Your Accounting Career - Main Header

By Brenda Rufener
Posted April 2015

A degree in accounting opens the door to a world of possibilities, and with an interest in numbers and a bent toward organization, accounting might be the right fit for you. Accounting is considered a low-stress career that offers high compensation and reward. Career placement following college graduation is quick, and employment longevity is one of the greatest in the marketplace. Preparation for an accounting career is available in every level of education, from online two-year degrees to on-campus MBAs. You can enter the field of accounting at every education level, but you must be willing to work hard and exhibit passion for the field.

Table of Contents

1: Understanding Accounting
2: How to Prepare in High School to Major in Accounting
3: The Top Ten Accounting Schools
4: Scholarships for Accounting Majors
5: Career Opportunities in Accounting
6: Top 5 Accounting Firms for New Graduates
7: Accounting Certifications and Associations

Chapter 1: Understanding Accounting

If you are a basketball fan, you know how important it is to keep track of how well your favorite team plays during the sporting season. In business, accountants engage in a similar type of activity. They keep track of how well a business, organization, or agency is performing in terms of finances. Accountants examine how well a company is doing at all times.

Accountants are more than the proverbial bean counter; they are the financial analyzers, record keepers, and backbone of any thriving business. Accountants are the most visible during tax season, but work behind the scenes all year round conceiving goals and planning how to take the necessary steps in achieving those goals.

So, what does it take to become an accountant? According to the Department of Accounting at New York University’s Stern School of Business, “an interest in acquiring the skills that will better enable and service the needs of professional clients” is a must when pursuing a career in accounting. Passion and dedication to the field are essential to do well on the job and in your career. Combine passion and the proper education, and you are on your way to a successful career in accounting.

Chapter 2: How to Prepare in High School to Major in Accounting

It’s never too early to begin laying the groundwork for a successful accounting career. There are things to do in high school that can help prepare for college and after. Since accounting is a competitive field, it pays to get ahead of the competition by starting early.

Since accountants deal with mathematics on a daily basis, accounting majors must be proficient in numbers. An interest in math is helpful for students embarking on an accounting career. Take as many math classes as possible in high school. Help yourself lay the foundation of your schooling by doing well in Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and Calculus. If statistical mathematics is offered at your school, be sure to sign up. As many math classes as you can take early on will better prepare you for doing well in college level courses, especially if you are in line for scholarships.

Other helpful high school courses to take include business, statistics, accounting, finance, computer applications and programming, and advanced placement courses in economics. If your high school does not offer AP microeconomics or AP macroeconomics, taking basic economics is helpful and will provide basic economics language and knowledge necessary for a college economics course.

Once coursework is planned for, there are personal characteristics and strengths that can be cultivated and honed during high school in order to improve success in college and beyond. Accountants are detail-oriented individuals. If this is your strength, you will do well, and if not, it’s never too late to begin turning a weakness into strength. Accountants are also highly analytical people. The more time you spend in classes that require critical thinking and effective communication, the more analytical you will become.

Since accountants spend much of their time communicating and consulting others, solid communication skills are required. Sign up for a speech or debate class to help hone analytical and speaking skills. A communications course in high school can greatly impact your ability to speak effectively and feel comfortable doing it. If you are squeamish when speaking in public, the best way to overcome the fear is to practice and conquer it. A speech or communications class will help, as these skills are necessary for success as an accountant or CPA.

Other things you can do to provide insight in the world of accounting and give yourself a glimpse of what a typical day looks like as a CPA include job shadowing or volunteering. While your local CPA may not be hiring at the time, or is not willing to offer employment to a high school student, they may be inclined to answer questions or open the door to volunteer work. So what if you’re spending a couple hours each day filing? You are gaining knowledge in accounting that can be detailed on your college application and resume. All you have to do is ask. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Chapter 3: The Top Ten Accounting Schools

U.S. News & World Report ranks the top 10 accounting programs and business specialty schools based on a variety of factors, including average freshman retention rate, acceptance rate, and classes with fewer than twenty students. The top 10 accounting rankings based on the 2015 list include the following schools.

1. University of Texas – Austin
2. University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign
3. Brigham Young University – Provo
4. University of Notre Dame
5. University of Pennsylvania
6. University of Southern California
7. University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
8. Indiana University – Bloomington
9. New York University
10. Ohio State University – Columbus

Prospective students should always visit the schools of their choice, talk with faculty members about courses and programs, and speak with graduate students to find out what research projects are taking place. Take the time to find out which college or university best matches your interests and career goals.

Chapter 4: Scholarships for Accounting Majors

The foundational work accountants perform is saving money for companies and clients alike. It should come as no surprise that there are excellent accounting scholarships for accounting majors aspiring to become accountants. Here are ten scholarships available for qualifying accounting students, both as undergraduates and graduates.

1. The NSA Scholarship Foundation

The NSA Scholarship Foundation awards thousands of dollars each year to hard-working and talented accounting students. Eligibility is based on leadership skills, academic achievement, and financial need. There are approximately 35 scholarships awarded each year.

2. Wiley CPAexcel

The Wiley CPAexcel is an accounting student scholarship program offering one grand prize of $2,500 and 5 first prizes of CPAexcel videos. Eligibility is based on full or part-time enrollment in college for students taking at least one accounting course. Students must display high academic achievement and leadership in the accounting field.

3. AICPA John L. Carey Scholarship

Up to five students per academic year are awarded $5,000, paid directly to the school for credit, through the AICPA John L. Carey Scholarship. The scholarship program is designed to provide financial assistance to liberal arts and non-business degree participants pursuing graduate studies in accounting and the CPA licensure. This scholarship program is funded by the AICPA Foundation and is a prestigious award.

4. AICPA Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students

The AICPA Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students is a prestigious award for high-achieving minority students who have selected accounting as their major and ultimately the field as their profession. For over forty years, the program has provided nearly $15 million in scholarships to 8,000 deserving accounting scholars. Recipients receive up to $5,000 each academic year. The deadline for application is April 1st with selection and notification by August 1st. The scholarship program is a renewable award; however, renewals are neither guaranteed nor automatic.

5. AICPA Accountemps Student Scholarship Award

The AICPA Accountemps Student Scholarship provides financial assistance to remarkable accounting students who demonstrate the potential for leadership in the CPA profession. Recipients of the award receive $10,000 for one year. Four students each academic year receive the scholarship award. The AICPA Foundation selects students based on academic achievement, leadership skills, and future career interest in the accounting field. This is one of the most recognized scholarships for accounting students.

6. Teachers of Accounting at Two Year Colleges Scholarship

The Teachers of Accounting at Two Year Colleges (TACTYC) announces seven scholarships each year in the amount of $1,000 for recipients who are either graduation from a two-year college to begin a Bachelor’s degree in accounting at a four-year institution, or to students attending a two-year college and continue to pursue a two-year degree in accounting. Eligibility is based on academic merit and college status, as well as application and essay materials.

7. The Herman J. Neal Scholarship

For African-American students enrolled in an Illinois college or university as a junior, senior, or graduate student, the Herman J. Neal Scholarship provides financial assistance to winners of the award. Students must plan to sit for the CPA examine in Illinois within three years of the application date and demonstrate academic excellence, financial need, and a passion for the accounting field. Scholarship awards range from $500 to $4,000 and are issued annually.

8. Laurels Fund Scholarships

Established in 1978, the Laurels Fund Scholarship program provides awards to female students who are pursuing advanced accounting degrees. Recipients receive up to $5,000 each year, although the award is not automatically renewed. Selection is based on academic achievement, research activity participation, community service or volunteer work, and financial need. As long as you are female and meet the basic eligibility criteria, there is no reason not to apply for this prestigious award.

9. American Society of Women Accountants Scholarship

Another women’s scholarship for those pursuing accounting is the American Society of Women Accountants Scholarship. This program requires attendance at a two or four year college in Missouri. But if you are located in this area and are pursuing an advanced degree in accounting, it is a scholarship worth applying for. Awards vary and are based on academic performance, which is verified by the American Society of Women Accountants.

10. Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop Program

While not considered a scholarship program, the AICPA Accounting Scholars Leadership Workshop is an all-expense paid event for high-achieving students who have declared accounting or finance as a degree and plan to pursue the CPA credential. Certain eligibility requirements are needed. The award covers all expenses, including transportation, hotel accommodation, and meals, for the workshop. Winning this award and attending the workshop is ideal for a student’s college and career resume.

Search here for more scholarship programs in accounting.

Chapter 5: Career Opportunities in Accounting

Once you have made the decision to major in accounting, the next step is to select which career path to pursue. The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) recently published in a newsletter that, “Accounting is the one degree with 360 degrees of possibilities.” This is good news for those with or without a clear career path. At this stage of your education, you may or may not know what you want to do for your career, but either way, an accounting education prepares you to succeed in the business world no matter what job path you choose.

Varied job opportunities in accounting can be categorized into three major areas:

Public Accounting
Private Accounting
Government and Not-For-Profit Accounting

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, defines the above accounting fields and categorizes them into major specializations based on skill and work. Let’s take a closer look at each field.

Public Accounting

Public accounting firms range in size from single practitioners to large international firms with thousands of employees. These firms provide consulting, auditing, tax, and accounting services to businesses and individuals associated with the company or organization. Accountants servicing these firms work with a number of employees and companies, gaining expansive knowledge and experience in the world of accounting. Along with experience gained, long hours are worked. It is not unusual for a public accountant to travel extensively, work seven-day workweeks, and experience on-the-job-pressure associated with long hours and tight deadlines.

Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) are qualified to audit financial statements within the company and render an opinion on the firm’s presentation. The CPA acts as an independent auditor whose opinion is credible in assisting management personnel and the board of overseers with making useful investment decisions based on the financial statements provided by the auditor. The auditor plays a critical role in facilitating investment operations and efficient resource allocation.

Private Industry Accounting

Unlike public accounting, private industry accountants have a less rigid minimum requirement to achieve on a daily basis. In private accounting, the accountant works for a private company or individual and gains in-depth understanding and experience with that particular company. Day to day activities vary, although it is customary for most private industry accountants to prepare financial information necessary to assist management plans and control company spending activities. External financial reports are prepared, along with internal accounting reports. Reports may include budget analyses, cost reports, and a wide variety of financial statements.

The private accounting industry career path may open doors for an accountant trainee to move up the management ladder. A junior accountant may move up to the top management accounting positions after experience is gained. Another typical career trajectory in private industry accounting is the path to become an internal auditor for the company.

Government and Not-For-Profit Accounting

The primary goal of a government agency’s accounting department is to function within the budgetary constraints mandated by legislature. Government accountants serve as hall monitors, if you will. They monitor the appropriation of funds and award contracts to private agencies. Strict governmental regulations are enforced at all times in order to comply with legislature and rules set forth by the government agency.

There are over 100,000 government accountants working for federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, the General Accounting Office, and the Security and Exchange Commission, as well as other government offices. These agencies offer high and competitive starting salaries, extensive fringe benefits, and above-average job security. One advantage of working in a government accounting agency is that the pressure is limited, making it easy to combine work and family life. The disadvantage is that is can be difficult to move back into the public or private accounting industry once you have worked in government accounting.

Not-for-profit organizations do not realize a profit on the goods or services they provide as the basis of their activities. Instead, these organizations provide socially desirable services and goods for the general public. There are approximately 1.2 million tax-exempt organizations operating in the U.S. today. These include hospitals, religious facilities, colleges and universities, welfare organizations, and health outfits to name a few.

Search here for more information on accountants and auditors.

Chapter 6: Top 5 Accounting Firms for New Graduates

Finding employment directly out of college is critical to the career of a new accountant. In most states, the pursuit to become a certified public accountant (CPA) depends on the experience you gain. On-the-job training means access to higher levels of status within the company and increased compensation. Internships are often ideal stepping-stones to gaining experience that leads to full-time employment for new graduates.

The following accounting firms are ranked among the best employers for new graduates based on the following criteria:

–Benefits (competitive compensation, salary increases, and perks)
–Career advancement opportunities
–Work culture
–Work-life balance for young marrieds and families

The ranking is a testament to how well the company recruits top-notch talent from some of the best accounting schools in the country. Vast opportunities await young professionals who want to build their skills and experiences in a flexible workplace culture. Below are the top five accounting firms, listed in alphabetical order, for new graduates:

1. Accenture
3. Ernst & Young LLP
4. Intel Corporation
5. Wayfair LLC

According to a report published in 2013 from ConnectEDU Inc., a technology company working to transition students from school to college and career, there are four tips on what the above companies do to make them appeal to college graduates. These are criteria new graduates should look for when pursuing employment options.

Employee Retention with Long-Term Opportunities

Graduates should consider companies with the best long-term opportunity strategy. Look for companies with mentorship programs for new hires. Mentorship opportunities help new employees navigate their way up the corporate ladder with insightful training and careful design. These types of programs help retain employees and provide them with career longevity and success.

Benefits and Perks

Perks are a main attraction to newly graduated employees. Companies offering competitive benefits packages show that they value employee retention. Perks include an average fifteen days of vacation for entry-level employees, retirement benefits, tuition reimbursement, and other incentives.

Fun Corporate Culture

According to surveys conducted by ConnectEDU, over 96% of the top companies reported a team-oriented work environment and fun corporate culture. Companies with social events, athletic leagues, and good interoffice culture provide a creative and mission-oriented work environment.

Work-Life Balance

Look for companies with the realization that new college graduates value their personal lives. Some of the most successful organizations believe in the “work hard/play hard” motto to foster employee satisfaction in the office and in the home.

Chapter 7: Accounting Certifications and Associations


A certified public accountant (CPA) is a license required in most states to perform independent audits. It is a prestigious certification and license with requirements set forth by the state boards of accountancy. To become a CPA and practice public accounting in a public accounting firm, four basic requirements are needed:

1. Education

Most states require a CPA candidate to obtain an undergraduate degree in accounting or an equivalent discipline. Some states require 150 hours of college education. The traditional pathway to become a CPA is to possess an undergraduate degree in accounting.

2. CPA Examination

The CPA examination is the next step in pursuing the CPA license. The exam is administered four times per year and is a computer-based examination developed by the AICPA. Passing the examination requires adequate knowledge in the following four areas:

Auditing (4.5-hour test)
Business Environment and Concepts (2.5-hour test)
Financial Accounting and Reporting (4-hour test)
Regulation (3-hour test)

Application to sit for the CPA examination must be made to the state board of accountancy within your state.

3. Experience

Most states require a person who has passed the CPA examination to gain adequate experience before the CPA certificate is awarded. The waiting period varies per state. Public accounting experience working as an employee of a CPA firm is necessary to receive the CPA certification.

4. State Requirements

Certain state requirements regarding education and experience must be satisfied before candidates are awarded the CPA certificate by a state. New CPAs must pay fees to obtain their state licensure. State requirements may vary; however, all states have reciprocity laws that allow a CPA to move to another state to obtain a new license without having to take the CPA examination again.


The Certificate in Management Accounting (CMA) is not required to work as a management accountant, but it is an important credential for management accountants to possess. First established in 1972, the CMA recognizes the special needs of management accountants. In order to receive the credential, the CMA exam must be taken. The examination is given twice each year (June and December) and sponsored by the Institute of Management Accountants. The exam is extensive and some believe it to be more difficult than the CPA exam due to its comprehensive nature. The CMA exam covers a broader range of areas with five parts of focus. These areas include 3 ½ hours of testing per section:

Decision Analyses, including Modeling and Information Systems
Economics and Business Finance
Internal Reporting and Analysis
Organization and Behavior, including Ethical Considerations
Public Reporting Standards, Auditing and Taxes


The professional designation for an internal auditor is the Certified Internal Auditor or CIA. In 1974, the Institute of Internal Auditors created the title. In order to receive the CIA credential, you must take and pass the CIA examination. The CIA exam lasts 14 hours (four 3.5-hour parts), which cover the following areas:

Accounting, Finance, and Economies
Management, Quantitative Methods, and Information Systems
Two sections of Theory and Practice of Internal Auditing

About the Author

Brenda Rufener is an internationally published freelance writer and journalist living in North Carolina. She holds a graduate degree in Communications and undergraduate degrees in Biology and English.

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