What is a CPA (Certified Public Accountant)?

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 a career in accounting, expand your capabilities in the field or just asking yourself, "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:

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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 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 analysis for clients. During this process, which is broader in focus than an audit, they work to determine the plausibility of a company’s financial information 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 to prepare documents for tax purposes.

  • 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 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 Exam Details

Let’s take a deep dive into the Uniform CPA Examination.

What’s in the test? According to the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA), the test has four 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 four main sections, CPA candidates are tested in four 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 four hours to take each section, for a total of 16 hours of testing time. Candidates are allowed up to 18 months to pass all four exam sections, which begins at the time that they pass their first exam part.

How is the test 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 test 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 test?
Once you’ve passed all four 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 five-article Code of Professional Conduct, requiring them to adhere to a code of ethics that  includes:

  • Exercising professional and moral judgements 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 strive 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.

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 a CPA Preparation Certificate program or a Graduate Certificate in Accounting can be helpful in preparing to sit for the CPA Exam or meeting credit hour requirements.

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 two years of relevant work experience before they become a licensed CPA.

3. Pass the CPA Exam

After earning your education in accounting and gaining some work experience in the field, the next step on the way to becoming a CPA is passing the Uniform CPA Exam. As mentioned earlier, you must pass all four sections of the exam before you can apply for your state-issued CPA license. All 50 states require a bachelor’s degree with at least 150 credit hours of coursework to become a licensed CPA. Some states will allow you to take the CPA Exam with 120 hours of study, but you will still be required to complete 150 hours before you can apply for your CPA license.

4. Complete State-Specific Requirements

It’s important to remember that each state maintains its own CPA licensure requirements. You may have to meet additional state or jurisdiction-specific requirements, such as additional accounting or ethics courses, to be licensed. Be sure to check your state's requirements when preparing to become a CPA.

CPA Career Options

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

  • Within public accounting: Work for any size firm, from a small, local 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 services in several specialized accounting areas like business valuation, personal financial planning, IT consulting and financial forensics.

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 Bachelor's Degree in Accounting can be a great place to start. If you’ve already earned your undergraduate degree, explore our master’s degree and graduate certificate programs in accounting, 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.