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How to Become a CNA: A Comprehensive Guide

A home caregiver helping a senior man take his prescription medicine. She is holding the pill bottle she is giving him instructions, helping him read the label. The nurse is an Hispanic woman in her 30s and the patient, also Hispanic, is in his 80s. The focus is on their hands and the bottle.

Elle Barnes is interested in working in the medical field.  While her main goal is to pursue a full-time job as a registered nurse practitioner, she discovers there are many opportunities to begin that career path that she had not considered before.  One in particular stands out as a great way to gain hands-on experience in the field with plausible educational and professional requirements, so Elle decides to pursue an entry-level CNA position at her local medical facility.

Certified nursing assistants, or “CNAs,” form the bedrock of medical care.

While they don’t make medical decisions or diagnose conditions, they are essential to the overall care and wellbeing of patients.

By providing the fundamental basics of care and daily living, certified nursing aides make stays at hospitals and nursing homes more relaxing, comfortable, and pleasant.

The role of a CNA not only provides better care for patients, it also provides a springboard to other careers in the medical field. By pursuing this position, Elle will also work toward many future opportunities.  Becoming a CNA allows professionals to try the healthcare industry without a large commitment to educational time and money.

Read on to learn more about how to become a certified nursing assistant!

Quick Facts About CNA’s

What are the differences between a CNA and other types of nurses?

A certified nursing assistant, or CNA, takes care of the basic needs of patients in hospitals, nursing homes, etc.  Think eating, bathing, achieving levels of comfort.   Licensed practical nurses (LPN) are more involved in the administration of healthcare services and registered nurses (RN) are more hands-on in treating patients.

How do you become a CNA?

Becoming a CNA requires a GED, completion of CNA training, clinical experience, and the passing of a state-issued certification exam.

What classes do you take to become a certified nursing assistant?

To start, all CNA’s must already have their GED or high school diploma.  To begin studying for the CNA certification exam, consider checking out the American Red Cross site for information about training services near you, or check out online diplomas, degrees and certifications in general healthcare through the GetEducated website!

Is becoming a CNA the same in every state?

All 50 states may have different requirements for becoming a certified nursing assistant.  Certain program factors that differ between states may include cost, time commitment, and on-campus or online availability.

What are the pros and cons of becoming a CNA?

The certified nurse assistant pathway is a foundational one, and so it is one many nurses generally grow from in their medical careers.  Pros can include entry into the medical field and the fact that it’s a time and money-saving route to a higher goal.  The cons are the same with any first-level role, such as salary and carrying out some difficult tasks throughout the day-to-day.

Understanding the Different Types of Nurses

Before entering the medical, healthcare, and nursing industry, Elle needs to be knowledgeable on the different types of jobs available. Choosing the right one will depend on what she wants to do, how much education she wants to go through, and how much responsibility she wants to hold in her career.

Let’s take a look at some of the common types of nursing positions, starting with certified nursing assistant since this is where many people start their own nursing careers.

Certified Nursing Assistant

A certified nursing assistant (CNA) helps patients with basic care and wellbeing tasks, performing many of the housekeeping or quality-of-life jobs that are required by patients. Essentially, a CNA is there to assist the nurses, so their duties can cover a wide range of tasks. This can include assistance with hygiene, changing clothes, taking vital signs, and assisting with exercises.

Certified nursing assistants are the ground-level foundation for a healthcare or nursing facility. Although they serve an important function, many people choose to use a CNA career as a stepping stone to other positions, including LPNs and RNs.

Licensed Practical Nurse

A licensed practical nurse, or LPN, is one of the positions that many people move into after working a few years as a CNA. While many CNAs essentially work as general caretakers, LPNs are more involved in the administration of healthcare services, such as taking blood pressure, reporting patient status, and giving medicine to patients.

They could also assist with specific tasks directly related to medical care, such as changing bandages, inserting catheters, or issuing IV medications. To become an LPN, you must complete an approved program, which usually takes about a year to complete. They must also complete a licensing exam administered by the state.

Registered Nurse

RNs or Registered Nurses are more educated in the nursing field and have more responsibilities in the treatment of patients. They plan patient care, assist with diagnosis, study recovery results, and deliver instructions to patients. They may also be responsible for overseeing and guiding other medical workers, such as CNAs and LPNs.

The educational path for RNs is a little longer than LPN programs. Depending on the specific program and previous education, it usually takes about two to four years to complete an RN education.

How to Become a CNA

Few careers in the medical profession offer the fast-track to a career found with CNA education. While there is certainly a fair amount of coursework and study, since Elle has her high school or equivalent diploma she can become a CNA in less than a year. This makes it one of the most attractive options for working in the medical field, and also makes the career a top option for learning about the medical industry and finding out if it’s right for her.

Four Steps to Becoming a CNA:

  1. Earn your high school diploma or GED
  2. Complete state-approved CNA training (available online or at hospitals, community colleges, or The Red Cross)
  3. Complete in-person clinical requirements
  4. Pass the certification exam & get listed on your state’s CNA registry

Prerequisites & Requirements to Begin a CNA Course

Becoming a CNA is, at least compared to many other medical professions, fast and simple. But that doesn’t mean Elle can cruise through the work with little to no effort. Although the program is fast, the classes do require focus and commitment.

The only prerequisite for entering a CNA program is a high school diploma or equivalent. If Elle didn’t have this diploma, she would need to go through the steps to complete her GED. However, since she graduated high school, she meets the basic requirements for a CNA education.

The program and educational requirements for becoming a CNA vary by state, so Elle will have to check the regulations in her area for complete details on becoming a certified nursing assistant. She finds programs that meet CNA educational requirements offered by many institutions and organizations! While a community college is often the setting for CNA courses, they are offered at high schools, hospitals, and nursing homes. Elle can also take online CNA classes, although in that case, she will need to complete a short period of in-person, on-the-job training.

Time to Complete a CNA Course

Once Elle finds a state-approved education program, she can enter into the classes and begin her education. Most CNA programs take about one to four months to complete, depending on the institution and how rapidly the classes are offered.

Topics Covered in a CNA Course

During her coursework, Elle will study topics like anatomy, physiology, medical terminology, and pharmacology. These classes will include mostly brief studies into each subject, which prepares her, in a short amount of time, to communicate and interact with nurses and doctors in the medical profession.

Hands-On Learning in a CNA Course

Before the program is over, students of CNA programs will have to complete on-site training, which is typically called “clinical studies” or “clinical work.” During this phase of CNA education, students will work under the guidance of a medical professional, such as a registered nurse. This will give students direct experience in the types of jobs they will be completing, including vital signs, changing bedding, and providing patient comfort. Clinical work is not only required, it’s a valuable step for gaining direct experience in the medical setting.

Online CNA Classes

Since Elle is looking for the most cost-effective and flexible route for her CNA training, she considers enrolling in online CNA classes.  More and more programs are offered online, though there is still an in-person commitment when completing portions of the training such as clinical practice hours.

Most programs can take six to twelve weeks to complete, while others can take only four weeks.  Online CNA training is generally self-paced, increasing the flexibility factor.  Virtual learning can feature video-based courses that demonstrate the critical skills and knowledge necessary for CNA work. They are generally led by experienced professionals in the medical field and provide targeted learning for anyone interested in CNA certification. Online programs cover many of the basic topics that are found in typical CNA classes, including physiology and anatomy subjects.

Most states will require completion of the in-person training after the online educational component. This can be completed at a local hospital or clinic. Online CNA courses will fully prepare Elle for an extensive career as a CNA, and could be the foundation to further jobs in the medical field, including a career as an LPN or an RN.

PRO-TIP: Although the affordability of online CNA training is a great factor, there are still some hidden fees accrued when seeking out this or in-person courses.

In-Person CNA Training

Through the Red Cross

While online classes for CNA training have a lot of benefits, Elle considers her various in-person options for CNA education as well. One option is to complete the training program through the American Red Cross. This organization offers some of the best medical and nursing education and services in the country, and they are a good option to start a career.

Red Cross courses are often more affordable. A Red Cross CNA course costs a flat rate of only $1,300, which includes all nursing supplies but not the uniform. CNA programs usually cost at least $2,000, so this is an affordable rate for training.

Red Cross courses also boast one instructor for every ten students. While Elle could find a similar ratio in community colleges, those courses often have more students per instructor. The Red Cross is a well-established and respected organization, so she can expect to receive a high-quality education if she enrolls in their program, and much of the coursework is actually available online, making it a convenient option as well.

Through Hospitals and Nursing Homes

Many nursing homes and hospitals also offer their own CNA training programs. These programs would allow Elle to gain experience in a medical setting from the very beginning. One of the main advantages of this type of CNA training is a virtual guarantee of employment. Although anyone with a CNA certification should have little problem getting a job, training through a facility allows one to move right into a position. In some cases, Elle may even be paid for her time training as a CNA.

Licensing & Certification

No matter what CNA education path Elle takes, she’ll have to pass the required licensing exam to earn her CNA certification necessary to enter into the field. The competency exam covers the basic topics that were studied during the program.

The purpose of certification and licensing is to ensure consistency of care across the medical field. It allows health care facilities to hire CNAs with confidence, knowing that the people they hire have passed the necessary steps to provide excellent care and medical support.

Details will change depending on the state, but in most cases, the exam is a combination of both multiple-choice and manual skills testing. The multiple-choice section will include topics like infection control, medical ethics, safety, and data collection.

For the manual skills portion, Elle will be asked to perform specific skills required by a certified nursing assistant. These skills can include bathing a patient, or repositioning someone in bed. In most cases, both sections of the exam will be completed on the same day.

When the CNA certification exam is passed, Elle will be placed into a state registry and will be officially eligible for work as a nursing assistant!

Continuing Education

Like any career, staying informed on the latest practices and advancements is essential to the long-term success of a CNA. Although they are not heavily involved in the administration of medical treatment and take more of a supportive role, certified nursing assistants need to understand the current medical advancements, theories, and discoveries that guide the decisions of nurses and doctors.

In some states, continuing education is required to continue working as a CNA. This often comes in the form of recertification, although it may require taking classes throughout your career. Some CNAs opt to continue their education with a certificate or associate’s degree.

It is also possible to have credentials added to your CNA certifications. For example, some states offer a Certified Medication Assistant credential, which allows CNAs to give patients medication.

Becoming a CNA in Pennsylvania

So how do all these steps work? Let’s take a look at the state of Pennsylvania to understand the steps needed to become a CNA. Every state is different, but this will provide a good example.

Step One

First, you must be at least 16 years old and must be able to read, write, and understand the English language. You must also pass a physical exam and be free of communicable disease before enrolling in a Pennsylvania-approved course. Enrollment will also include a state-required background check.

Step Two

Second, you must complete a state-approved nursing aide training program, which is at least 80 hours in length. This may be broken up into four weeks of classroom coursework, and two weeks of clinical practice.

Step Three

CNA certification testing in Pennsylvania includes a written exam and a skills exam.  Each will cost $102 for the first attempt. There is a $70 fee if you fail the skills test and need to retake the skills test and a $32 fee for the written.

The exam in Pennsylvania, like other states, consists of two parts: the written component and the practical skills test. Both will be given on the same day, but if you fail one and pass the other, you will only have to retest on the one you failed. Candidates are tested in five nursing skills and must demonstrate appropriate hygiene. The written test is multiple choice and is available in oral form.

The final scores will usually be given directly at the testing site. Candidates are allowed to retake the test three times before retraining is required.

If a Pennsylvania nursing aide does not work in the field for 24 months, their certification will expire. However, if you were previously trained and certified you can retake the test without retaking the training.

Becoming a CNA: Career Expectations

So what does it take to excel in the career of a certified nursing aid? What traits and characteristics will help Elle thrive in this rewarding yet challenging career? There are many characteristics that make a great nursing aid, but it really comes down to caring, cooperation, and patience.

Caring Attitude

Like any job in the medical field, a caring attitude is essential if Elle wants to make it as a CNA. Since she is the type of person who is always concerned with the physical comfort and emotional wellbeing of people around her, she may have a strong foundation for the nursing profession.

Cooperation

Cooperation is also essential. As a CNA, Elle won’t have a lot of decision-making responsibilities, at least when it comes to treatments and diagnosis. She has to be able to take instruction and follow the guidance of nurses and doctors, and accept her role as a team player. To use a sports analogy, CNAs aren’t the star quarterback, they’re the offensive linemen, dutifully working in the trenches to accomplish a team goal. In this case, the team goal isn’t scoring a touchdown but achieving better comfort and health for patients. Cooperation includes communication, taking instructions, and collaborating to achieve these goals.

Patience

Patience is also essential. As a CNA, Elle will often be the first and most-frequent person that a patient talks to. They may unload their frustrations or difficulties on her, and she has to be able to work with people patiently and not flinch when people are upset.

Physical Endurance & Strength

One added note: physical endurance and strength is also beneficial for nursing assistants. CNAs not only move all over the hospital floor, totaling many miles in a single day. They also have to lift patients and help move equipment. Elle won’t need to be Hulk Hogan, but a level of general physical fitness will help her in her career.

Pros of Becoming a CNA

 One of the top benefits of this career field is accessibility. Because the training and certification process takes less than half a year to complete (in some cases only a month), you can complete the requirements for a CNA and launch your career quickly. It is also more affordable because there are fewer semester hours and classes to complete.

There is also a high demand for CNAs. Hence, landing a job is usually fast and easy.

CNAs also enjoy a versatile position that allows them to work directly with many patients. While nurses and doctors make the final decisions on healthcare, CNAs are often the ones that interact with patients the most. (Of course, this can be a two-sided coin.)

Cons Of Becoming a CNA

The first and most obvious drawback to being a CNA is the pay. Because CNA is an entry-level position, it doesn’t come with the higher pay of LPNs or RNs. It certainly doesn’t have the six-figure incomes of doctors and surgeons.

You’ll also have to assist people with bodily functions, including trips to the bathroom. If this sounds unpleasant, the work of a CNA will wear you out quickly.

It can also be physically demanding, requiring you to be on your feet and move throughout the day. There is also an emotional demand from working with sick patients and their families. 

CNA Salary & Job Outlook

Because the educational requirements and certification time are lower, CNAs are one of the lowest-paid employees in the medical profession. This isn’t to say they are poorly paid, they just make less than most nurses and doctors.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Nursing Assistants and Orderlies” made an annual average of $30,850 in 2020. This is a median hourly wage of $14.82 per hour. The lowest 10% in the field make around $22,700 a year. However, the top CNAs make more than $42,000 a year. Therefore, there is potential for a high-quality income that compares to the national averages.

While the pay may not be substantial, the potential jobs are readily available. The BLS says that the demand for nursing assistants will grow by 8% from 2020 to 2030. (For perspective, the national job growth will be around 7%.) Healthcare support occupations are expected to grow by 16% over the next ten years. This is another positive sign, as many CNAs eventually move into other healthcare roles.

Most certified nursing aides will work in nursing care facilities. About 37% will be employed by these types of facilities, while 83% will work in hospitals. Other industries that employ CNAs include home health care and retirement or assisted living communities.

Enroll in an In-Person or Online CNA Program Today!

The CNA career path is one that is ripe with job opportunities. The shorter education requirements allow for earning a salary much faster than other healthcare positions. Online CNA courses make the education process even easier and are oftentimes cheaper than in-person options. As always, verify that your state will accept your online education before you enroll, and remember that every degree in the GetEducated directory is screened for proper accreditation!

Related Resources:

Exhaustive Guide to Online LPN to RN Bridge Programs

The 19 Most Affordable Online BSN Degrees

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