How to Become a CPA: The Steps to a Stimulating Career

Why would anyone want to learn how to become a CPA when all they can envisage is the clichéd stereotype? A nerd with bottle top glasses and pen lids exposed above their shirt pocket, their most prized possession a trusty calculator, and favorite book the seven-and-a-half thousand page tax code.

But ask most CPAs and they’ll say it’s about time that image was discarded – forever! Because the modern CPA is more than just a bean counter and tax code enforcer.

The modern CPA can be many things, including a strategist, a consultant or an advisor to name just a few.  But they have one thing in common: they are an integral part of most businesses, including the world’s largest and most successful companies. 

Although there is still plenty of work in the more traditional areas such as tax and audit, the CPA’s role has expanded into new areas as diverse as forensic investigation, IT systems implementation and strategic planning.

Whether your aspirations are towards running a top company, or just to helping the family business to grow, accounting offers an exciting and diverse career path, and is the reason why many people want to discover how to become a CPA.

What Distinguishes a CPA?

Becoming a CPA is a stringent process that can be seriously hard work. This is because the process is designed to make sure CPAs provide a professional, high standard of service and are seen as trusted and ethical advisors in the community.

Not all accountants are CPAs, but all CPAs are accountants. CPAs are people who are qualified with the main professional accounting body in the US, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), although licenses are issued by state boards in each US jurisdiction. According to the AICPA website, they have 386,000 members in 128 countries.

The CPA certification provides potential users of accountants’ services with the comfort that the accountant has reached a high standard of education and experience, and is undertaking ongoing training.

Because CPAs have undertaken a significant amount of training, and generally perceived as being competent to undertake more complex work than non-CPAs, there is a difference in their rates of pay. The average salary for an accountant starting out in an accounting firm or corporate role is 10-15% more if they’re CPA licensed (source:

And whereas Partners in large accounting firms and Chief Financial Officers can earn upwards of $500,000, the earnings ceiling for a non-CPA qualified accountant is much lower and can be reached within the space of only a few years.

What Qualifications do CPAs Need?

The three things you need before being granted a CPA license are known as “The 3 Es”:

  • Education: Most states require 150 semester hours of education, with a certain number of these being accounting related. Although the minimum university qualification for CPAs is a Bachelor’s degree, the 150 hours requirement means that a Bachelor’s degree is generally not sufficient. Consequently, most students wanting to become CPA qualified undertake a graduate level course.

    Taking a graduate level course also enables students to specialize in the particular field of accounting they are looking to spend their career in, and are generally in the form of a Master of Business Administration or a Master of Accounting, depending on the college.

    Obviously all accounting programs are different, so check out the Colleges section of this website to get more information on which one’s the right fit for you!

  • Examination: The CPA exam is the only one of the “Es” that is uniform across the country, and includes multiple choice, simulation and written communication questions over 14 hours. It involves testing knowledge in four areas:

    - Auditing and attestation (AUD): the principles around gathering evidence to attest to the truth and fairness of financial statements

    - Business environment and concepts (BEC): general areas such as corporate governance, business strategy, information systems and financial risk management;

    - Financial accounting and reporting (FAR): knowledge of the financial reporting framework, including accounting standards; and

    - Regulation (REG): ethics, professional and legal standards, business law and taxation.

    Here’s a slightly scary thought: the majority of candidates who sit the CPA exam fail. For some reason, quarter three results are generally the best of the year, whilst quarter one results are the worst! In quarter four 2013, the pass rates were 47% for auditing and attestation, 59% for business environment and concepts, 51% for financial accounting and reporting, and 50% for regulation
  • Experience: The amount of experience requires varies by state, but most require at least two years of work experience for the CPA license to be granted. More or less requirements may exist based on a candidate’s education, employer and type of work undertaken, so it’s recommended you contact your local AICPA office to see what applies in your state.

Continuing Professional Education - Not Negotiable

Once qualified, CPAs typically need to undertake a minimum of 40 hours per year of Continuing Professional Education (CPE). This ensures that they keep abreast of the latest industry development and technical updates, and are able to continue to provide a high quality service to businesses and clients. There are different ways that hours can be earned, including formal training courses, online learning, or research.

Becoming a CPA: Summary

Congratulations on exploring the CPA route as a career path.  Accountancy is a diverse career, yet is also one of the most stable and secure. Not only does virtually every business need an accountant, but some accountants such as insolvency practitioners even profit when times are tough!

A CPA is also one of the few careers that is truly international. The CPA designation is internationally recognised, plus debits and credits are the same in every country!

CPAs have come a long way from the “boring” stereotype. As most of them will tell you, learning how to become a CPA is a thorough process, but accounting is a great career choice that can take you virtually anywhere!