What It Takes–A Guide to Becoming a CPA

One day you're sitting in history class learning about the wives of Henry VIII when suddenly you see a flash—the curtains fly open, light pours through the window, a voice booms from above—and deep in your heart you realize your calling:

You were meant to be a CPA!

OK, perhaps the realization that you'd like to explore a CPA career won't hit you like a bolt of lightning, but the timing has never been better. Most accounting majors have job offers cemented before they finish their junior year—and starting pay is usually more than $50,000. What's more, insiders predict this trend to continue for years to come. So, if you're wondering what it takes to be a CPA, here's a road map of the requirements that can lead you from inspiration to career.

What Is a CPA?

A CPA is a certified public accountant and is licensed by the state. In California, to earn the prestige associated with the CPA license, individuals are required to demonstrate their knowledge and competence by passing an exam, meeting high educational standards and completing a specified amount of general accounting experience. The two most important goals to focus on in your quest to become a CPA are passing the Uniform CPA Exam and meeting licensing requirements. California law gives CPA candidates two options for entering the profession, depending on the direction you'd like your career to take. The California Board of Accountancy, http://www.dca.ca.gov/cba, has outlined the following pathways for earning a CPA license:

Pathway 1

Designed for individuals who will practice only in California and requires:
  • A bachelor's degree;
  • 24 semester units in accounting-related subjects;
  • 24 semester units in business-related subjects (accounting courses beyond the 24 required units may apply toward the business units);
  • Passing the Uniform CPA Exam;
  • Two years of general accounting experience supervised by a CPA with an active license; and
  • Passing an ethics course.

Pathway 2

If you are licensed under this pathway, the majority of other states will recognize your license. If you think that someday you might want to practice in another state, Pathway 2 may provide you the professional mobility you desire. Requirements:
  • A bachelor's degree;
  • 24 semester units in accounting-related subjects;
  • 24 semester units in business-related subjects;
  • 150 semester units (or 225 quarter units) of education;
  • Passing the Uniform CPA Exam;
  • One year of general accounting experience supervised by a CPA with an active license; and
  • Passing an ethics course.
Once you pass the exam and apply for your CPA license, you'll need to select one of the pathways.


Often when the public thinks of CPAs, they think of auditing—the process by which a CPA examines, tests and verifies a company's financial records. Traditionally, logging audit hours has been how aspiring CPAs "pay their dues." Times have changed, and the number of CPAs in California who perform audits and other attest-type services is dwindling. So now, neither pathway requires audit experience to obtain a CPA license. But, publicly held companies in the United States still need to be audited each year to remain in business. So at some point you may want to log the 500 hours of attest or auditing experience to obtain the authority to sign attest reports. It can add to your marketability as a professional.

Increased Opportunity

Since audit hours aren't required, you can acquire the experience you need for licensing from any CPA in California with an active license. This means you can train under the CPA who is the information technology director at Warner Bros. or a CPA who works for herself in Lodi just as easily as you can under a partner at one of the large international accounting firms. Your predecessors may have had to work only with firms that performed audits, but your employment possibilities are wide open.

Ask Questions, Learn More

For more on the exam's content, the application and scheduling process, or sample exam sections and tutorials, visit the Uniform CPA Exam website, http://www.cpa-exam.org. For questions about the exam, contact the California Board of Accountancy at (916) 561-1703 or examinfo@cba.ca.gov. For questions about licensing requirements, contact the CBA at (916) 561-1701 or licensinginfo@cba.ca.gov. CalCPA also can help. By joining as a student or candidate member, you'll have access to an enormous amount of technical and professional knowledge. Our staff can help answer your questions and guide you toward in-depth information.
Call us at (800) 922-5272 or visit http://www.calcpa.org/Content/yourcareer/students.aspx.

Destination: Success

This is just a glimpse of the road ahead. It's an exciting one, although it requires a steady hand on the wheel and careful planning. But your hard work will be rewarded. By earning a CPA license, you are telling the world that you received a broad-based education and you planned well and studied hard to pass all parts of a very difficult exam. A CPA license shows that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities to be a trusted business adviser to your clients or employer, and that you are an ethical individual who can offer an independent viewpoint. In short, it means you have become a well-respected professional widely known as "the most trusted adviser."
Information courtesy of the California Society of CPAs.

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