To be licensed as a Certified Public Accountant, you need to demonstrate a high level of education, knowledge, and skill in accounting. This is a good thing. It means that the letters “CPA” after your name assure the public that you know your craft.
The CPA is a state-issued license. The exact rules vary by state, but are often similar.
Becoming a CPA starts with a college or university education. All jurisdiction, minus the US Virgin Islands, now require 150 credit hours to become licensed. This is just another way of saying you need five years of full-time study.
Most get this with a four year undergraduate degree and one year of graduate study. There are also five-year integrated programs in accounting available; these will qualify you with a Master's degree and the 150 credit hours you need to become a CPA.
Almost all states require this study to include some amount of accounting course credits. These can be studied at the undergraduate level, with a Master's in accounting, or an MBA with an accounting concentration.
There are also quite a few states who will allow you to test with an undergraduate education.
The next step is to pass the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Exam. This exam is written and scored by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Students from all states and jurisdictions of the United States take the same CPA exam. You are not eligible to take this exam until you have met your state's requirements. The CPA exam is a computer-based test comprised of four sections. The current exam takes 14 hours for all four parts. You may take these in any order you choose as long as all four are completed within 18 months.
This is a big exam and it requires an immense amount of preparation. Not everyone makes it through: In 2016, the average pass rate across all sections was below 50%.
If you fail a section, it's not the end of the world. If you retake only the section you failed within 18 months of first taking the exam, you will be given credit for all the sections you previously passed. If you take longer than 18 months you may need to retake multiple parts.
You need at least one to two years of work experience in public accounting to be licensed as a CPA. Some states will accept government or industry experience instead, but they will require this experience to be for a longer period.
You do not need to fulfill this experience requirement to take the CPA exam. However, you will have to complete it to get your license and be permitted to put the letters CPA after your name.
Once you have met all your state's requirements, you can apply for license from your state board of accountancy. You can view your state board’s contact information here.
In most states you will also need to take an ethics exam. This exam requires much less study than the CPA exam and usually has a pass rate of over 90%. This is taken before licensure.
Many states have a requirement of Continuing Professional Education to keep your knowledge up to date. These requirements vary by state but can amount to 20 to 40 hours per year.
Getting this far demonstrates more than just expertise—it is a sign of herculean dedication. This is not something that just anyone can do.
According to the AICPA, CPAs earn 15% more than non-CPAs in similar roles.
Earning your CPA also makes you more employable and promotable. Many are capable of a business degree. Your CPA really sets you apart. You've shown ambition, work ethic, and learning ability that few can live up to.
This is a difficult achievement. The rewards are worth it.
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