How to Become a CNA
You won’t need a degree in order to become a CNA, but you will need to earn a certificate and pass a competency exam. The educational requirements vary from state to state, but expect to invest four to 12 weeks to earn your CNA credential.
In CNA classes, you’ll learn about infection control, taking vital signs and delivering personal care. Topics might also include communication skills and patients’ rights. Upon completing your coursework, you’ll take the CNA certification exam, which usually includes a multiple-choice exam and a manual skills test.
Many schools offer convenient online options for CNA certificate programs. Before you enroll, be sure to check that the course is accredited by a recognized agency.
Take the Next Step
With a strong job outlook and flexible work hours, the CNA role is a great entry point into the booming healthcare field. Most certification courses last 12 weeks or less, and plenty of schools offer online study options. Start searching for the school that suits you best.
Are Certified Nursing Assistant Degrees Available?
Unlike other nursing jobs, certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are not required to hold a college degree. However, training is required resulting in a postsecondary non-degree certificate or diploma.
As an example of a typical course load for CNA training, Vista College offers the following anatomy and physiology, medical terminology, geriatrics, pediatrics, essentials for nursing assistants and pharmacology.
If you decide you want to boost your career options and become a licensed practical or licensed vocational nurse (LPN/LVN) in the future, you’ll need to enroll in another training program specifically geared to LPNs/LVNs. Another option is to earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree to become a registered nurse (RN).
Associate’s Degree Programs
An associate’s degree in nursing includes courses in anatomy, nursing, nutrition, chemistry, microbiology among others. Getting an associate’s degree from scratch usually takes two to three years to complete, but it’s possible some programs will give you credit for CNA work experience or prior training.
Bachelor’s Degree Programs
It’s possible to find CNA-to-RN bridge programs, which can take less time than enrolling in a two to three year associate’s degree program. After you earn an associate’s degree, an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree program takes your previous coursework into consideration, allowing you to graduate sooner. RNs with BSNs tend to advance further and earn higher salaries.
After completing your training program, you’ll need to take a competency exam. Once passed, you’ll be placed on a state registry as a certified CNA.
Why is CNA certification important? It signifies that you have gained the right level of knowledge to care for patients. From taking vital signs to knowing what to do in an emergency, CNAs have a lot of responsibility on their shoulders. Certification ensures your knowledge has been tested and tells employers you carry the skills necessary to do your job well.
While general CNA certification is required in each state, you can also choose to earn voluntary professional certification in specialized areas, such as geriatrics. The additional credentials can help make you more marketable and potentially lead to higher pay.
CNA Certification Requirements
In order to become certified as a nursing assistant, you’ll need to complete a certain number of requirements first. Each state has their own set of criteria, but we’ve provided an example from one state to give you an idea of what you can expect.
The Washington State Department of Health lists the following requirements for CNAs interested in becoming licensed:
- At least 85 hours of training in a state-approved CNA program
- A passing score on the competency exam
- Completed statement with information about physical and mental status, felony convictions and other personal information
- HIV/AIDS training
Although this is just one state’s list of requirements, you can expect to see similar stipulations from nursing boards across the country.
Tip: Be sure your CNA education program is state-approved by checking directly with the health or nursing board.
CNA Certification Endorsements
CNA certification requirements differ for CNAs who have worked in other states. If you move, you may not be required to take the competency exam again. Some states will allow you to apply for certification endorsement. You’ll need to meet training and work experience requirements and hold an active CNA license in another state.
CNA Certification Exam
The CNA certification exam is typically administered by a third-party in various test centers throughout your state.
While each exam may differ slightly, most states include a multiple-choice portion of the exam and a manual skills test. For the latter half, you’ll be asked to perform a certain number of skills—usually about five—which will be evaluated by a registered nurse. The skills test is “scenario-based” meaning you’ll complete tasks in a logical progression, instead of at random.
Both parts of the exam are taken on the same day.
In many cases, you’re given about two hours to complete the multiple choice section of the exam and between 25 to 45 minutes to demonstrate clinical skills.
CNA Certification Exam Tips:
- Don’t panic if you make a mistake or skip a step during the clinical skills exam. You are usually allowed to correct your error once per skill.
- Be sure you demonstrate the critical element of a skill.
- Prepare with a practice test. This allows you to become familiar with the types of multiple-choice questions you may encounter and lets you become comfortable with the time frame allotted.
You’ll cover a lot of ground while you’re in CNA school and the exam will test you on various aspects of the job. Here are just some of the topics you’ll likely come across on the exam:
- Activities of daily living
- Infection control
- Data collection and reporting
- Mental health needs
- Cultural needs
- Client rights
- Law and ethics
To apply to take the exam, check in with your state board. They can provide information on the application process, who administers the exam and other pertinent information.
Every 24 months, CNAs need to complete a minimum of 48 hours of continuing education to become recertified.
Many states require CNAs to do a minimum of 12 hours in each year of the two-year time frame. During this period, you should receive training in important and evolving healthcare topics such as:
- Domestic violence
- Patient rights
- Medical record documentation
- First aid
Your state board of nursing will provide a list of acceptable training options and locations where you can earn the credits.
Typically, you’ll also need to show proof that you were paid to work as a CNA at some point during the two-year period.
And, here’s some good news: It’s not uncommon for an employer to either pay for the courses or provide the education themselves.
What Will I Learn in My Courses?
Considering the short amount of time a CNA program takes, you’re taught a relatively wide range of topics. On top of that, you will learn by being hands-on in a clinical work setting.
Courses generally cover how to work in a variety of settings, like home care, hospitals and nursing care facilities. Students learn about:
- Long-term care
- Basic nursing care
- Taking vital signs
- Controlling infections
- Emergency procedures
- Personal care skills
- Communication skills
How Long Will It Take?
Generally, most certified nursing assistant programs take between four and 12 weeks. This is broken into contact hours and clinic practice. State-approved programs offer a minimum of 75 hours of classroom instruction and clinical training. As an example, Daytona College’s nursing assistant program divides 120 hours this way: Four weeks in class and two weeks in a clinical setting.
CNA Certification Online
Community colleges and vocational schools offer CNA programs, many of which are online. If you enroll in an online program, you will most likely do your clinical work at a local hospital coordinated by the school.
Before enrolling, check with your state boards to find out which online programs are approved. Read the program information carefully. For example, Oregon has two CNA levels and some online programs are only designed to train students for one of these levels.
Once you’ve found the right school, you can expect your theory classes to be taught online, however, you’ll still be required to attend a certain number of lab hours. Once it’s time to for clinical experience, you’ll be expected to show up to your assigned location to complete these hours.
Earning your CNA certification online can offer schedule flexibility and cost savings, but before jumping in, be sure the curriculum meets state requirements. Without approval, you won’t be eligible to take the CNA certification exam.
How Much Will My Education Cost?
Tuition for CNA programs will vary based on whether you enroll in a diploma program or an associate’s degree program.
As an example of tuition and fees, American Career College’s medical assistant program runs about $17,000 for a nine-month program. An accelerated program totals about $13,000.
If you’re interested in earning a two-year associate’s degree, tuition can double compared to a diploma program, but you’ll be also be eligible to work as an RN.
Once you earn your diploma, don’t put your wallet away just yet. The state competency exam—often given by Prometric or PearsonVue computer-based testing systems—will cost you. The price varies by state, so check with your state board of nursing to narrow down the exact costs.
Are There Prerequisites?
Most certified nursing assistant programs require candidates to have a high school diploma or GED equivalent and to provide their school transcript. Some schools and programs will also require candidates to pass an entrance exam and a criminal background check.
What Accreditation is There for My Program?
A certified nursing assistant program worth its salt should be approved by its state board of nursing. Most states will provide a list of approved programs and you should always check how long the program is approved for. Many times, the same school’s larger nursing program will be accredited by one of the major accreditation bodies.
If you decide to go on to further education after becoming a CNA, accreditation will play an important role. Accreditation is a definitive way to know if a program meets nationally-recognized nursing education standards. Independent accrediting organizations register schools once they’ve undergone a rigorous application process. Because these organizations stay up to date on state governments and health departments, they know whether a school or program provides the necessary training to students.
For students, accreditation can help with financial aid eligibility. Earning a degree at one accredited school also allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools. Plus, if you move to another state, training from an accredited school can make getting a new license easier.
A quick tip: Accreditation isn’t earned and maintained in perpetuity. Accreditations are usually given for a certain amount of time, usually between 5 and 10 years, and are different for each school. It’s a good idea to check with your potential program about the length of time it’s accredited for.
Main Accreditation Bodies
The Accreditation Commission for Education (ACEN), formerly NLNAC:Accredits the entire spectrum of nursing programs (associate’s, diploma, bachelor’s and master’s)
The Commission of Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE): This body accredits bachelor’s and master’s nursing programs
Faster than average job growth is expected for CNAs through 2026. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that employment is expected to increase by 11 percent due to factors such as an aging population moving into nursing homes and more patients suffering from chronic illnesses.
CNA job prospects are expected to be strong in home health care service and community-based care. CNAs also work in hospitals and assisted living facilities. Here’s a snapshot of what you can expect on the job in different environments.
Home health care: Instead of juggling the needs of multiple patients, a home health care CNA cares for one person. The schedule is less frenetic, but you may find the pay is slightly lower than CNA salaries in other environments.
Hospitals: CNA jobs in hospitals are highly sought after because they typically offer good benefits, higher pay and the opportunity to work with a wide range of medical staff. You may also find opportunities to work in different departments which helps to broaden your skill set. However, you won’t develop long-term relationships with patients since most are discharged after a few days.
Nursing and long-term care facilities: The need for CNAs is expected to grow especially as baby boomers get older and require long-term care. One of the benefits of working in a nursing home or long-term care facility is getting to know your patients. Many CNAs say this is one of the best parts of the job. However, the job can be both physically and mentally taxing, so many CNAs go back to school to become registered nurses.
If you decide to move out of the CNA role, but want to work in a similar career, consider these options:
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): LPNs are the next level above CNAs and also provide patients with basic care. Because of their additional schooling, LPNs have a bit more responsibility and therefore earn a slightly higher salary.
Occupational Therapy Assistant: OT assistants work directly with patients to help them regain and improve skills necessary for daily life. They work under the direction of an occupational therapist.
Personal Care Aides: As a personal care aide, you’ll not only help patients with everyday tasks, but you’ll be there to provide companionship. You may work alongside other healthcare workers in the home of one patient.
If you’re ready to get started on the path to becoming a CNA, start by finding a school that will offer you a challenging curriculum, quality professors and a class schedule that fits your needs.