Thinking about college can be a daunting prospect. It’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind of campus visits, research, and essay writing. At the same time, it’s an exciting step forward in your life.
As you begin to think about college, you may be wondering what to study. Perhaps you have a general idea but want to get more information about the specifics of one major or another.
Table of contents
If you love numbers and have a passion for leadership, a degree related to business, finance, or entrepreneurship may be up your alley. Interested in analyzing data? Accounting might be the degree for you. As you think about what to study, consider what career options are available to you.
Though the job search has gotten tough in recent years, there’s some good news: careers in finance are growing. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that jobs in business and finance will grow five percent from 2019 to 2029.
Perhaps you enjoy following the stock market. Maybe the world of big business interests and excites you. Many colleges offer degrees in both accounting and finance, but which degree should you pursue?
Degrees in accounting and finance are both appealing options. Though the two degrees appear similar on the surface level, there are some key differences between the two. Read on to learn about the benefits and career paths of each degree—and the difference between them.
Benefits of an accounting degree vs. a finance degree
Accounting and finance can be complementary. Indeed, both finance and accounting are pivotal roles in the world of business. However, a degree in accounting is distinct from a degree in finance. The path you choose can lead to unique opportunities within your field.
For example, those who love crunching numbers or are looking to take the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam may be most interested in studying accounting. A degree in accounting will also prepare you if you choose to go for a Chartered Accountant (CA) credential, which is recognized worldwide.
On the other hand, a finance degree can lead to a career in business, insurance, personal financial consulting, and more.
Benefits of an accounting degree
Accountants gather and organize financial data, an important task in the growing field of financial work.
Additionally, a degree in accounting will prepare you for the CPA exam, which tests its students on subjects like auditing; reporting financial records; understanding rules and regulations at the federal, state, and local levels; and applying the principles of bookkeeping to your work. While you don’t have to be a CPA to work in entry-level accounting jobs, a CPA certification is necessary for many higher-level jobs and professional development.
Benefits of a finance degree
While accountants focus on existing data, those in finance focus more on the future. Finance students analyze the data that accountants report. With that data, financial analysts are able to predict trends, as well as estimate risks and returns on investments. Finance planners strategize ways to maximize an organization’s financial performance.
A finance degree can lead to a career in financial analysis, accounting, or financial reporting. Through a traditional finance route, you’ll have to understand global markets and investment decisions. You may go into investment banking, where you act as an intermediary between investors and corporations. While accountants are more frequently employed by public accounting firms, financial workers are often employed by banks.
Finance students can also become financial planners. This job is best if you’re interested in working to help people and less inclined to dealing with highly detailed financial statements. As a financial planner, you’ll sit down with your clients to understand their needs and goals, creating a plan that accommodates those needs.
Choosing a degree
Some schools offer the opportunity to combine finance and accounting degrees, double major, or major in one subject and minor in the other. Still, it’s good to have a clear idea of what you want to do. When deciding whether to study accounting or finance, ask yourself: what do you enjoy doing? What kind of environment do you want to work in? Ultimately, what career goals do you have?
Are you detail-oriented and don’t mind tedium? Do you enjoy research? Are you investigative? Accounting may be the choice for you. As an accountant, you will have to prepare detailed financial statements, read through lots of regulations, complete research, and make sure financial records are correct. Additionally, if you’re interested in taking the CPA exam, an accounting degree may best prepare you for that.
Alternatively, if you’re interested in working with people or analyzing data to create projections for the future, or if you’re not afraid of a bit of risk, finance might be the degree that fits you best.
Entry requirements for accounting vs. financing degree
Applying to college is a big decision. You’ll want to explore all your options when deciding what to major in. Research business schools now and learn about their individual requirements.
There are a number of different options when it comes to your education, from finance degrees at a traditional four-year university, to associate business degrees through community college, to online accounting degrees.
As you do your research, take notes on what you’ll need when applying for different programs. Different schools offer a variety of options for accounting and finance majors. It’s important to explore your options and know the requirements for the degree you want to earn.
Entry requirements for an accounting degree
Most entry-level accountants have a bachelor’s degree, though tax preparers can also have an associate’s degree. Bachelor’s programs vary, but all require a high school diploma or GED.
Schools typically offer either a bachelor of science, a bachelor of business administration, or a bachelor of arts in accounting. These courses focus on different aspects of accounting, so be sure to research what each degree entails.
While a BS concentrates on specific topics and may require more credit hours, a BA incorporates a liberal arts education. Rather than focus on a specific aspect of accounting, in a BA program, you’ll be studying a broad range of topics. A BBA, on the other hand, emphasizes the study of business management.
Entrance into a bachelor’s program depends on the school, but typically a GPA of at least 2.5 (3.0 for more competitive programs) is necessary to be accepted into an accounting program. Extracurricular activities, previous certificates, or previous degrees such as an associate’s degree are also a plus.
A bachelor’s program requires a minimum of 120 credit hours. Many programs follow guidelines set by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). The AICPA is the national organization of CPA professionals, and it develops the CPA exam.
Among other things, programs that follow AICPA guidelines require 54–60 hours of core accounting courses. Schools that are AICPA accredited must meet its standard of quality, so it’s important to check if the schools you’re applying to have that accreditation.
Entry requirements for a finance degree
Like a bachelor’s in accounting, most bachelor’s in finance require a minimum of 120 credit hours. When applying, your high school GPA should be at least 3.0.
Some schools require students to take their first year or two under a general major before gaining acceptance into the more specific finance program. For example, at Florida State University, students must take 52 credits, maintain a GPA of at least 2.90, and earn grades of C- or better in their classes.
In your senior year, you may be required to create a final project. This may be a financial portfolio, senior seminar, or other final project. Additionally, some schools require students to complete an internship. Though not all programs have this requirement, college internships are a valuable way to gain real experience in your field and make connections in your industry.
Courses to take to prepare for your degree
Though you’ll learn the most crucial accounting or finance skills in college, you can prepare for academic and professional success starting in high school. Finance and accounting are both very math-focused, so consider taking classes in precalculus, calculus, economics, and statistics.
In finance, computer software is used to analyze data and predict investment opportunities. As such, taking computer science classes is a good way to familiarize yourself with the coding and programs you may need further in your career.
If your high school has classes in business education, business law, marketing, or entrepreneurship, you’ll get a head start in understanding the concepts you’ll learn more about through your degree program.
However, a successful career in business and finance includes more than technical knowledge. You’ll need skills in communication, critical thinking, time management, leadership, and teamwork. Classes in psychology, English, and literature will help hone your skills in understanding human behavior and communicating effectively.
The strongest applications to a college program will show balance between academics and the rest of your life. When applying to a program, mention your experience in sports, school clubs, volunteer organizations, or at a job.
If your school has a business club like the Future Business Leaders of America or National Business Honor Society, consider joining it. A speech or debate club can help hone your public speaking skills.
Summer enrichment programs and internships are also great ways to get more experience learning the ins and outs of finance or accounting.
You certainly don’t have to join every business-related club you come across, however. When applying to colleges, consider the leadership experience you have within your daily life. Do you have experience volunteering? Did you help run a club event? These are all experiences that help you better understand the principles of leadership, planning, and business.
Differences between accounting and finance degrees
Accounting and finance, though related, use different skill sets.
The Harvard Business School describes finance as the way money is managed. For example, finance deals in investments, loans, budgets, and forecasts. Finance workers can work in personal, public, or corporate finance fields.
On the other hand, accounting refers to the way someone keeps track of a party’s financial information. Accountants keep track of business transactions, analyze financial performance, and compile reports.
While someone in finance makes decisions with an individual or company’s future in mind, an accountant looks at financial information from a specific point in time to analyze how well their client is performing.
In short, accounting gathers the data. Finance uses that data to make decisions that will increase value or, in other words, earn more cash.
The accounting mindset vs. the finance mindset
Another key difference between accounting and finance is how each measures value. Accounting tends to be more conservative, with higher estimates of liabilities and lower projected values. This is done to help businesses avoid overstretching themselves and making decisions they can’t afford.
In finance, there’s more risk. As a finance major, you will learn to analyze financial data and make projections for future investments. While accountants have information on hand, financial analysts have to use that data to estimate things like the value of a company.
To cater to the different functions of these jobs, the coursework of finance and accounting degrees differ. For example, accounting students may study budget analysis, information systems, and quantitative analysis. Finance students, on the other hand, may take classes on financial planning, venture capital, and asset markets.
Similarities between accounting and finance degrees
Though finance and accounting serve different purposes, choosing to major in one subject in undergrad doesn’t mean you can’t go to grad school for another subject.
Both finance and accounting require math and a high level of attention to detail. Both degrees also involve the study of topics such as financial accounting, risk management, and economics. Additionally, students in both accounting and finance must be familiar with business practices and principles. In order to make prudent decisions about the industry, no matter what job path you choose eventually, you’ll take classes to better understand business and the economy.
Accounting and finance at the graduate level
Once you’ve completed your bachelor’s, you may be interested in pursuing a master’s degree, such as a master of business administration (MBA). Furthering your education strengthens your understanding of the topics you learned in undergrad. With more experience studying the theories and models of economics, you’ll be better positioned to make smarter business choices and adapt to different environments.
A graduate degree such as an MBA can further your career. Furthermore, grad school can thoroughly prepare you for certification exams, such as the CPA exam.
In the field of accounting, being a CPA comes with more benefits. A CPA carries state licensing and is qualified for higher-level (and higher-paying) positions in both the private and public sectors. CPAs also have more responsibilities than non-CPAs, who typically work entry-level jobs. CPAs will have more influence over a client’s finances.
Whether you’re hoping to work in accounting or not, grad schools help you meet education requirements that make accreditation more accessible.
Graduate program requirements
Typically, admission requirements for an MBA include a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of one to three years of work experience. A relevant bachelor’s degree is not always necessary, but helpful. An undergraduate GPA of around 3.6 is a typical minimum for acceptance. Students will also need to take the GMAT, GRE, or both, depending on their program’s requirements.
Some master’s programs, however, are more selective. At Harvard, the master of liberal arts in finance requires students to enroll in three grad-level courses. Students study microeconomics or the economics of business, principles or managerial finance, and statistics. Each course must be completed with a grade of B or higher, and your cumulative GPA must be at least 3.0.
During the semester of your third course, you’ll submit your application to the finance program. After applying and being admitted to the master’s program, you’ll take nine more courses to earn your degree.
There are a number of other certifications to help you develop your career and hone your skills aside from an MBA or CPA program.
An alternative to an MBA program is the Chartered Financial Analyst program, or CFA. The CFA program prepares you for a career in investing and portfolio management. To enroll in the CFA program, you need to have completed or be in your final year of a bachelor’s degree program. Alternately, you can have four years’ worth of work experience.
After passing the CFA’s three exams, meeting work experience requirements, submitting reference letters, and applying to become a member, you will have joined the CFA charter.
When looking at finance and accountant salaries, you will find that a career as a CPA and CFA can both be lucrative. CPAs earn between $40,000 and $120,000. Meanwhile, CFAs earn between $70,000 and $150,000 per year. Either way, a certification in finance or accounting, though time-consuming, can be a great way to further your career.
Other certification programs
Another certification is the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. The PMP Certification is granted by the Project Management Institute, a nonprofit designed to further develop the project management industry. The Project Management Institute offers its Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) program for those who want to hone their project management skills.
Finally, another common certification program is the CIA—but probably not the one you’re thinking of. The Certified Internal Auditor certification is for accountants who want to hone their skills in internal auditing. If you’re interested in preventing fraud or the misuse of money, a CIA certification may be valuable for your career.
There are a number of other certification programs to choose from, but don’t let the abundance of acronyms overwhelm you. Many of these programs require specific amounts of work experience or a particular level of education. In an undergraduate program, an academic advisor, professor, or mentor can help you decide which program will be best for your career goals.
Career path for accounting vs. finance degrees
Accountants and finance majors have a number of opportunities before them. Accounting majors may spend their time learning about bookkeeping, keeping track of expenses, auditing, and filing reports.
Meanwhile, a finance major will be interested in funding a business, creating more value, dealing with mergers and acquisitions, and drawing up budgets.
These skills will lead to a number of career prospects. Below, we’ll discuss just a few of the many job possibilities graduates may embrace.
Career paths for accounting degree graduates
A degree in accounting can take you down many paths, both traditional and nontraditional. Many accounting graduates become a CPA and keep records, consult with clients, and audit financial statements. Others work as managerial accountants, where they help managers assess their company’s finances to make business decisions. Still other traditional accounting jobs include being an actuary, budget analyst, or environmental accountant.
Interested in stopping fraud or money laundering? A degree in accounting can land you a job as a forensic accountant, which involves investigating tax fraud, embezzlement, and other financial crimes. In a similar vein, antimoney laundering officers ensure that the company they work for avoids (purposeful or inadvertent) money laundering or other financial crime.
Career paths for finance degree graduates
With a degree in finance, you may work with banks, insurance companies, research companies, and businesses. A degree in finance can lead to a career as a risk analyst, where you’ll work to minimize risk in investments and project a company’s potential losses. If you’re a people person, you might find yourself working as a personal financial advisor.
You may work for a bank, mortgage company, or credit union as a loan officer or financial examiner, approving loans or ensuring that banks follow the correct rules and regulations.
Finance graduates can also become chief financial officers (CFOs) and financial managers. These positions are ideal for someone with a passion for leadership, as well as strong organizational, communicative, and interpersonal skills.
Nontraditional career paths for accounting and finance degree graduates
When you think of your career, you may picture yourself as a financial advisor or Wall Street investor. But the skills necessary for finance and accounting are applicable in a number of other areas, too. For example, real estate is a viable career choice. Real estate agents must communicate and negotiate between the buyer and seller. The financial know-how and interpersonal skills helpful in finance and accounting come in handy in the real estate field.
You might also consider a job as a data analyst. The math skills necessary for a career in finance or accounting, as well as the ability to communicate and think critically, translate into success in the field of data analysis.
Skills such as time management, leadership, and maintaining client relations can prepare you for work as a business development manager, vendor manager, or entrepreneur. Finally, if you want to give back to your community and inspire future financial leaders, consider a career in education. Earning a master’s or doctoral degree can qualify you for a job as a professor.
How your desired career impacts your degree choice
If you choose to pursue credentials like the CPA or CFA, your degree will help give you the knowledge and experience you need to succeed.
However, just because you major in one field doesn’t mean you have to stay in that field forever. A person with a degree in accounting could go into financial analysis, while someone with a finance degree could work in accounting. Some graduate students earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in finance or vice versa.
Choosing the right degree
It would be a massive understatement to say that choosing a major is an important decision to make. Still, there’s plenty of time to decide which degree is right for you. Even after entering college, you may decide to switch majors, double major, or pick up a minor.
When considering what to study, it can help to list out your interests, passions, values, and strengths. What do you enjoy doing? What are you good at? What job do you think would be fulfilling?
If you’re not sure what to write, ask some people close to you. Sometimes, an outside perspective from friends and family is just what you need to get a better idea of who you are.
On a more practical note, it will also help to consider if the field you’re interested in pays well and is hiring. Fortunately, jobs in finance and accounting are growing—and both pay above the national median salary.
Looking through your prospective schools’ degree requirements and talking to alumni from both accounting and finance programs can help you get a sense of what you’ll learn in college.
Next, consider the available program options. Starting off at community college or earning your degree online is a practical way of obtaining an education and is often more affordable than private schools. If a particular school stands out to you, it’s worth learning more about it.
Applying to college can seem daunting, but we’ve got you covered. Check out our resources for information on college rankings, study tips, and listings for financial aid opportunities. Good luck!