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Certificate vs. Certification: What’s the Difference?

When you want to advance your career or maybe move into a new field altogether, there are a lot of programs that can help you do that. 

It’s fairly easy in the current environment, for example, to find a certificate program with 100% online coursework. 

Before you invest any time and money into a program, you need to understand what it is and also what it isn’t. 

For example, people often use certificate and certification interchangeably, but they’re different concepts and types of programs. Below we compare the two and also talk more about how a certificate can vary from a degree program. 

What’s a Certificate?

First, what is a certificate program? A certificate program is a training or educational program that’s used to teach certain learning objectives and then determine if students have achieved those objectives. 

A certificate isn’t something that’s a replacement for a degree, but it can have career benefits. 

When you earn a certificate, it’s the result of an educational process, and it shows you’ve completed a course or perhaps a series of courses that have a specific focus. Certificates come from accredited educational institutions. 

Along with getting a certificate from a college, some vocational schools offer them. The timeframe to complete a certificate program is usually shorter than a degree. 

Depending on your program, you can get an undergraduate or graduate certificate. 

Certificate vs. a Degree

A certificate and a diploma share in common that they’re acknowledging the person completed a course of study at an educational institution. 

Certificates can take a few months up to a few years complete, and the cost is usually less than a few thousand dollars. Bachelor’s degrees, by contrast, take four years on average and can cost upwards of $40,000. 

Certificates can boost your skills, and you may be able to transfer credits you earn through a certificate program to get your bachelor’s degree, but for many jobs, a bachelor’s degree is ultimately required. 

Colleges have been adding thousands of certificate programs to their offerings in recent years, and you can pursue these courses of study while you’re earning your degree or before or after. 

One of the benefits of a certificate over a degree is that you can respond more quickly to what’s happening in the larger economy, job market, and your field. You can get those extra skills relatively fast and then be able to ensure you’re a competitive candidate. 

Comparing a Certificate and Certification

One area where people tend to get confused is when talking about a certificate vs. a certification. 

A certificate is a way to show you received an education on a certain topic. Certification shows you’ve met some type of industry standard or passed an exam. Certifications are standardized and typically issued by national organizations. 

The awarding organizations of certification will set the standards, and some industry certifications are known for being especially tough to earn. 

There are certain industries where certifications are incredibly important, like the financial industry. Then, in other industries, there may be no needed or expected certifications. 

If you’re choosing between a certificate and a certification, there are certain things to consider. 

First, you’ll want to think about the prerequisites and whether you meet them. Anyone can enroll in a certificate course. Certification is based on your professional experience, and every industry will have its own set of requirements to meet before you can take the certification exam. 

The process can be different. With a certificate, you go through an educational program, and you have to meet the learning objectives outlined by it. To get a certification, you have to be eligible to take the certification exam, and you have to pass it. With certification, you also have to keep up with any required maintenance requirements to keep your status. 

When you complete a certification, you get a designation that you can put after your name to show that you’re certified. If you get a certificate, you will list this as part of your educational background. 

With a certificate program, there’s a beginning and an end. Certification, as mentioned, is ongoing and continuous. You have to take exams regularly to show that you’re continuously competent in your field. 

Sometimes it’s not an either-or question with certificates and certifications. Since they can achieve different goals, you might pursue both, depending on your objectives and what you hope to achieve in your career. Both types of programs share in common that they aim to help you in your career, whether it’s building a career initially or advancing it. 


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