A career in accounting can be rewarding professionally and financially. In fact, accountants consistently make the top of "best" career lists. For example, U.S. News & World Report ranked accountant third in the best business jobs for 2019. The Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a 10% growth in the accounting industry over the period 2016–2026, with the addition of approximately 139,900 jobs during that time.*
With promising job prospects, many are choosing to pursue a career in accounting. Here’s the best way to pursue your dream of becoming a certified public accountant (CPA).†
What Does It Take to Become a CPA?
CPAs are accountants who have been licensed by a state’s Board of Accountancy. According to the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), to become a CPA, candidates must earn a bachelor’s degree at a minimum, and then meet licensure requirements in their state.‡ License requirements typically consist of education, experience, and passing examinations.
Most states require aspiring CPAs to complete 150 semester credit hours of study to become licensed, according to the AICPA. To reach the 150 hours, would-be CPAs need to complete a bachelor’s degree with an appropriate number of accounting courses, and then consider graduate programs. A graduate degree is not required to become a CPA, but it may help you reach the credit hour requirement.
Many boards allow a candidate to sit for the licensure exam before they have finished the education requirement. For example, in Wisconsin, a candidate can sit for the exam if they will complete the required education within 60 days, according to the National Association of State Boards of Accounting (NASBA).
You can research the requirements for your state on the AICPA website or your state’s board of accountancy. Note the earliest you can sit for the exam and schedule the exam as early as possible.
To become a certified public accountant, you must first pass the Uniform CPA Examination. According to AICPA, the CPA Exam is composed of 4 four-hour sections:
- Auditing and Attestation
- Business Environment and Concepts
- Financial Accounting and Reporting
Each section is composed of multiple choice questions and task-based simulations or written communication tasks. You must pass all four sections within 18 months and earn a minimum score of 75 on each part.
The American Institute of CPAs publishes pass rates for all candidates quarterly. It is common for the first quarter of the year to have lower pass rates, because candidates testing in the first quarter are often distracted by the demands of tax season.
You must pass all four sections of the exam within a rolling 18-month window, or you will have to retake portions of the exam. This means even if you pass one section, you may not be done with it, depending on the outcome of other sections.
To prepare for the exam, a candidate should plan to study at least 100 hours for each section. Numerous exam-prep materials can provide you with content to study, based on the AICPA's published Content and Skill Specifications Outline.
Some states also require an ethics exam. It’s best to check with your desired state’s licensing board for full requirements to become a CPA.
Next, aspiring CPAs should head into the workforce. By working for a public or private accounting firm or in the accounting department of any company, would-be CPAs are working toward the experience requirement for their CPA license. Some states specify that you must be working for a public accounting firm, and many states require that you be supervised by a licensed CPA, so be sure to check your state’s requirements.
The length-of-experience requirements will vary by state, but they’re typically around 2 years. For example, the New York Board of Accountancy has established experience requirements that are different if the candidate has more education. If a candidate has 120 semester hours of qualifying education, that candidate must have 2 years of acceptable experience. On the other hand, if the candidate has 150 semester hours of qualifying education, only 1 year of qualifying experience is required, according to the New York Society of CPAs.
Experience is not required to sit for the exam but must be completed before you can become licensed. If you want to become a CPA, you should understand the experience requirements for the state in which you seek licensure and establish a plan to fulfill those requirements. Some boards have a required period of time within which this experience must be completed.
How Long Does It Take to Become a CPA?
Between education requirements and experience requirements, becoming a CPA isn’t a quick process. You’ll need to complete 150 hours of education, which can include undergraduate and graduate studies, or online or on -ground CPA degree programs that combine master’s programs with undergraduate studies.
If you are enrolled in college full-time, it will take about 4 years to receive an undergraduate degree, and about 1 additional year to gain the 30 credit hours required for CPA licensing. If you are enrolled part-time, it will take longer.
Work experience requirements are typically 1 to 2 years; added to the education requirements, it can take 7 years or more before you can become a CPA.
Start Working Toward Your Career as a CPA
Becoming a CPA is hard work, but the rewards are great. Demand for those in the accounting profession is expected to increase due to a growing economy and complex regulatory environment. Once you are a licensed CPA, you have the ability to practice in multiple states, opening up many career opportunities.
Purdue University Global offers an online bachelor’s degree in accounting, an online master’s degree in accounting, and an online graduate certificate in accounting. Reach out to a Student Advisor to learn more about these programs and how they can help prepare you to take the CPA exam.‡ Contact an advisor today.