CPA vs CMA - What's the Difference?
For many accounting students, certification is a big question! Do I pursue a certification? Is it necessary? If so, which one? Two of the most popular accounting certifications around the world are the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license and the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification. Your choice of certification may have a tremendous effect on your future, so it is important to carefully consider the details before making a decision. Certification may require a significant investment to acquire in terms of both time and money.
The good news? You don’t have to figure this out on your own, we are here to help!
Certification does a lot of great things for you and for your career by setting you apart from other job-seekers with similar skillsets throughout your entire working life. It demonstrates to your employer your commitment to the profession. And in some cases, you must be certified to be promoted. Certification, specifically the CPA certification, is necessary for auditors who want to be promoted working in public accounting.
Before deciding which path to take, it’s important to understand the basics of both accounting certifications. Each has different education requirements, testing structure and costs.
The Certified Management Accountant is a globally recognized certification in financial accounting and strategic management. This certification is offered by the IMA (imanet.org).
The Certified Public Accountant is a license given to an accounting professional who has passed the CPA exam and has met their state’s licensing requirements. This certification is offered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) (aicpa.org).
While both certifications require a significant investment of your time, the CMA exam may be taken while a student is still in school – ideal for setting yourself apart from the competition for that first job! Although you can take the exam while you are still in school, to become fully certified, you must complete a bachelor’s degree program and satisfy experience requirements at your job.
There are more requirements for a student to take the CPA exam versus the CMA exam. However, the requirements vary from state to state. Visit the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (nasba.org) to find the specific requirements in your state or territory. In order to take the exam, you must have at a minimum several required accounting and business classes. Many states require 150 hours of college credit before you can even take the exam, which can be satisfied by additional undergraduate courses or master’s degree. To become fully licensed, you must have 150 hours of college credit and satisfy accounting experience requirements.
Once you have achieved either certification, you aren’t done with education! Both certifications have annual minimum continuing professional education requirements (CPE). These requirements can be satisfied in many ways – seminars, online courses, self-study courses, etc. Many firms even have in-house training available or will cover the cost of your CPE. Some CPE is also offered by many state accounting societies as a part of the membership. There are also many free and low-cost online webinars offered by various providers. CPE requirements vary from state to state; however, generally, CPAs need 40 hours of CPE per year and CMAs need 30 hours per year. Both CMAs and CPAs have an annual ethics requirement for their CPE as well (2 hours for CMAs, CPA ethics requirements vary by state).
The biggest hurdle to acquiring either (or both) certifications is the exam. The content of each set of exams is well-documented by each examining body (the IMA for CMAs and the AICPA for CPAs).
The CMA exam is a two-part exam covering 12 competencies that are detailed in the exam’s content specification outline:
• Part 1: Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
• Part 2: Strategic Financial Management
The exams can be taken during three testing windows throughout the year:
January – February
May – June
September – October
Each of the exam parts is composed of 100 multiple choice questions and two comprehensive essays. The multiple-choice part of the exam counts for 75% of the exam score. The exam is timed, and you have a total of four hours to take the exam: three hours to take the multiple-choice and one hour for the essays. If you do not score high enough on the multiple-choice questions to be able to receive a passing score after taking the essays, your exam will end after the multiple-choice questions. The total points are 500, and you must score 360 or more to pass. You must pass both parts within 3 years of entering the program or you will have to re-pay the entry fees and forfeit the part you have passed (i.e. you start all over!).
The CPA exam is a four-part exam and you are allowed up to four hours of exam time per part. The parts are currently:
• Auditing and Attestation (AUD)
• Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR)
• Regulation (REG)
• Business Environment and Concepts (BEC)
The competencies covered on the CPA exam are outlined in the AICPA blueprint. Make sure you review the proper blueprint for the exam period in which you’ll be sitting for the exam since the AICPA releases updated blueprints about every six months.
Each of the four exams consists of five parts or testlets: two multiple-choice testlets containing between 60 to 72 multiple-choice questions (varies by exam) and three testlets with eight accounting simulations. From the date you sit for your first passed exam, you have 18 months to pass all four parts. If you can’t pass within the 18-month window, you will begin to have to retake exams already passed that fall outside the 18-month window.
Each CPA exam part can currently be taken during four testing windows, the first two months of each quarter plus the first 10 days of the last month of the quarter. There is currently discussion about moving to year-round testing, but all jurisdictions must agree before the change is made:
January 1 – March 10
April 1 – June 10
July 1 – September 10
October 1 – December 10
The CMA exam has an entrance fee and a registration fee for each exam part. As of January 2020, if you are a professional member of the IMA your entrance fees and exam fees total $1,080, if you pass both parts the first time. If you’re a student or professor, your total fees are only $810. IMA membership is also required – the cost for membership varies, depending on your career path and level. Current students – check with your college professors, the IMA has scholarships available that allow you to take and pass the exam free! Some of the scholarships may even include an exam review package.
The cost to take the CPA exam ranges by jurisdiction. The cost to apply, register, and take all four exams is over $1,000 in almost every state. Additional licensure costs and fees vary by state as well.
Both certifications can lead to careers in accounting and outside of traditional accounting positions. Some of the traditional accounting paths for CPAs revolve around providing accounting services to the public as a public accountant, internal auditor or corporate financial accountant.
For more information, check out the AICPA websites https://www.aicpa.org/career/careerpaths.html and https://www.startheregoplaces.com/students/why-accounting/career-options/.
Some traditional careers for CMAs include accounting in a corporate setting and include management accountant, cost accountant, financial accountant, and financial risk manager. For more information about careers as a CMA, check out the IMA’s website.
Although the CMA and CPA certifications are the most widely achieved and recognized certifications, they are not the only ones available. Depending on your interests and areas of expertise there are certifications in internal audit, taxation, financial planning, information systems, systems security, fraud examination, forensic accounting and a whole host of other certificates to help you set yourself apart as a professional.
Regardless of the path you choose, certification will help you stand out for your first job as well as for your next promotion. Many employers will pay for their employees’ exam fees as well as a review course. With proper education and preparation, you can become certified and reap the benefits of a great decision throughout your entire career!