November 20, 2023

How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): Requirements and Schooling

What does it take to become a CNA? In this article we explore the education requirements and job responsibilities for certified nursing assistants.

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How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): Requirements and Schooling

There's no denying the vital role that health care workers have in public welfare. This includes the nursing assistants who help nurses provide patient care in hospitals, clinics, rehabilitation centers, retirement communities, and other nursing care facilities. 

Being a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) is rewarding and a good stepping stone to higher-paying positions. To become a nursing assistant, we have outlined the path you need to take. We will also discuss what awaits you in terms of workload and compensation.

How to Become a CNA?

Unlike 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. 

The modules or courses vary from one state to another, so it's best to check the local authorities in your area. Generally, it is administered by the Department of Health or the State's Board of Nursing. The exams, on the other hand, are conducted by third-party providers. 

Once you pass the state exam, your name will be added to the state's registry of healthcare professionals, and you will officially earn the title of CNA.

Following this, you need to maintain your certification, ranging from completing certain education requirements to accumulating a required number of clinical hours. These conditions also vary from state to state. 

Certified nursing assistants can work in different healthcare settings like hospitals, assisted living facilities, rehab centers, nursing homes, and long-term residential facilities.

Online CNA Classes

If you plan to become a CNA, one of the first decisions you have to make is whether to take online CNA classes or on-campus courses. 

Digital platforms offer flexible schedules, allowing students to learn at their own pace. It's the ideal setup if you currently have work or family commitments that limit the time you can invest in the training.   

As for the hands-on clinical experience, most online training providers have partner facilities where you will be exposed to real-world situations. This blended learning approach prepares you for the certification exams and the actual CNA work once you transition to any hospital or facility. 

In-Person CNA Training

Some people prefer learning with other students and interacting with teachers in person. If you're one of them, a classroom CNA program is a better fit for you. This is especially true if your schedule is wide open and a school near you offers the course. 

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 for students to gain hands-on experience.   

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. Being face-to-face with classmates and the teacher allows you to be aware of other people's reactions, listen actively, or even socialize.

CNA Licensing & Certification

Whether you take online classes or attend an in-person course, you will have to earn a certificate by passing a CNA certification exam once you are done. You might not be able to practice otherwise since the majority of the nursing homes and healthcare facilities hire only CNAs who are included in state registries. 

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 first part and 100% in the second 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 have the option to acquire additional skills and earn a specialty certification by getting more training for a more rewarding career.

A good example is a BLS or CPR certification, which is more useful in acute care settings than in long-term care. Doing so will help you stand out and increase your chances of getting hired over a field of other applicants.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant?

The training could take four to 12 weeks, depending on your chosen program. This includes both the hours of classroom lectures and the time needed for clinical training. 

Overall, it's one of the shortest routes to becoming one among health professionals. This reason draws many people to the profession.

It also offers a good glimpse of the industry, allowing you to decide if you want to make a bigger commitment and pursue being an RN or LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) by getting the BSN degree and passing the NCLEX exam.

Is it Hard to Become a CNA?

The CNA competency evaluation program consists of a written component and a skills test; The exact number of questions varies by state. 

As long as you're attentive during training and prepare well for the exam, you shouldn't have any problems passing. The classroom sessions cover all the topics you'll need for this section. 

The hands-on clinical portion is a bit more challenging, though. There are skill areas for CNAs, and the five skills you need to demonstrate will be selected randomly. It means that you need to master all the skills. Also, there is very little room for error since you need to get all five skills right.

What is the Fastest Way to Become a CNA?

If you want to become a certified nurse assistant as soon as possible, you must give it your full attention. Doing it part-time will make the process longer. 

First, check all the available CNA training programs and see which will allow faster completion. 

There are online courses you can finish at your own pace, and some community colleges and vocational schools have shorter curriculums than others. Even the American Red Cross offers nursing assistant training classes. 

If you can find a program that will only take four weeks to finish, you should go with it. 

In some cases, you can become a CNA without taking a course.

Do CNAs Get Paid Well?

CNAs generally make less money than RNs, LPNs, or even medical assistants. Here's a quick comparison of the average salaries of these professions. 

CNA Median Salary: $30,290 per year

Medical Assistant Median Salary: $37,190 per year

LPN Median Salary: $48,070 per year

RN Median Salary: $77,600 per year

Of course, the exact CNA salary would depend on the location, employer, specialization, years of experience, and the demand for nurse assistants in a given area. CNAs can also earn more with overtime.

Considering that you won't have to invest as much time, energy, and money in becoming a CNA, it is a viable career path option and a growing profession. The US Bureau of Labor estimates that there will be a 5% increase in nursing assistant jobs between 2021 and 2031.

Is Being a CNA Harder Than Being a Registered Nurse?

Working conditions vary from one skilled nursing facility to another. Nurses usually have more decisions to make, meaning it can feel like a bigger responsibility. In some ways, this also puts more of the patient's welfare on the nurse's shoulders. 

On the other hand, CNA duties include recording vital signs (like temperature and blood pressure), helping with bathing, dressing, medical procedures, and gathering medical supplies. They're involved in direct patient care under the supervision of a registered nurse, which means that their jobs are more physical. There's also the question of lower compensation. 

Ultimately, whether being a CNA is harder than being a nurse depends on personal perspective.

What's the Difference Between a Nurse Aide, LNA, and a CNA?

A certified nurse aide, a Licensed Nursing Assistant (LNA), and a CNA are basically the same. The difference in terminologies stems from the state or geographical location. 

The different job titles for nursing assistants include:

  • Patient Care Assistant (PCA)
  • Nursing Assistant
  • State Tested Nursing Assistant (STNA)
  • Nursing Aide/Nurses' Aide
  • Licensed Nursing Assistant (LNA)
  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
  • Certified Nurses Aide
  • Certified Medication Aide (CMA)

It's evident that among the many healthcare providers, nursing assistants play a critical role.

Emily Lee contributed to the reporting of this guide.

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