How to Become a Certified Nursing Assistant

person typing on laptop trying to become a cna

If you are passionate about providing care to people with certain medical needs, a career as a certified nursing assistant may be the ideal choice for you. Certified nursing assistants, or “CNAs”, form the foundation of a medical team. And while they don’t make medical decisions or diagnose conditions, they are crucial components of providing proper care and comfort to patients.

What Is a CNA and What Do They Do?

A CNA has an important role in the overall efficiency and effectiveness of a medical staff. Generally, they work as a patient’s main caregiver, and assist other nursing staff, like registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), in hospitals, long-term care facilities, nursing homes and even private residences, among other places.

Although a CNA’s job is challenging, the reward stems from the chance to connect with patients on a personal level. The day-to-day responsibilities you’ll experience as a CNA help foster nurse-patient relationships, much because of the front-line duties you are expected to perform, such as:

  • Assisting the disabled
  • Developing patient reports for nursing staff and doctors
  • Monitoring patient vital signs
  • Feeding and hydrating patient
  • Monitoring nutrition levels
  • Increasing patient physical activity, as needed
  • Responding to patient calls
  • Caring for wounds
  • Caring for patient personal hygiene and grooming
  • Sterilizing rooms and equipment
  • Assisting with medical procedures

Due to the responsibilities bestowed on a CNA, the career path attracts people with certain skills and traits. First, working in healthcare inherently comes with experiencing some unpleasant, scary and even heart-breaking situations up close. Because of this, a mentally and physically strong person, who’s able to keep up with the demands of the job, tends to see more success in the field.

Second, people with great communication skills will thrive in this role. Since CNAs spend the majority of their day directly helping people—whether moving a patient from a wheelchair to the bathroom, going on a long walk with an elderly patient for some exercise, or reporting a patient’s sudden blood pressure change—communication is key. Especially if you’re operating in a high-stress, fast-paced environment. You’re also helping patients navigate possibly one of the most difficult life moments for them, their family and other loved ones.

Lastly, interpersonal skills will go a long way in any type of nursing career, including one as a CNA. You’ll need to carry a noticeable sense of empathy, patience and compassion for those of whom you’ve been entrusted to serve. On top of that, being a communicative team player on your medical staff helps promote better, more holistic care for all patients.

Other types of skills and character traits you may need as a CNA include:

  • Quick problem solver
  • High attention to detail
  • Good time management skills
  • Comfortable serving a diverse array of patients
  • Ability to understand and communicate medical and healthcare regulations
  • Breadth of knowledge on basic care, symptoms and signs of improvement

Different Types of Nurses

When it comes to working in the nursing profession, there are many different types of jobs available, each with their own unique qualifications, demands and salary. If you’re new to the nursing profession and are exploring your options, you’re probably being bombarded with many acronyms of various positions. Let’s define some of these nursing positions and how they fit into the overall hierarchy of the medical staff:


We’ve already covered a little bit about the duties and skills often associated with the job of a certified nursing assistant, but let’s take a deeper dive. CNAs are the bedrock of any effective medical team, taking direction from other nursing staff like LPNs and RNs, while administering basic care and comfort to patients. Becoming a CNA has the lowest barrier of entry of any nursing career. Plus, it’s a great jumping off point for a higher-level position in nursing or healthcare. The requirements include a high school diploma or equivalent, passing a state-approved education and training program that usually last one to three months, and pass a final test to obtain CNA certification. As a CNA, you can expect to earn somewhere around the career’s median salary of $29,640 a year.


An LPN directly oversees the CNA, and because of extra training, is allowed to perform more complex medical tasks. Becoming an LPN requires a higher level of education, one that is much more formal than the process of becoming a CNA. LPNs can expect to spend about 12 months in an accredited program in order to achieve the title. Once they do achieve that status, however, they can expect to earn more money than their counterparts – the median annual salary for an LPN is $47,480 or $23 an hour. Plus, this doesn’t account for the potential overtime, holiday pay, bonuses and other benefits. Some facilities may even offer to pay for some or all of a continuing education tuition.


The role of an RN is above an LPN, and this position provides the majority of nursing care in healthcare facilities. They conduct duties such as administering medication, inserting IVs, performing diagnostic tests, developing patient care plans and more. RNs can also specialize in specific treatments, medicines or patient populations. Overall, this type of nursing career path is the most difficult to obtain, usually requiring either associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), as well as passing the NCLEX-RN exam and getting licensed in your specific state, among other things. But, the salary is also the highest, at a median of $79,000 in 2019.

How to Become a CNA

Becoming a CNA is one of the quickest ways to obtain a career in the medical field. While there are still several educational and experiential requirements, as long as you have a high school diploma, becoming officially certified can be accomplished in as little as a few months. If you’re ready to get started with the process, there are four main steps you need to become a CNA:

  1. Earn your high school diploma or GED equivalent; a curriculum that’s biased toward STEM and humanitarian subjects may be of greater use for a CNA student.
  2. Undergo state-required CNA training and education programs, often through community colleges, online programs, vocational schools, hospitals or the Red Cross.
  3. Pass a state-administered exam. The exam consists of both multiple-choice questions and practical-skill testing.
  4. Check for further requirements with your specific state. You may need to meet additional qualifications including physical-psychological criteria, a criminal background check or even pursue continuing education.

Once all of these steps are accomplished, you are now placed on a state registry and can begin applying for relevant positions. Compared to other medical professions, it’s fairly easy to become a CNA, with the only educational prerequisite being a high school diploma. Schooling is relatively quick as well, taking around four to 12 weeks to complete. Of course, that doesn’t mean the process demands little or no effort.

When you enroll in CNA school, you officially start on a path toward a brighter, more fulfilling career. During your time in a state-approved education program, you will study subject matter such as physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, healthcare regulations and so on. You’ll also learn more about effectively communicating with patients and other medical professionals, as well as healthcare regulations. Some of this is learned simply with the experience that comes from being on the job – and the large majority of programs will put you in a supervised, real-life environment to give you just that.

On-site training, also known as clinical work or studies, gives CNA students the chance to provide care to patients under the guidance of a qualified professional, such as an RN or LPN. Clinical work involves measuring vital signs, changing bedding, grooming and hygiene care, and other entry-level duties a CNA performs. Responsibilities are increased as the student progresses through their programs and gains experience interacting with patients. This portion is incredibly valuable for gauging your interest and ability in nursing, and generally needs to be completed before you can graduate from a program.

In order to enroll in CNA school, the first thing to do is to check with local community colleges, high schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities, as they may offer their own educational or on-the-job training programs (the latter options may also be a good way to get your foot in the door with a potential employer). Remember, the requirements for becoming a CNA varies from state to state, so be sure to check with your own government’s website for a more comprehensive overview.

Where to Take Classes

Another good thing about the process of becoming a CNA is that the schooling is more flexible. Not only do many local institutions and medical clinics offer training programs, much of your CNA coursework can be completed in a way that’s preferential to you: either in person, online or in a hybrid fashion of the two.

Online CNA Classes

As we stated before, some programs can last 12 weeks or longer, depending on the class schedule and size. However, with the rise of virtual instruction, that timeframe can be shortened considerably, with some of the quickest programs taking just a few weeks to complete. Other benefits of taking online CNA classes include more flexibility to suit your lifestyle and less supervision, for those that like to learn more independently.

There are a couple of negatives to heavy online coursework, however. The first being that individuals may not gain the same core knowledge and skills as those that are interacting with professors and students regularly. Also, those that find a more structured, straight-forward operation favorable may not fare so well with the virtual approach.

The majority of schools will split the required hours between classes and clinical work. Many offer virtual course work for lectures and presentations and other class-based work, while others offer a hybrid approach. Regardless, in-person clinical hours are required by each state before applying for certification, so you’ll be required to step away from the laptop once in a while. But, a hybrid option can provide the best of both worlds, saving you a lot of hassle while still delivering the proper training.

For more information on online CNA classes, get started by entering your zip code below, and compare your top matches. Find the best CNA online program for you, and get started on your path to a new career!

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In-Person CNA Classes

Some people prefer the in-person approach, and it can bode well for those who enjoy a more social, hands-on approach to learning. A traditional school structure gives students a more interactive setting from which to launch into a career. On the other hand, in-person CNA classes offer less flexibility and restrict your autonomy, which can be big drawbacks for some people.

Perhaps the most well-known place to take in-person CNA classes is through local community colleges, vocational/technical schools, hospitals, medical clinics and nursing homes. These programs vary and normally have their own set of requirements needed for acceptance. Another popular option is through the Red Cross, offering a hybrid approach.

Cost of CNA Classes

The overall average tuition cost for in-state CNA students is about $71.50 per credit hour, and the average cost for out-of-state students is around $263.50 per credit hour. When paying flat fees, you can expect to pay somewhere above $1,000. For example, the Red Cross has a hybrid program that costs $1,250 and lasts 4-8 weeks. Be aware that other fees may apply as well, such as text books, school supplies and software.

Do some research into programs in your area, as you may be able to save money by choosing a more cost-effective program, like in-state or online.

CNA Salary & Job Outlook

So, you know what it takes to become a certified nursing assistant, but what’s the payoff? Your starting salary as a CNA will vary from state to state and facility to facility. For example, in a government setting, a Veteran’s Association hospital, CNAs report a median salary of $35,500, but an in-home CNA nabs a median salary of $29,000. Broken down, that equates to about $14.25 an hour, which is considered well above federal minimum wage.

And, you can feel secure in your profession when you become a CNA. The job has a positive outlook, with Nursing Journal reporting, “The healthcare industry is set to grow tremendously. This is seen very strongly in the outlook for CNAs as well. Indeed, the [job] increase is projected to be as much as 20% by 2020, which is well above the national average. This means some 300,000 jobs are set to be created.”

Overall, a CNA has many responsibilities as the foundation of a medical staff, including monitoring the day-to-day health and comfort of a diverse set of patients. The many benefits of such a rewarding career path include the chance to connect with people on a personal level in the exciting field of medical care. With the right education and a commitment to the lifestyle, the process of becoming a CNA is easily within your grasp.