Top Reasons College Students Should Take the CPA Exam

By Robert Half May 12, 2015 at 12:18am

College students, if you think you should put off taking the CPA exam for a few years, think again!  

Like many certifications and degrees, the CPA is so much more than just letters after a name or a piece of paper you can frame. It’s a marker of your competence and knowledge set, your ticket to professional success. Passing the exam is not easy, but the payoffs are enormous: Not only can you earn a progressively higher CPA salary, but you will also open more doors to career advancement.

To find out more about the certified public accountant designation, read All You Meed to About CPA Jobs — and Then Some.

College is the perfect time to prepare for and take this rigorous exam. I can offer 11 reasons why students should start working toward the CPA exam now and take it within a year or two of graduation. Here are the 11 reasons:

1. You can take advantage of school resources 

When you’re in college, you have access to an entire support network that won’t be so readily available after graduation. Most academic accounting departments offer free seminars, review courses and other tools to help you prepare and pass the exam. Some of your peers will be sitting for the exam as well, so you’ll benefit from the mutual encouragement and various study groups on campus. Since the test is so comprehensive and difficult to pass, you’ll need all the resources and support you can get!

2. You have the time and knowledge to prepare (and pass)

It takes hundreds of hours to prepare for the CPA exam, and chances are that your schedule will never be as free and flexible as it is now. Once you begin working full time, you’ll find that the demands of a full-time job will restrict your free time considerably. And if you get married and start a family, you’ll have even less time to study.

As a student, you’re already absorbing, processing and analyzing vast amounts of information, and you’re used to preparing for and taking exams. In addition, studying for the CPA is a good complement to all the accounting principles, reporting standards, regulations and concepts you’re already learning. Yes, it’s time-consuming to study for this major exam in addition to all the other tests you have to take, but your last year of college and first year of employment is the optimal time to work toward this certification.

Although the requirements vary, most states require test takers to have a minimum of 150 semester hours of education. The experience requirement varies even more, ranging from one year of internship/volunteering to two years of public accounting employment or three years in private or government accounting. See the specific requirement for your state or territory for more details.

3. As college students, you qualify for financial support

The American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), together with Accountemps, offers scholarships each year to outstanding students who plan to pursue a CPA licensure. In order to qualify, you have to be an AICPA member, be enrolled full-time at an accredited U.S. college of university at the undergraduate or master’s level, have at least a 3.0 GPA, and have satisfactorily completed six semesters in an accounting-related major.

Graduate students without business degrees are eligible for funding through the AICPA John L. Carey Scholarship. The AICPA also offers scholarships for minority students and transfer students. The American Woman’s Society of Certified Public Accountants has financial assistance programs for promising students who pursue the CPA credential. Also check your state’s CPA society for more scholarship opportunities.

4. Passing the CPA exam maximizes your marketability

Not all accounting jobs call for a certification, but many of the mid-level positions and most of the upper-level ones either prefer or require this accreditation — and pay a commensurate CPA salary for new hires. Passing the exam makes you more attractive to hiring managers than if you had just a bachelor's in accounting or finance.

The demand for certain skills is so great that top firms are upping their efforts to fill open positions, and some of the most in-demand majors happen to be finance, accounting and business administration/management. To increase your chances of scoring a good job right out of school, make sure you’re on the CPA licensure trajectory.

If you're curious about starting salaries, take a look at our Salary Center and download the Salary Guide.

5. Being a CPA qualifies you for the most in-demand finance jobs

An increasing number of baby boomer financial professionals are retiring or preparing to retire. This increases demand for people who have the skills to fill the key roles the boomers are vacating. The fact that this turnover is coming at the same time that accounting and finance firms are attempting to build their businesses makes professionals with in-depth knowledge in such areas as Sarbanes-Oxley provisions, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) guidelines and generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) in even greater demand.

A CPA certification qualifies you for many of these hot jobs we've listed in our Accounting Job Search, as well as boosts your starting salary.

6. College students who take the CPA exam show their work ethic

Hiring managers look for applicants with not just top accounting skills but also initiative and maturity. A CPA credential shows them that you’re serious about the profession and possess the drive and dedication they seek in an employee. Passing the CPA exam also proves your competency in many non-accounting skills — critical thinking, business acumen, written communications, problem solving, professional conduct and ethics, and sound judgment — that are so important in today’s hiring environment.

7. A CPA nets above-market compensation

According to our Salary Guide, the CPA certification is still the most sought-after designation for accounting and finance roles. A professional certification can earn a new hire, on average, an additional 5 to 15 percent. Salaries are on the increase for accounting and finance professionals, with base salaries anticipated to rise 3.7 percent in 2017.

8. A CPA has more job options

Career development opportunities are simply more plentiful for CPAs because they’re highly versatile employees. The CPA exam prepares you to diversify your offerings to include auditing and attestation, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation and business environment and concepts. CPAs can easily transition from public accounting to senior corporate roles, and vice versa. Whether you’re interested in traditional or non-traditional accounting career paths, this certification will give you more options.

To move up the career path to senior and management positions, becoming a CPA is vital. In public accounting managerial positions almost always require a CPA certification. Likewise, in corporate finance, it will become difficult to attain the controller or CFO levels down the road without it.

9. CPAs are informed professionals

Laws, regulations and technologies change constantly, which is why continuing professional education (CPE) is a requirement for remaining a CPA in good standing. All regular AICPA members must complete 120 hours, or its equivalent, of CPE for each three-year reporting period. This is another reason employers value CPAs so highly: They know that their certified accountants, auditors and controllers have the most up-to-date knowledge of complicated rules and can offer sound advice and judgment.

10. CPAs enjoy prestige and respect

The CPA carries cachet. Because of the stringent requirements to become and remain certified, CPAs are considered the elite in the industry. This designation after accountants’ names tells employers, clients and peers that they are highly trained, very professional and extremely competent in their field. In other words, those three letters signal to others that you’re at the top of your game.

11. It's one of the best ways to get ahead in accounting 

Not only will earning your CPA certification reap the benefits of greater work and advancement opportunities, you’ll also gain the respect of your colleagues and earn a higher CPA salary. But don’t wait until you’ve secured your first job or have more experience under your belt before taking the exam. The best time to prepare for it is while you’re in school, and the greatest chance of passing it is shortly after graduation, when all the information is still fresh in your mind. To get a head start on attaining this certification, join the AICPA as a student affiliate member.

This article was originally published in New Accountant Magazine and recently updated here.

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