How to Become a Certified Public Accountant

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A calculator and a pen on top of financial documents

Few career paths can match that of certified public accountants (CPAs) for flexibility and marketability. Whether they’re providing their expertise to small businesses, government agencies, corporations, or individuals, CPAs are highly skilled specialists who can ensure that an organization is fully compliant with all financial rules and regulations, its return on investment is maximized, and the potential for any downside is minimized.
It’s more than a knowledge of numbers that makes CPAs so important and appealing to employers. What distinguishes CPAs from their peers is their ability to look beyond the figures and fully grasp the trends and circumstances affecting them to accurately make sound projections while protecting their employer’s bottom line.

Several factors have contributed to the continued demand for CPAs, including increasing globalization, a growing need to ensure financial integrity and compliance, and a need for a comprehensive command of international business risks and regulations.
For anyone interested in learning how to become a certified public accountant, it’s important to consider the responsibilities associated with the career and to look at pay as well as job outlook.

CPAs: What They Do

While the day-to-day responsibilities of a CPA will depend upon the employer and industry, common tasks include:

  • Reviewing financial statements and reports to ensure accuracy and compliance with federal and state laws
  • Providing detailed reports to decision makers to lessen the risk and maximize the return of business decisions
  • Handling and preparing tax returns, assuring payment in full and on time
  • Staying current with changes in government regulations
  • Supervising and performing audits
  • Recommending strategies to mitigate liabilities, lower expenses, and increase profits.

The skills of CPAs prepare them for a number of dynamic industries and keep them from being pigeonholed during their careers. For example, some CPAs choose to specialize in areas such as forensic accounting, investigations of fraud and embezzlement, contract disputes, and other intricate financial dealings.

How to Become a CPA

Anyone wanting to become a CPA must be highly skilled in the following:

  • Analysis: The ability to thoroughly examine a complex financial document — especially the fine print — to ensure that the employer’s tax liability and instances of fraud are minimized.
  • Organization: The capability to efficiently work with a wide range of documents and requirements for a variety of clients.
  • Communication: Adeptness at anticipating concerns from different audiences and effectively discussing and explaining complex financial concepts.
  • Mathematics: Competency that provides the foundation for the analysis and interpretation of data.

According to the American Institute of CPAs, many jurisdictions require CPAs to complete at least 150 semester hours of study. Because most bachelor’s degree programs require about 120 hours to complete, an undergraduate degree is simply not enough.

Completing a Master of Accountancy degree will not only satisfy the educational requirement, but will also prepare the graduate to sit for the required Uniform CPA Examination. Consisting of four sections that are four hours each (auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial auditing and reporting, and regulation), all sections must be completed within 18 months, with a minimum score of 75 required for each component.

While a Master of Accountancy is not required to sit for the CPA exam, many students choose an advanced degree program because the courses prepare them for the test.

CPAs are required to be licensed by the Board of Accountancy in their state, with continuing education courses often required to maintain the license.

To distinguish themselves further, many CPAs earn certifications from a host of professional societies, including the Institute of Management Accountants, the Institute of Internal Auditors, and ISACA (formerly known as the Information Systems Audit and Control Association).

CPAs: Salaries and Job Outlook

Accounting has long been considered a mostly recession-proof career, and the trends of increased globalization and expanding government regulations make that likely to continue. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a job market growth of 10 percent for CPAs from 2016 through 2026. Beyond a strong degree of job security, the chances for upward mobility with higher pay is relatively robust for CPAs.

In June 2018, salary data company PayScale reported that the average salary for a CPA is $63,672, but this depends upon the industry. For example, the BLS has broken down the median compensation for CPAs by sector, showing finance and insurance jobs commanding the highest median salary of upwards of $74,000 per year, while government jobs are reported to bring in a median of a little over $67,000 per year.

For accounting professionals looking to become certified public accountants, earning a Master of Accountancy may provide a solid path toward a rewarding career.

Learn More

Through Ohio University’s online Master of Accountancy program, graduates can earn their advanced degree in as few as two years and entirely online. The program is designed to equip graduates with a functional knowledge of the foundational principles and emerging trends necessary to thrive as CPAs in a variety of industries.

Recommended Reading:

Finance or Accounting Degree: Which One Is Right for You?

How Financial Statement Analysis Helps Business Grow

Accounting Interview Questions You Should Know



Ohio University
Bureau of Labor Statistics
American Institute of CPAs