Dr. Jan Olson Reviewed By: Dr. Jan Olson
Authored By: Dave Evangelisti
How to Become a CNA

Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is a great career for anyone who wants to work in the medical field. Whether it’s your true career or a stepping stone to another area of medicine, CNAs are incredibly important members of medical staff.

In fact, there’s expected to be over 175,000 new openings by 2026 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, there are some requirements you will need to become a CNA before you start working anywhere.

So read on if you want to learn how to become a CNA.

Before diving into how to become a CNA, you should make sure you understand the responsibilities of CNAs when it comes to patient care. In most cases, CNAs spend the most time with patients and can build relationships with their patients that benefit both parties.

Primarily, CNAs take vitals and observe patients to ensure their health is on track. Their patients may be in recovery after a procedure, reside in assisted-living, or have a terminal illness. CNAs assist their patients in normal day-to-day activities, including bathing, eating, getting dressed, and going to the bathroom. You may need to assist a patient transfer themselves between their bed, a chair, wheelchair, walker, or the car.

By spending so much time with patients one-on-one, CNAs are often the first person on a medical team to notice small changes that can indicate a medical change. If you notice any change, you will notify other members of the medical team to investigate further.

The amount of time needed to become a CNA varies from state to state. While each state has its own requirements for CNA training and testing, the Federal Government requires at least 75 hours of training before anyone can sit for a certification exam. The state of Maine requires 180 hours of training, which is the most in the country. Classroom training ranges from 4 to 12 weeks.

Additionally, future CNAs are usually required to log at least 16 clinical hours prior to testing. The minimum number of clinical hours varies by state, but the more clinical hours performed could mean you have a higher chance of passing the certification exam and getting the CNA position you desire. New Mexico and Nevada are the only two states who do not require any clinical hours before taking the certification test. 

Number of Clinical Hours Required Before Testing  Number of States 
 No requirement 2
 16 hours 15
 20 - 50 hours 23
 55+ hours 11

Like any education program, there are requirements you must meet before becoming a CNA. At minimum, you will need a high school diploma or GED before applying to a CNA program. In most states, you need to be at least 18 years old, but a few allow you to apply for programs if you are 16 or 17 with a parent’s consent.

In some states, there are some additional requirements before you can apply for a CNA program. You may need to pass a physical examination, provide proof of immunizations, be tested for tuberculosis (TB), and complete a background check. A valid driver’s license and prior CPR/First Aid certification may also be required.

Once you are accepted and passed a state-approved CNA program, you will need to log the minimum number of clinical hours in your state to meet the full CNA certification requirements needed to sit for the exam. After passing the certification exam, you’re officially a CNA!

Before you enroll in any CNA program, double check that it is approved by your state. Most states will not allow you to sit for the certification exam if you have not completed a state-approved program. That would be a lot of time, and possibly money, wasted if you’re unable to move on to the next step of becoming a CNA.

One more thing to note is physical strength. There is no federal or state requirement for physical strength for CNAs, but keep in mind that one of the responsibilities could involve moving patients. You should feel comfortable and confident that you can assist someone without injuring yourself or the patient.  To learn more about CNA requirements or becoming a CNA, make sure to check out all of our CNA articles.

Depending on where you live, one of the first places you can likely find a state-approved CNA program is at your local community college. Vocational schools are another option for finding CNA programs if a community college near you doesn’t offer one. Keep in mind that the Red Cross offers CNA programs in 13 states and are adjusted to meet each state’s criteria. 

If you’re looking for an online CNA program, you will find them. Despite their availability, it is highly encouraged that prospective CNAs complete their training in a classroom for the best instruction and preparation for the CNA certification exam. 

The CNA certification exam includes a written portion and clinical skills portion. Each state has its own requirements for how many questions are on the exam, so the time needed will vary state to state. The clinical portion of the exam takes approximately 30 minutes.

For the written portion, you’ll likely go to a testing center operated by a third party. It’s recommended to arrive early as some testing centers will not permit you to sit for your exam if you are late even by one minute. Remember to bring a photo-ID and confirmation that you are registered for the exam. 

During the clinical skills portion of your exam, you will be tested on 3-6 skills on a mannequin or another student. Most students wear scrubs to this portion of the exam. You can amaze the proctor with your skills, but if you fail to wash your hands for an entire 20 seconds, you will fail this portion of the CNA certification exam. 

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Similar to each state’s requirements to sit for the exam, each state institutes its own fees for the exam. On average, the cost of the exam is around $100.

There are several study methods that will help you be well-prepared for the certification exam. There are numerous free CNA practice tests you can take to gauge your knowledge before test day. To prepare for the written portion, you can also purchase a study guide written specifically for the exam. For the skills portion, you will want to practice on either a mannequin, fellow classmate, or friend. 

Don’t worry. Your dream of being a CNA isn’t dead just because you fail the certification exam. Most of the time, students fail one portion of the exam, and that tends to be the written portion. If the testing center gives you a print out of your answers, review what you did poorly on and study that material more closely before retaking the exam. 

For those who fail the skills portion, the same strategy applies. Consider the feedback given by the proctor to enhance that skill before your next test date. Be sure to go over your other skills because you may not be tested on the same skills as before.

Some testing centers may allow you to retake the written portion immediately. Otherwise, you’ll have up to two years to retake that portion before you’ll be required to go through your CNA training class again. 

If for whatever reason you happen to fail the CNA certification exam three times, you will be required to retake the entire training program before you’re allowed to test again. This is incredibly uncommon so it likely won’t happen to you.

CNAs find careers in a variety of environments and serve a wide range of patients. Most CNAs work for companies that specialize in residential and long-term care. You may visit a patient’s home, assisted-living facility, or hospital room to care for them.

Depending on your aspirations as a CNA, you can choose to work in hospice care, for a hospital in any of its departments, or another type of medical clinic.

CNAs are angels

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, CNAs make a median salary of $28,530 or $13.72 per hour. If you’re able to get a full-time position as a CNA, this could come with other great benefits. You might be eligible for medical insurance, a 401k, and education benefits if you decide you want to go deeper into the medical field.

If you find that you really enjoy patient care and your role as a CNA but have a desire for more, you can use your experience to apply for a registered nurse (RN) program.

Obtaining a CNA license is the perfect stepping stone for anyone who wants to advance to an RN and get practical experience that will help them transition into that new role after completing the required education. 


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