When it comes to pursuing a career in accounting, students adhere to the American Institute of CPAs’ “Three E’s:” education, examination and experience. As they near graduation, students begin to prepare for certification exams and look for internship opportunities that will ready them for the professional world. This page provides licensing and internship resources, definitions for common accounting terms and links to organizations that can lead to additional information.

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Accounting Licensure

While the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) is the nationally-recognized Uniform CPA Examination authority, this organization does not grant licensure. It is the responsibility of the individual U.S. state and territory accountancy boards to license qualifying applicants. CPA candidates must complete the licensure requirements in their state of preferred residence and employment. Below we have outlined the three major steps an aspiring accountant must take in their journey toward professional licensure: education, examination and experience.

Education

Those interested in accounting can pursue degrees and certificates from the associate to the doctoral levels.

  • Accounting Certificates: These are often post-baccalaureate programs designed for students who are ready to take licensing exams. Certificate programs add semester or quarter hours to students’ portfolios, bringing the total up to the 150 required to take the CPA exam by most states.
  • Bachelor’s Degrees: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, most employers prefer that potential employees have earned at least a bachelor’s in accounting or a related field. This is also the lowest degree accounting students can hold if they wish to become licensed.
  • Graduate Degrees: Pursuing a graduate-level accounting degree also qualifies students to take credentialing exams. Many master’s and doctoral programs focus on accounting theory and research.

Since state CPA education requirements vary, the AICPA recommends students pursue a minimum of 150 semester hours at the undergraduate or graduate levels of study in order to meet their state licensing requirements; 30 hours more than a typical bachelor’s program. These extra semester hours can be earned by taking additional undergraduate, graduate or professional courses on top of a bachelor’s degree. Over 40 states have adopted this academic benchmark, making the 150 hours a worthwhile investment.

Examination

In many states, accountants are not required to be licensed in order to find employment; holding at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field often suffices. However, obtaining Certified Public Accountant (CPA) licensing or other professional credentials can increase employment opportunities and allow accountants to take on more responsibilities and official tasks than their uncertified counterparts.

The Uniform CPA Examination is a requirement for prospective licensed accountants in all states and in some U.S. territories. Visit your local state accountancy board to sign up for a test date and refer to the Prometric directory to find a supervised testing center near you. A partnering organization, the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), has created a thorough preparatory checklist for future test-takers. The exam is administered on a computer for 14 hours, spread over two days. Here are the four sections that are covered:

  • Regulation (REG) – Federal legislation on taxes, accounting responsibilities
  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) – Global business workplace, financial valuations and financial reporting technology
  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD) – The tasks and professional responsibilities associated with audits, assurance and attestation services
  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) – Federal and international accounting principles, component calculations, consolidated financial statement preparation

Prospective test-takers can learn about these four sections in depth by reading the AICPA exam specifications outline. Once you’re ready to sign up for the exam, find your state’s accountancy board in the database below.

Accounting Licensure & Certification Options

  • Certified Public Accountant (CPA): As described earlier, this is the only licensing track available within the United States. Those who work as CPAs are required by all states and many territories to hold this qualification. To earn licensure, accountants must pass the Uniform CPA examination, gain relevant work experience and earn 150 semester hours at a college or university.
  • Certified Management Accountant (CMA): Professionals who have at least two years of experience as management accountants or financial managers are ideal candidates for this credential. This CMA training program and two-part exam take 12-36 months to complete.
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA): This credential is for professionals who wish to specialize in information auditing control and technology security. Bachelor’s and master’s degree holders may be qualified to earn this certification if they pass the CISA exam and have 4-5 years of work experience in auditing or IT governance.
  • Certified Financial Planner (CFP): Investments and planning are the areas of expertise for these certified professionals. The two-part exam is open to management accountants or financial managers who have two years of professional experience and a bachelor’s degree.
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE): The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners provides accountants and auditors with the option to specialize in fraud detection and prevention. Test-takers can either study on their own or enroll in an exam prep course. The CFE exam is divided into four sections: Fraud Prevention; Deterrence, Investigation and Law; Financial Transactions; and Fraud Schemes.
  • The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA): This credentialing agency offers six professional certification tracks in field specializations like risk management assurance, government auditing, internal auditing and financial services auditing. Each exam has its own eligibility requirements and preparation resources.

Experience

This last “E” is extremely important and should not be ignored. It is essential to concurrently fulfill the professional and education prerequisites, since many states mandate that licensed accountants have 1-3 years of work experience. These time requirements vary based on specialization and state of residence. For example, Alabama stipulates one year of public accounting or two years of industry teaching experience is needed; however, Oregon allows the requirement to be completed by working in government, industry or public practice settings for a single year. The following section will help you get familiar with common academic internship practices and resources.

Internships for Accounting Students

Many colleges and universities include internship experience requirements within their plans of study and often forge partnerships with local companies to accept undergraduate interns. Students may also seek out their own preferred internship site and consult with their program coordinator to gain approval.

Consider these points while searching for internships:

  • Can your work in this environment be applied to your educational and experience requirements for CPA licensure?
  • Will you get to apply the theories you’ve learned by performing relevant tasks in this accounting setting?
  • Will you gain exposure to relevant business technologies in the field of accounting?
  • What types of networking opportunities will you have access to as an intern for this organization/company?

Accounting Internships

One of the best ways to gain work experience, which is needed for CPA licensure and many full-time job applications, is to become an intern. Whether paid or unpaid, interning with an accounting firm or under a CPA in a business setting allows students and recent graduates the opportunity to put what they’ve learned into practice. The following are links to websites with job boards dedicated to accounting internships.

The Big Four

Future CPAs may see or hear references to “The Big Four” while searching for internships. It’s no surprise; the Big Four are the biggest and most widely-known global auditing firms. According to Quartz, “Globally, the Big Four collect two-thirds of the accounting industry’s $165 billion in annual fees.” Due to their widespread prevalence among Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies, prospective CPAs can find a wealth of internship opportunities at the Big Four.

  • PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC): Interns shadow current PwC employees to observe their workday, attend professional networking events and occasionally travel to international sites to perform community services as financial educators. The internship lasts for one semester. PwC pays for interns’ travel, housing and visa expenses.
  • Deloitte LLP: Deloitte internships are comprised of three main concentrations: direct work with clients, participation in the National Intern Conference and collaborative work with a mentorship team. Internships can last anywhere between 8 weeks to a full semester.
  • Ernst & Young (EY): The EY internship experience teaches accounting students what it takes to work for a top accounting firm. Interns are given responsibilities similar to those given to first year graduates, and they learn to work together on teams to complete client projects.
  • KPMG: Prospective interns are encouraged to drive their own experience with the Build Your Own Internship Program (BYOIP), allowing students to choose from advisory, tax or auditing interactions with clients.

Terminology Guide

The following is a list of terms commonly found in accounting and business. While the list is not an exhaustive representation of every word and phrase accountants come across, we’ve included it with our resources to give you an idea of what you’ll be working with.

Accruals
Funds to be received and accumulated over a period of time
Balance sheet
A document that records business equity, assets and liabilities
Credit
Recorded on the right column of accounts; sum received
Debit
Recorded on the left column of accounts; amount owed
Equity
Also known as "capital"; the value of a company's assets
Gross Pay
Total wages earned by an employee before taxes and other deductions are applied
Income statement
A document detailing a company's financial performance; break even, gain or loss
Intangible asset
Non-physical assets, such as copyrights or trademarks
Liquidity
The accessibility of turning an asset into cash
Mark-on
The profit margin
Market Price
How much a business pays for a product
Note payable
Also called a "promissory note"; an assurance in writing that an amount will be paid on a certain date
Partnership
A group of two or more business co-owners
Unrealized gains
Gains that have yet to be cashed in
Wages payable
Earned wages that have yet to be received by an employee

Accountancy Authorities

  • International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS): The IFRS Foundation is one of the organizing bodies working to create an international accounting standard. Professionals can engage with their industry on an international level by contributing feedback on the worldwide financial reporting standards developed by IFRS. Subscribers can take advantage of the newest standards and supporting documents for £295 each year. Those who want both online and print access may subscribe for £571 a year.
  • International Accounting Standards Board (IASB): This is a 14-person, independent department within the IFRS that works with the global business community to develop accounting standards. You can register online to attend public meetings for free or download audio recordings of past meetings.
  • The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB): This organization oversees financial standards for private sector business. The public is invited to register for and attend public meetings in-person or through live web conferences.
  • National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA): This organization serves as a centralized resource on the 55 different U.S. state and territory accountancy boards. NASBA members gain access to perks like Uniform CPA Exam study materials, a CPA candidate database, an accountancy licensing library and many other resources. These services come at varying price points.

State Boards of Accountancy

The following includes links to boards of accountancy in U.S. states and select territories. Prospective CPAs should carefully follow their state board instructions from day one, since these offices set the education, experience and examination terms unique to your locality. Each board has its own fees for services like initial licensure, score certification, license renewal and CPA firm registration.