Accounting is a profession that prepares, analyzes, and manages financial information about businesses and individuals. This information is usually in the form of financial records and reports. Anyone can be an accountant as long as he or she follows the rules and regulations established for the proper preparation of financial reports and documents. Only properly licensed individuals, however, can claim the title of Certified Public Accountant (CPA).
Becoming a CPA is the most rigorous and widely accepted credential for the accounting profession. It is a status gained through the successful completion of the Uniform CPA Examination, prepared by the Board of Examiners of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and granted by the individual's state board of accountancy.
While being a CPA is not a requirement to practice accounting, the possession of this distinction is regarded as an indication of advanced knowledge and professionalism. The CPA exam is an extensive, 2½-day examination. It is the same in every state and consists of
Sixty percent of the test consists of multiple-choice questions and 40 percent is essay or problem-type questions. The test is designed to measure both the technical knowledge of CPA candidates and their conceptual knowledge of the accounting field and use of sound judgment in response to the questions.
While the exam itself is consistent across all states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, the requirements for taking the test and receiving a license to practice varies by jurisdiction. Most territories, but not all, require that the candidate possess a bachelor's degree. Candidates usually need to meet certain experience qualifications as well, often including two years of public accounting employment or other relevant work experience. Also, in most areas, candidates may take and pass individual parts of the test before proceeding to the next part. The AICPA recommends a four-year college course with an accounting major as the minimum educational requirement for becoming a CPA. Accounting is the only profession about which all states and territories have been able to reach agreement on the use of one, standard examination.
The successful completion of the CPA exam allows the individual to use the designation of "CPA." Currently, there are over 400,000 professionals in the United States who have earned that title. To maintain that distinction, 48 states require ongoing continuing education courses.
In preparation for the exam many candidates take advantage of intensive review courses and self-study programs. The AICPA also provides information and sample tests to aid in the preparation process. Applications for taking the CPA examination can be obtained from the board of accountancy in the territory where the candidate is seeking the CPA certificate. Exams are held twice a year, in May and November. A summary of examination and licensing requirements is available in two publications: the Digest of State Accountancy Laws and State Board Regulations, available through the AICPA, and Accountancy Law Reports, published by Commerce Clearing House.
Beyond technical competence and job knowledge, an important aspect of being a CPA is understanding and upholding professional ethics in accounting. Although the AICPA is a voluntary organization, the vast majority of CPAs (approximately 75 percent) are members and, therefore, are required to adhere to the association's strict standards of professional conduct and ethics. The standards include numerous specific rules about maintaining objectivity and integrity, observing generally accepted accounting principles (GAAPs), and honoring responsibilities to clients and colleagues. For example, in the case of integrity, the rules compel CPAs to object strenuously—and they even suggest resigning and/or reporting the incident to regulators—when management instructs a CPA to make a deliberate material misrepresentation on a financial statement. It is such formal commitment to honesty and accuracy, many believe, that distinguishes holders of the CPA from other accounting practitioners.
Despite the high standards and thorough training associated with being a CPA, potential employers and clients of CPAs are increasingly expecting a great deal more. Non-CPAs have been taking on accounting responsibilities with growing frequency, and businesses are emphasizing value-added accounting functions and systems over the traditional CPA strongholds of auditing and ensuring tax compliance. As a consequence, CPAs are looking to specialize and embrace the changing business climate by acquiring knowledge and performing functions that aren't traditionally associated with financial accounting. Examples include working more with other areas of the organization and, within accounting firms, stepping up competitiveness and market focus. This trend is expected to accelerate in the 21st century.
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. AICPA Code of Professional Conduct. New York, 1997. Available from www.aicpa.org .
CPA Journal, monthly.
Dauber, Nicky A., Joel G. Siegel, and Jac J. Shim. The Vest-Pocket CPA. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Trade, 1997.
Thomas, Joyce. "Focus on the Horizon." Journal of Accountancy, December 1998.