Base Skills for CPAs Aren’t Always Accounting Oriented

Base Skills for CPAs Aren’t Always Accounting Oriented

by Cory Ng, CPA, DBA, CGMA, and Brian Trout, CPA, DBA, CMA | Mar 18, 2022

Today, in both corporate and public accounting roles, accountants are expected to be business partners. Consequently, a high value is placed on those entrants into the profession who possess both technical accounting know-how and traditional professional skills. 

Acknowledging this desire, the core competency frameworks developed by the AICPA and the Institute of Management Accountants heavily emphasize nonaccounting skills as competencies needed by students entering the profession. After reviewing these frameworks and reflecting on the feedback from accounting professionals and university alumni, we have identified three themes and offer practical suggestions to support educators as they prepare the next generation of CPAs. 


Potential CPAs who do not possess adequate communication skills likely will negatively impact client satisfaction, internal working relationships, and their own employability. This is well-known among leaders in the profession, but research indicates accounting students still minimize the role that communication skills play in achieving career success.1 

When it comes to helping students form accurate perceptions of the profession and appreciate the value of communication skills, alumni can be especially effective. These business-world veterans can discuss similar perceptions they had as undergraduates and contrast them to their first-hand experiences in the field. Contact with active professionals also benefits educators who are constantly striving to bridge the gap between academia and the private sector. 

In addition to sharing tales of the real world, students also need hands-on practice to hone their communication skills. CPAs are expected to present complex financial information to clients or team members without an accounting background, so providing students with opportunities to practice these skills in a low-risk educational environment can be critical in preparing them for success. Presentation assignments that center on accounting careers can benefit the presenters and their classmates. Including informational interviews with accountants as a part of these projects can help students develop networking and interpersonal skills in addition to better-informed perceptions of the communication skills needed for success. 

Interpersonal skills are more important than ever. Role-playing has been an effective means to develop these skills in medicine. Doctors, like accountants, regularly engage in professional conversations with lay individuals. While role-playing is not widely used in accounting education, it is reasonable to assume that it can benefit new accountants as it has medical professionals.

These methods, undoubtedly, will be uncomfortable for some, as accounting students have been found to possess a higher-than-average apprehension about oral communication.2 Instructors should acknowledge students’ apprehension and legitimize it, but also explain the underlying rationale. Research consistently shows that communicating the relevance of assignments positively affects student motivation and engagement. 

Critical Thinking

The ability to think critically is another highly desired competency by employers. According to Bloom’s taxonomy, higher-order thinking skills are characterized by the ability to analyze situations, draw connections among ideas, evaluate, and ultimately recommend a course of action. The CPA Exam has evolved to increase the assessment of these skills through task-based simulations that are considered “authentic assessments.” Nonauthentic assessments – such as those involving multiple-choice questions – have been criticized for promoting “surface learning.” Authentic assessments, by contrast, are designed to promote deep learning where students problem-solve in real-life contexts. 

Problem-based learning is an authentic assessment akin to case-based learning. Case studies encourage active involvement in the learning process by requiring students to apply acquired knowledge to new situations. A differentiating characteristic of problem-based learning is that not all the facts are given; therefore, the problem may have more than one acceptable answer based on the assumptions students make. These exercises are deliberately designed so that there is no fixed formula for solving the case, which mirrors the messy and ill-structured problems CPAs often encounter. Students are compelled to determine the nature of the problem, take responsibility for researching issues, and generate an informed solution. The degree of difficulty should be contingent upon students’ capabilities. These techniques may be best in upper-level classes where students have already gained a fundamental understanding of accounting concepts and principles.


There is concern in the working world that teamwork skills among recent graduates are lacking. While some students are inclined to collaborate, others are not as enthusiastic. It is often dependent on their personalities, past experiences, and communication skills.3 Students should be afforded well-designed group experiences to learn how to work productively with diverse individuals to achieve a common goal. Communicating the importance of collaboration as it relates to the modern profession is paramount to helping students more readily embrace teams. Group work activities can be an effective method, but the biggest potential drawback is free-riding group members. To help mitigate this risk, integrate a peer evaluation system. For example, auditing course projects could be assessed at the group level and then multiplied by the group’s average peer evaluations to deliver individual grades. 

As one would expect, issues within a group may surface because students have different personalities, priorities, and proficiencies. These uncomfortable situations are part of the learning process, and it is important for educators to seize them as opportunities to teach students the conflict-resolution skills they will need to navigate similar situations as professionals. Collaborative projects, and the group dynamics that emerge, can help students appreciate the value of reliable, adaptable, and communicative team members.

Case competitions are another way to assist students with developing team skills. Not only can students harness the value of teams through competition, but these challenging endeavors also foster professional skills such as project management, goal setting, and communication. Most competitions require teams to examine relevant business issues and deliver their solutions via written, video, or in-person presentations. PwC’s Challenge case competition, Deloitte’s FanTAXtic case study competition, and the Institute of Management Accountant’s Student Case Competition are a few options educators may be interested in exploring.  

1 E. Ameen, C. Jackson, and C. Malgwi, “Student Perceptions of Oral Communication Requirements in the Accounting Profession,” Global Perspectives on Accounting Education, 7 (2010) pages 31–49; F. Gray and N. Murray, “A Distinguishing Factor: Oral Communication Skills in New Accountancy Graduates,” Accounting Education, 20(3) (2011), pages 275–294; Y. M. Lim, T. H. Lee, C. S. Yap, and C. C. Ling, “Employability Skills, Personal Qualities, and Early Employment Problems of Entry-Level Auditors: Perspectives from Employers, Lecturers, Auditors, and Students,” Journal of Education for Business, 91(4), (2016), pages 185–192; L. Ping, D. Grace, S. Krishnan, and G. Sudha, “Failure to Communicate: Why Accounting Students Don’t Measure Up to Professionals’ Expectations,” The CPA Journal, 80(1) (2010), page 63.
2 C. Gardner, M. Milne, C. Stringer, and R. Whiting, “Oral and Written Communication Apprehension in Accounting Students: Curriculum Impacts and Impacts on Academic Performance,”
Accounting Education, 14(3) (2005), pages 313–336; C. Ireland, “Apprehension Felt towards Delivering Oral Presentations: A Case Study of Accountancy Students,” Accounting Education, 29(3), (2020), pages 305–320; D. Meixner, D. Lowe, and H. Nouri, “An Examination of Business Student Perceptions: The Effect of Math and Communication Apprehension on Choice of Major,” Advances in Accounting Behavioral Research, 12 (2009), pages 185–200.
3 J. Christensen, J. Harrison, J. Hollindale, and K. Wood, “Implementing Team-Based Learning (TBL) in Accounting Courses,”
Accounting Education, 28(2) (2019), pages 195–219; H. Gottschall and M. Garcia-Bayonas, “Student Attitudes toward Group Work among Undergraduates in Business Administration, Education, and Mathematics,” Educational Research Quarterly, 32(1) (2008), pages 3–28; L. Ping, D. Grace, S. Krishnan, and G. Sudha, “Failure to Communicate: Why Accounting Students Don’t Measure Up to Professionals’ Expectations,” The CPA Journal, 80(1) (2010), page 63; J. Schultz, J. Wilson, and K. Hess, “Team-Based Classroom Pedagogy Reframed: The Student Perspective,” American Journal of Business Education, 3(7) (2010), pages 17–24. 

Cory Ng, CPA, DBA, CGMA, is an associate professor of instruction in accounting at the Fox School of Business at Temple University in Philadelphia and chair of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at

Brian Trout, CPA, DBA, CMA, is an assistant professor of accounting and finance at Millersville University in Millersville. He can be reached at

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