Updated on June 13, 2024
Edited by Evelyn Keener
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University HQ is an industry-leading, independent educational organization that provides independent college rankings using a proprietary formula to create first class unbiased rankings. The team at University Headquarters strives to provide accurate and trustworthy rankings that highlights the best programs in accounting.

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Are you interested in pursuing a career in accounting? If you think you might enjoy working with financial information and records, or you're just looking for career opportunities that will allow you to earn a more than adequate income, this may be an ideal profession. While specific job responsibilities vary depending on the industry you work for and whether you've made it past an entry-level position, most accountants and auditors are tasked with assessing a company or organizations financial operations to ensure future success and efficiency. Other common duties of an accounting career include:

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Step by Step Overview to Become an Accountant

Not everyone is capable of creating a successful accounting career in the real world. The field is extremely demanding and requires substantial education, training, and experience. Specifically, you will most likely need at least a bachelor's in accounting to succeed, though you might start out earning a bachelor of business administration with an emphasis in financial accounting and still have a stellar accounting career. Because the job of an accountant is multifaceted, these professionals must develop and hone many important skills. The following traits are essential for an accounting career, regardless of the field these professionals choose to work in or if they ever choose to earn an advanced online accounting degree:

  • Excellent organization of financial statements and data, including figures and paperwork
  • Time management skills that allow for multi-tasking and the effective use of office hours
  • Detail-oriented nature and an eye for accuracy, especially when dealing with financial figures
  • Exceptional customer service when working directly with clients
  • Creativity that allows for out-of-the-box thinking and quick, fresh solutions to financial problems
  • Commitment to and passion for the industry
  • Unwavering trustworthiness regarding private and confidential company and client information
  • Outstanding communication with clients and company or organization management
  • Collaboration with team members, department managers, and decision-makers
  • Flexibility to work effectively in constantly changing environments and address last-minute challenges

Becoming an accountant or CPA is not an easy task. It takes hard work and dedication. However, a simplified, step-by-step explanation of the process consists of the following:

  • Earn an undergraduate online accounting degree

  • Decide between a career as an accountant and a CPA

  • Earn a graduate online accounting degree

  • Find an entry-level position working under a certified CPA

  • Submit the CPA licensure application

  • Apply for, take, and pass the Uniform CPA Exam (The overall 2021 CPA exam pass rate is 54%)

  • Enroll in continuing education accounting courses

What is the Difference Between a CPA and an Accountant?

CPA-AccountantA Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, is an accountant who is licensed to practice. While the licensing requirements vary from state to state, most CPAs must complete a minimum level of formal education, obtain professional experience, and successfully pass the Uniform CPA Examination.

There are many reasons that an accountant may want to become a CPA. For instance, CPAs are legally permitted to provide more services to their clients. While accountants can prepare taxes, only CPAs can represent an individual before the IRS during an audit. Additionally, professionals with a CPA designation are typically better regarded and make more money. In fact, it’s not uncommon for CPAs to make 10 to 15 percent more than accountants without licensing.

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Typical Online Accounting Degree Requirements

Accountants must attain, at minimum, an undergraduate online accounting degree. These online degrees generally consist of 120 credit hours of coursework, made up of both general curriculum and specialized major accounting courses. While every online accounting program is a little different, most require online students to take classes like financial accounting, accounting information systems, income tax, tax accounting, corporate accounting, cost and managerial accounting, and auditing.

In most cases, bachelor's degrees in accounting take four years to complete. There are, however, some accelerated online programs available. Full-time students with previously-earned college credit hours or associate degrees can also finish sooner, whereas students who plan to attend school part-time may still take longer.

While accountants are not required to earn an advanced online accounting degree, master's degrees from an online accounting program may be extremely beneficial in this industry. Not only does a master’s degree in accounting qualify professionals for higher-paying positions, it also prepares them to deal with more advanced work in auditing, taxation, and finance. Completing a graduate online accounting degree also helps fulfill the 150 credit hour requirement most states have for certified public accountant (CPA) licensure.

Academic Standards for CPAs

A bachelor’s online accounting degree is enough to qualify candidates for most entry-level finance positions, but professionals seeking CPA certification must take their education further. While each state’s “board of accountancy” sets its own licensing requirements, most have similar education standards. Typically, states require candidates to complete the following:

  • A bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field from an accredited college or university
  • A minimum of 150 semester credit hours of accounting and/or business coursework
  • A specific number of accounting courses that cover certain topics
  • A specific number of business courses that cover certain topics

Many states require that CPA certification candidates maintain an established minimum GPA while in school. Additionally, once an individual becomes officially certified as a CPA, they must complete a certain number of Continuing Professional Education (CPE) online courses each year. Failing to provide proof of CPE credits can result in a CPA license being revoked.

CPA Exam and Experience

After completing the above-mentioned education requirements, CPA exam candidates must apply to take the Uniform CPA Exam. This process usually entails submitting an application fee, official school transcripts, reference letters, and any supporting legal documents. Once approved, access to the exam schedule is provided.

The Uniform CPA Exam consists of four sections: Auditing and Attestation, Business Environment and Concepts, Financial Accounting and Reporting, and Regulation. Each test is four hours long and candidates must pass all of them within an 18-month period. Most states require a minimum passing score of 75 for each section.

While not nearly as difficult, most states also require CPA candidates to take and pass an ethics examination. These are generally offered online and can be taken independently.

Additionally, CPA candidates must provide proof of professional experience. Again, this requirement varies significantly from state to state. Most boards require candidates to work professionally under the direct supervision of a CPA for at least two years. Proof of work experience in accounting, auditing, insurance reporting, provision of management advisory, and/or financial consulting must be submitted before CPA licensure can be granted.

Other Top Accounting Certifications

In addition to CPA licensure, there are several other certifications that accountants may consider seeking. Some of the most popular options are:

  • Certified Financial Analyst (CFA)
  • Certified Management Accountant (CMA)
  • Enrolled Agent (EA)
  • Certified Internal Auditor (CIA)
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
  • Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE)
  • Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP)
  • Certified Bank Auditor (CBA)

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Individuals interested in accounting have several college degree options. In fact, every online program level offers some form of accounting program.

Online Associate’s Degree in Accounting

An online associate’s degree in accounting is ideal for people who want to begin a career in finance as soon as possible. Instead of being in school for four or more years, online students can graduate in as little as one to two with basic knowledge of the field. While online programs vary, most associate degrees are approximately 60 credit hours of coursework and provide a foundation in cost accounting, taxation, financial statement analysis, and payroll accounting. These types of online accounting degree programs prepare online students in accounting for entry-level accounting positions like billing clerk, bookkeepers, payroll clerk, accounting assistant, and accounts receivable clerk. Every college and university is different, but coursework frequently covers:

Online associate’s degree sample accounting courses

  • Accounting
  • Principles of Financial Accounting
  • Principles of Macroeconomics and Microeconomics
  • Introduction to Business Logic and Ethics
  • Payroll Accounting
  • Business Communication
  • Accounting Information Systems
  • Business Law
  • Tax Law
  • Cost Accounting
  • Business Income Taxes
  • Integrated Accounting Applications
National Online Rankings - Top 25 Associate

Online Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting

A four-year undergraduate degree in accounting is a fantastic launchpad for a stellar career. During your college years you will receive the training necessary to join an accounting firm, a financial team, or any sort of business. If you have graduated from an online baccalaureate program but did not major in accounting, you might later consider a post bachelorettes certificate. You might need the courses to get a new job at your firm, you could be considering a CPA license, or you might wish some other credentials. There are many reasons to obtain an online undergraduate accounting bachelors diploma and some of the courses you may see are:

Online Bachelor’s Degree sample accounting courses

  • Business Communication for Accountants
  • Introduction to Computer Applications and Systems
  • Principles of Macroeconomics and Microeconomics
  • Managerial and Cost Accounting
  • Human Resources Management
  • Supply-Chain Operations
  • Principles of Accounting I
  • Principles of Accounting II
  • Contemporary Business Law
  • Personal Finance
  • Auditing
  • Cross-Cultural Negotiation
  • Intermediate Financial Accounting I, II, III
National Online Rankings - Top 25 Bachelors

Online Master’s Degree in Accounting

An online master’s degree in accounting is often helpful for professionals who intend to apply for administrative or leadership roles in finance. This degree is also a necessary stepping stone for individuals seeking CPA licensure. Generally, online students can choose between two graduate degrees: Master of Accountancy (MAcc) or Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an accounting concentration. Some accounting majors will also pursue a PhD in Accounting. An MAcc generally centers around coursework designed to prepare online students to take the Uniform CPA Exam, whereas a master of business administration provides a broad curriculum related to business strategy, finance, and client management. Both generally consist of 60 credit hours and take approximately two years to complete. These graduate degree options often prepare advanced accounting graduates for work as an auditor, enrolled agent, corporate budget analyst, cost accountant, controller, tax planner, or financial manager. Every college and university is different, but coursework frequently covers:

Online master’s degree sample accounting courses

  • Financial Decision Making
  • Applied Statistics for Business Decisions
  • Financial Accounting
  • Corporate Financial Reporting
  • Financial Statement Analysis
  • Auditing and Assurance
  • Federal Taxation
  • Financial Consultation
  • Contemporary Issues in Accounting
  • Financial and Managerial Accounting
  • Computer-Based Information Systems
  • Business Taxation
National Online Rankings - Top 25 Masters

What Can I Do with an Online Accounting Degree?

Online accounting degrees & programs are remarkably diverse. While most of us think of accountants as only providing help during tax season, accountants are working hard all year to provide corporate and individuals with audits that help maximize fiscal efficiency. They work with information technology departments to audit those systems, too. This is only the tip of the accounting iceberg.

Accountants also work within the legal establishment. Forensic accountants help uncover money laundering schemes and reveal those who defraud the IRS. They also help businesses reveal embezzlement schemes and they work with attorneys. For instance, in some civil matters, litigants seek to hide assets from creditors or former spouses. Accountants help reveal the funds and ensure a fair and just outcome.

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Accounting Fields of Study

  • Forensic Accounting:
    This field focuses on uncovering financial wrongdoing. Not only do forensic accountants become adept at balancing the books and auditing, but they also are versed in the laws that might apply to financial bad guys. Topics can include offshore tax havens, money laundering, and embezzlement.
  • Managerial Accounting:
    This form of accounting is aimed at helping a firm streamline or otherwise improve its operations. The rules governing a managerial accountant will vary according to the needs of each individual firm and the results of their audit will only be shared among other managers or employees.
  • Tax Accounting:
    This is the domain in which we most often place accountants. Tax accountants assess a firm's finances and complete the tax return documents. However, only a certified public accountant (CPA) with an active license from the state may sign off on tax return documentation.
  • Finance:
    This is where accounting and business most often meet. Accountants will be trained to both prepare and analyze financial documents for use in public documentation.
  • Non-Profit or Government Accounting:
    This is a specialty area that is governed by special rules and laws. That is, these organizations needn't worry about taxation, as do for-profit companies, but they must also adhere to special rules.
  • Accounting Information Technology:
    This is a relatively new addition to the accounting world. Since accountants are detail-minded, they are perfect for conducting audits of computer databases, network logs, and more.

Potential Accounting Careers and Salaries for Graduates

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for most accountant and auditor positions in 2017 was $69,350. The average hourly wage was $33.34. This is well above the national average wage index of $48,642, as reported by the Social Security Administration in 2016.

The outlook for accountants working in the United States is also promising. In fact, the BLS projects that there will be a 10% increase in job availability in this field between 2016 and 2026. When compared to other professions, this is a faster increase than the national average. The major reasons for this growth are likely globalization, an ever-changing economy, and complicated tax regulations.

Accounting Career Options

  • Auditor:
    These professionals analyze a business’ financial and other documents to find areas that could use improvement. Auditors may also work for the Internal Revenue Service and scrutinize tax return documents from individuals or corporations who may be suspected of committing some form of tax fraud or evasion.
  • Consultant:
    Accountants may work for a business in their accounting department but they may also work independently. Independent accountants may consult with businesses who aren't large enough to have their own accounting department. Their function may be to provide assistance with tax returns or to perform an independent audit of the business.
  • Forensic Accountant:
    These accounting professionals work in the legal realm to help uncover financial wrongdoing. They seek out tax evaders, money launderers, embezzlement schemes, and even errant spouses who seek to hide assets during a divorce.
  • Tax Accountant:
    To be a tax accountant, it's ideal to be a licensed certified public accountant (CPA). These professionals analyze their employer's or client's financial documents and prepare their tax returns. Accountants with CPA credentials are legally able to sign off on those returns.
  • Managerial Accountant:
    This is a growing field in accountancy. These professionals apply specific criteria when they audit systems for their employer or client. These audits are not for external use but are intended to help management address specific issues. For instance, the audit might review payroll, benefits, or inventories.
  • Financial Analyst:
    Analysts work for a variety of businesses. Some work for banks to help determine whether a business is worthy of a loan and others work for investment banks to analyze comparable companies for the purposes of corporate valuation.

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Accounting Programs Salary by Career

Occupation Entry-Level Median Annual Salary Mid-Career Median Annual Salary Late Career Median Annual Salary
Certified Public Accountant $54,200 $70,700 $95,200
Financial Accountant $47,900 $59,500 $63,700
Accounting Manager $56,900 $71,400 $75,200
Senior Accountant $61,400 $69,800 $70,400
Budget Analyst $50,700 $64,900 $75,900
Credit Manager $50,700 $64,900 $72,700
Forensic Accountant $58,900 $81,700 $95,800
Investment Banker $78,900 $121,000 $127,600
Tax Accountant $52,600 $63,800 $70,400

Important Questions to Ask (FAQ)

Individuals interested in becoming an accountant or CPA must ask themselves a series of important questions. These include:

How long does it take to earn an accounting bachelor’s degree online?

A traditional bachelor’s degree in accounting, sought by taking courses on-campus, generally takes four years to complete. Online accounting degree programs are comparable. As long as students are enrolled full-time, a 120 credit hour online accounting degrees program can usually be completed in an average of four years. Individuals pursuing an online bachelor of science in accounting degree on a part-time basis, however, should expect it to take longer. In most cases, these students will graduate in five to eight years.

How much does an online accounting bachelor’s degree cost?

The cost of an online bachelor's in accounting degree varies significantly between institutions. According to the College Board’s Trends in Higher Education Series, the average in-state tuition for a four-year, public education was $9,970 in 2017-18. Students who enrolled at a four-year, private college or university paid an average tuition of $35,260 in 2017-18. Of course, these totals increase significantly when fees, room, and board are included.

What does coursework look like for an online bachelor in accounting degree?

Course titles will vary significantly, but the coursework for an accounting bachelor’s degree online often includes topics such as:

  • Principles of Accounting
  • Contemporary Business Law
  • Federal Taxes
  • Microeconomics
  • Business Communication
  • Financial Statement Auditing
  • Accounting Theory and Research
  • Payroll Accounting
  • Fraud Examination
  • Internal Controls and Risk Assessment
  • Computer Applications and Systems
  • Managerial Accounting
  • Internal Reporting Issues
  • Attestation and Assurance
  • Accounting Information Systems

Does the school have the major(s) you are considering?

Another important consideration is the list of majors the college or university offers. While many institutions have online accounting programs, not all of them do. Some schools offer an online business degree instead, but provide students the opportunity to select an accounting concentration. In most cases, graduate accounting program boards consider this sufficient prior experience in the field. Additionally, the majority of state accountancy boards accept both accounting and business degrees as long as the completed coursework aligns with their CPA content requirements.

How many students graduate “on time,” or within four years?

Before selecting a college or university, students should also inquire about the typical graduation rate and timeframe. Often, this information can be found on institution websites. Alternatively, speaking directly with the accounting program can offer great insight on this matter. The department will have specific information regarding average time of completion, graduation rates, employment success, and starting salaries.

What kind of accreditation does the online program hold? How it is regarded in the field?

Accreditation is another factor. Every college and university has the opportunity to have their online accounting program accredited by an international or regional accreditation agency. This process confirms that an institution and its offered coursework adhere to specific, standard guidelines within a particular field. The most prominent international accreditation organizations are:

  • Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB)
  • The Association of MBAs (AMBA)
  • European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS)
  • The Distance Education and Training Council (DETC)

Of these, the AACSB is, by far, the most prestigious. This agency’s accreditation standards are high, but institutions that opt to undergo the rigorous accreditation process offer some of the best online accounting programs available. Individuals seeking an online accounting degree should give colleges and university accredited by the DETC preference, as the AACSB rarely accredits distance-learning or online programs, whether they offer a bachelor's or master's for an accounting degree online.

Alternatively, students can consider institutions accredited by a regional accrediting agency. These organizations ensure that accounting programs meet the standards of a particular area. Those who intend to remain relatively local after graduation should have the knowledge and skills necessary to work professionally within the accreditation region. Regional accrediting agencies include:

  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC)
  • North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement (NCACS)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS COC)
  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges Accrediting Commission for Schools (WASC ACS)

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Software, Technology & Skills Needed

Accountants are responsible for a wide variety of tasks that require them to have knowledge of, and expertise with, various software and technology. Finance-specific software, in particular, plays an important role for most professionals, as does accounting automation technology.

While every position is different, possessing skills in the following areas is often beneficial:

  • Advanced Excel
  • ERP, SAP, and/or Oracle Software
  • Big Data Analysis
  • Advanced Modeling and SQL
  • Business Intelligence Software
  • Microsoft Visual Basic
  • Hyperion
  • QuickBooks

Scholarships for Financial Aid

There are many financial aid assistance opportunities for individuals interested in pursuing an undergraduate associates or graduate accounting degree online. The money to fund these financial aid scholarships and grants is generally provided by professional associations, civic groups, government agencies, non-profit agencies, and major corporations with ties to the communities where college degrees are offered. Some of the most prominent national financial aid accounting scholarships include:

  • John L. Carey Scholarship via the American Institute of CPAs
  • Accountemps Student Scholarship via the American Institute of CPAs
  • Scholarship for Minority Accounting Students via the American Institute of CPAs
  • Newton B. Becker Scholarship via Becker Professional Education
  • Public Company Accounting Oversight Board Scholarship Program
  • National Society of Accountants Scholarship Foundation
  • Daniel B. Goldberg Scholarship via the Government Finance Officers Association

Many states also offer scholarships for students who intend to major in accounting. This should be a consideration when looking for and applying to college and university online accounting programs.

Every scholarship is different, but all of them have application requirements. Before receiving aid, students must be able to prove they are eligible. Candidates should thoroughly research scholarship expectations before applying. Some of the most common requirements include:

  • Future or current enrollment in an accounting degree program
  • Intention to pursue CPA licensure
  • Overall GPA of at least 3.0

While there are numerous scholarships available to accounting students, few of them cover all tuition and fees. Students interested in receiving aid should consider applying for several different scholarships related to the field.

Professional Organizations

Because accounting is a demanding career, many professionals choose to join a professional organization or association. There are numerous groups to choose from, all of which offer support and resources to their members. Joining a professional association provides many benefits, including an opportunity to network, a chance to share ideas, access to field resources, and support from fellow accountants. Fortunately, there are several great organizations to choose from, including the American Accounting Association, National Society of Accountants, and American Institute of CPAs.

  • AAA
  • NSA


American Accounting Association (AAA)

The American Accounting Association (AAA) was founded in 1916 and has serviced as a support network for accountants in academia ever since. The association prides itself on participating in, and providing access to, leading-edge research and publications. As an organization, members strive to help shape the future of the accounting profession through teaching, research, and networking. AAA currently has over 7,000 members from more than 75 countries.



National Society of Accountants (NSA)

The National Society of Accountants seeks to provide professional accountants a membership-oriented environment in which personal growth and continued evolvement are encouraged. Through national leadership, the NSA promotes high ethical standards, quality education, and professional excellence. Organization objectives include supporting member needs, promoting a code of ethics, connecting members through technology, advocating for member rights within the profession, and strengthening the national image of accountants.



American Institute of CPAs (AICPA)

The American Institute of CPAs provides accountants with quality training, professional development, programing, services, and information resources. Their goal is to assist professionals in improving their skills and investing in their future. AICPA offers many membership benefits, including access to networking opportunities, conferences, volunteer groups, discounts, professional development, professional guidance, and copies of the Journal of Accountancy and CPA Letter Daily.

Choosing an Accredited College

If you believe pursuing a career in accounting is right for you, it is imperative that you begin looking for an online degree program that will suit your individual lifestyle, professional career goals, and budget. With so many programs available, it can be difficult to know where to start. Keep the following steps in mind as you begin looking for a college or university online accounting degree program.

The first thing you should look for in an online college or university program is accreditation. As previously mentioned, an institution’s accreditation status demonstrates whether or not the offered coursework adheres to national or regional standards. Selecting a college or university without proper accreditation can result in many problems, including denial of employer tuition assistance, inability to transfer credits, inability to apply for financial aid, and insufficient prerequisites for accounting graduates business administration school.

Fortunately, most schools are accredited. The most important factor is determining which agency the institution in question received accreditation from. Some schools market themselves as accredited, but it may not be with an acceptable organization. Always take time to identify which agency a college or university is accredited by before submitting an application. Checking your state’s CPA requirements is also imperative, as the accountancy board has likely designated which accreditation organizations are acceptable and which are not.

Online vs. On-Campus vs. Hybrid Degree Programs

Individuals who are currently employed or managing other life and real world responsibilities may find it difficult to justify enrolling in a full-time, on-campus accounting degree program. Fortunately, this is not the only option. There are actually three methods available to people who want to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree in accounting: on-campus, online, and hybrid.

On-campus programs require students to attend classes in person. Often, participants live on campus or near the institution, so they have easier access to the professors and resources. While this type of program has its benefits, it is not meant for everyone. Online programs offer more flexibility, as the curriculum is covered virtually. Online students can attend and participate in class from the comfort of their own home or office. A drawback here, however, is that online accounting graduates usually lack experience with networking, which is an important part of the finance and business world. To help bridge the gap between these two different program types, some colleges and universities offer hybrid accounting degrees. Hybrid programs consist of primarily online courses, but require short, on-campus residencies or immersion experiences. These stints on campus are intended to provide students with an opportunity to interact with their cohort and network with others in their field.

All three online accounting degree programs options are viable. Students must decide for themselves which will suit their personal preferences and career goals best.

Post Graduate Job Placement Assistance

Finding a professional position after graduating from an accounting degree program can be daunting. This is why some colleges and universities offer post-graduate job placement assistance. While these programs cannot guarantee job placement, they do provide career support services. Resources commonly offered are resume writing assistance, interview preparation, and career coaching. Many colleges and universities help with job placement by hosting career fairs, professional workshops, and campus employer visits throughout the year. Students who want to have additional support leading up to, and after graduation should look for an institution that offers this type of program.

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Rating and Accreditation Affect Salary

Professional accounting salaries vary quite drastically based on a number of different factors. Location, job title, and level of education all play a significant role in determining what an individual will earn each year. Additionally, the business schools rating and accreditation standing impact pay. Employers prefer to hire accountants who received their education from colleges and universities that are highly regarded and appropriately accredited. While these two elements may not prevent a person from being selected for a position, they can result in decreased pay. For this reason, it is important to carefully consider a business schools rating and accreditation before selecting and enrolling in an online accounting degree program.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is accounting a difficult degree?

As with many questions about the difficulty of earning a college degree, the answer depends strongly on your strengths and weaknesses. If you are excellent at math and remembering formulas and processes, then you could complete your degree program easily even if you are terrible at physical math or chemistry formulas. Most math in accounting isn’t particularly high-level, but you need to be able to remember very specific steps and a myriad of processes that you must follow in order to complete accounting tasks properly. This can be very difficult for some people. So, this is one of those questions that only you can answer.

What are the GAAP accounting principles?

GAAP stands for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. These are the basic rules of accounting that public companies in the United States must follow. The international standards (IFRS) are important for international companies and may overtake the GAAP as the world becomes more focused on global economies and trade. However, the GAAP are still the main focus of many accountants in the US. These rules apply to financial statements and control how those statements are put together in order to make them more clear and consistent so that financial information can be more easily compared between different businesses.

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