April 1, 2024

Become a CNA: Guide & Steps to Certified Nursing Assistant Career

What does it take to become a CNA? In this article we explore the education requirements and job responsibilities for certified nursing assistants.
Become a CNA: Guide & Steps to Certified Nursing Assistant Career

Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are compassionate caregivers who provide hands-on care under the supervision of registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and even in personal home settings.

Becoming a CNA can be a career in itself or a stepping stone to higher-paying positions in the health care field. If you're interested in this entry-level position, our guide will cover the steps to becoming a CNA and what you can expect from this rewarding role.

What Are The Job Duties of CNAs?

Certified nursing assistants are also commonly referred to as nursing aides or even patient care technicians in some facilities. CNAs provide basic patient care and assist with activities of daily living like dressing, bathing, feeding, and toileting. The scope of practice of the CNA depends on specific state laws and facility policies. These are the duties all CNAs are familiar with:

  • Helping patients safely transfer and ambulate
  • Turning and repositioning patients in bed
  • Obtaining and documenting vital signs
  • Providing incontinence care
  • Assisting with grooming, bathing, and hygiene
  • Performing range of motion exercises
  • Changing bed linens 
  • Documenting nutritional intake and stool/urine output
  • Reporting abnormal findings to the nurse or supervisor

Some CNAs are trained in advanced skills, such as:

  • Catheter insertion
  • Simple wound care
  • Obtaining urine specimens
  • Measuring capillary blood glucose levels 

Where Do CNAs Work?

Certified nursing assistants can work in various healthcare settings like hospitals, assisted living facilities, rehabilitation centers, nursing homes, and long-term residential facilities. Some CNAs also work in home health care and are called home health aides. 

Most CNAs work 12-hour shifts, though some may work regular 8-hour shifts. Weekends, holidays, and overnight shifts are a common requirement. 

How To Become a Certified Nursing Assistant

Unlike a career in nursing, you do not need a degree to become a CNA. However, you must have a high school diploma or a GED. In addition, you must obtain a license or certification by completing a state-approved training program and passing a competency exam. 

You do not need any medical training before pursuing a CNA career. Many technical colleges and vocational schools offer CNA training programs. Even the Red Cross offers a nursing assistant training program. Programs typically include foundational knowledge in anatomy and physiology, nutrition, infection control, and patient privacy. Students then practice clinical skills like obtaining vital signs, safe transferring and repositioning, bathing, feeding, and more. 

Training to become a CNA takes very little time, which makes it a popular choice for entering the health care field. While course lengths vary, most programs are completed in four to twelve weeks. Ensure you choose a reputable program that prepares you to provide safe and competent care.

Online CNA Classes

Becoming a CNA couldn't be easier with the introduction of online courses. Online CNA programs allow students to complete training at their own pace.

As for the hands-on clinical experience, most online training providers have partner facilities where you can practice your skills in real-world situations. This blended learning approach prepares you for the certification exam and working as a CNA once you obtain a job.

In-Person CNA Training

Some people prefer in-person instruction to ask questions and receive individualized support. If you're one of them, a classroom CNA program is a better fit for you. 

In-person classes can also provide more structured learning than online CNA training. The instructor sets the pace for the whole class. The coursework also offers more opportunities to practice skills with other students.  

Communication is one of the many skills you need to be a successful CNA; an in-person setting is the best place to develop this. Learning from an instructor in person and practicing clinical skills allows you to become confident in your role and communicate effectively with patients.

CNA Licensing & Certification

Once your CNA course is completed, you are eligible to take your state's licensing exam. The CNA exam consists of two parts: a written portion and a clinical skills test. You must pass both parts to become a part of the nurse aide registry. 

The exams are carried out in accredited third-party test centers in many states. However, some states use the CNA exam developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing or NCSBN

Either way, the exam consists of multiple-choice questions related to various topics on patient care. You must also undergo a skills test to demonstrate five core skills to be a successful CNA (knowledge, flexibility, observation, emotional stability, and empathy). 

A score of 70% - 75% in the exam's written part and 100% in the clinical demonstration part earns you a license or certificate, except in some states with additional requirements. Once you are certified, you can start applying for a job

You'll also need to maintain your CNA certification requirements, from completing certain educational courses to accumulating a minimum number of clinical hours. These conditions also vary from state to state. 

Additional Certifications

CNA jobs also require CPR certification. Health care providers are instructed to obtain Basic Life Support (BLS) training. Many facilities utilize the American Heart Association as a reputable course provider.

Course and Exam Fees

The cost of CNA training programs differs from state to state. Courses can cost a few hundred dollars up to $2,000. The cost to take the state exam also varies but is usually around $100 for both components.

Salary Expectations as a CNA

CNA salaries are typically lower paying due to the limited amount of education and training required. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for CNAs in 2022 was $35,760. 

Choosing to become a CNA is a respectable career path. Since CNAs provide hands-on patient care, it can be a physically demanding job that requires a great amount of stamina. It is a rewarding career, though, as you make a difference in the comfort and recovery of vulnerable patients.


Is it Hard to Become a CNA?

As long as you're attentive during training and prepare well for the exam, you shouldn't have any problems passing. The hands-on clinical portion may be more challenging for some students as the skills demonstrated will be randomly selected. This means you need to be able to perform all skills safely and correctly. 

What is the Fastest Way to Become a CNA?

Training can take as little as four to twelve weeks, depending on your chosen program. This includes both the hours of classroom lectures and the time needed for clinical training. It's one of the quickest routes to becoming a health professional. 

Do CNAs Get Paid Well?

CNAs generally make less money than most medical specialties, including RNs and LPNs. Here's a quick comparison of the average salaries of these professions. 

Position Median Salary (Source: BLS)
CNA $38,270 per year
LPN $54,620 per year
RN $81,220 per year

Of course, the exact CNA salary will depend on your location, employer, specialization, years of experience, and the demand for nursing assistants in your area. 

Considering that you won't have to invest as much time, energy, and money in becoming a CNA, it is a viable career option to dip your toes into the world of health care without committing to years of education or spending thousands of dollars on a degree.

Is Being a CNA Harder Than Being a Registered Nurse?

Many people start as a CNA before choosing to pursue a career in nursing. This offers a realistic glimpse of the industry and the type of work, schedules, and expectations of health care.

CNAs work under the supervision of nurses, as nurses are medical providers with years of medical training and are responsible for clinical decision-making and performing advanced skills. While CNAs may work physically harder, nurses are tasked with prioritization demands, medication administration, interdisciplinary collaboration, and patient assessment and monitoring. 

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Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.