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Accounting students must navigate a maze of coursework, certification prerequisites, exams, and career options. It can be tough to know where to start. This page serves as a hub for all accounting learners who need a little extra guidance.
Outside of their coursework, undergraduate accounting students often seek information about internship opportunities and requirements for future certification. Those in master's programs may be starting their certification processes and kicking off their accounting careers.
Whether you're wondering about internships, certifications, state licensure processes, or career trajectories, we're here to provide accounting help for students like you. The following information is all reviewed and verified by a certified public accountant (CPA).
The Three E's
The path to CPA licensure includes the three E's: education, examination, and experience. "Education" involves a bachelor's degree in accounting, finance, or a similar field. "Examination" refers to the CPA exam. Experience usually entails about two years of supervised accounting experience, however, this varies by state.
These steps might sound simple enough, but it takes years of focused effort to complete them. For example, CPAs usually need 150 credits. A bachelor's degree only accounts for around 120. It takes careful planning and consideration to get the three E's under your belt.
Those interested in accounting can pursue degrees and certificates from the associate to the doctoral levels.
- Accounting Certificates: These post-baccalaureate programs are designed for students ready to take licensing exams. Certificate programs add credits to students' portfolios, bringing the total to the 150 required to take the CPA exam in 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 minimum degree students can hold if they wish to become CPAs.
- Graduate Degrees: Pursuing a graduate-level accounting degree also qualifies students to take the CPA exam. 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 credits at the undergraduate or graduate level to meet their state licensing requirements; 30 hours more than a typical bachelor's program.
Students complete these extra credits by taking additional undergraduate, graduate, or certificate courses on top of a bachelor's degree. Over 40 states have adopted this academic benchmark for the CPA exam, making the 150 hours a worthwhile investment.
In many states, accountants are not required to be licensed to find employment; holding at least a bachelor's degree in accounting or a related field is often enough. However, obtaining CPA licensing or other professional credentials can increase employment opportunities, potential pay, and professional responsibilities.
The CPA Examination is a requirement for prospective licensed accountants in all states and in some U.S. territories. Contact 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) created a thorough preparatory checklist for future test-takers. The CPA exam is administered on a computer for 14 hours, spread over two days. Prospective test-takers can take sample tests on AICPA's website. 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
Many states mandate that accountants seeking CPA licensure have 1-3 years of work experience. These requirements vary based on your specialization and state of residence.
For example, Alabama stipulates one year of public accounting or two years of industry teaching experience. However, Oregon allows accounting professionals to complete the requirement by working in government, industry, or public practice settings for a single year.
Internships for Accounting Students
Many accounting programs include internship experience requirements in their curricula. Students may need to seek out internships on their own and gain school approval.
Consider these points while searching for internships:
Can you apply your internship to the CPA exam's educational requirements? (Note that for your experience to count, you must be supervised by a CPA). Will you be applying what you learned by completing relevant accounting tasks? Will you gain exposure to relevant business technologies in the accounting field? What types of networking opportunities will you have access to?
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. Interning with an accounting firm or under a CPA in a business setting allows students and recent graduates to put what they've learned into practice. The following are links to websites with job boards dedicated to accounting internships.
WayUp.com – Accounting Linkedin.com – Accounting Intern Jobs Accountingfly.com – Student Internships
The Big Four
Accounting students and grads may come across references to "The Big Four" while searching for internships. It's no surprise; the Big Four include the biggest and most widely-known global auditing firms. Due to their widespread prevalence among Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies, prospective CPAs can find many internship opportunities at the Big Four.
- PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC): Interns shadow 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 include three main activities: direct work with clients, participation in the National Intern Conference, and collaborative work with a mentorship team. Internships can last anywhere from eight 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 first-year graduates. They also 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.
Accounting Licensure and Certification Options
While the AICPA is the nationally recognized Uniform CPA Examination authority, this organization does not grant licensure. It is the responsibility of each U.S. state and territory accountancy board to license qualifying applicants. CPA candidates must complete the licensure requirements in their state of preferred residence and employment. Below we have outlined the most common certifications, CPA included.
- Certified Public Accountant: This is the only accountant licensing track available within the United States. Those who work as CPAs are required by all states to hold this qualification. To earn licensure, accountants must pass the CPA examination, gain relevant work experience, and earn 150 college credits.
- Certified Management Accountant (CMA): Professionals with at least two years of experience as management accountants or financial managers are candidates for this credential. The CMA certification requirements and two-part exam take 12-36 months to complete.
- Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA): The CISA credential is for professionals wishing to specialize in information auditing control and technology security. Bachelor's and master's degree holders may qualify 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): Investment and planning are CFP expertise areas. The two-part exam is open to management accountants or financial managers with 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 specializations like risk management assurance, government auditing, internal auditing, and financial services auditing. Each exam has its own eligibility requirements and preparation resources.
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 requirements since these offices set their own education, experience, and examination terms. Each board has its own fees for services like initial licensure, score certification, license renewal, and CPA firm registration.
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Guam: Guam Board of Accountancy Puerto Rico: Puerto Rico Certified Public Accountants U.S. Virgin Islands: Virgin Islands Board of Public Accountancy
Other Accounting Websites for Students
- 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 internationally by contributing feedback on the worldwide financial reporting standards developed by IFRS.
- International Accounting Standards Board (IASB): This 14-person, independent department within the IFRS 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): The FASB oversees financial standards for private sector businesses. The public can register for and attend public meetings in-person or 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, and an accountancy licensing library.
More Accounting.com Resources
Lizzette Matos, CPA
Lizzette Matos is a certified public accountant in New York state. She earned a bachelor of science in finance and accounting from New York University. Matos began her career at Ernst & Young, where she audited a diverse set of companies, primarily in consumer products and media and entertainment. She has worked in the private industry as an accountant for law firms and ITOCHU Corporation, an international conglomerate that manages over 20 subsidiaries and affiliates. Matos stays up to date on changes in the accounting industry through educational courses.
Lizzette Matos is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.
Page last reviewed May 1, 2022
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