CPA INSIDER

Surprising classes accounting majors should consider taking before they graduate

These classes could round out your skills in ways you didn’t expect.
By Alex Granados

So you're an accounting major preparing yourself to enter the world of the professional CPA. You've mapped out all your required courses and you're on track to graduate and take on the financial world.

But wait a second. Perhaps there are some non-accounting classes you should take that you didn't realize were important—or that could round out your skills in ways you didn't expect.

Joe Hoyle, a retired CPA and an associate professor at the University of Richmond, in Richmond, Va., said that undergraduate accounting majors shouldn't just think about college as preparation for a professional life.

"I'm a big believer that the purpose of a college education is to help each student have a meaningful, satisfying, and productive life," said Hoyle, who has taught for 45 years. "Accounting is a wonderful subject to teach and to learn but, at some point, every student needs to understand more than just business and accounting." 

So, which classes outside the accounting department could help students develop both personally and professionally? Here's what Hoyle and others recommended.

Tim West, CPA, the Grant Thornton Professor at Northern Illinois University, in DeKalb, Ill., said future CPAs should take classes that improve their communications skills.

"You may be the best out there at building a spreadsheet, but if nobody can understand it, your idea doesn't exist," he said.

To help beef up your critical thinking skills, take a debate class, West said. "One of the things I always say is accounting students are very poor at defining the problem," he said. "In the courses they take, the problems are defined for them." Debate can help you develop your ability to communicate and teach you how to define and troubleshoot problems, West said.

In his class, Judgment and Decision Making in Accounting, West gives his students topics to debate. But he doesn't let them pick a side to argue beforehand. "What I want is for my students to see an issue in 360 degrees—not come in with a bias," he said. "They have to prepare both sides of the case, and then we flip a coin right before the debate and they get the pro or con side."

Just make something up. Seriously!

Improv is another class West said could add some essential skills to a CPA's repertoire. He tries to impart improv skills to his students, sometimes even by taking them to work with Chicago's famed The Second City improv troupe.

Accountants tend to crave perfection, he said, a tendency that sometimes can hamper their creativity.

"They have a fear of failure and a fear of criticism," he said. "And all of those things reduce your creativity because you're wanting something to be perfect before you roll it out."

But, since improv is imperfect by nature, it can teach students how to find their voices and be more creative and comfortable with imperfection.

Hoyle has a different perspective. "What students need is more critical-thinking skills," he said. "They need more ability to analyze; they need more ability to reason. You get that from teachers."

He suggested that students figure out who the best teachers on their campus are by asking standout upperclassmen for their advice. Websites such as ratemyprofessors.com also can help. But, Hoyle cautioned, don't just choose the most popular professors on such sites. Instead, look for comments that suggest the professors push students to think and to achieve excellence.

Cool trips aren't just for spring break

Scott Showalter, CPA, CGMA, a professor of the practice at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, N.C., said a global business class is a must for aspiring accountants. With the connectivity provided by the internet, it's easy for CPAs and their clients to make business connections around the world.

In fact, a global business class alone might not be enough. Today's accountants need to understand how to communicate and work with people from diverse cultures. That's why, Showalter said, he recommends studying abroad.

"To be able to go over for a couple of weeks or a month or two, I think would be a very good learning experience," he said.

He said he advises students to rent an apartment or stay in a hostel. Go to grocery stores. Really experience the culture of the country you're visiting.

And as to what countries to visit, Showalter said students should focus on emerging markets such as Brazil, China, or India.

Non-accounting classes like these may not be what you'd expect accounting professors to recommend. But they might be just what you need to help round out your preparation to become a successful CPA.

Alex Granados is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager–newsletters at the AICPA.

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