The Certified Management Accountant (CMA) professional credential, offered by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), is the certification to get if you're in the management accounting profession. While you don't have to become a CMA to work as a management accountant, many do, and there are more than 40,000 active members. A lot of accountants have decided to pursue the CMA since the program's inception in 1972. In this article, we'll take a look at what four CMA holders have to say about the designation's benefits.
- The CMA is not the CPA, although they complement each other and a combination of the two generally results in a higher salary.
- You need two years of full-time work experience before sitting for the exam.
- The average pass rate is below 50%, so this is not an easy certification to get.
- The test comes in two parts, and you can take up to three years to complete both.
- You can take the test, either part one or part two, in any order you choose.
Why Become a CMA?
The professionals we interviewed all said they pursued the CMA credential for career advancement.
"I decided to go after my CMA because I felt that the CPA left some gap in the trade skills that I needed to have to continue my career in industry," says Ben Mulling, CFO of TENTE Casters, Inc., in Hebron, Ky. Mulling is a member of IMA's Global Board of Directors and also holds the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP) designations.
Lon Searle, CFO of YESCO Franchising LLC in Salt Lake City, Utah, said he decided to become a CMA because he knew he would be promoted to CFO someday and he wanted to be prepared to be a world-class financial leader.
Steve Kuchen, a member of the IMA's Small Business Financial and Regulatory Affairs Committee, says, "After leaving a job, I went to a search firm specializing in finance and accounting professionals and the recruiter really impressed upon me how important it was to have some credentials after my name. He thought that the CMA would be just right based on my prior experiences and interests."
Earning your CMA has the following financial costs:
- Annual IMA membership fees are $45 to $275 depending on whether you are a student, academic, young professional, or professional.
- CMA program entrance costs $250, but students or academic members are eligible for a significant discount.
- CMA exam fees are $460 per part, but only $345 per part for students and academic members.
You may spend additional money on test-prep materials, such as an online self-study course or an online self-study course plus textbooks and access to an online test bank. Finally, some continuing professional education (CPE) materials and activities cost money, but there are also options to earn CPE credits for free.
Salary advantage for CMAs globally, according to IMA.
Earning your CMA requires a significant time commitment. You have to meet requirements for education and work experience. You'll also need to study for and pass two exams, which you're allowed a maximum of three years from program entry to complete. Once you become a CMA, you must complete 30 hours of continuing professional education annually. But just how much time does the program actually take if you already have a bachelor's degree and the two years of required work experience?
Mulling says the CMA process took him about 12 months, including study time and exams. He earned his CMA in 2008.
For Searle, who also became a CMA in 2008, it was a longer process. "For two years, I spent an average of four hours a week studying for the CMA exam," he says. "I listened to CDs during my commute and studied online using practice tests." The effort paid off: "I used skills and knowledge I acquired during my studies in my position at work almost immediately," he says.
Susan E. Bos
Susan E. Bos, tax and accounting manager for the Washtenaw County, Mich., treasurer's office and a member of the IMA's Global Board of Directors, says it took her about a year and a half to study for the CMA exam. "I already had the work experience and had already passed the CPA exam, which gave me credit for one of the four parts," she says. The exam had a four-part program when she earned her designation, in 1996. Bos is also a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE).
Kuchen also earned his CMA in 1996, when the four-part exam was in place. It took him about 18 months to earn the credential because of other demands on his time and because he had been out of school for a few years when he began pursuing the designation.
Passing the Exam
Given the time and expense involved in preparing for the exams, you'll want to do your best to pass on the first try. A new test was introduced in 2020 which saw an increase in pass rates, but not more than 2% across both parts of the test. Pass rates for part one are slightly above 36%, while part two sees pass rates around 50%.
The exam format is 100 multiple-choice questions and two essay questions for each part. You can take each part in whichever order you like, but to pass the exam, you need to score a 360 out of a total of 500 possible points. You will have four hours to complete each part of the exam. Three hours for multiple-choice, and one hour for the essays.
"My advice is to set a study schedule and stick to it religiously. Plan out your week and achievement markers and commit yourself to keep those goals," Mulling says.
He adds that repetition in your study time is a major key to success. "Keep reviewing previous-chapter and multiple-choice questions over and over. If you stay on track with your study schedule, you should do fine."
Kuchen says he initially took an in-person study class at a local college. The class helped him "immensely," he says. It got him back into the flow of studying and because it was taught by professionals who had experience grading the CMA exam, he learned what graders were looking for in the open-ended question parts of the test. "After that, I used a private company's self-guided software study program, which also helped me a great deal," he says.
"Apply the principles in your career and find opportunities to use new skills," says Searle. "This will make you comfortable with the principles and familiar with applying them in different situations." Searle also says he listened to the audio lessons several times until they were very familiar because he learns best from audio or classroom instruction.
Bos says she used the Gleim books. She did every multiple choice question and went over every essay question. She also took a one-day review class through her local IMA chapter. "If you prepare well, you will pass," she says.
The CMA exam is broken up into two sections, called "parts." Each part covers different topics. The IMA website clearly states the percentage of each topic the test covers.
Part One: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
- 15% External Financial Reporting Decisions
- 20% Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting
- 20% Performance Management
- 15% Cost Management
- 15% Internal Controls
- 15% Technology and Analytics
Part Two: Strategic Financial Management
- 20% Financial Statement Analysis
- 20% Corporate Finance
- 25% Decision Analysis
- 10% Risk Management
- 10% Investment Decisions
- 15% Professional Ethics
Remember that there are essays as well, and those require writing skills outside of the knowledge needed to answer the topics listed above.
Testing windows are offered in January/February, May/June, and September/October.
Job Opportunities and Earning Potential
Searle says the CMA certification provides a very large advantage in the job market. There are jobs that require either a CPA or CMA designation, he says. CMAs are exceptional when it comes to supervising teams, managing projects, and making high-level business decisions.
CMA is a worldwide designation, so salaries will vary quite substantially between regions. In the Americas, CMAs have an average base salary of $105,000. If you were an accountant without a CMA, you should expect to see your salary drop substantially, down to around $72,000.
Mulling says the CMA credential has "tremendously" helped him in his career. "It provided me with critical decision-support skills that I have used to advance my career to CFO of my company," he says. Even with his CPA license, he says he could not have succeeded in guiding his company through the recession and back into growth mode without the skills he mastered as a CMA.
Bos says earning the CMA designation gave her credibility and confidence. "I was already working as an accountant for several years, but the CMA gave me more visibility," she says.
Like Mulling and Bos, Searle says the CMA has added value to his career. "I have used the knowledge gained during my studies for the exam in all areas of my job as a CFO including strategic planning, coaching staff, marketing, financial analysis, decision making, and banking. It was a much more applicable educational experience than studying for and passing the CPA exam," he says.
Kuchen says attaining the CMA shows that you are serious about your career and interested in improving your skillset. He also says the CMA material is very relevant to real-world situations you might encounter, not only in finance and accounting but also in other disciplines like information technology.
Finally, the IMA's most recent annual survey of its members found that CMAs earn nearly $27,000 more in total compensation than non-CMAs.
How Do You Renew Your CMA Certification?
Thankfully, getting your CMA is the difficult part, and maintaining it is rather easy. You only need to stay current on your IMA membership fees and make sure you fulfill your annual requirements. This is a requirement for continued education of 30 hours a year, with at least two hours of continuing education being devoted to ethics.
Is the CMA Exam Harder Than the CPA Exam?
The CPA has a slightly higher pass rate of an average of 50% versus the CMA average of around 43%. This is interesting since those with a CPA tend to have higher average salaries, so it might be worth considering which test is right for you. The continuing education for CPAs is more demanding, but only by ten hours per year, or less than one hour of continuing education per month.
Where Can I Find Online Certified Management Accountant Classes?
There are many classes for those studying for the CMA exam. Since the pandemic, many have opted to follow online courses from learning centers like Udemy and Coursera. Some may find it more helpful to purchase a variety of test-prep books and study from those. How you go about it is personal preference, but in-depth understanding is an absolute must, regardless of study time or materials used.
The Bottom Line
Becoming a CMA involves a commitment of money and, most of all, time that shouldn't be taken lightly. But if you want to pursue a career as a management accountant, the extra effort can pay off.