You are making an important decision.
Should I go for CPA or CMA? Can (or should) I get both?
Certified Public Accountant is the “black-belt” for public accounting, and in essence, for the accounting profession in general.
The exam itself covers a broad range of knowledge, ranging from the core financial accounting and auditing, as well as taxation, business laws and ethics, cost accounting and strategic planning, economics, statistics and difference between the US and international accounting systems.
When compared to CPA, the Certified Management Accountant certification highlights the professional’s accounting and financial expertise within the corporate world. That is, the skills required for finance managers, controllers and CFOs. It also touches upon the operational and strategic aspects of running a corporation, a non-profit or a governmental agency.
What’s the difference between public accounting and management accounting? Steve Colton from Accounting Insights summarizes it well:
Financial accounting is concerned with providing information about a company’s operations to parties external to the company. Examples include the IRS, bankers, suppliers, creditors and shareholders. A primary focus is on standardized reporting and achieving compliance with applicable regulations.
Management accounting is concerned with providing financial information about a company’s operations to its internal managers. The focus is on developing relevant and timely information that helps internal managers resolve the problems. It also helps make decisions that arise on a day-to-day basis.”
CMA vs CPA Comparison at a Glance
In terms of the process of getting the CPA vs CMA qualification, here are the factors you should consider.
|Focus & Recognition|
|Need bachelor degree?|
|150 credit hours needed?|
|Min. accounting courses?|
|# exam days per year||4 testing windows|
|4 testing windows|
|Total exam hours||14||8|
|No. of parts/levels||4||2|
|Latest pass rates||48-51%||35% / 42%|
A Closer Look at the Syllabus
The following chart shows the overlap of topics between the CMA and CPA exams. The weighting in overlapped areas can be quite different so please use this for general reference only.
|CMA Part 1 Topics||Where It Appear in CPA Exam|
|External Financial Reporting (15%)||FAR / REG (Tax Implications)|
|Planning, Budgeting and Forecasting (30%)||BEC|
|Performance Management (20%)||BEC|
|Cost Management (20%)||BEC|
|Internal Controls (15%)||AUD|
|CMA Part 2 Topics||Where It Appear in CPA Exam|
|Financial Statement Analysis (25%)||FAR / AUD (Analytical Review)|
|Corporate Finance (20%)||BEC|
|Decision Analysis (20%)||BEC|
|Risk Management (10%)||BEC / AUD (possibly Audit Risk)|
|Investment Decisions (15%)||BEC|
|Professional Ethics (10%)||AUD|
Source: SF Magazine, August 2015
Why CPA Could be Better
1. More Established and More Recognized
The CPA qualification dated back in the early 20th century and is without a doubt the most established qualification among the accountant industry. Because of this and other reasons, the CPA title is more recognized in the US and in other parts of the world.
2. Higher Entry Barrier
The AICPA and NASBA have been pushing for a more or less “uniform” CPA prerequisite in all states — the so-called “3E” requirements ask for 150 credit hours with concentration in accounting, together with 1-2 years of experience verified by an active CPA licensee. The entry barrier is so high that becoming a CPA is a prestige that few people can get, which in turn makes the qualification very valuable.
3. Good for All Types of Accounting Jobs
CPA is widely recognized and you get the perks no matter where you work in the finance and accounting field, be it public or non-public accounting. On the other hand, CMA is only useful for those to work and stay in the corporate world.
Why Others May Prefer CMA
1. More Practical
In reality, most accountants (whether starting as public accountant or not) will end up in the corporate sector. This means that the management accountant skill is more practical in medium to long term for professionals in the accounting industry. In fact, many candidates who went through both CPA and CMA find the materials covered in CMA more interesting and useful for their daily business life while CPA materials are too theoretical.
2. It’s Cheaper and Less Time Consuming
Both exam costs a fortune, but the CMA certification is considerably less. Also, with only 2 parts (vs 4 parts in CPA) it takes less time to study and pass.
3. You Can Take the Exam Before Graduation
If you want to get a fast track, CMA allows you to take the exam before you graduate, although you will have to complete your bachelor degree with 2 years of experience to ultimately get the certification.
4. Better Administration Body and “After-Service”
As you may know, the CPA license is granted by each of the states instead of by a national body. This legacy issue has created a lot of confusion and challenges from getting qualified for the CPA exam to apply for the license at the end. CMA is administrated by IMA with a well-run website and clear instructions on how to prepare, study and pass the CMA exam.
After you get the CMA certification and if you choose to stay active, IMA provides everything from free webinar (for CPE and self-learning) to a forum for members to exchange ideas and build networks. CPA, in comparison, has Society of CPAs in each state but the support is less impressive.
Is It Difficult To Decide?
Why not get both? Here are the reasons:
1. There are Considerable Overlaps
While the two exams test for different skills, they are essentially accounting stuff and you can expect, roughly speaking, 30-40% overlap. If you have taken the CPA exam, the CMA exam Part 1 can be considered a harder and more comprehensive version of BEC (Part 2 is somewhat similar to Level 1 of CFA).
2. CPE Hours are Good for Both
Both CPA and CMA require certain hours of continuing professional education. Many CPE courses are good for both.
3. A Dual Qualification Makes You Stand Out
I think most people would agree that CPA is more prestigious but CMA is more practical. If that’s the case, if you have a dual qualification, you have the best of two worlds.
This video highlights the merits and limitations of CMA and CPA qualifications.
Here’s What My Bloggers Said about CPA vs CMA
|Gavin: how he convinced|
his parents that CMA is more suitable
|Casey: why CMA is|
better even for CFOs
Now, What’s Your Decision?
For Your Further Reading
- Management accounting certifications around the world
- CMA vs CIMA
- 50 most common questions from my readers
If you have comments on CMA vs CPA, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.
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