Wondering how to become a CPA or an accountant? It can be a long process, but once you know the steps to take, you can focus on completing them quickly and expertly so you can start your dream job as quickly as possible. This guide will answer the following questions:
- What do accountants and CPAs do?
- How to become a CPA/How to become an accountant
- How to become a CPA without a degree in accounting
- How long does it take to become an accountant?
- What are the accountant education requirements?
What Do Accountants Do?
When some people hear the word "accountant" they picture endless spreadsheets and people bent over calculators, furiously adding up stacks of receipts. And it's true that accountants deal with a lot of numbers, but the job goes far beyond just number crunching.
An accountant is someone responsible for compiling, organizing, and analyzing financial records. Accountants are responsible for making sure the financial records are accurate and that all necessary taxes are paid on time. They may also perform audits of a business's financial operations and make recommendations for changes it should make to run more efficiently. Accountants might work for the government, a large company, a small company, as part of an accounting firm, or have their own practice. Some accountants choose to specialize in certain industries, such as healthcare, nonprofits, international accounting, and more.
Here are some common job duties of accountants:
- Ensure financial documents are accurate
- Ensure financial documents are compliant with relevant laws and regulations
- Prepare tax returns
- Recommend best financial practices for corporations, organizations, or individuals
- Give expert suggestions on profit maximization and cost reduction
- Conduct risk analysis assessments
A CPA (Certified Public Accountant) is an accountant who has passed the CPA exam and met additional licensing requirements, which vary by state. Therefore, all CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. Because of their increased knowledge, CPAs are often in higher demand than non-CPA accountants, and they tend to have higher salaries. Because many accountants go on to become CPAs, in this guide we explain both how to become an accountant as well as how to become a CPA.
How Long Does It Take to Become an Accountant?
In general, it takes a minimum of five years after you finish high school to become a CPA. You'll not only need a bachelor's in accounting, you'll also need to meet the 150 credit hours required by most states to become a CPA. It's possible to complete this in five years, although some students take longer because they are getting a Master's degree and/or more work experience. You'll also need to factor in time for studying for the CPA exam. Some students do this while they're in school so they can take the test when they graduate, but others prefer to wait until they've finished their class requirements, then spend several weeks or months focused wholly on preparing for the exam. Additionally, some states require that students have a year of full-time work experience before they can receive their CPA license, which may add to the total time you need to account for.
Salary and Job Outlook for Accountants
How much do accountants make? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, the median salary for accountants was $71,550. Additionally, the field is expected to grow an average of 4% from 2019-2029. Average career growth is only about 3-5%, so demand will be about average for accountants in the coming decade. This means that, if you're well-qualified (which we go over in the next section), you have a good chance of landing an accounting job.
How to Become an Accountant: 7 Steps to Follow
Now we'll get into the nitty-gritty of how to be an accountant. Becoming an accountant or CPA will take years of schooling and practical training, but as long as you know what to expect and are prepared, you'll steadily make progress towards that goal. Follow these seven steps to get there.
#1: Excel in High School
If you already know you want to be an accountant while still in high school, there are multiple things you can do to put yourself in a great position to better your career down the road.
The most important thing to do during this time is take the right high school classes. For future accountants, math classes will be very important. Accountants deal with numbers all day, so you want to show potential colleges that your math skills are strong by taking a math class every year and getting good grades in those classes. Take any business classes you can, too. You'll take introductory business classes once you begin college, but having a solid foundation of knowledge in high school can make these classes easier in college. Many students also find that taking classes on government and politics is helpful as well, as understanding political systems can help accountants in many future career paths.
Once you have your class schedule set, aim for strong grades in those classes. Business major spots can be competitive at many colleges, and having a high GPA will improve your chances of getting into your dream school. Similarly, aim for high scores on the SAT or ACT. Ideally, you'll take your first SAT or ACT around the beginning of your junior year. This should give you enough time to take the test again in the spring, and possibly a third time during the summer before or the autumn of your senior year. For more tips on how to set a goal score, check out our guides to what a great SAT/ACT score is.
There are also things you can do outside of the classroom to help prepare for your future accounting career. Having extracurriculars that relate to your interest in accounting will show colleges that you're committed to and excited about your future career. One way to show this is to join business-related clubs your high school offers, or start your own if none currently exist. At these clubs, you'll be able to learn more about business and meet other students with similar interests. Another way is to get a job that involves work with money/numbers. Even a simple cashiering job will give you some basic experience at tallying up numbers, double-checking account totals, and generally becoming comfortable with money responsibilities. As another option, you can also start your own small business to gain similar experience. This could be as simple as mowing lawns, selling items online, or babysitting. All will give you experience accounting for money.
#2: Get Your Bachelor's in Accounting
If you want to be an accountant, then you need to major in (you guessed it!) accounting. Technically, you don't need to have a degree in accounting to become an accountant or a CPA, you're just required to have a bachelor's degree in any field. However, in most states, to become a CPA you need to have completed a certain number of credits in accounting topics, and, for all accounting jobs, you'll be expected to know at least as much as newly-minted accounting majors. So, a degree in accounting is the simplest way to get that. You can absolutely choose to double major though, if that's something you're interested in.
As an undergrad, you'll take classes in many business and accounting topics, such as economics, finance, marketing, business law, and more. Also expect math and computer classes such as statistics and information systems.
Beyond your classes, you should aim to participate in business-related extracurriculars the same way you did in high school. Colleges are well-known for having clubs for just about everything, and because business majors are often very popular, your school will likely have multiple clubs devoted to business and/or accounting. Joining these clubs can give you great networking opportunities as well as ways to learn more about the accounting field.
During summers, you should aim to get accounting-related work experience by interning at accounting firms. Having relevant work experience will give you a huge leg up in the workforce once you begin job-hunting, and many accountants get their first job through these internships.
NOTE: After you get your bachelor's in accounting, you've met the necessary accountant requirements and are qualified to begin working as an accountant. Some people choose to work for a few years before becoming a CPA, while others continue straight to the CPA requirements. You'll need to complete the next five steps if you're interested in becoming a CPA.
#3: Take Additional Credits to Meet CPA Requirements/Get a Master's in Accounting
One of the requirements of becoming a CPA is completing 150 college credit hours. Most bachelor's degrees require 120 credit hours (30 per year). This means that you'll likely need to spend an additional year getting those extra 30 hours completed.
At some schools, the accounting programs are five years so that you'll complete all your CPA requirements without having to enroll in an additional program. After five years, you'll receive a bachelor's in accounting. Other schools have programs where you can earn both a bachelor's and master's in accounting in five years. These often cost more and are more intensive because you're fitting two degrees into five years, but by the end you'll have a graduate degree in accounting. Having a master's in accounting isn't required to become a CPA, but it can make it easier for you to get a job and increase your salary.
You can also get your master's in accounting at a school other than the one you got your undergrad degree at. As part of your application, you may be required to submit standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, etc. the same way you did for undergrad. Getting your master's in accounting at a new school often takes longer (two years rather than one), but it can be less intensive because your schedule is more spread out.
#4: Gain Work Experience
As mentioned in step 2, it's important to gain relevant work experience, even when you're still in school. Internships or part-time jobs in accounting will be a huge boost to your resume, as many companies can be reluctant to hire a full-time employee with no relevant work experience. Additionally, some states require a certain amount of work experience before they issue you your CPA license (although you can take the CPA exam without work experience). The hours and type of work they require varies by state. For example, Illinois requires one year of supervised experience where you provide service in accounting or a related field. One year of experience is the maximum states require, and some require less than that.
Beginning during your freshman year, talk to your advisor and your school's career services department about how to create a strong resume and cover letter, interviewing tips, and where you should be applying for internships. Once you have a job lined up, be an exceptional employee and learn all you can from the work. For your first accounting jobs, you will probably spend a lot of your time doing work that isn't particularly exciting, but you're still learning important skills and building a strong foundation of accounting knowledge.
#5: Take the CPA Exam
The CPA exam is the test that measures your full breadth of accounting skills. You can take the exam immediately after you finish the 150 credit hour requirement, although some people choose to wait until they have completed more work experience. The CPA exam (officially called the "Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination") consists of four main sections:
- Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
- Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
- Regulation (REG)
- Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
You take each part of the exam individually, in any order that you like. You'll have four hours to complete each section. Once you pass your first exam section, you have 18 months to pass the other three.
In total, the CPA exam consists of 324 multiple-choice questions, 20 task-based questions, and three writing portions. Each question is weighted according to difficulty, so harder questions are often worth more points than easier ones. Each portion of the exam is graded on a scale of 0-99, and you need a score of at least 75 to pass. Many students find the FAR section the hardest to pass because it covers the most information, so it's recommended that you take that section first to get it out of the way.
The national pass rate for the CPA exam is around 50%, so it's definitely not an easy exam. Expect to spend several months studying for it. There are numerous study resources, both free and paid, available online and in print, and some people take classes specifically dedicated to helping you pass the CPA test.
#6: Complete Additional Certification Requirements and Get Your License
After you pass the CPA exam, your state may have other requirements you need to pass before you can get your CPA license. These can include background checks, work requirements, and additional paperwork to fill out. Many states also require you to take and pass an ethics exam.
These additional requirements typically aren't that hard to complete, but it can take time for the paperwork to be processed, so be sure to allow for time for your information to work through the proper channels.
#7: Begin Working as a CPA
Once you receive your CPA license, you're set! You're now eligible to work as a licensed CPA. However, this doesn't mean that you're set as a CPA for life. You'll need to keep up on your accounting knowledge in order to maintain your licensure. Licensed CPAs need to obtain regular Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours. These are classes and exams that can often be completed online. You'll often need to complete a certain number of CPA hours and pass renewal exams every several years (3 years is a common timeframe) in order to continue to be a licensed CPA.
Summary: How to Become a CPA
If you want to know how to become a CPA or an accountant, you need to know each of the steps to follow. Accounts are responsible for maintaining accurate and timely financial records. They might work for the government, a corporation, or a firm that helps individual clients. Accountant requirements include education and work experience, and if you want to become a CPA, there are additional testing and education accountant requirements as well. To become a CPA/accountant, follow these seven steps:
Wondering which college to go to so you can begin your career in accounting? Here’s a list of the 12 best accounting schools in the United States.
Want some more information on the CPA exam? Our in-depth guide to the CPA test covers everything you need to know about this challenging exam.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.