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 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, as well as the various responsibilities and requirements that come with being a CPA in the following sections (jump to):

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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 licensure 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. There are several different types of accountants, including cost accountants, forensic and managerial to name a few, each with different areas of focus and responsibilities.

But what’s a CPA, and how is being a CPA different from being an accountant? A CPA can do everything an 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 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 of the most 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.

Requirements for Becoming a CPA

To become a CPA, you’ll need to meet a few requirements, such as:

  • Education requirement: To fulfill this 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 some CPA candidates 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’s CPA Exam prep curriculum1, or our MBA with a Specialization in Accounting. In some cases, enrolling in a CPA Preparation program or a Graduate Certificate in Accounting may be helpful in preparing to sit for the CPA Exam or meeting credit hour requirements.

  • Exam requirement: Perhaps the most noteworthy requirement to become a CPA is passing the CPA Exam. The CPA Exam consists of four-parts and must be passed with a minimum grade of 75 on each part. As mentioned, CPAs must have completed a minimum of 150 credit hours, but in some states, the exam may be administered to someone who has reached 120 credit hours. However, they must reach 150 credit hours before they can become a licensed CPA.

  • Work experience requirement: While you don’t need work experience to sit for the CPA Exam, most states require candidates to have at least two years of relevant work experience before they become a licensed CPA.

  • State-specific requirements: There may be other state-specific requirements, such as additional accounting or ethics courses. Make sure to check your state's requirements when preparing to become a CPA.

Getting Started on Becoming a CPA

A good first step toward becoming a CPA can be to invest in your education. If you're looking to start preparing to pursue a career in accounting and earn your CPA license, then our Bachelor's Degree in Accounting program may be a good place to start. This program not only gives you the opportunity to learn the basics of accounting, but it also includes elements of Becker’s Professional Education's CPA Exam preparation curriculum built right into the coursework1, so you can start preparing to pursue the exam while earning your degree.

Interested in learning more? See how we can help you on your journey.

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.