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5-Step Guide to Becoming an Accountant

Steve Berman, LedgerLink

January 27, 2010

Step 4: CPA, CMA or none of the above?


Since accountants deal with finances all day, it makes sense that they’d want to maximize their own earning potential. There’s no better way to increase your earning power as an accountant than to get certified. Once you’ve figured out which type of accountant you’d like to be, it becomes clearer whether you should strive to become a CPA or a CMA, the two main certifications in accounting. CPA’s are usually public accountants specializing in tax consultation and audits, while CMA’s usually work in management and government accounting.

Earning your CPA or CMA not only shows you can pass a variety of difficult exams, it’s also a valuable addition to any accountant’s resume. As Monster Finance Careers Expert Dona DeZube detailed, “An IMA (Institute of Management Accountants) salary survey conducted in 2006 and released in June 2007 found the average salary for accountants with some kind of certification was $102,393 versus $80,738 for those without. Average salary was $102,429 for CMAs and $98,600 for CPAs.”

Check the Prereq’s

In recent years, nearly every state has enacted stricter and more comprehensive regulations for those hoping to become a CPA. Either a Master’s degree or five years of undergraduate education are often required, and many states also require work experience outside of school before taking the CPA exam. In comparison, only a Bachelor’s degree is required to take the CMA exam.

The CPA exam is offered five or six days per week during two months of each quarter, and consists of four parts. Each part must be passed to pass the entire exam, but test takers can retake the exam and don’t have to take all four portions at the same time. Once one section of the exam is passed, test takers have 18 months to pass the remaining sections. Good thing, since less than half of all test takers passed any section of the test in 2008.

To take the CMA exam, you must first join the IMA. Like the CPA test, the CMA exam also consists of four sections. The first three sections are multiple choice, and the testing window for those sections is 120 days. The fourth is an essay section, and has a one-month window.

Preparing for the test is usually done via a combination of undergraduate and/or graduate education, sample tests and test preparation courses. Calculators are allowed during the exams, but make sure you have an approved calculator before heading to the test center.