Obtaining a widely recognized accounting certification can help you land a job, increase your marketability, and lend professional credibility to you and your firm in a competitive marketplace. Human resource managers and prospective clients see the time, money and effort needed to acquire a certification as a testament of an individual's desire succeed. A universally recognized certification can often serve as the tie-breaker between two qualified job candidates.

Acquiring an accounting certification can also increase your salary, bonus and chances for promotion. For the accounting-designation shopper, there are a few choices widely recognized by the business, finance and accounting communities. There are also numerous others that are distinct to a specific industry or job.

Top-Tier Accounting Certifications

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

If you are committed to advancing your accounting career, then you should earn a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) certification. CPAs work in specializations such as auditing, compliance, taxes, forensic accounting, fraud examination, IT systems, risk management and appraisals, among others. Hiring managers and prospective clients tend to question a candidate's background and level of accounting competency if they are not a CPA. CPAs help companies comply with bylaws and regulations, reduce risk, support valuation and appraisal initiatives, improve processes, and create and maintain reporting mechanisms that allow management to make critical decisions.

States set their own license standards, but typically you will need 150 semester hours of education at an accredited college or university, with varying amounts of accounting classes. You will need to pass the CPA exam administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). Because requirements vary, it is best to contact your state board for details.

There are four parts to the CPA exam:

  • Auditing and attestation
  • Business environment and concepts
  • Financial accounting and reporting
  • Regulation

Each test section is graded on a scale of 0 to 99 and you need at least 75 points to pass. While this may not sound difficult, the overall pass rate is less than 50%. The most difficult section is financial accounting and reporting, while the easiest is business environment and concepts.

There are two schools of thought on which order to tackle the sections. Some test-takers recommend starting with the most difficult section, while others say starting with the easiest section is better to establish momentum and build confidence.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

A Certified Management Accountant is another great certification. There is overlap between the competencies of a CPA and CMA, but CPAs may be better equipped for compliance, accounting for transactions, tax, and controls. Certified Management Accountants, as the moniker implies, lean toward financial analysis, organizational performance measurement, budgeting, strategic assessment and ongoing stewardship of the company. The exam is administered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA).

The exam is broken into two parts covering 12 competencies:

To earn your CMA, you will need:

  • An IMA membership
  • A bachelor's degree
  • To pass both parts of the CMA exam
  • Two years of management accounting or financial management experience
  • To follow the IMA Statement of Ethical Professional Practice
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Finding The Right Accounting Certification

Helpful Job/Industry-Specific Accounting Certifications

There are plenty of accounting designations out there—just know that not all of them are perceived or treated equally. Managers, executives, and prospective clients still attach most of the value and prestige to a traditional CPA. There are, however, niche certifications that are suited for job and industry-specific roles.

These include:

There are varying requirements to earn each of the above certifications. These requirements will probably not be as intensive, time-consuming and involved as earning a CPA or CMA.

If you want to elevate your standing, you should first invest time and effort in getting your CPA. Depending on your job or industry focus, you can augment that designation with one of the above certifications. For example, those who wish to earn a CISA are heavily involved with accounting and IT information systems. If your work involves uncovering fraudulent transactions, a CFE can help you elevate your understanding of this field. As mentioned, there is no substitute for a CPA.

Other Accounting Certifications

There are a number of additional certifications to choose from, some include:

  • Certified Payroll Professional (CPP)
  • Fundamental Payroll Certificate (FPC)
  • Accredited Business Accountant
  • Accredited Financial Examiner (AFE)
  • Accredited Tax Advisor (ATA)
  • Accredited Tax Preparer (ATP)
  • Certified Public Bookkeeper (CPB)
  • Certified Financial Services Auditor (CFSA)
  • Certified Forensic Accountant (CRFAC)
  • Certified Professional Environmental Auditor (CPEA)
  • Certified Quality Auditor (CQA)
  • Forensic Certified Public Accountant (FCPA)

The Bottom Line 

Corporate finance and accounting is a competitive field. Most accountants who work for one of the Big Four accounting firms will hit a career plateau early on if they do not obtain a CPA. When an accounting firm bids on a consulting or client project (and demand more than $200 per hour for a relatively inexperienced associate's time), why would a prospective client fork this kind of cash out to this specific firm if the project is staffed with outsourced professionals that are not CPAs?

A competing accounting firm can come in and win the contract by promising to staff the project with several CPAs. The fact is, numbers-crunching is typically a commoditized service. Unless you possess unusual insights and relationships in a specific job or industry, you are better served to earn accounting certifications to improve your station.