If you’re interested in learning how to become a CPA (Certified Public Accountant), you probably already know that all CPAs are accountants, but not all accountants are CPAs. A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has completed an approved accounting degree, additional education, work experience, and has passed the Uniform CPA Exam. Being a CPA can offer benefits, career opportunities, and financial rewards that are not available to financial professionals who lack the certification. Once you become a CPA, you must also maintain your certification with continuing education.

Required Education and Coursework

The American Institute of Certified Professional Accountants(AICPA), that prospective CPAs complete at least 150 semester hours of college coursework in accounting at an accredited college or university. All 50 U.S. states require 150 hours of college or graduate-level accounting education to qualify to take the CPA Exam. Some prospective CPAs believe they have to have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in accounting to qualify to take the CPA Exam. You don’t need to have a master’s degree. You can enroll in an integrated five-year professional accounting program, or complete an undergraduate accounting degree program and take additional graduate-level accounting courses for a total of 150 semester hours of accounting education. Ten semesters comprised of five three-unit classes per semester equals 150 semester hours.

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Public Accounting Work Experience

Most states require that accountants who want to be CPAs must have at least two years of public accounting work experience. Public accounting means that you have worked for an accounting firm that serves a variety of clients, providing auditing, tax, and advisory services. You may substitute accounting experience in other environments, such as government organizations or not-for-profit agencies, but you will probably have to demonstrate more than two years of experience in these roles. The size of the firm that you work for doesn’t matter. The experience you obtain during your work should involve each practice specialty offered by the firm, such as preparation of financial statements, or tax planning and preparation of returns.

One-Tier and Two-Tier States

One-tier states require CPAs to meet work experience requirements and pass the CPA Exam and grant your certificate and license at the same time. Two-tier states provide your certificate once you sit for and successfully pass the CPA Exam. You will fulfill your experience requirements separately, and receive your license at a later date if you live in a two-tier certification and licensing state.

Passing the CPA Exam

Most aspiring Certified Public Accountants worry about passing their CPA Exam. You must have completed at least 120 hours of accounting education to qualify to sit for the Uniform CPA Exam. Some applicants take the exam after their first four years of college and can combine work experience and their final 30 credits of education through tailored graduate accounting programs. The exam covers four sections: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation.

Aspiring public accountants must complete rigorous educational and work experience programs before they become a CPA. The rewards of being a Certified Public Accountant include better career opportunities, better long-term salary prospects, and more professional responsibility, according to the AICPA.