Five steps to becoming a certified public accountant (CPA)

If you’ve ever thought about going into the tax business, then this is your how-to guide to getting it done, with the five steps you need to take to become a CPA.

Firstly, you should know that you don’t have to become a certified public accountant (CPA) if it’s your goal to simply make a business in tax preparation. There are several other avenues.

However, CPAs are the most rigorously trained when it comes to accounting.

What is a CPA?

CPAs advise their clients not only when it comes to taxes, but an array of financial matters. Some CPAs are hired to perform audits—either internal or external—to ensure an organization or company is accurately reporting their finances.

The requirements to become a CPA varies by state; however, across the board, CPAs in the United States must earn a Bachelor’s degree in either finance or accounting before becoming fully certified. This is usually followed by some post-graduate work and several exams.

Five steps to becoming a CPA

Let’s take a closer look at the five steps you’d need to follow to become a CPA.

1) Select a bachelor degree program

Most states require CPA hopefuls to finish around 150 hours of study to become fully licensed. A typical bachelor’s degree program will usually earn you about 120 hours, so if you don’t find a program that combines undergraduate and postgraduate work, you’ll likely have to intern to make up the difference.

CPAs typically earn a higher wage once certified as the necessary coursework to earn the degree is complex—covering not only fundamentals, but theoretical concepts and cost accounting strategy.

2) Look into graduate courses

If you didn’t select a program which incorporates a Master’s degree work, you’ll want to look into taking some graduate level courses. While graduate work usually isn’t required to become a fully certified CPA, most Bachelor degree courses just don’t meet the state guidelines for the required credit hours.

Additionally, graduate level courses offer aspiring CPAs deeper knowledge and more hands on opportunities to work in their field of study before taking the required CPA exams (which are very intensive).

There are several different post-graduate degrees to consider, from a Master of Arts in Accounting, to a Master of Business Administration with an accounting specialization, and a Master of Science in Accounting.

3) Obtain field experience

After completing the necessary schooling required by your state, the next step is getting real world experience. Much like newly graduated doctors, CPAs are typically expected to complete “CPA residency”—at least two years of field experience.

There are many options to choose from in both the public and private sectors. And pretty much any company you can think of has an accounting department which could use support during tax season or to assess financials and ensure documentation accuracy.

4) Prepare for exams

Once you’ve completed both your educational and credit hour requirements, the next step is to pass your examinations. There are four exams outlined by the AICPA which you must pass in order to become a certified CPA.

These exams cover a range of topics, from financial accounting and reporting to auditing and attestation. After finishing the first of the four tests, you’ll have 18 months to take the final three and gain your certification. There’s plenty of resources available to support you.

For example, the AICPA website offers a list of guidelines for those getting ready for their examination, such as when to schedule your exams and peak testing days you may want to avoid.

The Intuit ProConnect site also offers centralized resources and tax-specific information such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act and new protocols you should keep up with.

5) Keep learning

Lastly, you must keep your education current. Unfortunately, this isn’t just one of those “nice to haves.” Tax laws are constantly changing, and in order to stay legally up-to-date, you’ll need to periodically renew your license and complete continuing education courses.

To get a comprehensive look at the most current CPE regulations, you can visit the NASBA website and search by state jurisdiction. Here you can find specific details such as license renewals date, the CPE reporting period, general and ethic requirements as well as credit hour limitations.

It takes hard work to become a CPA, but the salary reward is worth it in the end.

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