Requirements for a Career in Accounting

What does an accountant do? Learn about accountant job requirements and how to become a certified public accountant.

portrait of Heather Mullinix
by Heather Mullinix

Published September 19, 2022

Edited by Jennifer Cuellar
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Requirements for a Career in Accounting
Image Credit: Thomas Barwick / DigitalVision / Getty Images


Accountants help organizations track financial data. They work in various fields, including business and manufacturing, and at different organizations, like nonprofits and government agencies. An accounting degree can prepare graduates for careers in accounting, forensic auditing, business analytics, and more.

Accounts can make high salaries depending on their level of education, location, and years of experience. Learn more about accountant job requirements below.

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What Does an Accountant Do?

Accountants prepare financial documents, examine financial statements for accuracy, and evaluate risks and opportunities. They prepare tax returns and ensure financial statements comply with laws or regulations. Accounting professionals also use financial data to suggest improvements or changes in business operations.

Accountants need strong critical-thinking reading comprehension and communication skills. They work with various software applications, including accounting, tax preparation, or financial analysis programs.

Nearly 25% of accountants work in accounting, tax preparation, bookkeeping, and payroll services, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Most work in office settings, though some companies offer remote work opportunities. Accounting offers entrepreneurial opportunities, as well. About 4% of accountants own their own firms.

Deciding on an Accounting Specialization

Some accountants enjoy general accounting work, taking on various tasks. Others enjoy specializing in a specific area of accounting to build their expertise. An accounting specialization can help candidates stand out among other applicants. To become a certified public accountant (CPA) professionals may be required to select a specific concentration, such as managerial accounting or auditing.

Popular concentrations include:

Some colleges and universities offer concentrations within their undergraduate degree programs. A specialization consists of a series of courses related to the specialization. Students may select a specialization after completing introductory courses in accounting. Some schools may only offer specializations at the master's degree level.

If a school only offers a general accounting degree, students can still pursue an area of specialization. Options include taking elective courses or completing internships. Consider how a specialization aligns with career goals, future educational paths, and individual interests.

Required Degree

Most entry-level accounting positions require a bachelor's degree in accounting. This degree takes about four years to complete. Schools may offer a bachelor of arts, bachelor of science, or bachelor of business administration degrees. All these degrees meet accountant job requirements.

In addition to general education courses in English, science, and history, accountants focus their studies in accounting and business. Accountant education requirements include courses in generally accepted accounting principles, accounting information systems, and international financial reporting standards.

Most bachelor's degree programs consist of 120 credits. However, certified public accountant requirements include an additional 30 credit hours of study. While curricula should focus on accounting, coursework should also offer a broad view of business operations. Many students choose to take these additional courses at the graduate level. A master's degree in accounting may require only a few more courses.

Required Exams

Accountants who wish to become certified public accountants (CPAs) must obtain a license from their state board of accountancy. All states require CPA candidates to pass the Uniform CPA Examination.

Individuals must apply to take the exam through their state board of accountancy. The board will review educational transcripts. CPA exam costs vary by state. Verify the cost with the state board of accountancy.

The CPA exam consists of four sections: auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts, financial accounting and reporting, and regulation. The exam uses multiple choice questions, task-based simulations, and written communication tasks. How long is the CPA exam? The CPA exam allocates four hours to each section.

Candidates must achieve a minimum score of 75 on each CPA exam section. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) tracks the CPA exam pass rate. In the first quarter of 2022, about 46% of test takers passed the auditing section, 45% passed the financial accounting and reporting section, 57% passed the business environment and concepts section, and 60% passed the regulation section.

Expect to receive results in 1-2 weeks. CPA candidates may retake failed sections. Individuals must pass all four sections within an 18-month period.

Ethics Exam and State Requirements

While the CPA exam tests an individual's accounting skills and knowledge, the ethics exam ensures prospective CPAs understand their ethical and legal obligations. Many states require professionals to pass the AICPA ethics exam as part of CPA licensing. Other states have developed their own ethics exams, while some have no ethics exam requirements.

The test is administered online or as a take-home test. Unlike the CPA exam, the ethics test allows the use of textbooks. However, the test is timed. Candidates must achieve a score of 90 to pass the exam. Applicants can take the online test three times.

Each state sets its standards for CPA licensing, though all require similar education standards and passage of the CPA exam. Most states also require at least one year of full-time professional experience in accounting, and some include a residency requirement. States charge a fee for licensing applications.

Accounting Internships

Internships are valuable components of accounting education requirements. Internships place students in business environments where they work under the supervision of an experienced accountant.

In addition to applying principles learned in a classroom, internships help students grow their professional network and gain work experience for their resumes. Many companies also look to their interns when offering full-time jobs. A 2020 National Association of Colleges and Employers report found that 68% of employers extended job offers to interns, and about 82% of those interns accepted positions.

Internships may be paid or unpaid experiences lasting a few months to a year. Often students earn academic credit for their work.

What to Include in Your Accounting Resume

An accounting resume should highlight relevant work experience, education, and licenses or certifications. It serves as a snapshot of an applicant's qualifications and is often the first thing employers see when reviewing potential hires.

New graduates will want to highlight their education. Include your college or university, type of degree, minor or area of specialization, and graduation date. Include relevant coursework.

Share your involvement in clubs or professional organizations, highlighting leadership experience and anything related to the accounting profession. Include volunteer service and awards and any special skills, like foreign-language proficiency.

Students with relevant work experience or internships should also highlight those positions. You should also include non-related work experience. Provide an overview of duties and share accomplishments, highlighting transferable skills.

Accounting often relies on technology and software. Include computer and technology skills related to the position. Check the job posting to see if the employer mentions specific programs, such as Intuit QuickBooks or Microsoft SharePoint. Also include soft skills, like public speaking or organization.

Frequently Asked Questions About a Career in Accounting

How many years does it take to become an accountant?

Most accountants begin their careers with a bachelor's degree in accounting. A bachelor's degree typically requires four years to complete. The coursework includes an extensive study of accounting principles and an overview of business management.

Individuals pursuing a CPA license will need additional education. While this professional license does not require a master's degree, applicants must complete 150 credits. These courses include further study of accounting and business operations. Some students meet these requirements as part of a master's in accounting.

What qualifications do you need to be an accountant?

Accountants spend much of their time working with numbers. They prepare reports and track business data, ensuring accuracy and applying accounting principles. Accountants need strong mathematical reasoning skills, sharp attention to detail, and critical-thinking abilities. A bachelor's degree program in accounting can prepare an aspiring accountant for entry-level positions.

CPAs need a bachelor's degree and additional education in accounting. State boards of accountancy oversee CPA licensing in each state. This process typically includes passing the CPA exam and documenting a year or more of professional experience. Many states also require passing an ethics exam.

What's the average accountant's salary?

Accountants and auditors earned a median annual salary of $77,250 in May 2021. However, accountants can earn more depending on their level of experience. Payscale reports entry-level accountants earned an average of $48,000 in 2022. Accountants with 10-19 years of experience earned an average of $59,000.

Location and industry also impact pay. Accountants in Washington, D.C., earned an average of $110,240 in 2021, according to the BLS. Most accountants worked in accounting services firms, earning an average of $86,650. However, the oil pipeline industry offered accountants the highest average salary of $123,230 annually.

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