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How to Spot a Promising Future CPA

When it comes to the makings of a great CPA, common characteristics are easy to spot in some of the profession’s top achievers. After all, by the time someone has worked his or her way up to CFO, things like integrity, communication skills, leadership and curiosity are all to be expected. But these qualities are tougher to positively ID in someone who’s still driving with a learner’s permit.

What’s more, the stereotypical qualities of a “born accountant” can be off the mark – way off – when it comes who actually succeeds in this field. For instance, you don’t even have to love numbers, as David Campbell, Director of Software Delivery & Support for the AICPA, can attest: “Each day’s goals and tasks can be very different from the next,” David says of his position, but it always comes down to “thinking, leading, advising, asking for advice, mentoring, being mentored” – none of which has much to do with calculating integers. More important is a fascination with what those numbers represent, in terms of real-world effects on real businesses, real challenges and real human beings. Also helpful is a gift for putting those effects in layman’s terms, to get them across to non-accountants.

In addition, the next generation of accountants will need greater fluency with technology as they become more involved in systems and software implementation. Conveniently, being comfortable with technology comes easily for many students. They’ll also need solid interpersonal skills as written, verbal and presented communications become more in-demand, especially in more-prominent roles. And speaking a second or third language can be an asset in the increasingly global economy.

So should you just keep an eye out for the IT-whiz polyglot who also happens to be class president? Certainly – because that student could be a great fit for CPA-hood, among many other things! But even if you identify only a few of those less-traditional traits alongside more classic accounting assets like an interest in finance and a comfort with complex systems, you may just have a future CPA on your hands.

Not that those are the only ways to spot a student who could be a good fit. A love of learning that goes beyond the classroom is a great sign as well. Since specialization and additional certification are more and more in demand among CPAs, a trend that we fully expect to continue, a prime candidate will also be someone inclined to seek out more information rather than just fulfill the course obligations and move on.

But will it bake bread?

It’s by no means a universal mindset among CPAs – and exceptions to the rule are plentiful – but one solid indicator of an accounting-oriented mind is an eagerness to convert abstract concepts into tangible realities. And this eagerness doesn’t always show up as academic achievement. In fact, these kids can frequently seem disengaged, when really they’re just desperately trying to figure out how to tie today’s lesson to a real-life situation.

So think back: Remember that irrepressible pragmatist? The student who always seems to steer the conversation, no matter how lofty the idea being discussed, back to how that idea will play out in the real world and improve the lives of real people? There’s your future CPA.