How to Become a CNA

Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) or nursing aid is one of the quickest ways to gain hands-on experience in the healthcare field.
Nurse treating patient
Ximena Lama-Rondon

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December 7, 2022

Table of Contents

For many, earning a CNA certification is a stepping stone on the way to becoming a registered nurse – but it can just as easily be the source of long-term, flexible employment.

This article will detail how long it takes to become a CNA, what a CNA license will allow you to do, and what you can learn from the program.

Certified Nursing Assistants: Frequently Asked Questions

What is a CNA?

A CNA is often the healthcare team member who will interact the most with hospitalized patients. They help patients with many activities of daily living, such as eating, bathing, moving, or getting dressed. They also assist Registered Nurses (RNs) and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) in monitoring a patient’s comfort, food and water intake, and vital signs.

CNAs are needed at an inpatient facility. In addition to hospitals, they also play an essential role in assisted living facilities, rehab centers, and nursing homes.

The work of a CNA is a hard one, and it involves a fair amount of lifting and moving. However, they are also uniquely positioned to establish deep relationships with their patients and help preserve the dignity of those aging, deteriorating, or chronically ill.

How much does a CNA earn?

They are regarded as entry-level positions in the healthcare industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average CNA or nurse aid salary in the United States is $30,830 per year. This figure assumes a full-time, 40-hour week, with no overtime or bonuses included.

How long does it take to become a CNA?

This will depend on your area’s requirements and your own ability. If you can devote yourself to it full-time, it can take as little as 6 weeks. If you prefer to take fewer courses at a time or need to space out your practice hours, it may take up to 6 to 9 months.

What’s the difference between a CNA and a nurse?

A CNA will often report to an RN, either directly or through an LPN. Since CNA training tends to be pretty short, CNAs have a relatively low amount of tasks that they can perform independently. 

For example, while they can take vital signs or record fluid intake, they cannot interpret the data. Instead, they will report it to an RN or LPN, who will determine whether to alter the care plan or leave things as is. 

Furthermore, a CNA license will not allow you to place an intravenous line, administer medication through one, insert a catheter, or formulate care plans.

Can I work as a CNA while attending nursing school?

Yes – in fact, this is one of the best jobs to have as a nursing student, as it combines two main advantages:

  • Direct access to a healthcare environment, where you can directly see many of the topics covered in class.
  • Rotating round-the-clock schedules and flexibility when scheduling your shifts, which will help you work around your deadlines, labs, and clinicals.

Just remember not to overdo it! If your final goal is to become an RN, it will be much easier if you only work part-time. Fortunately, many nursing homes and home care agencies need a pool of CNAs and are happy to hire them part-time.

What do I need to be a good CNA?

Working as a CNA requires many of the same soft skills you would as a registered nurse.

Empathy is probably the most valuable one, and you will need to keep it close to your heart as you deal with people who may be going through unimaginable pain or who may be embarrassed at needing help with bathing or going to the bathroom.

You will also need lots of patience: people in pain can often be demanding or mean, as can their relatives when they are afraid of losing someone they love.

It will also help if you are the type of person who enjoys remaining backstage, easing the way for other lead actors.

Requirements to Become a CNA

A Certified Nursing Assistant will need to earn a state license to practice. Here, we have focused on the overall steps required to gain a license, as these tend to be pretty consistent. The number of credits, practice hours, and fees will vary from state to state.

Before you get started

The process to become a CNA usually involves:

  1. Completing a state-licensed CNA training program
  2. Completing a rotation, internship, or clinical rotation
  3. Passing the licensing exam

Classroom learning

An approved training program will handle the theory part of your CNA education. Depending on the school and state, this portion of the program can take between 4 weeks and 4 months. Usually, these classes will include basic notions of anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, and medical terminology.

The American Red Cross CNA program is one of the most extensive and affordable nationwide. Depending on your location, you may be able to choose between in-person classes, online modules, or a blended program.

In addition, many community colleges offer CNA programs. You should always contact your State’s Nursing board and check your chosen program’s credentials.

Before entering an approved training program, you will also need a High School completion certificate or a GED. Some states also set a minimum age (usually between 16 and 17) or require you to undergo a physical examination.

Clinical experience

After completing the theory, you will need to apply it to a real-world hospital environment. During their clinical experience or rotation, CNA students will work under an RN and are often guided by an experienced and licensed CNA.

Even if your program offered online classes, this part needs to be in-person. If you are enrolled in one of the American Red Cross CNA programs, they will place you at their affiliated hospitals or skilled nursing facilities. 

If your program is being sponsored by a private hospital or nursing home, you may be able to fulfill the required hours under a “CNA internship.” This means you may receive a small stipend or a job offer after gaining your license.

Licensing exam

The last step before becoming a CNA is to pass your state’s licensing exam. This exam will show potential employers that you have the minimum skills and knowledge to work as a CNA. 

Once again, each state’s nursing board will alter the exam slightly. However, most states now include a theory and practical section.

  • The theory or knowledge exam usually consists of multiple-choice questions from a randomized question bank.
  • The practical or skills section will involve performing specific skills on an actual patient. An examiner will ensure you follow all appropriate steps and procedures.

Recertification

So once you pass the exam (and pay the licensing fee), you are set for life, right?

Not really.

Nowadays, most states require CNAs to renew their certificate every two to five years.

In some areas, recertification just requires proof that you have been working as a CNA for a minimum number of hours over the last year, and this is considered enough to prove that you didn’t forget what you learned. However, CNA licensure rules follow the same trends as other healthcare professions. As a result, some states now require you to complete Continuing Education (CE) credits as part of the recertification process.

If you have your heart set on being a CNA for the long term, you should research the recertification requirements in your area. However, for many students, becoming a CNA is just a temporary “stepping stone” on the way to becoming a Registered Nurse.

Do I Really Need a CNA license before Nursing school?

In short – no, but it can be beneficial according to many experienced nurses (and even some nursing schools).

Here are a few reasons why:

  • First, it can help strengthen your application for nursing school or related scholarships. Many of the top schools around the country prefer candidates who have direct healthcare experience. This helps them ensure all their students are truly committed to the field and that they won’t simply decide that “blood isn’t for them” halfway through the program.
  • During your clinicals, holding a CNA license will allow you to have more hands-on contact with patients or assist nurses and aides with simple tasks. This could open the door to witnessing more complex procedures, enriching your clinical experience.
  • Working as a CNA for a term or two can also benefit your future development as an RN. You will learn many of the hospital’s routines and cultures. You will also get a chance to cultivate a bedside manner and to set appropriate boundaries with patients. This is something that many nursing students struggle with!
  • If you are still on the fence about whether nursing is for you, some experience as a CNA can help you determine if you feel in your element (or if you had been looking at the profession with rose-tinted glasses).
  • Finally, if you don’t have the means to devote yourself to studying full-time yet, a part-time job as a CNA is one of the best ways to earn extra money while you pursue an RN.

Final Thoughts

Certified Nursing Assistants are one of the foundations of inpatient care. Without them, hospitals, retirement homes, and residential facilities would simply not function. Getting a CNA license is a relatively quick process, which can take less than two months – and for anyone planning a four-year degree in nursing, it can be a great way to smooth out the road ahead.

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