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CMA vs. CPA: Which Certification Is Right for You?

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Whether you're working in an entry-level accounting position or you hope to move into accounting once you obtain your degree, you've probably started looking into some of the advanced certifications available. Of the two primary certifications many accountants choose to pursue (CMA vs. CPA), which one is best for you?

While it's possible to obtain both, there are distinct advantages of a CPA vs. CMA certification and vice versa, depending on what type of work you really want to do.

CPA (Certified Public Accountant)

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, certified public accountants "perform a broad range of accounting, auditing, tax, and consulting tasks," in addition to representing companies during IRS audits.1 Much of a CPA's work involves ensuring the accuracy and completion of legally required financial documents, which requires a meticulous eye for detail and interest working with compliance laws and procedures. CPAs may work with anyone from large corporations to individual clients during tax-filing season or throughout the year.

Certification Process

To qualify for licensure, candidates must meet CPA requirements for "the 'Three Es'—Education, Examination, and Experience."2

  • Exam – To earn your CPA certification, you must first pass the four-part Uniform CPA Examination. While this is a national test, you still must be licensed by the Board of Accountancy in any state in which you wish to practice (there is no national CPA license). The four parts of the test—Auditing and Attestation (AUD), Business Environment and Concepts (BEC), Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR), and Regulation (REG)—can be completed across multiple sessions. In 2014, the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) reported an average 49.7% passing rate (average of all four parts of the test).3

  • Education – The AICPA requires 150 hours of completed undergraduate or graduate education before taking the CPA exam, and most states require these criteria to be met before you can qualify for licensure. This means you must have at least a bachelor's degree (though an accounting degree isn't always required), and many CPAs also obtain master's degrees. AICPA members must also complete 120 hours of continuing education every three years (roughly 40 hours per year).

  • Experience – The amount of accounting experience required prior to becoming a CPA varies by state, but most require at least two years of public accounting. Some states allow you to obtain your certificate upon passing the exam, and then require you to fulfill the experience criteria before you can be licensed to practice publicly as a CPA (two-tier system). However, others require you to both pass the test and fulfill the experience requirements before certification or licensure are granted (one-tier system).

MA (Certified Management Accountant)

As a certified management accountant (CMA), you work primarily with single businesses or corporations focusing on internal financial analysis and dealing with daily operations. This may involve business planning and strategy, cost accounting and analysis, and financial management advice for internal managers.

Certification Process

CMA certification is granted directly from the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) and no additional licensure from state boards is required. In order to become a CMA, applicants must:

  • Be a current IMA member.

  • Have a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university.

  • Have at least two years of prior management accounting or financial management experience.

  • Complete the CMA program (can be done online at home).

  • Pass the two-part CMA exam.

Ready to learn more? Explore online accounting degree programs at AIU.

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, "Accountants and Auditors," on the Internet at (visited September 21, 2015).

2American Institute of CPAs, "Uniform CPA Examination: Purpose and Structure," on the Internet at (visited September 21, 2015).

3American Institute of CPAs, "Uniform CPA Examination Passing Rates," on the Internet at (visited September 21, 2015).

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