Improving accounting students’ writing skills

By Gabriele Lingenfelter, CPA, MBA, and Philip H. Umansky, CPA, Ph.D.

“I am not good at writing. I want to be an accounting major so I don’t have to write.”
 
All of us who teach or advise students have heard this – our students’ dislike for writing papers. These students are under the false impression that accountants do not have to write, or at least not much.
 
Frequently, our students do not realize that written communication skills are essential to the accounting profession. As a matter of fact, communication skills are one of the five core competencies outlined in the CPA Vision Project, tested on the CPA Exam and demanded by employers.
 
The CPA Vision Project
 
The CPA Vision Project of the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) addresses issues we must tackle to keep up with the challenges facing the profession. To remain competitive, CPAs need to demonstrate five core values and five core competencies.
 
One of the top five core competencies, Communication and Leadership Skills, is the ability to “give and exchange information within meaningful context and with appropriate delivery and interpersonal skills.” These core values and competencies are instrumental in providing the five core services outlined in the CPA Vision Project: Assurance and Information Integrity, Management Consulting and Performance Management, Technology Services, Financial Planning, and International Services.
 
If we want our students to offer these five core services efficiently and effectively, accounting classes must incorporate the ability to communicate well as a learning objective.
 
Writing on the CPA Exam
 
So what about the CPA Exam? Is the profession testing communication skills on the Exam? Yes.
 
The CPA Exam requires candidates to demonstrate their writing skills. Currently, CPA applicants complete constructed responses on the Auditing (AUD), Regulation (REG), and Financial Accounting and Reporting (FAR) sections of the exam.
 
With the introduction of the new CPA Exam format (CBT-e) in 2011, writing will remain an important part. However, instead of testing writing skills in AUD, REG, and FAR, the constructed response portion of the exam will be entirely tested in BEC (Business Environment and Concepts). Starting in 2011, CPA candidates will write three essays in BEC.
 
Entry-level accountants lack written communication skills
 
The CPA Vision Project demands communication skills and the CPA Exam tests them. Does that mean employers of new CPAs are pleased with new CPAs’ writing skills? No. Many employers of recent accounting graduates complain that their new employees do not possess the requisite writing skills. While our students may have strong technical skills, their written communication is often ineffective and poor.
 
In addition, accountants are spending less time on gathering, processing, and reporting information, and more time on interpretation and providing strategy and decision support. Accountants prepare notes to financial statements, interdepartmental memos, plans, and proposal communications with various stakeholders, written personnel evaluations, and articles in professional journals.
 
According to an article in The Trusted Professional, one-third of the accounting firms surveyed are unhappy with accountants’ writing skills. Correctly using grammar, organizing information, and writing clearly, concisely, and completely are necessary for business writing. In the worst case, poor writing skills can lead to dismissal of the accountant or inability to rise to higher managerial levels in the organization.
 
Because of the CPA Exam requirement and the needs of future employers, writing in accounting classes is an important part of many schools’ accounting curricula.
 
Communication: The business of accounting
 
Accounting is much more than financial statements and debits and credits. Properly and broadly understood, accounting is all about communication. Written and oral communication gives the numbers meaning, context, and focus on a decision.
 
We need to continue working on improving the writing skills of entry-level accountants, but these skills must be further reinforced once students enter the workplace. Firm training and management programs in which writing is given a high level of consciousness and priority will help ensure users have the best product available.
 
About the authors:
Gabriele Lingenfelter, CPA, teaches accounting and auditing for the Luter College of Business and Leadership at Christopher Newport University in Newport News. Lingenfelter is actively involved on the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA) Audit & Attestation Subcommittee and the development of future CPA Exams. She also is a member of the VSCPA Editorial Task Force. Contact her at gabriele@cnu.edu.
 
Phil Umansky, CPA, Ph.D., is associate professor of business at the Sydney Lewis School of Business at Virginia Union University and chairman of the Accounting and Finance Department. Umansky is a CPA Ambassador, a regular contributor to the WTVR Virginia This Morning TV Show on money management topics, and a member of the VSCPA Editorial Task Force. Contact him at pumansky@vuu.edu.
 
Reprinted with permission from the Virginia Society of CPAs.
 
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