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Get started on your bachelor's or master's degree in accounting to take an important step toward becoming a CPA.
What is the CPA Certification?
CPA stands for certified public accountant and is a designation for someone who has taken licensing exams and qualified for advanced standing in the accounting profession. A certified public accountant will need to take the CPA exam and pass other licensing requirements to receive this designation. CPA certification requirements will vary by state, but they generally include having a certain number of education credits, passing the CPA exam, and acquiring work experience.
If you want to become a respected accountant, adding a CPA certification to your credentials is key as it qualifies you for more careers in the profession. While you may be able to work in some positions in an accounting firm without being a CPA, earning that designation can open several more opportunities for upward progression while also increasing your job stability. Learn more about the CPA exam and how WGU helps accounting students prepare for this certification through our accounting curriculum.
How to Become a CPA
Becoming a CPA is not easy, but at WGU, we'll help you prepare. While requirements vary slightly by state, here are the general steps to becoming a certified public accountant:
Get the education you need. Earn at least a bachelor's degree with an adequate number of credits in business or accounting. Keep in mind that these education requirements can vary by state. In most states, you need 150 credit hours. This means that for most people, a master's degree is necessary to meet the education requirements and have the skillset needed to be successful. At WGU, we offer both bachelor's and master's degrees in accounting. Many CPA candidates choose to earn their master's degrees before taking the CPA exam. That said, in many cases CPA candidates are allowed to sit for the exam after 120 or 130 credit hours, meaning you can take the CPA exam while earning your master's degree.
- Apply to take the CPA exam sections. In order to even take the CPA exam, you must first apply for and receive a Notice to Schedule (NTS) from the AICPA. It's best to familiarize yourself with the AICPA CPA exam process as there are a number of items you'll need to be aware of, including state requirements, where tests are offered, and how long you have for each section of the test. There are four sections (and in many cases also an ethics exam), and most people take them separately over a period of 18 months. The AICPA also has a resource site with exam information.
- Study for the exam sections. Your course and master's degree study will help you understand accounting concepts and principles, but you will want to take extra time and use additional resources to prepare for the CPA exam. It's best to take a formal review course. At WGU, we offer free CPA test preparation materials to our Master of Accounting (MAcc) graduates to help them prepare specifically for the examination.
- Pass all four sections of the exam. Keep in mind that the CPA exam consists of four sections: Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG). You must pass all four sections within 18 months. CPA candidates split up each section into its own sitting, so plan on essentially taking four different tests over a span of no longer than a year and a half.
- Pass the ethics exam if necessary. In most cases, students need to pass the ethics exam to become a CPA. That said, some states do not require it, so be sure to check with your state's Board of Accountancy for specifics.
- Get enough work experience. Each state has different work experience requirements. Familiarize yourself with the ones for your specific state and ensure you meet those. You can work towards those requirements before you become a formal CPA. You may choose to be employed or take an internship that will help you accumulate the necessary number of work hours to qualify for licensure.
- Apply for and earn your state-issued certification. Before you can earn your state license, you must apply. These requirements can vary. However, in general, you'll likely need 150 credit hours of education with an accounting emphasis, which includes 30 semester hours in accounting subjects, 24 in business administration subjects, and at least 15 in accounting in graduate-level courses. You'll also likely need at least one year of experience in the field, confirmed by a licensed CPA. Remember to reach out to your state's Board of Accountancy for specifics.
Best Degrees for Aspiring CPAs
Accounting – B.S. Business Administration
Have a knack for numbers or fine-tuning finances?...
Have a knack for numbers or fine-tuning finances?
- Time: 70% of graduates finish within 42 months.
- Tuition: $3,575 per 6-month term.
- Courses: 41 courses in this program.
Some careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:
- Accounting manager
- Financial director
- Vice president of finance and operations
- Chief financial officer
- Forensic accountant
Take your first step toward CPA certification and learn how to use GAAP, ledgers, and journals.
Accounting – M.S.
Become better qualified to pursue a greater variety of public and private...
Become better qualified to pursue a greater variety of public and private accounting positions:
- Time: 72% of grads finish within 24 months.
- Tuition: $4,530 per 6-month term.
- Courses: 10 total courses in this program
Some careers and jobs this business degree will prepare you for:
- Accounting manager
- Internal audit manager
- Senior accountant
- Other specialized finance roles
This MAcc program is designed to prepare you for the CPA exam and also the CMA or CIA exams.
What Does a CPA Do?
A CPA can do what a regular accountant can, but also more. An accountant's daily responsibilities might consist of tax preparation, preparing and auditing financial statements, analyzing costs, and providing financial recommendations. In addition to being qualified to perform a broad list of those routine accounting tasks, here is what CPAs can do that regular accountants cannot:
- Perform mandatory audits. CPAs are certified to audit public U.S. companies.
- File reports with the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC). All public companies are required to file specific financial statements or reports with this commission. A CPA may assist companies by auditing their financial statements and then filing them with the SEC.
- Represent taxpayers before the IRS. Only CPAs (or select attorneys, enrolled agents, or actuaries) can stand for clients before the IRS. Regular accountants cannot.
- Sign off on tax returns prepared by other accountants. If a CPA works for an accounting firm, they'll likely be required to sign off on tax returns prepared by other accountants before they can be filed. In general, a CPA can perform more duties and work in more senior roles than a regular accountant who hasn't earned the same level of certification.
What Jobs can a CPA Have?
Certified public accountants may be qualified for a number of different jobs. Here are some of the jobs CPAs may pursue:
- Tax and management consultant
- Internal or external auditor
- Corporate accountant
- Financial analyst
- Chief financial officer
Benefits of CPA Certification
There are many benefits of becoming a CPA. Here are some reasons to become a certified public accountant:
- Greater career opportunities. As a CPA, you open yourself up to more jobs that require higher levels of certification. Many firms or companies prefer or require accountants to be licensed CPAs. As a certified public accountant, you may be eligible for roles and responsibilities that would not be available without a CPA designation.
- Higher pay. Since they have higher credentials and more experience, certified public accountants usually earn a much higher salary than their non-certified counterparts, particularly as they gain experience and seniority. On average, CPAs start out making at least 15% more than accountants without the credential, and pay can rise higher as more experience is gained.
- Enhanced job security. CPAs are in high demand. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the accounting and auditing field is projected to grow 4% by 2029, meaning more than 60,000 jobs will be added to the industry, with CPAs being the most qualified and sought-after to land those jobs.
- Higher job satisfaction. A certified public accountant often works with many different professionals in exciting positions. A CPA may manage a team, or they may audit and help less experienced accountants. Typically, they are in a position to do more managerial work and less of the so-called "grunt work" that less experienced accountants start on.
What is on the CPA certification?
The first two testlets of each exam section contain multiple-choice questions (MCQ). These questions test your knowledge of accounting practices and principles.
Task-based simulations (TBS) are small case studies that use real-life business situations. These questions are intended to test for the skills and knowledge needed for an entry-level accountant. The AUD, FAR, and REG sections of the exam each have three TBS testlets, while the BEC section has two.
Essay questions, or written communication tasks, are found only on the BEC section of the exam. These questions require you to read a case study and then write a document (usually a memo or letter) that relates to it. Your goal is to provide accurate information in concise, professional writing.
CPA Exam Facts
- How to apply. You must apply to take each of the four sections of the CPA exam. The prerequisite requirements vary slightly by state and jurisdiction, so check with the NASBA to get started. Once you apply, you'll get a Notice to Schedule (NTS), which is valid for six months. You may then choose a location to take your test.
- The format. There are four, four-hour sections. You will schedule and sit for one section at a time. Each section is composed of five smaller sections called testlets. Every testlet contains multiple-choice questions, task-based simulations, and written communication tasks (in the case of the BEC section).
- How it's scored. The exam is scored on a scale from 0 to 99. To pass each of the four exams, your score must total at least 75. If you fail a section, you will receive a candidate performance report that will help you understand what you need to improve in order to pass.
- The pass rate. The Uniform CPA Examination is a very difficult test. In fact, the pass rate for some sections is around 50%. It is common for people to have to retake sections of the test. While it's difficult to pass, it's not impossible, especially if you are well prepared. At WGU, we'll help you get ready. We're proud to say that our students have higher pass rates than average.
CPA at WGU
WGU offers a Bachelor of Science in Accounting as well as a Master of Science in Accounting to help students prepare for the CPA exam. These degree programs are designed to help students be qualified and prepared to sit for their CPA examination. While they will need to pursue their own study, the concepts they learn will aid them as they prepare for the rigorous study work required for the CPA exam. They will also have the credentials, credit hours, and accounting background required across the United States to sit for the CPA examination.
CPA Preparation—How WGU Helps
Free Wiley Prep Materials
Graduates of WGU's Master of Science in Accounting can request free CPA study materials from Wiley. Students receive the Platinum CPA test preparation, an $1,800 test prep course, absolutely free. Our goal is to help you be prepared for your career, so ensuring students who are qualified to sit for the exam have this preparation course is key to our program. MAcc students who have graduated can work with their Program Mentor to request access to Wiley.
Excellent Pass Rates
Across the country, the pass rate for all of the CPA exams is around 50%. Here at WGU, our goal is to help students be prepared for this exam if they want to take that next step in their career. The CPA pass rate among WGU students is 58.6%—a great improvement on the national pass rate. Our coursework, prep materials, and one-on-one help all contribute to this exceptional pass rate.
Higher ROI and Salaries
Professionals with a CPA license see a 15% salary increase on average after becoming certified. And WGU MAcc students see an average salary increase of $18,700 after graduating from the program. The CPA exam and a degree from WGU can both be key pieces in helping you increase your salary and move forward in your career.
Frequently Asked Questions about CPA Certification
To get CPA certified, you should generally first earn a master's degree. In most states, you'll need at least 150 credit hours of coursework with an emphasis in accounting. Then, you must take and pass all four sections of the CPA exam. After passing the exam, you'll need to apply for a receive a license from your state. This will usually require at least a year of work experience verified by a certified public accountant.
CPA stands for Certified Public Accountant. Those who are CPAs have a specific certification beyond just a bachelor's or master's degree. To receive your CPA certification, you must earn at least a bachelor's degree, and likely also a master's degree (in accounting or a related field), pass the CPA Exam, and receive a state license.
While eligibility to take the CPA exam varies by state, all 50 states require a bachelor's degree with at least 150 credit hours of coursework to become a licensed CPA. This means that earning—or at least working toward—a master's degree is quite common before taking the exam. In order to take the test, you must first apply. Some states will let you sit for the CPA Exam with 120 hours of study, though you still must complete 150 hours before you can apply for a license. Some states will have requirements for things like age, citizenship, and more.
Yes. While not common, it is possible to take the CPA exam without an accounting degree. Keep in mind though that most states require 150 credit hours in accounting. If you want to accelerate your study, look into earning an accounting degree and taking exam prep courses online through a university like WGU. In any case, if you plan to take the CPA exam, plan on taking several credits of accounting courses.
It typically takes at least five years to become a CPA. To earn a CPA license, you will need to complete the necessary education, pass the CPA exam, and get enough work experience in the field. The first step is to earn a bachelor's degree and master's degree, preferably in the accounting field. Some programs, like the ones offered at WGU, have a course format that allows you to progress toward becoming a CPA more quickly.
Yes. A CPA certification is worth the investment if you want to have a long career in accounting. Having the credential of CPA will be valuable for your long-term job stability and prospects of career progression and satisfaction.