How to Become a CNA | Classes, Salary, Certification and more!

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Do you have a passion for helping people? Have you always wanted to enter the medical field but don’t want to spend thousands of dollars to go through medical school? Are you more interested in jumping directly into the workforce instead of toiling away in a classroom? Read on to learn how to become a CNA (Certified Medical Assistant), a job you can get without a graduate degree (and sometimes, even a bachelor’s degree!).

How to Become a CNA: What Is it Anyway?

Certified Nursing Assistants are sometimes called nursing aides or orderlies. In this job, your basic responsibilities are to help long-term patients with daily living activities, like helping people with wheelchairs, serving meals or helping patients dress. However, in some facilities, you might have more responsibilities; for example, in a nursing home, you might be the primary caregiver, and it might be your responsibility to record health concerns and make sure everyone gets their medication.

Your job duties might include:

  • Helping to clean and bathe patients
  • Repositioning people in wheelchairs or hospital beds
  • Helping patients with meals
  • Tracking vital signs
  • Helping people to use the toilet
  • Transport patients to and from their room
  • Sterilize equipment and facilities

What Education Is Required?

Education is a big part of how to become a CNA. To get this job, you’ll need to complete an undergraduate certificate program. It’s important to note that completing a certificate program is not the same as getting certified. A certificate program is an educational program – a series of classes that typically takes 2-12 months (some are as short as six weeks). A certification, on the other hand, is a test you have to pass to be eligible to work. To get this job, you have to do both.

How to become a CNACertificate programs for Certified Nursing Assistants train you in the basic skills you’ll need to be successful. You’ll learn about nursing best practices and specific nursing techniques, but you can also expect to learn a bit about biology, anatomy and other sciences. Some programs also include professional training, so you’ll be prepared when you start your job.

These programs usually consist of both classes and clinical training. So, for example, you might complete 80 hours of classroom training and 30 hours of clinical training. Classroom training is where you learn all the theory and science (e.g. biology and anatomy), while clinical training gives you hands-on experience in actual nursing facilities.

You might take classes like basic nursing skills, anatomy and physiology, resident ethics, personal care management and social service needs. Other classes could include mental health awareness and medical terminology.:

As you can see, some of these classes will probably require you to work in a lab (that’s the fun part!). Most classes are taught by experienced instructors and health professionals. Some courses of study also include a CNA pre-test class, which prepares you for the state exam (usually in whatever the state the school is in).

How Do I Get Certified?

To fully understand how to become a CNA, you need to understand the certification process. State certifications requirements vary from state to state. However, most states require you to complete one of three requirements.

The first option is to complete a state-sponsored education program (like the certificate programs above). You could also complete a similar program in another state as long as it’s approved. Lastly, you could train as a military corpsman or medic.

If you are researching CNA certification in your home state, remember that some states use the term “nursing aide” or “nursing assistant.” In most states, you can’t use the given titled (e.g. Certified Nursing Assistant) unless you pass the exam.

When you pass the exam, you’ll be placed on a sate registry, which is basically a list of all the people who in that state who are eligible to work in this field. In some states, you must be on the registry to work in certain types of facilities, such as nursing homes.

What’s on the Test?

Become a CNAThere are two parts to the CNA exam: a written section and a skills test. The written portion is usually multiple choice, and you take it in a group setting. Tests are administered at an approved testing location, often a health care facility.

The skills test (sometimes called a manual skills test) takes place in a clinical setting. You’ll be given a set of skills to perform and provided all the equipment and tools you need. Patients are usually played by actors or facility personnel. During this portion, you’re observed and graded by a registered nurse or instructor.

Where Can I Work?

Now that you know how to become a CNA, you can start thinking about what to do afterward! According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), over half (55%) of CNAs worked in nursing and residential care facilities in 2010. Another 28% worked in state, local and private hospitals. The rest of the works represented worked home health care services or employment services.

When looking for jobs, consult your school first, since many programs have job-finding services and councillors to help you get a job after you graduate. However, there are also dedicated job boards, like

Check out this map to see employment rates for nursing assistants by state. This might give you a rough (though not 100% accurate) picture of which employment markets are most active.

How to become a certified nursing assistant

CNA Jobs by State

What Is the Job Outlook?

The BLS expects the employment rates for Certified Nursing Assistants to grow by about 20% between 2010 and 2020. This kind of growth is faster than average for all occupations in the United States. So, in 2010, there were 1,505,300 professionals employed in this field in the U.S.; in 2020, reports suggest there will be approximately 1,807,200. This growth will likely be caused by a growing elderly population who will need increased medical care, especially in the types of facilities that often employ CNAs, such as nursing homes. However, prospects will likely be good in hospitals and clinics as well.

The BLS also reports that job prospects for CNAs, nursing aides, orderlies and attendants are expected to be excellent in the coming years. Prospects will be especially good for professionals with formal training and certification.

How Much Can I Make?

According to the BLS, nursing assistants made about $24,000 in 2010. The lowest-paid nurse aides earned about $17,790, while the highest-paid made upwards of $34,580. Salaries vary by location and years of experience, however, and CNAs often have plenty of opportunities to move up.

Additionally, some states tend to pay more than others. Check out this map from the U.S. Bureau of labor Statistics  to see which states have the highest median pay.

Become a CNA

CNA Salary by State

Whew. We covered a lot here! But this is just the tip of the ice berg. For more detailed information, check out the sidebar to find out more about how to become a cna.