What is the Difference Between a CPA and a CMA?

The difference between a CPA and a CMA lies in the purposes of their respective professional exams. The CPA exam is designed for future CPAs who will do things like perform audits and process tax documentation. The CMA exam focuses on more general accounting and strategic management skills that business leaders need to make sound financial decisions. The majority of people outside of the accounting industry recognizes the CPA credential, so it’s usually preferred over the CMA.

Exam Differences

One main difference between a CPA and CMA license is that they lead to very different careers. Those who earn a CPA generally work for public accounting firms and those who earn a CMA credential generally work for private firms. The CMA exam is divided into two parts and the CPA exam is divided into four parts. Both the CPA and CMA exam cost about the same in every state. Somewhere between 30 to 40 percent of test takers pass the CMA, but between 40 to 50 percent pass the CPA. The CMA credential requires around 30 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) hours per year, but the CPA credential requires around 40 per year. The CMA exam requires two years of professional experience to become fully licensed. The CPA exam varies by state because a few only require one year of experience.

The CPA Exam

The CPA certification produces Certified Public Accountants who handle audits, income taxes and financial reporting. This certification prepares accountants for customer service roles in small firms and large corporations. Eligibility for the CPA certification varies between states, but almost all require at 150 hours of business or accounting-related coursework. Because 120 credit hours results in a standard bachelor’s degree, most CPA exam candidates are students who graduate with a master’s degree related to accountancy. Exam candidates must submit a resume that usually demonstrates two years of supervised public accounting experience. Exam candidates cannot have any ethical investigations or serious performance issues. The CPA exam is one of the toughest professional exams to pass.

The CMA Exam

The CMA exam is designed for accountants who do not want to work directly with the public. Accountants who choose the CMA exam usually want to work for global corporations or in large financial departments. The CMA, or Certified Management Accountant exam, is popular among accountants who want managerial or executive jobs. Even though the CMA exam usually doesn’t require a graduate degree, many CMAs earn an MBA specializing in accounting or earn a Master of Science in Accounting. Instead of a graduate degree, CMA exam candidates must submit evidence of two years of experience working under the supervision of a CMA in managerial accounting. CMA exam candidates must be active members of the Institute of Management Accountants. Those who fail to engage in the continuing education requirement of 30 credits every year will lose their CMA designation.

Both the CPA and CMA certification programs are designed to set high professional standards and help accountants maximize their career earnings and potential. The difference between a CPA and a CMA credential is that the former is designed for public accountants, while the latter is designed for managers in private companies.

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