In the most general sense, a CPA, or Certified Public Accountant, is an individual who has met certain requirements in education, experience and examination. CPAs are certified to provide a broad range of financial advisory and external accounting services for their clients. Some services provided by public accountants include assurance (audit), tax compliance and advisory, mergers and acquisitions due diligence, and estate and financial planning.
In order to complete the CPA certification process, public accountants must pass the CPA exam and work in public accounting for at least one or two years. CPAs are not only required to pass a professional exam, but they must also meet continuing professional education (CPE) requirements on an annual basis to maintain their license.
Because accounting rules and regulations are continually evolving and changing, CPAs are required to take 120 hours of continuing education courses every three years.
Roles of a CPA
CPAs can perform many different roles. Those who choose to specialize in auditing will provide assurance for users of financial statements. Although CPAs are engaged by their clients to perform auditing services, the first responsibility of an accountant in public practice is to the public.
Investors, banks and regulatory agencies are among the list of parties who are generally the users of a company’s financial statements. The work of the auditor, or CPA, is to guarantee that the financial statements are free of “material misstatements,” or significant misrepresentations.
Because the public relies on the work performed by a CPA, it is very important that CPAs maintain independence from the company they are auditing. For example, a public accountant cannot audit a company for which any of his family members are employed in a top position.
CPAs also cannot make decisions for management, nor can they accept gifts from clients. Basically, a CPA cannot do anything that might appear by the public to impair his or her judgment.
Another area of specialization for CPAs is tax compliance and consulting. Those who choose this area are required to maintain knowledge about the most current tax rules and regulations. CPAs can perform both corporate and individual tax compliance for their clients.
A CPA can also function as a trusted business advisor or consultant. Companies will often elicit the services of a CPA for general business consulting, or for the implementation of new processes or systems. CPAs who act in an advisory role must also be mindful of rules related to independence.
Because they are required to maintain certain measures of independence from those clients in both fact and appearance, CPAs providing consultation services must be sure to maintain certain independence like auditors.
CPA Career Options
Although a large number of CPAs work in public accounting, there are other career options in the profession as well. Many CPAs work as private or industry accountants and perform internal accounting tasks, services and functions for a company.
A private accountant may act as an internal auditor and review and verify the company’s financial results, policies and internal controls. He or she may also work as a staff accountant and perform typical internal accounting duties. Other CPAs choose to use their knowledge and work as a professor at a university. Many CPAs have become entrepreneurs and use their accounting and financial knowledge to start and run their own business.
Studying for the CPA Exam
One smart way to advance your career in accounting is to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Being certified as a CPA not only gives you credibility within the profession, but it opens the door to many opportunities throughout the business world. In order to become a CPA, you must meet requirements in three areas: examination, education and experience. The examination guidelines require all aspiring CPAs to pass the Uniform CPA Examination, more commonly known as the CPA Exam.
Touted as one of the most difficult professional examinations around, the CPA Exam consists of four sections (auditing and attestation; business environment and concepts; financial accounting and reporting; and regulation). Although the benefits of becoming a CPA might be obvious, figuring out the best way to study for the CPA exam is often much less clear. By following a few key suggestions (listed below), you will be prepared to tackle (and pass!) the CPA exam.
Make it a Priority
Because the majority of people studying for the CPA exam are full-time students or professionals, studying for the exam can easily get pushed down on the list of priorities. There are a million excuses to not study, such as being tired or too busy, or not having a huge chunk of time to commit in one sitting. Unfortunately though, studying is never going to be fun or easy, and it only gets harder and harder the longer you put it off. But if you are serious about your goal to become a CPA, you must make studying for the exam a priority in your life. You may have to spend your weekends studying, and you will probably miss out on some social events during this time. But once you pass the exam and realize what an accomplishment it is, you will forget all about the days and weeks spent studying.
Come Up With a Study Plan… and Stick To It
The CPA Exam consists of four sections, each of which can be taken at separate times. Although the exam is a bit less daunting than it used to be when all four sections were taken at the same time, it is still a ton of information to learn. Before you begin studying, take a look at the section and estimate how long it will take to master the information. Depending on how many days, weeks or months you have to study, you can break down the section into small chunks. Set specific and manageable deadlines so you aren’t so overwhelmed, and try not to take on too much at once. Once you have your study plan and schedule established, write it down or print it off. You can always make adjustments if necessary, but make sure you do everything you can to stick with your plan. This is one test you don’t want to wait until the last minute to start studying!
Use a Study Guide
There are several CPA Exam study guides available, including ones by Becker, Gleim, Wiley and Kaplan Schweser. Not only will a current study guide provide the most accurate accounting information, but it will also give you a structured format from which to study and help outline your study plan. Most study guides also have online tools with additional study resources, so be sure to check those out too. Different people have success with different study guides, so you may want to ask around and try to find the one that best suites you. No matter which study guide you choose, try to be diligent and cover all of the information available.
Take Practice Exams
Another great way to prepare for the CPA Exam is to take practice exams, which are included with most study guides. Taking these practice exams give you an accurate glimpse into the format and functionality of the exam, as well as types of questions. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect!
Don’t Get Discouraged
Finally, and maybe most importantly, don’t get discouraged as you study for the CPA Exam. The percentage of test-takers who pass the CPA Exam each quarter generally averages around 50%. It is a very difficult exam, but one that can absolutely be conquered with persistence and hard work. Take it one step at a time and think positively. And if you need a break, by all means take one! Just stick with it and do your best, and you will pass the CPA Exam and be a Certified Public Accountant before you know it.