Career

CFA vs CPA: which should you pursue?

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Planning for a career in accounting or finance can feel like swimming in a bowl of alphabet soup. With the myriad of acronyms being thrown around, it’s easy to become confused. 

As always, Becker is here to help. In this article, we’ll examine the differences between the certified public accountant (CPA) licensure and the chartered financial analyst (CFA) credential. We’ll also compare the benefits and career outlooks of both paths to help you decide which one is right for you. 

 

CFA vs CPA: what’s the difference?  

The term “CPA” can refer to the CPA license—a credential held by accountants who meet the requirements set forth by the Board of Accountancy for each of the 50 US states—or to an individual accountant who has an active CPA license. CPAs are regarded as highly skilled, trustworthy, and up-to-date on relevant laws, regulations, technology and practices. This generally affords them broader career opportunities than standard accountants. Many consider the CPA to be the highest achievement across both accounting and finance—and the “gold standard” of the profession. 

The CFA is a credential that finance professionals can earn by meeting requirements set out by the CFA Institute (formerly known as the AIMR, or Association for Investment Management and Research.) Professionals with the CFA designation are considered experts in investment analysis. Like the CPA, the CFA opens additional career opportunities and can lead to higher earnings.  

The primary difference between the CPA and CFA is that the CPA is an accounting credential, while the CFA is for financial analysis. While they are related in many ways, accounting and finance are ultimately separate fields.

Let’s dive into a direct comparison between the CPA or CFA designations across several categories. 

 

CFA vs CPA difficulty 

The CPA and CFA both require you to pass a series of exams—but the format, structure and pass rates for these exams are very different.  

But which one is “harder”? To answer that question, let’s start by detailing each exam individually. 

 

How hard is the CPA Exam? 

The CPA Exam consists of four sections, each covering a different accounting topic:  

  • Auditing and Attestation (AUD) 

  • Business Environment and Concepts (BEC) 

  • Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) 

  • Regulation (REG) 

The CPA Exam sections are given in separate four-hour sessions. You can schedule your section exams in any order you want and space them out however you wish—you’ll just need to pass all four of them with a score of 75 or higher within an 18-month timeframe. 

The overall CPA Exam pass rate is around 50%. According to the AICPA, these are the average pass rates for individual sections of the CPA Exam across the first three quarters of 2022: 

  

CPA Exam section 

Pass rate 

AUD 

48.1% 

BEC 

59.6% 

FAR 

44.9% 

REG 

61.1% 

  

You can overcome the odds with proper studying and preparation, however. In 2020, Becker Exam Day ReadySM students reported passing 94% of the CPA Exam sections they attempted. In total, Becker students passed more than 33,000 sections of the CPA Exam, which represents more than 1/3 of all CPA Exam sections passed in 2020. 

 

How hard is the CFA Exam? 

The CFA Exam is also given in multiple parts, known as Level I, II, and III. Unlike the CPA, however, each level exam tests you on a broad series of topics. The CFA level exams must be taken in order, and they grow harder as you move from one to the next. 

According to the CFA Institute, the average overall pass rate for the CFA Exam from 2013 to 2022 is 44%, and the average pass rate for 2022 (through August) is 40.7%  Following are the average 2022 passing rates for each level, again through August: 

  

CFA Exam level 

Avg. pass rate 

Level I 

37% 

Level II 

42% 

Level III 

48.5% 

  

While it may seem strange for the passing rates to increase as the CFA level exams become more difficult, keep in mind that the tests must be taken (and passed) sequentially. To sit for the CFA Level III exam, candidates must have already passed Level I and Level II, so a higher passing rate for Level III makes sense (although, in this context, the average Level III passing rate of 48.5% feels particularly alarming.) 

By contrast, the requirements for taking the CFA Level I exam are considerably lower, so the smaller passing rate of 37% is logical—though no less terrifying to the average CFA candidate. 

 

CFA vs CPA Exam difficulty: side-by-side 

If your only consideration for choosing between the two designations is the difficulty of the CFA vs CPA Exam, here is a chart that helps us illustrate the differences. 

  

CPA Exam 

CFA Exam 

Estimated overall pass rate 

~50% 

~44% 

Number of sections 

Section order 

Any 

Level I > II > III 

Avg time to complete all exam sections 

9-14 months[1] 

4 years[2] 

Recommended total study time 

300-400 hours[3] 

900 hours[4] 

 

Job responsibilities: CPA vs CFA 

So what is it like to be a CPA or a CFA Charterholder? Let’s look at the duties and common tasks associated with each to find out.  

 

What does a CPA do? 

As we mentioned earlier, CPAs are generally responsible for the day-to-day cashflow of a business or client. More specifically, CPAs draft reports that should accurately reflect their business’s or client’s income and spending.  

CPAs also perform tax reporting and related tasks, and they are often responsible for tax filing. Recently, the role of CPA has evolved to become more advisory, as businesses and clients increasingly turn to accountants for help in reducing tax burdens and expanding profitability.  

Finally, institutions and individuals often hire CPAs to perform audits. This may take the form of an internal audit, where the CPA works to provide reasonable assurance that their own company’s financial statements are accurate, or an external audit, where a CPA working for an outside firm reviews and attempts to validate the finances of a company. CPA help is also generally sought when a company or individual is undergoing an audit by the IRS or other government agency. 

 

What does a CFA Charterholder do? 

CFA Charterholders, by contrast, function more as analysts. They pour through past financial statements, looking for patterns and opportunities to increase growth and profitability—then make specific recommendations as to how the company or individual client’s financial goals can be achieved.  

CFA Charterholders also frequently provide investment advice. They can help clients decide on the best investments to manage their wealth and grow their portfolios, considering factors such as risk tolerance and tax advantages. 

 

CPA vs CFA responsibilities: Side-by-side 

It’s clear that a CPA’s responsibilities fall within the accounting function and the CFA Charterholder’s responsibilities are more financial in nature. However, it’s important to note that CPAs are typically afforded more career flexibility.  

That’s because CPAs are in high demand. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPA profession is expected to grow by 22% between 2022 and 2027, and 107,000 new accountants will need to enter the workforce every year to keep pace with the growing demand. 

In addition to the jobs listed in the chart below, CPAs are increasingly being sought out for non-traditional roles, such as: 

  • Fashion buyer/purchaser 

  • Film production manager 

  • International tax specialist 

 

  

CPA 

CFA 

Main focus 

Accounting and taxes 

Finance and investments 

Primary tasks 

  1. Financial reporting 

  1. Auditing 

  1. Taxes 

  1. Financial analysis 

  1. Financial advising 

  1. Wealth/growth management 

Potential jobs 

  1. Public accountant 

  1. Auditor 

  1. Tax specialist/manager 

  1. Forensic accountant/auditor 

  1. Controller 

  1. CFO 
     
     
     
      

  1. Portfolio manager 

  1. Research analyst 

  1. Investment consultant 

  1. Financial risk analyst 

  1. Investment banker 

  1. CIO 

 

CPA vs CFA salary 

As we mentioned, both the CPA and CFA open wider career opportunities, which can lead to higher salaries.  

Here are some figures that will help you understand how much you can make after earning your CPA or CFA—but try not to take them too seriously. Salary statistics are notoriously hard to trust, as they change wildly depending on how you slice them (specific job titles, average vs. median, urban vs. suburban, for-profit vs. nonprofit, etc.)  

  

  

CPA 

CFA 

Average base salary for certified professionals (US) 

$93,000[5] 

$101,000[6] 

  

While CFA Charterholders earn slightly more than CPAs (according to this data, at least) both credentials significantly increase your earning potential. With enough hard work and ambition, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to meet your personal financial goals with either the CPA or CFA.  

 

CPA vs CFA: Which one is right for you? 

There’s no simple answer to this question, of course. But we hope the information in this article has empowered you to make a smarter decision. Ultimately, your choice will come down to what kinds of things you like to do, your career goals and your threshold for continued education and study after earning your bachelor’s degree.  

One thing is simple, however: If you choose to pursue your CPA, you won’t find a better study and prep partner than Becker. Our CPA Exam Review packages are designed to fit your life and learning style, providing you with everything you need to be ready on exam day. Find out why 1 million+ students chose Becker to prep for the CPA exam. 

  

Learn more about Becker CPA Exam Review > 
 
 

 

 

Sources 

[1] https://www.wallstreetmojo.com/how-long-it-takes-to-complete-cpa-exam/   

[2] https://www.cfainstitute.org/en/about/press-releases/2020/investment-professionals-worldwide-pass-level-1 

[3] https://www.ais-cpa.com/how-many-hours-to-study-for-cpa-exam/ 

[4] https://www.cfainstitute.org/en/programs/cfa/exam/level-i

[5] https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Certification=Certified_Public_Accountant_(CPA)/ 

[6] https://www.payscale.com/research/US/Certification=Chartered_Financial_Analyst_(CFA)/Salary 

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