Frequently Asked Questions

    Frequently Asked Questions FAQs - Become a CPA 

    The Basics

    You may be wondering how far you can go with an accounting degree. Or the difference between an accountant and a CPA. Get honest, realistic answers to the most commonly asked questions.

    What is accounting and why is it important?
    Are CPAs and accountants the same thing?
    What is a CPA and what do they do?
    What kinds of career opportunities are available to CPAs?
    What kinds of opportunities are there for women in the CPA profession?
    What kinds of opportunities are there for minorities in the CPA profession?
    Why should I get my CPA license?
    What do I have to do to become a CPA?
    What kind of education will I need?
    What types of skills will I need?

    What is accounting and why is it important?
    Accounting is often called the "language of business" because it deals with interpreting and communicating information about a company's operations and finances.

    Accounting is extremely important to any company because the financial information, as interpreted by CPAs, allows executives to make informed business decisions-decisions that help those companies become more successful.

    Economic events are measured and described by accounting. Everyone works with and uses accounting ideas, whether they're managing a business, investing money, or just deciding how to spend their paycheck.

    In business, accounting links the past with the future. It provides decision-makers information about recent financial activity, as well as information and recommendations useful for forecasting future events.

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    Are CPAs and accountants the same thing?
    Yes and no. All CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are Certified Public Accountants (CPAs). The principal differences between accountants and CPAs are education, experience, and opportunity. Becoming a CPA is a challenging goal, but one very much within your reach.

    In order to become a CPA, there are education and experience requirements you'll need to fulfill, and a Uniform CPA Exam that you must pass. Receiving your CPA certification distinguishes you from other business professionals – the benefits are increased trust, opportunity, and financial reward.

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    What is a CPA and what do they do?
    CPAs are many things. They are chief financial officers for Fortune 500 companies and advisors to small neighborhood businesses. They work for public accounting firms, both small and large. They are well-respected strategic business advisors and decision-makers. They act as consultants on many issues, including taxes and accounting.

    A CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, is a trusted financial advisor who helps individuals, businesses, and other organizations plan and reach their financial goals. Whatever those goals-saving for a new home, opening a new office, or planning a multi-billion dollar merger-CPAs can help.

    Getting your CPA certification opens the kinds of doors that can fast-track you into influential jobs in every industry. Whom do you think the FBI recruits to investigate criminal fraud? What profession is often a stepping-stone to holding positions like Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and Chief Executive Officer (CEO)? Who helps rock stars manage their money, and avoid going broke? View the career opportunities section.

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    What kinds of career opportunities are available to CPAs?
    From the smallest start-up to the largest government agency, every business or organization requires the skills of a CPA. The CPA credential is highly regarded. To a potential employer it means high ethical standards as well as measurable experience, education, and skills.
    CPAs work mainly in public accounting, business and industry (corporate accounting), government, not-for-profit, and education. To learn more about the opportunities available in each of these areas by click here.

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    What kinds of opportunities are there for women in the CPA profession?
    More and more women are becoming CPAs because accounting is a field with increasingly interesting work, flexibility, a high level of respect and attractive financial rewards. As of the year 2000, 57 percent of new accounting graduates were women (source: AICPA). For more information on women in the profession, visit the Work/LifeWomen's Initiatives section of this Web site.

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    What kinds of opportunities are there for minorities in the CPA profession?
    Minority students make up close to 19 percent of new accounting graduates. For more information, visit the Minority Initiatives section of this Web site.

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    Why should I get my CPA license?
    The CPA credential is a symbol of trust and professionalism in the world of business. It's a highly challenging professional track, but the reward is that CPAs are considered the most trusted advisors in business.

    In addition to completing business and accounting courses in college and passing a comprehensive national exam, CPAs continue to maintain and update their skills as part of their commitment to a truly dynamic profession. Learn more about CPA certification requirements.

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    What do I have to do to become a CPA?
    The timeline to licensing includes education, examination and experience.

    Before you do anything else, complete a program of study in accounting at a college/university. The AICPA recommends at least 150 semester hours of college coursework.

    The next step is to sit for the Uniform CPA Examination. While the Exam is developed and graded by the AICPA, eligibility to sit for the CPA Exam is determined by the state board of accountancy in each of the 55 U.S. jurisdictions (includes the 50 states, District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam). Please visit the certification section of this Web site for more information about the Examination process.

    Upon passing the CPA Exam, you will receive your CPA certificate. This is not a license to practice. There are other educational and professional work experience requirements for licensure that vary from state to state. Our certification section offers more details on these requirements.

    Once you have obtained your CPA license to practice, you will need to take continuing professional education courses annually to retain your license.

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    What kind of education will I need?
    To keep pace with new developments in business and technology, a majority of states require 150 credit hours of education at an accredited college or university as a prerequisite to CPA certification.

    Here's a question about education that comes up again and again: "Do I need my Master's degree?" The short answer to that question is "no." However, many of the 150 credit hour programs lead to a graduate degree, such as an MBA (Master of Business Administration), MACC (Master of Accountancy) or MST (Master of Science in Taxation), which CPAs have found to be helpful in creating the kinds of career opportunities and salaries they seek.

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    What types of skills will I need?
    To begin a successful career in accounting, you will need to develop a wide array of knowledge, skills and competencies, ranging from a strong understanding of accounting and business concepts to effective leadership and communication skills. You will also need to have a broad business perspective, which will enable you to "see the big picture" of the internal and external factors that impact how a business operates. Technology will also be a major enabler throughout your career, so it's critical to stay abreast of and utilize new computer applications and systems as necessary.

    Playing an active role in your education, such as taking a hard look at the courses you enroll in and what extracurricular activities you get involved in, helps to position you for a long and successful career. It's important to recognize that the learning doesn't end in school; it's really just the beginning of your lifetime commitment to continual education and development. All of the skills and competencies listed below are considered important to success. A more comprehensive description of the competencies can be found within the Accounting Education Center.

    Problem-solving, analytical and research skills - You should be able to analyze, compare and interpret facts and figures. The ability to identify and solve unstructured problems in an unfamiliar setting and provide insightful consulting advice is a valued quality. Creative thinking will help you face issues on a daily basis and generate innovative solutions. Also, it is essential to be able to effectively and efficiently research, organize and report on technical and/or industry specific issues utilizing print, electronic or human sources.

    Personal skills - Accounting is a service activity, and you will have to work well in teams as well as in one-on-one situations. Critical to any organization's success is the ability to lead, motivate and empower teams to attain clear, concrete, timely and measurable results.

    Strong communication skills including the ability to be a good listener- You will be called upon to persuasively present, discuss and defend your views both formally and informally, in writing and verbally. Clients and co-workers will present you with issues and questions you will need to interpret and respond to quickly. The ability to show empathy and sensitivity to their situations will position you in a favorable light and earn their respect and trust.

    Understand emerging technologies- You need to keep current on emerging technologies like e-commerce, image processing and workflow technology, and understand how these impact business operations and the use of information for decision making. You should know how to use the Internet, e-mail and discussion boards, as well as be familiar with the latest spreadsheet, database, word processing, accounting, business and presentation software packages.

    High Ethical Standards - Given the fiduciary nature of the work you perform, people will rely on the information you provide. Honesty and integrity are qualities which are highly valued.

    Marketing/Client Focus - Individuals who are marketing and client-focused are better able to anticipate and meet the changing needs of clients, employers, customers and markets.

    Project Management- Conflicting demands, unexpected requirements, coinciding deadlines and family obligations are but a few of the sources of stress and pressures you will face. To manage these pressures, you must be able to judge the situations, assign priorities and organize your tasks and obligations to meet the respective deadlines.

    Broad Business Perspective- You need a keen business sense and an awareness of current events, both locally as well as globally. As a key business partner to clients and/or company management, you add value to the organization by making appropriate recommendations based on your understanding of company operations, policies, practices and competitive factors.

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