What Is the Difference Between CPA and CMA Exam?


Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Management Accountant (CMA) are important license and certification credentials for accounting professionals, and understanding the points of difference between the CPA exam and CMA exam is helpful to determine which designation one is qualified to pursue.

The CPA license is the most common credential held by accountants working within the industry. Also, those who want to teach accounting at the university level are often required to have their CPA license, an advanced degree in business or accounting and a number of years of experience working in industry as an accountant.

Alternately, business professionals who perform management accounting functions do not necessarily hold the title of accountant and may not hold a CPA license. However, they normally maintain their skills by taking targeted professional development training that leads to the CMA credential. Both the CPA and the CMA credential require candidates to take comprehensive exams that help to verify knowledge and skill. Here are some of the key differences between these exams.

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Required Academic Background

While candidates for both the CPA and CMA credential must have documented, relevant work experience, the academic requirements for enrolling in the CPA and the CMA exams are slightly different.

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Accounting professionals must have earned 120 semester hours of credits from accredited, four year universities to be eligible to sit for the CPA exam. CPA candidates also must have 21 semester hours of credits in accounting and nine semester hours of credits in other business concentration areas like economics, finance and business law to take the CPA exam. Further coursework totaling 150 hours is needed to actually earn the CPA license. Candidates for the CMA exam are required to have undergraduate degrees from accredited universities, but they do not need to have a certain amount of credit hours in the accounting discipline.

Test Format

The CPA exam consists of a comprehensive, four part examination that is offered via computer. Candidates are given three to four hours to complete each of the four exam sections, and the total time to complete the exam is 14 hours. The test features multiple choice, task based simulation and essay style questions. Test takers can choose to take the CPA exam in any order, and the exams are administered at test facilities for nine months out of the year in most states. CPA exam candidates have up to 18 months to complete all four sections of the exam. The CMA exam is also administered electronically, but it consists of a tough, two part exam that has multiple choice and essay sections. There are three annual testing windows for the CMA exam.

Content Covered

The CPA exam’s four sections are regulation, auditing and attestation, business environment and concepts and financial accounting and reporting. These sections cover broad accounting and business knowledge areas like statistics, cost accounting and taxation. The CMA exam questions cover more targeted accounting topics like corporate finance, investment decisions, risk management as well as planning, budgeting and forecasting. While CPA exam candidates cannot take the exam before they graduate with their 120 credit hours of courses, CMA exam candidates can sit for the exam prior to completing their degree. The degree must be completed to earn the actual certification, however.

Conclusion on CPA or CMA

The CPA license is the standard for financial accounting professionals who are responsible for reporting companies’ financial transactions to external stakeholders like shareholders, creditors and government agencies. The CMA designation is earned by accounting and finance personnel who want to narrow their career options to positions that focus on providing accounting information that supports corporate decision making. The key points of difference between the CPA Exam and CMA Exam reflect the contrast between financial accounting and managerial accounting functions.