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How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

From understanding program accreditation to preparing for job interviews, follow these key steps to begin a fulfilling career as a certified nursing assistant.

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WRITTEN BY: Kenya McCullum
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REVIEWED BY: Edumed Editing Staff

Last Updated: 06/01/2023

Editorial Values and Practices

The best certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are warm-hearted, caring, and understanding, with a genuine passion for helping others. They play a crucial role in the healthcare system and are valued for their problem-solving and teamwork skills. As respected members of a healthcare team, they support registered and practical nurses by performing duties such as dressing, bathing, and transporting patients. If you’re considering a career as a CNA, you’ve got a wide range of education and training options available to you. This page outlines these options, as well as the various ways current CNAs can boost their salaries and advance their careers. Learn how you can become a CNA and join the ranks of this valued profession.

Should You Become a CNA? A Checklist

CNAs help patients and impact the healthcare workplace every day, which makes it a satisfying way for people who are interested in the health care field to contribute to their communities. However, despite its rewards, this career may not be a good fit for everyone. Answer the following questions to see if working as a CNA makes sense for you:

  • Do you enjoy interacting with people on a daily basis?
  • Are you able to emotionally deal with severely sick or injured patients?
  • Can you handle yourself in emergency situations?
  • Are you good at anticipating potential problems before they arise?
  • Are you good at working in a team?
  • Are you able to stand up for long periods of time?
  • Can you display patience and compassion to people who are in severe pain?
  • Do you have strong communication skills?
  • Do you have the physical strength needed to lift and transfer patients?
  • Do you have a strong attention to detail?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, a career as a certified nursing assistant may be the right choice for you, and it might be closer than you think. Explore the various educational paths you can take to get your CNA training.

Sources

Nursing Assistants, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Explore CNA Course Options

Prospective CNA students need training programs that will prepare them to perform the job successfully. In addition, each state has its own requirements for CNAs, making it imperative that future professionals get the training they need to meet these standards and earn a state certification. For example, licensing requirements may mandate that students take coursework in nutrition, communication skills, rehabilitation, and vital signs. States may also have specific requirements for the number of classroom hours students must complete and the amount of clinical training they should receive.

Where to Get Your Training

People interested in becoming a CNA have several options for obtaining the training they need. Read each option carefully to see which one fits your educational style, career goals, and financial needs.

Community colleges

Students who enroll in CNA programs at community colleges can generally complete their studies in about two to four months. During this time, they take courses designed to teach them the fundamental theories CNAs need to know and how they work in practice. Although these programs provide the comprehensive education hopeful CNAs need to begin their careers, as well as the opportunity to complete some of their coursework online, they do take longer than other types of programs. As a result, students who want to complete their studies quickly may want to pursue other options.

Hospitals

Hospitals that provide CNA training give students a convenient way to experience what the job is like on a daily basis. These programs, which can be completed in about one to two months, are often part of a health care facility’s recruitment efforts, so students who get their training in this way may not have to worry about looking for a job afterwards. Another benefit of training at a hospital is that the program is often free of charge. However, students who want to take courses online will not be able to find them in hospital-based programs.

Red Cross

The Red Cross Nurse Assistant Training Program teaches students how to provide compassionate care at health care facilities while helping them build the strong communication skills they need to be successful. This program includes a combination of small-class lectures, audio and video training, and on-site clinical experiences that teach students topics like motion exercises, patient safety, infection control, and vital signs. Although this program can be completed in about one or two months, it’s not as flexible as other programs since students can only take classes during daytime hours.

Vocational schools

CNA programs at vocational schools equip students with the necessary training within one to three months. Enrolled students learn the fundamentals of delivering efficient and safe patient care, mastering essential communication skills, and understanding the legal and ethical considerations governing professional conduct. Vocational school programs offer considerable flexibility, allowing students to complete some coursework online and attend classes during evenings, catering to diverse schedules and needs.

Online or On-Campus

Depending on your needs, you may choose to enroll in CNA programs that are completely conducted on campus or programs that are partially online. Since students are required to get hands-on training in addition to classroom work, entirely online programs are not available. However, partially online CNA programs give students the flexibility to attend classes around their schedule.

Campus programs

CNA programs that are conducted entirely on campus give students the opportunity to interact with professors and peers on a face-to-face level, which can have tremendous benefits in terms of the learning process. However, those who work and have family responsibilities may not have as much flexibility as they need in these programs since students are limited to the scheduled course times. In addition, traveling to campus daily may prove difficult for some students.

Partially online (hybrid) programs

Those who are currently working full-time and want to transition into a nursing assistant career can enroll in CNA classes online. Students can watch lectures at times that are convenient for their schedules and complete assignments at their own pace. They get the same quality instruction as their on-campus counterparts, so they go into the clinical portion of the program with the fundamental knowledge they need. However, this may not be a good option for students who are not used to using technology or those who thrive in a more structured learning environment.

Sources

Nursing Assistant & Certified Nursing Assistant, Glendale Community College

Nurse Aide Training, Community College of Philadelphia

Research Eligibility Requirements

Every state has different requirements that students must meet before they can enroll in a CNA program, so crucial for you to learn about the specific rules in your area. Although requirements vary from state to state, here’s what you generally need to get into a CNA program:

Current immunizations

Enroll in Your Accredited CNA Program

Deciding to become a CNA is an important step towards building a fulfilling new career. Once you’ve made this significant decision, it’s time to research schools and begin the application process. This section aims to guide prospective students through the details of applying for and enrolling in a CNA program.

  • State Requirements & Accreditation

    When considering schools, it’s vital that you find one that has been accredited by the right accrediting authority. This helps ensure that you’re getting the quality education you need to meet state guidelines. There are several key areas where states may have different standards, including the following:

    • How many classroom hours are required
    • How much clinical time is necessary
    • Cost of training
    • Examinations
    • Certification fees
  • Tuition & Associated Costs

    In addition to factors like the number of clinical and classroom hours that students are expected to complete, those who want to enroll in a CNA program are also concerned about how much they will pay to get the training they need. Although the amount that individual schools may charge differs, the following is a general idea of what CNA students can expect to pay.

    • Application fees: When applying for CNA programs, prospective students are required to pay the school’s specific application fee. Generally, applicants can expect to pay around the $50 range in order to be considered for these programs.
    • Program tuition: Schools may charge by the credit or by the semester. Per credit, students may be charged between $70 and $260, depending on if they are an in-state or out-of-state student. Schools that charge by the semester may cost around $4,500 for residents and $27,000 for non-residents.
    • Tuberculosis test and physical examination: Among the fees that students in CNA programs are expected to pay are the tests that determine if they meet the health standards expected of them. These exams can cost around $20.

Finish Classes & Clinicals

CNA programs are a combination of classroom instruction and clinical work. This combination gives students the fundamental knowledge they need to practice and the hands-on experience to apply the theories learned in the classroom to real-world patient care. During the classroom portion of the program, which can often be completed online, students learn about medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, vital signs, mobility, and cognitive impairments. In addition, students are taught the professional communication skills CNAs are expected to have to interact with patients and members of their team.

During the clinical portion of CNA programs, students build on the coursework they completed to gain practical skills such as taking patients’ vital signs, applying heat and cold to different parts of the body when appropriate, and helping patients with hygiene. In addition, students become familiar with the physical demands of the job during this time, as they get experience lifting and transferring patients.

Sources

Certified Nursing Assistant, Maine College of Health Professionals

Pass Your CNA Competency Exam

During the clinical and classroom segments of a CNA program, students gain insight into the job’s realities and acquire the necessary competencies to take their state’s required examination. Each state has distinct standards for licensing CNA graduates. For further details about the licensing process, continue reading this section.

State Requirements

After completing a CNA training program, graduates are eligible to begin the certification process in their state, which begins by taking the required competency examination. From the number of questions asked to the content of the test, there are important differences depending on where people take the CNA exam, so it’s important for them to become familiar with the format and subjects covered in their state.

CNA Competency Exam

The CNA competency exam is made up of written and clinical sections designed to test students’ understanding of the concepts and skills they learned throughout their training programs. During the written part of the test, students are given up to two hours to complete multiple choice questions, while the clinical portion of the test is made up of scenarios that students have 30 minutes to work through. The following is more information on each section of the test.

Written portion: During the written portion of the exam, students are expected to answer between 50 to 70 multiple-choice questions demonstrating knowledge on the following information:

  • Managing patient behavior
  • Role of certified nurse assistant
  • Patient observation skills
  • Safety measures
  • Bloodborne pathogens and infectious diseases
  • Legal and ethical concerns in nursing
  • Client rights
  • Hygiene
  • Mental and emotional health
  • Emergency

Clinical portion: Students may be asked to bring a volunteer with them on exam day to act as the patient while the student demonstrates their hands-on mastery of the following skills:

  • Taking vital signs
  • Transferring a patient from a bed to a chair or a bed to a stretcher
  • Providing catheter care
  • Making an occupied bed
  • Dental care
  • Helping patients use a bedpan
  • Dressing patients
  • Measuring urinary output
  • Updating patient records
  • Bathing patients

Exam Prep

To ensure that they do well on the exam, CNA students can obtain study materials and practice tests, many of which can be found online. This can help students familiarize themselves with the type of questions they can expect to find on the test, get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses, and determine what areas they need to focus on as they study. To get the best results, students should time themselves taking practice tests.

Sources

California Nurse Competency Test, Red Cross

CNA Practice Test

Consider Career Advancement Options

After working as a CNA for a while, you may decide to expand your opportunities by going back to school to pursue similar careers in the healthcare field. The following are some examples of the education that CNAs may obtain when they’re looking to advance in their career and command higher salaries.

Associate degree

CNAs who are interested in becoming registered or licensed vocational nurses can get the training they need by enrolling in an associate degree nursing program. These programs, which can take about two years to complete, build on the skills and knowledge that professionals already have and may include coursework in nutrition, microbiology, anatomy, and physiology.

Bridge programs

Bridge programs allow CNAs to study to become registered nurses without starting their education over from scratch. Much like CNA programs, bridge programs require that students take coursework that can be completed online coupled with hands-on training. In addition, bridge programs require general education that can include classes in English composition, psychology, and algebra. CNAs who are interested in becoming medical assistants can also enroll in bridge programs.

Bachelor’s degree

In many cases, employers of registered nurses give preference to those who have earned bachelor’s degrees, so CNAs may want to enroll in these programs to help boost their career. Four-year programs provide a more in-depth education that allows students to get a job as a registered nurse or use the program as a springboard to higher degrees that lead to managerial positions in the field.

Prepare Your Resume & Apply for Jobs

After completing a training program and passing the state licensing exam, it’s time for new CNAs to start looking for a job. To be successful, job seekers should craft resumes and cover letters that highlight their education, certification, and the skills they learned during the hands-on part of their training program. The following are some sites job hunters can use to help them create cover letters and resumes.

  1. Nursing Aide and Assistant Resume Samples
  2. CNA Resume Examples: Skills for CNAs
  3. Certified Nursing Assistant Resume Objectives Resume Sample
  4. CNA Resume: Sample & Complete Guide
  5. Nursing Assistant Cover Letter Sample
  6. CNA Cover Letter

Interviewing 101

No matter how much experience CNAs may have, they need to be able to impress hiring managers to land that job. Interviews can be a stressful part of the job-hunting process, but by preparing for the types of questions employers are likely to ask, you can walk into that interview with confidence. The following are examples of the questions that you may be asked during job interviews when you become a CNA.

  1. Describe a time where you had to deal with a demanding or difficult patient.
  2. How would you handle seeing a coworker mistreating a patient?
  3. What would you do if a patient refuses care?
  4. What do you do upon entering a patient’s room?
  5. Why did you choose to pursue the health care field?
  6. In what ways are you different from other CNAs?
  7. What would you do if you weren’t getting along with a nurse you’re working with?
  8. Describe your strengths and weaknesses.
  9. How do you feel about working in a team?
  10. Where do you see yourself in five years?