Are They Different?

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CPA Exam Basics

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Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) and Certified Management Accountants (CMAs) are both certified accountants and more highly regarded than non-licensed accountants. On a basic level, a CPA is responsible for taxes and audits, while a CMA is in charge of management accounting. Choosing the right path is one of the most difficult decisions an aspiring accountant must make. There are some key differences between a CPA and a CMA, which we will discuss here.

What is the difference between a CPA and a CMA?

CPA and CMA qualifications are gained by passing an examination, but only the CPAs need a license to practice as professionals. To become a CPA, you must complete 150 credit hours of an undergraduate program and pass the CPA exam administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA).

A CMA, on the other hand, is an accounting expert who specializes in budget or asset management, as the name implies. A CMA holds the skills needed to make strategic managerial decisions for a variety of organizations using their financial accounting knowledge. To become a CMA, you need a bachelor's degree in either business, accounting, or economics, complete a 2 part certification exam and have at least two years of professional experience in management accounting or financial management. To maintain certification, one must maintain Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) membership and continuing education requirements.

Read the chart below to learn the key differences between CPA and CMA to make an informed choice for your career goals.

Differences between CPA and CMA
Section CPA CMA
Council American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA®) Institute of Management Accountants (IMA®)
Exam Pattern 4 Exams:
  • Financial Accounting & Reporting (FAR)
  • Audit & Attestation (AUD)
  • Regulation (REG)
  • One of the three disciplines: Business Analysis and Reporting (BAR), Information Systems and Controls (ISC) and Tax Compliance and Planning (TCP)
2 Exams:
  • Part I-Financial Planning, Performance, and Analytics
  • Part II-Strategic Financial Management
Timeframe Must be completed within 1.5 years (18 months) Must be completed within 3 years (36 months)
Exam Fees (approx.) $1,500-1,800 (Subject to jurisdiction) $1,000
Topics to Cover
  • Corporate Governance
  • Economic Concepts and Analysis
  • Professional Responsibilities
  • Ethics & General Principles
  • Financial Statement Accounts
  • Entity Federal Taxation
  • Individual Federal Taxation
  • Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting
  • Performance Management
  • Internal Controls
  • Cost Management
  • Decision Analysis
  • Professional Ethics
  • Financial Statement Analysis
Pass Rate % ~ 42-59% ~ 50% (approx)
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CPA vs CMA Exam

Passing the exams is the most challenging part of obtaining either a CPA or CMA license. Each organizing body carefully details the content of each set of exams (the AICPA for CPAs and the IMA for CMAs). Although the difficulty of the CPA or CMA exam is subjective, the exam format and objectives are some of the major differences between the two. Let's look at these differences between the CPA and CMA exams as outlined by the IMA and AICPA.

CPA vs CMA Exam Difficulty

Determining whether a CPA or CMA is easier depends on your skillset, preferences, and exam preparation. But, to attain a CPA, you must complete 16 hours of exams spread across four sections of the examination. In comparison, the CMA exam is divided into two parts, with a total timeframe of eight hours.

Historically, the CMA exam has had a slightly lower pass rate of around 50% for Part 1, Part 2 combined. While CPA Exam pass rates range between 50 and 60%

Candidates for the CMA have three years to pass both parts of the exam. The clock starts ticking from the date you were accepted into the CMA program. For the CPA Exam, however, you have 18 months to pass all four parts from the time you pass the first exam. If you do not pass the CPA exam within the 18-month timeframe, you will be required to retake previously passed tests that occur beyond the 18-month term.

CPA vs CMA Exam Cost

CPA Exam costs range from $2053 to $5453, which includes exam fees, application expenses, CPA review coursem and reexamination fees. The CMA certification, on the other hand, costs around $1,000, including all expenses. Here are other costs associated to the CPA Exam that you should be aware of:

Exam Fees Type 2024 CPA Exam Costs
Education Evaluation Fee $50-$90
Examination Fees $354.80-$400 per exam
CPA Exam Retake Fee $50-$90
CPA Review Course $1,000-$4,000
Total $2,400- $6,000

To understand all the costs involved in a CPA exam plus the licensure, read our A-Z guide on CPA Costs and Fees.

CPA and CMA Syllabus Overlaps

You can expect approximately a 30–35% overlap between the CPA and CMA syllabuses.

  • CPA Exam sections FAR and REG and Part 1 of the CMA Exam, involve external financial reporting.
  • CPA Exam BAR section and CMA Part 1 share planning, budgeting, forecasting, performance management, and cost management in common.
  • Internal controls are addressed in both the CMA exam Part 1 and the CPA Exam AUD section.

Let’s understand the overlaps in the syllabus in detail from the table below:

CPA Syllabus Overlap with CMA Part 1 Syllabus
FAR and BAR External Financial Reporting Decisions (15%)
BAR Planning, Budgeting, and Forecasting (30%)
AUD and ISC Internal Controls (15%)
CPA Syllabus Overlap with CMA Part 2 Syllabus
FAR, BAR and AUD Financial Statement Analysis (25%)
AUD and REG Professional Ethics (10%)

Furthermore, holding both the CPA and the CMA requires continuing professional education (CPE) hours. CPE credits are points that professionals receive for participating in, and completing, specialized learning activities like online courses or seminars. Candidates can meet CPE requirements for both qualifications by completing a range of continuing education courses.

Becoming a CPA vs CMA

If you want to become a CPA, plan on investing eight-plus years to get there. To begin, you'll need 150 hours of undergraduate credits, which is equivalent to a bachelor's degree and sometimes a Master’s degree. If your state requires work experience, it will take an additional two years. Given the extremely low first-time pass rate for the CPA exam (across the four sections), which is roughly around 45-63%, the AICPA lets you pass all four exams once you've passed your first within a timeframe of 18 months. CPA requirements often vary by state or jurisdiction. For example, in Nebraska, the state requires you to have a prior work experience of at least 4000 hours to be eligible for licensure. To learn more about the state-specific requirements, read about every state’s requirements for CPA licensure.

In contrast, achieving CMA certification is a rewarding journey that spans approximately nine years. The process begins with obtaining a bachelor's degree, typically taking three to four years. Following this, there is a mandatory two-year work requirement, which offers flexibility through options like internships or part-time positions that can be pursued concurrently with college. Recognizing the challenges posed by the rigorous CMA exam and considering the initial pass rate, the IMA generously grants CMA candidates a three-year exam window. While the CMA tests may take a bit longer to successfully navigate, the comprehensive preparation and commitment involved contribute to the candidate's resilience and determination throughout the process.

CPA vs CMA Salaries

Certified Public Accountants earn 10-15% more than non-certified accountants. Salaries can be higher than average in industries experiencing a lot of growth, like financial technology or software. As a CPA, you can work in auditing, taxation, quality assurance, or advisory services for the top accounting firms, like the Big Four, well-known global companies, or smaller local firms. In recent years, certain industries, like hospitality, healthcare, and EdTech have been growing and looking to hire CPAs.

On the other hand, getting the CMA certification can provide you with numerous options in both the regional and global markets. It will help you improve your financial, accounting, and management skills, which will enhance your job opportunities and help you stand out from the pack.

A CPA's average annual compensation throughout the course of their career is around $120,000, while a CMA's typical annual salary is around $100,000. According to the AICPA's survey, the average newly licensed CPA in the United States earns $66,000 annually. However, with 20 years of expertise, one can expect more than $160,000 annually.

Licensed CPA Salaries
Tax Services Low Medium High
Senior Manager / Director $109,751 $130,433 $160,262
Manager $93,071 $109,105 $136,432
Senior $80,613 $90,879 $93,998
Audit/Assurance Services Low Medium High
Senior Manager / Director $103,592 $131,617 $146,140
Manager $89,672 $118,642 $140,173
Senior $75,360 $87,786 $105,766

Earn Both Your CPA and CMA

One of the initial career choices facing accounting students and professionals revolves around deciding between pursuing a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) or a CMA (Certified Management Accountant). However, it's worth considering that you don't necessarily have to make an exclusive choice between the two.

For CPAs, opting for dual certification can prove to be exceptionally beneficial. Here are some compelling reasons why:

Stand Out from Peers:

  • Dual certification allows you to distinguish yourself from your colleagues, showcasing a comprehensive skill set that encompasses both CPA and CMA qualifications. This distinctiveness can set you apart in the competitive field of accounting.

Enhanced Salary Potential:

  • Holding dual certifications can contribute to commanding an even higher salary. Employers often recognize and reward the added expertise and versatility that come with having both CPA and CMA designations.

Deliver Enhanced Client Service and Value:

  • The combined knowledge from both certifications equips you to better serve your clients and add significant value to your employer. You bring a multifaceted perspective that can be invaluable in addressing diverse financial and management challenges.

Open Paths to Management Roles:

  • Dual certification not only broadens your skill set but also paves the way to management positions. Employers may view the combination of CPA and CMA as a strategic advantage when considering candidates for leadership roles.

Efficient Exam Preparation:

  • Pursuing dual certification allows for efficient exam preparation, as there is overlapping content between the CPA and CMA exams. This synergy streamlines the study process, potentially saving time and effort compared to pursuing each certification separately.
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Frequently Asked Questions

Not necessarily. CPA offers you an in-depth knowledge of public accounting, which helps you get jobs in the public and private sector, while CMA pretty much limits you to the corporate world.
The pay scale of a candidate usually boils down to their skillset and years of experience. However, a CPA’s average compensation throughout the course of their career is around $120,000, while a CMA’s typical salary is around $100,000. So, a CPA typically earns more than a CMA.
If you get a CMA certification after becoming CPA licensed, you can gain knowledge in the field of management and strategic decision-making. However, since CPA certification covers most of the accounting principles and practices, some of this will duplicate what’s found within a CMA course.
The decision to become a Certified Management Accountant (CMA) or not is based on the preferences and interests you have in your professional life. However, a CMA earns 31% (median payscale) more than a non-certified accountant. So, yes, it is worth it, as it can help boost your career.
The journey to becoming a CMA typically takes around nine years, starting with obtaining a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. The mandatory two-year work requirement can be fulfilled through internships or part-time roles, providing flexibility. With a three-year exam window generously offered by the IMA, the process is designed to allow candidates to prepare thoroughly, ensuring a comprehensive learning experience.
Pursuing dual certification with CPA and CMA is a strategic move that enhances your professional profile. This combination not only sets you apart from your peers but also broadens your skill set, making you a versatile asset in the accounting and finance industry. Employers value the comprehensive knowledge gained from both certifications, leading to increased opportunities, higher earning potential, and a fulfilling career path.
Obtaining a CMA certification can significantly enhance your career prospects. It not only validates your expertise in management accounting but also sets you apart in a competitive job market. Employers value the strategic financial management skills that come with a CMA designation, often leading to increased job opportunities, promotions, and higher earning potential.
While the CMA exam is known for its rigor, it is also a testament to the high standards set by the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA). The positive aspect is that thorough preparation not only equips you with in-depth knowledge but also builds your problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Numerous resources, study materials, and support networks are available to assist candidates, ensuring a positive and successful exam experience.

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