Certification vs. Certificate: What’s the Difference?

If you are confused about the difference between professional certifications and certificates, you’re not alone. The fact is, a close look at certifications vs. certificates reveals that there are many similarities between the two. Most importantly, both have advantages, such as job readiness, professional recognition, and increased salary. Depending on the stage of your education or career, it might be a good time to explore certification or certificate programs offered through universities and other organizations.

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What Is the Difference Between Certifications and Certificates?

Both certifications and certificates require students to take a course of study and pass an exam or series of exams to show their mastery of a topic. However, the main differences between certifications and certificates are the entities that issue them and their different objectives.


Certifications attest to the fact that a professional has the work and educational experience to be considered an expert in a particular knowledge base or skill set. These credentials are typically offered through standard-setting organizations such as professional associations or major corporations. They generally have three components:


Certification measures a professional’s knowledge, skills, and experience — then validates this mastery. For example, professional associations such as the American Nursing Association offer certifications to verify expertise in different areas of nursing practice. They require nursing professionals to have a certain amount of education and work experience in the field before they’re eligible to sit for exams.

Education Standards

Most certifications require applicants to have a certain number of education hours from accredited universities before they’re eligible to apply or take certification exams. These certifications assure employers that professionals have the highest level of education and experience to practice in their field.

Some university degree programs help prepare students for passing certification exams, so students who complete the program of study will be eligible for professional certification in their field. For instance, Maryville University’s communications programs help prepare students for certifications such as Google Analytics and HubSpot Content Marketing.

Continuing Professional Education (CPE)

Certifications usually require yearly continuing professional education. For example, accountants must take 120 hours of CPE over a three-year period to be eligible to renew their certified public accountant (CPA) license. If professionals don’t meet these and other requirements, they have to go through a process (depending on the certifying authority) to regain their certification.


While certification validates a professional’s expertise, the goal of a certificate is to provide training in specific job skills. Certificates can be offered by a variety of providers — including universities and online platforms — and for a variety of subjects. For instance:

University Certificates

Undergraduate-level certificates offered by universities and colleges are similar to an associate or bachelor’s degree. However, they tend to be more narrowly focused on providing an immediate skill-based education to students and returning students, and therefore typically take less time to earn than a degree. Classes focus on the required certificate credits but may also include electives or other courses.

At the post-bachelor’s degree level, a certificate program provides additional coursework in a specialized area. Students who have a degree in one major can choose a certificate to get up to speed in a different area of study. They can use the certificate to prepare for a master’s or doctorate program or enter the job market with this new skill. In some cases, a certificate provides the needed education credit hours so someone can be eligible to move forward in their new profession.

Other Certificates

LinkedIn, Coursera, and other providers offer certificates in software development, Excel, marketing, project management, user experience, and many additional topics. Other certificates are available for trades such as construction, heating and air conditioning, and food service. These generally certify that an individual has taken a course and passed an exam.

Certificates do not require yearly continuing professional education.

Examples of Professional Certifications

Certifications usually require professionals to have a certain number of college credits and a specific number of years of work experience (sometimes measured in thousands of hours). Examples of certifications include:

Adobe Certified Professional

The Adobe certified professional program confirms that a professional has the experience to be a digital media expert. Certification holders have skills in the Adobe creative suite, as well as in analytics and project management.

Certified Public Accountant (CPA)

Offered by the American Institute of CPAs, the CPA validates an accountant’s education and experience and ensures that the candidate meets ethical standards. It signifies that an accountant has the authority to sign off on tax returns, corporate audits, and other financial documents.

Certified Nurse Practitioner (CNP)

A CNP is a registered nurse who has additional training and education. They often specialize in family practice, pediatrics, or a subject such as gerontology. CNPs have full or partial practice authority, which refers to whether their state allows them to independently diagnose illnesses and prescribe medications. A CNP requires a master’s degree or higher.

Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)

The Information Systems Audit and Control Association offers the CISA. This certification validates a professional’s experience and skills in analyzing information technology security risks, conducting security audits, identifying weaknesses, and shoring up defenses. As with other certifications, professionals must maintain their CISA certification with continuing education hours.

EC-Council Certified Security Analyst (ECSA)

The ECSA is administered by the International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council). It certifies that a cybersecurity professional has the education and experience to qualify as a “white hat” hacker — someone who protects companies and governments against malicious hacking attacks.

National Board Certified (NBC) and State Board Certified Teaching Certification

Besides a state-issued teaching certificate, some teachers become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Teachers need to keep up with continuing professional education requirements to maintain their certification. The national board also has requirements for maintaining the NBC, in which teachers document their professional development every five years.

Examples of Certificates

Certificate programs abound, especially for coding and other IT fields. Universities, for-profit training centers, and online learning portals all offer certificates. Students should do research before signing up for a certificate program to make sure that the training meets professional standards.

University certificate programs tend to be more like hyper-focused degree programs than those offered by training centers. Certificate students will learn about the same topics from the same professors who teach the undergraduate or graduate degree courses but with a focus on courses in their chosen topic. In some cases, university certificate credits may be applied toward a degree later on.

Some examples of certificates are:

Software Development

Software development certificate programs teach developers how to code in a variety of software programming languages. Skills taught include web design and development. A university certificate program can take as few as two semesters to achieve — longer than a coding boot camp, but potentially more thorough.

User Experience and User Interface (UX/UI)

Everyone knows the frustration of trying to navigate a confusing website. UX/UI certificate programs teach students the fundamentals of user-friendly design. These programs cover the basics of design as well as the language of the web — HTML, Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), and visual coding techniques. A certificate in UX/UI can lead to a role in IT, marketing, sales, and more.

Big Data

The field of big data is taking on increasing importance as cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and the interconnection of devices to the web continue to grow. Students who have a background in computer science can specialize in big data topics. Other students who want to move into this field can use a certificate program to act as a bridge between their current degree and career and their next one.

Project Management

A project management certificate shows that a professional understands how to coordinate all of the moving pieces for a project to be a success. Courses may teach skills including agile concepts, spreadsheets, and presentation tools, as well as people management, budgeting, and communications.

What Are the Benefits of a University Certificate?

While there are similarities between certifications and certificates, one or the other may benefit you more based on your current career or education level. If certification is for you, you may want to explore graduate programs that can help you show you are at the top of your professional game.

If you are looking to start, change, or advance your career, a university certificate can yield many benefits that may impact your professional success down the line. Certificates can help you stay abreast of advances in your field or prepare you to enter a new career. Some of the benefits of university certificates are:

  • Accreditation. Students can be confident that their program meets accreditation standards. They will take classes from instructors who also teach in the degree programs.
  • Stackability. Transferable certificates or credits can be stacked or accumulated to signify skill building and contribute toward an associate or bachelor’s degree, or even an advanced degree.
  • Certificates as milestones. Students can use certificates to get an education on their timetable and have something to show for their efforts at each step.
  • Upskilling and re-skilling. Whether building skills or changing careers, certificate programs allow students to manage their career goals by providing shorter programs that focus on specific job skills or prepare them for an advanced degree.
  • Post-degree specialization. Students who already have a bachelor’s or master’s degree may use certificates to gain expertise in a more satisfying or lucrative specialization.

Explore Maryville University’s Online Certificate Programs

Depending on your current professional or educational level, a certification or certificate may be right for you. If you are ready to take the next step toward changing or furthering your career, explore the online certificate programs from Maryville University. With programs in computer science, cybersecurity, healthcare, and communication science, Maryville’s certificate programs offer many ways to boost your career with exciting new skills. Discover the options for professional advancement with Maryville University.

Recommended Reading

The Benefits of Continuing Education in an Uncertain Job Market

Certificate vs. Degree: Which Path Is Best for You?

Maryville University Prepares Students for Tomorrow’s Careers with Its New Tech-Focused Online Certificates


American Association of Legal Nurse Consultants, Certification vs. Certificate

American Institute of CPAs, Frequently Asked Questions FAQs — Become a CPA

American National Standards Institute, “The Difference Between Certification and Certificate”

The Balance Careers, “Certificate Programs That Lead to Well-Paying Jobs”

Fast Company, “‘No College Degree Required’: Google Expands Certificate Program for In-Demand Job Skills”

Fortune, “IBM’s New Path to a Six-Figure Salary Doesn’t Require a College Degree”

Grow with Google, Google Project Management Certificate

Indeed, “10 In-Demand Career Certifications (and How to Achieve Them)”

LinkedIn Learning, Become a Project Manager

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Why Maintain Certification

The Training Center of Air Conditioning & Heating, Classes

Wired, “More Students Are ‘Stacking’ Credentials En Route to a Degree”

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