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What is a CPA (Certified Public Accountant)?

By DeVry University

The information presented here is true and accurate as of the date of publication. DeVry’s programmatic offerings and their accreditations are subject to change. Please refer to the current academic catalog for details.

September 12, 2023

5 min read

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a professional designation within the accounting field. Earning this credential means that you have met the educational, work experience and other licensing requirements determined by your state and can begin to think about pursuing a broad range of career paths that are open to CPAs in particular. If you’re looking to pursue an  accounting career, expand your capabilities in the field or just wondering, what is a CPA?, then we can help.


In this article, you'll learn about the differences between a Certified Public Accountant and a non-certified accountant and more in the following sections:

CPA vs. Accountant

While all CPAs are accountants, not all accountants are CPAs. Only those who have met their state’s educational, ethics and work experience requirements and have passed the uniform CPA exam can call themselves a CPA. There are certain jobs within the field of accounting that only a CPA can do, making earning your CPA license something to consider if you’re looking to pursue these types of roles.

Accountants, on a basic level, maintain and analyze financial records. Accountants may work in a variety of industries, and may assist with financial planning, investment strategy or keeping track of a company’s financial information. They use methods such as generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP), a common set of accounting rules, standards and procedures for financial reporting issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board. Public companies in the United States must follow GAAP when their accountants compile their financial statements.

There are several different types of accountants, each with different areas of focus and responsibilities such as tax accounting, financial accounting and forensic accounting.

But what’s a CPA, and how is being a CPA different from being an accountant? A CPA can do everything a non-certified accountant can do, but they are also able to work in specialized areas of accounting such as consulting, financial planning and litigation consulting. CPAs, unlike uncertified accountants, can also set up their own accounting firms.

Responsibilities of a CPA

CPAs may be responsible for a variety of different accounting tasks. Some common CPA responsibilities include:

  • Attestation

    Attestation is a third-party review of a company's finances by a CPA. It consists of a CPA reviewing an organization’s financial statements and providing assurance about the accuracy and reliability of the information.

  • Financial record examination

    CPAs are often called on to perform financial analyses for clients. During this process, which is broader in focus than an audit, they work to determine the plausibility of a company’s financial data and records.

  • Auditing

    While an examination of financial records works on a broader scope, an audit has a narrower focus but also serves to provide a determination about the validity of a company’s finances. Some CPAs may take part in forensic auditing, in which case they may perform audits to derive evidence for a legal proceeding.

  • Document preparation

    CPAs are often tasked with ensuring that the financial documents of a company meet requirements set by certain regulatory bodies. A CPA may also work with clients in the area of tax preparation, gathering information and preparing state or federal tax forms.

  • Client advisement

    Because of the high standards that Certified Public Accountants must meet, they may work as financial advisors to companies in a variety of industries. In this role, a CPA would use their knowledge of accounting to provide a company with accounting advice for financial planning, analysis, tax planning and expense management, among other things.

Keep in mind that a Certified Public Accountant is a professional designation and not a job title or position. The duties, responsibilities and title held by a CPA may differ based on the position or company.


CPA Licensure Requirements

Depending on the state or territory you will be working in, you’ll be required to meet criteria in 4 key areas. Before taking the CPA exam, you must check with your state or jurisdiction’s board of accountancy to ensure you’ve completed the required credit hours and coursework for your jurisdiction. Requirements for taking the CPA exam and obtaining licensure include:

  1. CPA educational requirements

    Many states require a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field, at minimum, to become a CPA.

    Every state also requires at least 150 credit hours of education. Earning a Bachelor's in Accounting can be a great way to develop your skills and start earning the credit hours you’ll need. However, additional education may be required depending on the number of credit hours built into your chosen bachelor’s degree program.

    At DeVry, our Graduate Certificate in Accounting Certification Preparation is an excellent complement to your bachelor’s degree and a great way to prepare for the test, with Becker Professional Education’s CPA Exam Review built right in.1  

    Keep in mind that some states may also have additional course requirements, such as ethics classes, for their CPA candidates.

  2. CPA experience requirements

    In addition to meeting the educational requirements for CPA certification and licensure, there are also professional experience requirements to consider. Many states require 2 years of public accounting experience. While some states may accept non-public experience, the number of years required can vary. Before you pursue your CPA license, be sure that you’ve thoroughly reviewed the requirements for your jurisdiction.

    Requirements for licensure can follow either a single-tier or 2-tier system, varying by jurisdiction. With one-tier systems, candidates must pass the CPA exam and fulfill the experience requirements to earn both their CPA certificate and licensure. 2-tier systems allow candidates to earn their CPA certificate upon passing the exam, but their licenses are not issued until the experience requirements have been met.

  3. CPA age and residency requirements

    Most states don’t have a minimum age requirement for the CPA exam, but many jurisdictions require that test takers be at least 18 years old. Some areas also require evidence of residence in your jurisdiction for at least 6 months.

    Evidence of residence typically includes one of the following:

    1. Permanent resident for 6 months

    2. Owning a place of business within the state for 6 months

    3. Employment within the state for at least 6 months

  4. CPA ethics requirements

    Depending on the state you reside in, you may be required to take an ethics exam. This exam would typically include content from the AICPA’s Code of Professional Conduct, but some states may also have their own mandatory ethics exam that is specific to that state. Annual ethics exams are also mandated by some states to ensure ethical requirements are reviewed on a regular basis.

Planning and Preparing for the CPA Exam

Completing your education and preparing for the exam is a unique journey. However, the following steps may be helpful as you prepare for the CPA exam:

  1. Enroll in a CPA exam review program

    A CPA exam prep program can help you refresh your knowledge of accounting topics or help reinforce your understanding of them. Some of these programs may include mock exams that can help you get more comfortable with the CPA exam format.

  2. Study regularly

    Studying regularly can help you retain information and reduce stress. Getting in the habit of regular study sessions will also help you avoid the need for any last-minute cramming before the exam.

  3. Take a practice exam

    Practice exams are great for identifying areas that you might need to spend more time on. They can also be used to gauge how well you are retaining concepts and prepare you for what to expect.

  4. Practice in a simulated environment

    As the exam date gets closer, it may be helpful to practice the exam in conditions similar to what you’ll be in when you take the CPA exam. This can help you feel more at ease when the actual test is in front of you and allow you to practice managing your time.

CPA Exam Details

Let’s take a deep dive into the uniform CPA examination.

What’s in the CPA exam?

According to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), the test has 4 sections. Each section is a rigorous assessment of the minimum technical knowledge and skills required for licensure:

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD)

  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)

  • Regulation (REG)

  • Business Environment and Concepts (BUS)

Within each of the exam’s 4 main sections, CPA candidates are tested in 4 areas: Remembering and understanding, application, analysis and evaluation of that section’s subject material.

How long is the CPA exam?

Each section of the exam is taken separately. CPA candidates are given a maximum of 4 hours to take each section, for a total of 16 hours of testing time. Candidates are allowed up to 18 months to pass all 4 exam sections, which begins at the time that they pass their first exam section.

How is the CPA exam scored?

Section scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 99. A total reported score of 75 or higher is required to pass each section.

When is the CPA exam administered?

The exam is administered continuously throughout the year, allowing candidates to take the test when it’s most convenient for them.

What happens after you’ve passed the CPA exam?

Once you’ve passed all 4 exam sections, you should verify whether your jurisdiction requires you to take a separate ethics examination before applying for your state-issued CPA license.

CPA Code of Professional Conduct

AICPA members are bound by a 5-article Code of Professional Conduct, requiring them to adhere to a code of ethics that includes:

  • Exercising professional and moral judgments in all activities.

  • Accepting the obligation to act in a way that serves the public interest and honors the public trust.

  • Performing all professional responsibilities with the highest sense of integrity to maintain and broaden public confidence.

  • Maintaining objectivity and independence in fact and appearance when providing auditing and other attestation services, to be free of conflicts of interest in discharging professional responsibilities.

  • Observing the profession’s technical and ethical standards, and striving to continually improve competence and the quality of services, discharging professional responsibilities to the best of their ability.

How to Become a CPA

To earn your CPA designation, you’ll need to meet several requirements in education, testing and licensure as established by the profession and license-granting jurisdictions. If you are planning to seek professional licensure as a CPA, it is strongly recommended that you contact the appropriate licensing entity (in most cases the state board of accountancy) in the state in which you plan to practice in order to seek information and guidance regarding licensure requirements.

1. Earn Your degree

To fulfill the education requirement, you need to have a minimum of 150 credit hours within an accounting program, such as a Bachelor's in Accounting or in a related field like finance. Depending on the program, a bachelor's degree may include fewer than 150 credit hours, requiring you to enroll in a graduate program or additional accounting courses.

At DeVry, we offer multiple master’s-level programs which may help you as you prepare to pursue a career in accounting, including our Master's in Accounting and our Master's in Accounting and Financial Management, both of which include elements of Becker Professional Education’s CPA Exam prep curriculum,1 or you can consider pursuing our MBA with a Specialization in Accounting. If you’re interested in earning a shorter credential, enrolling in our Graduate Certificate in Accounting Certification Preparation or a Graduate Certificate in Accounting can be helpful in preparing to sit for the CPA exam or meeting credit hour requirements.1

2. Gain work experience

While you don’t need work experience to sit for the CPA exam, most state boards of accountancy require candidates to have at least 2 years of relevant work experience before they become a licensed CPA. Remember that licensure requirements can be configured in either of the one-tier or two-tier systems we described previously.


3. Pass the CPA exam

After completing your education in accounting and gaining some work experience in the accounting services field, the next step to becoming a CPA is passing the uniform CPA exam. As mentioned earlier, you must pass all sections of the exam before you can apply for your state-issued CPA license.


4. Meet state-specific requirements

It’s worth restating that each state maintains its own CPA licensure requirements. This step may entail meeting additional state or jurisdiction-specific requirements, such as additional accounting or ethics courses, to be licensed. Be sure to check your jurisdiction's requirements to be sure you have all the bases covered.


CPA Career Options

According to the AICPA, accounting professionals who are CPAs or prospective CPAs can choose from a variety of career pathways in the accounting industry.

  • Within public accounting

    Work for any size public accounting firm, from a small accounting practice to a large, international firm. Within the firm, you may work in areas such as audit, tax and management consulting.

  • In business

    Pursue careers in companies of all sizes, working in financial accounting and reporting, management accounting, financial analysis and treasury or cash management.

  • In Specialized areas

    As mentioned earlier, CPAs can also provide accounting and consulting services in several specialized areas like business valuation, personal financial planning, IT consulting and financial forensics.


Benefits of Being a Certified CPA

Since every career path is unique, the benefits of becoming a CPA will vary from person to person. In addition to adding the title of CPA to your resume, you may find that you meet the qualifications for more opportunities that interest you. In fact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accountant and auditors who pursue licensed CPA status may potentially improve their job prospects.2

Prepare to Become a CPA

Take the first step toward your future goals by advancing your education. If you’re new to the industry, our Undergraduate Accounting Certificate or Bachelor's Degree in Accounting can be a great place to start. If you’ve already earned your undergraduate degree, explore our accounting-related master’s degree and graduate certificate programs, some of which can help you prepare to pursue your CPA certification with built-in CPA exam prep1 from Becker Professional Education.

1Credits and degrees earned from this institution do not automatically qualify the holder to participate in professional licensing exams to practice certain professions. Persons interested in practicing a regulated profession must contact the appropriate state regulatory agency for their field of interest. For instance, typically 150 credit hours or education are required to meet state regulatory agency education requirements for CPA licensure.


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