advantage in being exposed to the field, but also gives you supplemental experience that can help on the CPA Exam and upon hire.

  1. Take the CPA Exam

Once you have graduated and met the requirements to be eligible to sit for the CPA Exam, it’s time to apply to take the CPA Exam and get a review course. This is the part that most accounting students are looking to avoid, but ask any CPA, and they’ll tell you that the time, energy, and effort it takes to pass the exam is miniscule compared to the amount of benefits and doors of opportunity it opens in the long run.

  1. Land an Entry-Level Job

You can do this step even before you graduate. Look for an accounting internship or volunteer opportunity at local firms or businesses in which you can do accounting duties. Gaining experience to put on your resume will be advantageous especially if you’d like to have a part or full-time job immediately after graduation, in which you can work and study for the CPA Exam simultaneously.

After you have taken and passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam, begin the job application process once again; this time as someone who is in the process of becoming a licensed CPA!

  1. Look for Continuing Education

Getting a full-time job makes it easy to be complacent. Especially after you’ve crossed the milestones of graduating college and passing the CPA Exam. But don’t fall into the complacency trap! Always look for different ways that you can continue to improve yourself in order to climb the ladder of opportunity. Whether that means getting another certificate license, taking some extra classes, being involved in organizations within the industry, or the like. This will show your employer that you are motivated, ambitious, and are always looking for a way to challenge yourself and up the ante on your work ethic.

We wish you all the best of luck as you continue to work toward jump starting your career in accounting, and toward becoming a CPA.