Find accounting schools near you

Steps to Becoming a Certified Public Accountant

Written by AnonymousSeptember 20, 2011
Certified Public Accountant

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accounting professional who has been licensed by his or her state of residence to practice public accounting. To become certified, CPAs must first pass the Uniform CPA Examination, which is administered by each state’s board of accountancy. Each year, over 100,000 candidates take the test, which is prepared and graded by the Board of Examiners of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

The Uniform CPA Examination’s goal is to assess whether the candidate has the knowledge, skills, and professional judgment necessary for a career in accounting. The exam is computerized, which means that candidates have to possess basic computer skills in addition to accounting knowledge.

The test lasts 14 hours and is comprised of four sections, each made up of multiple-choice questions and real life case studies, called simulations where applicant answers questions relating to the simulations. Many states include an additional ethics exam, which is usually open book. Fortunately, considering the length of the exam, you can take the different sections at different times.

The AICPA describes the four sections of the exam as consisting of the following subjects:

Auditing and Attestation:

  • Planning the engagement
  • Internal Controls
  • Obtain and document information
  • Review engagement and evaluate information
  • Prepare communications

Business Environments and Concepts

  • Business structure
  • Economic concepts
  • Financial management
  • Information technology
  • Planning and measurement

Financial Accounting and Reporting

  • Concepts and standards for financial statements
  • Typical items in financial statements
  • Specific types of transactions and events
  • Accounting and reporting for governmental entities
  • Accounting and reporting for nongovernmental and not-for-profit organizations


  • Ethics and professional responsibility
  • Business Law
  • Federal tax procedures and accounting issues
  • Federal taxation of property transactions
  • Federal taxation—individuals
  • Federal taxation—entities

Examination standards and licensing requirements vary by state, each of which has different expectations about a candidate’s education level, work experience, and state residency, along with different application filing dates and fees. Though each state differs in terms of these requirements, agreements exist between states so that a CPA who relocates can still be given credit for passing the exam.

Complete information about each state’s requirements can be found at Click on the Getting Started link on the website and then select Steps to Becoming a CPA, which contains an interactive map that allows users to see each state’s specific requirements.

Forty two states and the District of Columbia now require candidates to complete 150 hours of college coursework — 30 hours more than what is typically completed for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Many university accounting programs have altered their curricula to include these additional hours, so make sure that your coursework complies with standards in your state if you want to take the CPA exam. 

Why become certified?

Certification provides many professional and personal advantages. It confers greater professional status, an increased income, and the possibility for promotion. In addition, CPAs are eligible to join the AICPA, the national organization of CPAs, which has a chapter in each state. Membership with the AICPA provides ample networking opportunities in addition to practical benefits, such as continuing education programs.

State CPA Examination Conditioning Requirements

In order to pass the Uniform CPA Examination, candidates must pass all four sections with a score of 75 or higher but, due to the challenging nature of the exam, few candidates pass all sections the first time around. If a candidate passes certain sections but not others, boards of accountancy can still grant credit in the form of conditional status. The rules for earning conditional status are called conditioning requirements and vary depending on the state. Most states require that candidates pass at least two sections to be granted conditional status — though some require passing only one. Many states also have regulations concerning the minimum grade a candidate can receive in the failed sections in order to get credit for the passed sections.

Candidates with conditional status are only given a specific number of opportunities to pass the remaining sections. Once this number is reached, conditional credit expires and the candidate has to retake those sections.

More articles on becoming a Certified Public Accountant:

Things to Consider Before Sitting for the CPA Exam

CPA Continuing Education: What are the Requirements to Maintain your CPA?