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What to do if you don’t pass the CPA

Nearly half of the people who take the CPA exam each year don’t pass the exam. Many go on to retake the exam and earn a passing score, but some decide that the CPA designation is just not for them. Whether it’s the cost, the stress of exams, or just a realization that there are options outside of public accounting, many candidates move on to something else. The CPA designation is widely recognized and respected, but several other designations can help you land a lucrative career.

Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA)

CFA focuses primarily on finance and investments, and the designation is considered by many to be a “must-have” for security analysts and portfolio managers. If your long-term career goals include becoming a CFO or a senior finance professional, the CFA may be for you. Learn more about a Financial Analyst’s Job Description.

You don’t need a four-year degree to become a CFA, but you will need a total of four years of higher education, professional work experience, or a combination of the two. The exam is taken in three parts totaling 18 hours.

The estimated cost of earning the CFA designation is about the same as that of the CPA, but the job prospects available to CFAs are worth the price tag. Some of the world’s largest investment firms employ CFAs, including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, Credit Suisse, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup.

Certified Management Accountant (CMA)

If cost accounting was your favorite subject in college, the CMA designation is a fantastic option. CMAs focus on management accounting including financial analysis and strategic planning.

Most CMAs are employed in the corporate world, especially Fortune 500 companies and businesses with manufacturing facilities that require cost and inventory management.A college degree is required, but unlike the CPA exam, there are no specific coursework requirements. The two-part exam takes about eight hours.

Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)

Large companies often employ internal audit staff to improve operations and risk management and prevent the misuse of company assets. The CIA is a very specialized niche within the accounting and finance world, but one that can be very profitable. CIAs earn an average salary of approximately $64,000, whereas the average salary of a CPA is $62,000.

The three-part exam takes about three and a half hours. Candidates need either a college degree, a combination of two year’s of college education plus five years experience in internal audit, or seven years experience in internal audit without any college education.

Enrolled Agent (EA)

Were you pursuing the CPA designation following a passion for federal tax law? Consider becoming an EA, the highest credential awarded by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Enrolled Agents represent taxpayers before the IRS and, like CPAs and attorneys, have unlimited practice rights, meaning they can represent any taxpayer on type of tax matter.

Candidates will have to pass a three-part comprehensive exam that covers both individual and business tax returns and pass a tax compliance check, ensuring they’ve filed all necessary returns and have no outstanding tax liabilities.

One more option

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention one additional option: retaking the CPA Exam. If you were close to a passing score, it’s worth it to give it another try. Rethink your study methods. Maybe you chose a self-study option when you’d be more effective taking a live course or vice versa. Chances are, you’ve invested a lot of time and money into pursuing the CPA designation at this point, so if you’re close to passing, think twice before throwing in the towel.

The AICPA estimates that CPAs earn 10-15% more than non-CPAs working in accounting-related jobs, and the designation is one of the most widely recognized in the world, giving you instant credibility in the eyes of potential employers and clients.

That said, becoming a CPA is not for everyone, so it’s good to know that there are many well-respected and profitable alternatives.

For more tips on growing your financial career, check out our infographic.


Accounting Principals

We're Accounting Principals--a leader in finance and accounting staffing. In fact, since 2010, we've been part of Adecco Group, a Global 500 company and leader in staffing services around the world. But this isn't staffing as usual. We take quite a different approach than most staffing agencies. A people-focused approach. We believe in forming real relationships with both our clients and our candidates. We want to understand the needs on both sides.