For many accountants, earning the Certified Management Accountant (CMA) certification is a career highlight and significant achievement. The CMA is well-known among industry professionals. The certification reflects an impressive level of accounting knowledge and skills. Also, there are numerous CMA benefits including increased earnings and greater job opportunities.
You may be thinking about pursuing the CMA as a way to advance your own career. If so, you first need to learn more about the process and what truly goes into earning the distinction. Below, I provide a 13-step guide to help you learn more about the CMA journey from eligibility requirements to studying for the exam.
The ultimate goal of pursuing the CMA certification is to earn the CMA certification. Therefore, you need to pay attention to each of the 13 steps — no skipping. If you want to put the words “CMA” on your resume, you must commit to each of these steps. Following this path ensures you can earn your CMA certification in as little time as possible.
As an initial note, I’ll say it’s important to not let yourself get overwhelmed by the CMA process. Therefore, it’s often easier to think of these steps in two phases. Steps 1-4 focus on the critical decisions you must make before you begin the CMA application process. Steps 5-13 focus on the CMA certification requirements. These are the exact requirements you must meet to receive yourr CMA certification.
With that, let’s get started.
According to the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), CMA candidates take an average of 12-18 months to earn the distinction. The CMA is not overly difficult, but I also wouldn’t describe the exam as easy. You’ll have to dedicate time and effort to securing your certification. That being said, you should know what goes into earning the CMA and have a clear reason for pursuing the certification.
So, let me pause here and give a quick introduction to the CMA. The IMA established the CMA certification as a way to differentiate accounting professionals who have met a particularly rigorous set of requirements. These requirements objectively measure an accountant’s understanding and skill in management accounting.
As a CMA candidate, you’ll find ample reward in earning the certificate itself. But the CMA earns does you more than a title. Specifically, the benefits of the CMA certification include:
The CMA certification is highly regarded within the accounting industry. In fact, the CMA is often referred to as the “gold standard” in management accountant. The certification has global recognition and carries value across countries. This esteem is due to a few reasons. For starters, the CMA is associated with highly practical, sought after accounting skills. And, the IMA has not made the CMA exam and requirements so difficult that no one can actually obtain the certification.
Put it all together and you have a certification that is reasonably attainable and one that brings better pay, more job opportunities, invaluable skills, and higher regard. If the CMA sounds like the right certification for you, then you’re ready to move to the second step of the process.
Clearly, the CMA is a sought after designation among accountants. However, the industry does offer numerous certifications that provide their own benefits. While the CMA may be at the top of the list, you do have options. For example, there are additional management accounting certifications to explore, based on the country where you live. And, there are more certificates in accounting and auditing that you may find valuable. These include:
You owe it yourself to explore these options so you can be sure the CMA is the best match for you. Consider your overall career goals and how the CMA fits into those goals. You may decide to only pursue the CMA certification. Or, you may choose to go after multiple accounting certifications at different points in your career. Take the time to examine your CMA career possibilities and the CMA salary potential. These two factors are important in any career decision and can help you determine if the CMA certification works best with your background and objectives.
As I mentioned, the CMA certification requires time and effort on your part. At the end of the day, the certification is worth it, but it will take work.
To put this in context, it helps to look at the IMA CMA requirements. The most complex requirements are the education and experience requirements, and the two-part exam. At the most basic level, these requirements involve:
Generally, the education requirement is an easy win for candidates who already hold or who are planning to earn their bachelor’s degree. And truthfully, the IMA has made it fairly simple to meet CMA experience requirement. Therefore, the main challenge in earning the CMA often comes down to passing the CMA exam. The CMA exam includes 2 parts. Both CMA exam Part 1 and Part 2 are made up of 100 multiple-choice questions and 2 essay questions. You’ll have 4 hours to complete each exam part.
The passing score for the exam is 360/500. So, you must earn at least a 360 in order to pass each exam part. Also, you’ll learn the outcome of your exam when the CMA score release occurs about 6 weeks after the month in which you sat for the exam.
I’m often asked about the CMA exam difficulty. To answer this question, it helps to look at the CMA exam pass rates. In recent years, the pass rates have gone up. However, the average CMA exam pass rate is still 45%. I know that number can be discouraging but what it really tells us is that the CMA takes adequate preparation. If you’re willing to put the time into a CMA review course and study regularly, you can pass the CMA exam.
As a CMA, you’re likely going to earn a bigger paycheck. But to get to that higher salary, you’ll need to spend some money first. All together, CMA fees will cost you about $2,000.
So, is the CMA a worthwhile expense?
I’d say so. Remember, with the CMA, you increase your earnings by as much as 47%. You’re getting a hefty return on your investment.
Plus, when you begin studying for the CMA exam, you’ll find plenty of CMA review discounts you can use to help you save money. These discounts ensure you can find a quality CMA prep course without spending too much. And with them, the CMA becomes quite affordable.
At this point, you may have decided you’re ready to pursue the CMA certification. So, it’s time to look more closely at the CMA requirements. The CMA education requirement is the best place to start.
If you currently hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, then you’ve probably already met the CMA education requirement. You’ll just need to ask your school to provide an official transcript to the Institute of Certified Management Accountants (ICMA) as proof of your education. About a week or so after you make the request, go online and check your IMA account to ensure the transcript is on file.
If your school isn’t on the accredited list you still have options. You can have a foreign credential evaluation agency review your transcript and provide a report to the ICMA.
And if you’re still in school, you can also qualify to sit for the CMA exam. However, the IMA will need proof of your student status. You’ll have to show that you are registered for at least 6 credits per semester in the academic year. But do know that you’ll have to earn and provide verification of your degree within 7 years of passing the CMA exam.
The IMA does provide an option for non-degree holders as well. The institute will accept certain certifications to fulfill the CMA education requirement. If your certification is on the list, simply have the accrediting organization send a letter with your status to the ICMA.
Once you feel confident that the CMA certification makes sense for you and that you can meet the eligibility requirements, your next step is to join the IMA. The IMA offers a few types of memberships at varying costs:
You can become an IMA member in 4 easy steps:
During the application process, you’ll be asked to provide professional and personal details. These details include professional credentials, educational background, and job history. You’ll also need to pay the annual fee via credit card. In total, the application process takes about 15 minutes.
Before you can take the CMA exam, you need to be admitted into the CMA program. Your IMA membership does not automatically enter you into the CMA program. You can become a member of the IMA and enroll in the CMA program at the same time. However, you can also wait to join the program. In fact, I recommend you wait to join the program when you feel ready to take the exam. Once you officially join the CMA program and pay the CMA entrance fee, you’ll be on the clock to schedule and sit for the CMA exam.
The IMA sets specific timelines for CMA candidates to start and finish the CMA exam and program. The timelines are:
Again, these timelines begin once you join the CMA program and pay the exam fee. To join the program, you’ll need to follow these steps:
With your enrollment complete, you can go ahead and register for the CMA exam (again, when you feel ready). The CMA includes 2 parts:
The IMA allows you to take the exam parts in any order. So, I recommend you start with the exam part that feels most comfortable to you. Also, you can sit for the exam parts on the same day or on different days. The scheduling process will come down to your available study time and how you perform best in testing situations. For example, you may prefer to complete the exam process in one day or you may feel less stress by spreading out the exam process a bit.
Some accounting certifications are set up to allow you to take the test year-round. However, the IMA has set specific testing windows to sit for the CMA exam.
The IMA offers three annual CMA testing windows in:
You can register for the CMA exam online, via phone (with your credit card information), or by mailing or faxing the registration form to the IMA. To register for the CMA exam, you must:
Initially, you’ll need to register for the CMA exam through the IMA. Once you complete that step, you can schedule your actual exam date and time through Prometric.
You will have an opportunity to verify your appointment details before you hit “submit.” If something comes up, you can cancel the exam appointment within 72 hours. You’ll receive a refund, minus a $25 administrative fee. However, Prometric assesses a $50 fee to CMA candidates who cancel or reschedule appointments within 3 days to 30 days of the original exam date.
The CMA exam will assess your knowledge of several management accounting and financial management topics.
Each CMA exam part includes 100 multiple-choice questions and 2 essay questions. Clearly, the exam requires you to study and prepare. Fortunately, the IMA gives everyone who enters the CMA program a full 6 months of free access to the Exam Support Package. The package is accessible through the IMA Learning Center website, once you pay the exam entrance fee. The package contains a glossary of terms and practice multiple-choice and essay questions. The questions can also be downloaded and printed.
Certainly, the Exam Support Package provides a great starting point for helping you prepare for the exam. But the package is just that – a starting point. To adequately prepare for the exam and give yourself a real chance at passing, you need to find a CMA review course.
Finally, since the CMA exam changes nearly every year, always check my resource to learn if there are any changes in the immediate or near future so that you can plan accordingly.
With a CMA review course, you get access to a depth of self-study resources. These resources allow you to heavily focus on the exam content. Typically, CMA review courses provide all their resources in a convenient online format. Some examples of these resources include:
You can buy a full CMA review course that covers both exam parts. However, you can also buy a CMA review course for a single exam part.
I consider a CMA review course a “must-have” to prepare for and pass the exam (because no one wants to fail the CMA exam). A CMA review course will present the exam content in a practical and convenient way. You’ll develop a deeper understanding of the content and be able to confidently sit for the exam. Plus, you’ll also find a support system that you can go to for advice, insight, and positive encouragement.
Luckily, you’ll find no shortage of available CMA review courses. To find the right course for you, take a look at my comparison chart that includes the pros and cons of the most popular CMA review course options available. The most popular CMA review courses available are Gleim CMA, Wiley CMA, and Surgent CMA. Consequently, you can find more helpful analysis of the top 2 courses in my Gleim CMA vs. Wiley CMA article.
The IMA believes it is important for CMAs to retain and apply the exam content, well past the point of taking the actual exam. Therefore, the IMA requires CMAs to fulfill continuing professional education (CPE) requirements.
Once you pass the CMA exam, meet all of the requirements, and obtain your certificate, you too will have to meet the CPE requirements. However, there are some caveats for new CMAs. For example, if you take the CMA exam in the middle of the year, you won’t need to fulfill the CPE requirement until the following year. Also, you can transfer up to 10 CPE hours over to the next reporting year. This means you can start earning CPE sooner rather than later.
To keep your CMA status, you’ll need to take 30 hours of CPE every year. Two of these hours must focus on ethics-related topics. Additionally, any CPE topics you pursue must be applicable to you as a management accountant or financial manager. They must also be relevant to your employer’s needs.
You have lots of options for earning CPE. The hours can come from sources such as:
Typically, the IMA grants CPE hours for programs in the following platforms:
The IMA requires all CMA candidates to have 2 consecutive years of professional experience in the fields of financial management or management accounting. Similar to the education requirement, you may be able to fulfill the experience requirement before or within 7 years of passing the CMA exam.
The IMA’s experience requirement includes a few nuances. The institute will accept full-time teaching experience as long as 60% of your courses include teaching accounting or financing above the principles level for at least 2 years.
Also, while the IMA does ask for full-time employment, they will allow continuous part-time employment of 20 hours per week. The part-time employment must meet the requirements for qualified experience. The IMA grants 1 year of experience for every 2 years of part-time employment. As such, you’d have to work part-time for 4 years to fulfill the 2-year experience requirement.
Regardless, full-time or part-time, you must have relevant work experience. This means your work involves regularly using the principles of management accounting and financial management to make judgments. According to the IMA, accountants practice these principles most frequently in tasks such as:
Therefore, as long as your work reflects these tasks you should be able to meet the IMA experience requirement.
You can officially apply for the CMA certificate once you pass 2 critical thresholds. First, you must pass each part of the CMA exam. Second, you must fulfill the CMA experience requirement.
The IMA will grant your certification once you meet these conditions. However, you must also agree to abide by the IMA’s Statement of Ethical Professional Practice. If you don’t agree with the statement, you risk disciplinary action.
The IMA will continuously ask you to acknowledge the ethical statement. As an added “to do,” you must also pay the annual IMA membership fee to keep your certification active.
At this point, you may feel overwhelmed by the CMA process. I get that, but trust me when I tell you that it’s all about taking the first step. Once you get started, you’ll find the CMA process is quite doable. And let’s not forget, the CMA certification is highly beneficial for your career.
I can help you at every step. I offer a free CMA e-course packed with important information and tips. Follow the link to learn more and sign up.
I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley) and the publisher of this and several accounting professional exam prep sites
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