How to Become a Nursing Assistant

Training to become a certified nursing assistant can be a great way to gain experience and begin a career in the medical field.

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by Laura Bengs

Published August 12, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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How to Become a Nursing Assistant
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Training to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) can be a great career choice for someone who is compassionate and likes working with patients. As a certified nursing assistant, you'll work with patients to help them with daily activities under the direction of another medical professional like a registered nurse.

To become a CNA, you need a high school diploma and a certification. The salary for a CNA can vary based on a person's location, experience level, and other factors, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in May 2021, CNAs made a mean annual wage of $33,250. Often people interested in pursuing nursing careers or other jobs in medicine can start as CNAs to learn more about the field and get experience.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Do?

Most certificate programs prepare students to become a CNA 1, which allows them to assist in healthcare facilities. Further training and work experience can advance workers to CNA 2, which allows them to work in hospitals, or CNA 3, which permits professionals to work in labs.

Becoming a CNA is a popular choice for professionals who want to change careers and pursue a nursing degree. After earning an associate or bachelor's degree and passing a national nursing exam, they can practice as registered nurses.

Nursing Assistant Responsibilities

  • CNAs help patients with daily activities like bathing, grooming, and feeding. Often these tasks require documentation, such as how much a patient has eaten.
  • CNAs can also check vital signs for patients like blood pressure or heart rate. They can also help with answering patient calls and transporting patients.
  • Nursing assistants may also be responsible for helping gather medical supplies and clean rooms and bed linens.

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What Are the Steps to Become a Nursing Assistant?

To become a nursing assistant, you must gain training and certification after earning your high school diploma. Follow these steps outlined below to become a certified nursing assistant.

Step 1: Earn a Diploma or GED Certificate

You'll need to either earn a high school diploma or a GED certificate (awarded through a GED test) to become a nursing assistant. A diploma and a GED certificate certify that you've obtained the baseline knowledge needed to carry out activities to care for others.

Because you'll likely only be carrying out care activities established by another medical professional, a bachelor's degree is not required to become a CNA.

Step 2: Complete a CNA Training Program

Training programs are offered through colleges, trade schools, or medical facilities. Programs can be relatively inexpensive.

While requirements vary by state, you could earn your CNA license in as little as a month. However, it can often take trainees a few months (about 12 weeks) to complete classroom training, clinical hours, and the certification exam.

Before selecting a program, ensure it's accredited by the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission.

Step 3: Apply for CNA Certification

After you've completed your training, you'll need to take a certification exam through the certifying agency in your state. This can cost around $125 to take the test and another $50 to apply for certification. In your application, you'll provide personal information, submit a copy of your diploma from your training program, and enroll for the certification exam.

Typically, the certification takes around 5-7 business days to process once you've turned in all your materials.

Step 4: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

Depending on your goals, you may choose to engage in continuing education to further your career in the field of nursing. Or, you may be required to earn continuing education credits to maintain your license.

You may enroll in an associate or bachelor's degree program to become a registered nurse. Or you could pursue graduate studies to become a nurse practitioner, physician's assistant, or another high-paying nursing position to increase your earning potential.

Additional certifications like a certified hospice and palliative nursing assistant (CHPNA) or medication aide certification can increase opportunities and earning potential as a CNA as well.

What to Know Before Becoming a Nursing Assistant

Accreditation

You should ensure that the program you enroll in is accredited. Most states require you to complete your training at an accredited institution when applying for certification. Information about accreditation can usually be found on an institution's website.

Cost

Most CNA training programs are much less expensive than two-year degree programs, but this can vary depending on where you complete your training. You'll also want to weigh the costs of online programs vs. on-campus programs. To determine the true cost of a program, make sure to account for hidden costs and the fees for exams and the certification application.

Salary

According to the BLS, the mean annual wage for nursing assistants was $33,250 in May 2021. If you choose to pursue graduate studies in nursing, you could increase your earning potential. Nurse practitioners (who must possess a master of science in nursing) earned a mean annual wage of $118,040 during the same period, according to the BLS.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Nursing Assistant

Is a nursing assistant the same as a nurse?

A nursing assistant and a nurse have different training. Therefore, they also have different job responsibilities. Nursing assistants are limited in what they're able to do for patients. They typically help with basic personal care activities for daily living, perform routine vital checks, and support nurses with routine tasks like changing bed linens and stocking supplies.

A nurse has completed a degree program in nursing and passed a different exam that licensed them as a registered nurse. Registered nurses are central to the patient care team, generally leading the medical support for patients, working alongside doctors to carry out treatment plans.

What is the fastest way to become a nursing assistant?

If you're looking to get your certification quickly, you'll want to select a short program. CNA programs have two components: classroom work and clinical work. Finding a program that allows you to complete classroom and clinical work simultaneously can be a good way to expedite your CNA certification.

An online program could also be a good solution. Virtual programs can allow you to complete classwork independently rather than waiting for a class. Some programs can take as little as four weeks, while others can take months, depending on the requirements of the program and your availability to complete the program.

How do I become a nursing assistant without a degree?

To become a nursing assistant, you do not need an associate or bachelor's degree. To become a nursing assistant, you must enroll in a CNA training program. These programs require you to earn a high school diploma or GED certificate. If you haven't yet earned a GED certificate, that is the first step to becoming a CNA.

Many CNAs choose to pursue a nursing degree following CNA certification. So even if you don't have a degree, it may be something you'll choose to pursue down the road.

Can I become a nursing assistant with an online degree?

You'll want to look into the training options in your state, but many states offer CNA training online. Although completing your classroom training online can be a great way to save time (and sometimes money), you'll still need to complete mandatory clinical hours in person.

Online courses, however, can offer flexibility in your schedule. In many instances, online courses can also allow you to expedite your training by completing classroom work and clinical hours simultaneously.

How much money can I make as a nursing assistant?

In May 2021, the BLS reported that certified nursing assistants made a mean annual wage of $33,250. This salary can change depending on where you are employed. Nursing assistants in nursing care facilities earned an average of $32,090 per year, yet nursing assistants in general hospitals earned $35,190 annually.

Salaries can also vary depending on what state you work in. According to the BLS, nursing assistants in New York earned a mean annual wage of $40,620 in May 2021, but in South Dakota, they earned $29,660.

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