Graduating with an accounting degree should give you an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Your journey toward becoming a CPA—a designation to which all accounting professionals should aspire—has only begun, though. The requirements for becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) vary from state to state but are relatively uniform, and include an educational component, a character and fitness requirement, passage of an examination and a work experience requirement. Alabama, Hawaii, Louisiana and North Carolina also have residency requirements for those who wish to be licensed in their jurisdictions. Here is a brief description of each of the first four requirements listed above:

Educational Requirements

You must hold at least a bachelor’s degree in order to become a CPA. The typical accounting degree program requires students to complete courses in microeconomics, macroeconomics, introductory and intermediate financial accounting, financial management, business organizations, operations management, auditing, federal income taxation, business and employment law, cost accounting and financial statement analysis. If you did not major in accounting or any other business-related subject as an undergraduate student, you can still become a CPA through a master’s program in accounting. Keep in mind that such programs will typically require you to take a couple semesters’ worth of prerequisites, and that the degree will take about two years to complete. Even individuals with undergraduate accounting degrees may be interested in pursuing graduate study, though, as you must have completed 150 credit hours of post-secondary education to be eligible for the examination.

Character and Fitness Requirements

Accountants are responsible for the accuracy of the financial statements and tax returns they prepare, as well as the legality of any tax plans they may create for their clients. This is especially the case since Congress’ passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002. This piece of legislation, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal in 2001, requires a great deal of transparency in the buying and selling of securities and financial instruments. What this means for you is that ethical concerns must factor into every professional decision you make, no matter how inconsequential it may seem at the time. Many parties—clients, your superiors, investors and even the general public—rely on the veracity of financial statements you have prepared or inspected, and it is your duty to them to be completely honest.

Examination Requirement

Passing the CPA exam is almost universally regarded as the most difficult of these requirements. Most accounting firms are so committed to making sure their employees pass this exam that they will pay a bonus to those who pass it within three years of the date on which they began working at the firm—usually $5,000 in the first year, $3,000 in the second year and $1,000 in the third year—and will also pay for you to enroll in a test prep course. The Uniform CPA Examination, which the American Institute of CPAs administers NUMBER per year consists of four sections: auditing and attestation (AUD), business environment and concepts (BEC), financial accounting and reporting (FAR) and regulation (REG). Examinees have a total of fourteen hours to complete the exam.

Professional Requirements

Achieving CPA certification requires that you meet certain professional and work experience requirements. Most states require that you have two years of public accounting experience in audit, taxation or some combination thereof before you are eligible to become a CPA, although some states now only require that you have experience of a public accounting nature. That is, you do not necessarily need to have gained your professional experience in a public accounting firm.

Becoming a CPA is a long and arduous process. You must be committed to your goal and make sacrifices throughout your journey but that commitment will pay great dividends in the long run. Work hard, stay the course and remember why you have made this investment in yourself.