What is a CPA?

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If you are pursuing a degree in accounting, you should consider becoming licensed as a Certified Public Accountant. Having a CPA license can catapult your career and open doors of opportunity for you.  Whether you decide to work in public accounting or private industry, a CPA license can separate you from the competition and improve your earning potential.  Read on to learn more about Certified Public Accountants.

Looking to pass your CPA exams? Take a look at our guide to the best CPA review courses →

What is a CPA, exactly?

Certified Public Accountants, or CPAs, are trusted financial professionals that have met the tough licensing requirement in their state.  They are knowledgeable advisers that can work in a variety of positions in either public accounting or private industry.  They are considered experts in their field and must meet a high standard of ethics and skill within the profession.

How do you become a CPA?

CPAs become licensed in the state that they choose to practice in.  While many of the requirements to become a CPA are the same regardless of which state you take the exam in, there are some differences.

The main requirements for becoming a CPA include:

  • A Bachelor’s Degree in accounting or business
  • Meet the state-specific requirements for the types of classes that you must complete
  • Complete 150 credit hours
  • Pass all 4 sections of the Uniform Certified Public Accounting Exam
  • Meet the state’s work experience requirement
  • Complete an ethics exam

Once you have satisfied all of the above, you can apply to become a Certified Public Accountant with the board or regulatory agency in your state.  You can read more about the requirements for becoming a CPA here.

What is on the CPA exam?

According to the American Institute of Public Accountants, the CPA exam is made up of four sections:

  • Auditing and Attestation
  • Business Environment and Concepts
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting
  • Regulation

You must pass each section of the exam with a minimum score of 75.  Each section is taken on its own.  Once you pass the first section, your grade is good for 18 months.  If you haven’t passed all four sections by the end of the 18 months, you will be required to retake any section that exceeds that timeline. 

What does a CPA do?

While they can perform general accounting and bookkeeping services, licensed CPAs can also deliver a variety of other services.  These include:

Audit and Assurance Services

A CPA typically provides audit and assurance services to public and private companies.  The highest level of service that a CPA provides is an independent audit of a company’s financial statements.  Here they perform various procedures in order to issue an opinion as to whether or not the statements are free from material misstatements.  A company may need to provide audited financial statements to a regulatory agency, its bank, or its shareholders. CPAs also perform other assurance services, such as financial statement reviews and compilations.  Only CPAs can perform audit and assurance services of this nature.

Tax Planning and Representation

CPAs often work with individuals and businesses to prepare and file their tax returns.  In addition, they can help with tax planning services to help their clients minimize their tax burden.  They can also represent clients who have issues with the Internal Revenue Service or their state or local taxing agency. 

  • Consulting Services –

A CPA can provide a wide array of consulting services for its clients.  They can assist with daily accounting operations.  CPAs can also provide operational and strategic support for companies.  They can assist with preparing financial budgets, analyzing data, evaluating the controls that a company has in place, and help with long-range planning.  A CPA that specializes in technology may also assist a company when implementing new software programs.

Forensic Accounting

CPAs can perform investigative accounting services where they look for instances of fraud in a company or an individual’s transactions.  They are often looking for criminal activity such as embezzlement and fraud.

What positions do CPAs typically hold?

A CPA may work in public accounting firms or for private companies.  They can work in a variety of position including;

  • Auditors
  • Tax accountants
  • Business consultants
  • Chief Financial Officers
  • Controllers
  • Finance Directors
  • Forensic accountants

In addition to the above, CPAs may be employed in other operational roles within a company, such as a Chief Operating Officer, or they may even become business owners themselves.

Why should you become a CPA?

There are quite a few benefits to becoming licensed as a CPA.  These include:

Prestige

CPAs have to complete 150 hours of coursework and pass a rigorous exam to become licensed.  In addition, they are often required to complete continuing education courses to maintain their license.  With such extensive licensing requirements, CPAs are often highly regarding for their expertise and skill.  Having a CPA license can give you an advantage over other professionals that have not attained their milestone in their career.

Earning potential

On average, CPAs can make between 10-15% more money than an accountant without a license.  Due to increased globalization, CPAs have been more valuable across the world and have opportunities to take multiple paths in their career.  Finally, the profession is expected to experience above-average growth in the coming years due to more CPAs retiring. 

Career development

Most states require CPAs to take continuing professional education in order to renew their licenses.  This requires the CPA to stay current with regulatory changes in the accounting profession.  In addition, CPAs can also specialize in their services focusing their services in certain areas such as estate and tax planning, forensic accounting, and internal control audits.

Job security

CPAs who have speciality practices may find more job security as there is less competition.  Also, changing rules and regulations continue to open up opportunities for CPAs to expand their skills.

Conclusion

Deciding to pursue a CPA license will require an investment in your time.  However, the investment will pay off as it can help you to advance your career and increase your earning potential.  Plus, the prestige and respect that a CPA license can pave the way for new career and growth opportunities.