The nurse practitioner (NP) role is an advanced position that offers nurses the opportunity to take on additional responsibility and gain more professional autonomy. In fact, nurse practitioner is the No. 2 profession on the U.S. News and World Report’s 100 Best Jobs of 2023 list, which is based on demand, compensation, advancement opportunities, and other factors.
work independently or in collaboration with physicians to perform many of the same tasks that medical doctors perform. And, as the nation’s healthcare needs increase, so does the demand for the services NPs offer. A staggering 112,700 new NP positions will be added nationwide between 2021 and 2031, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects, representing 46% job growth. That far outpaces the 5% growth the BLS projects for all occupations during that period.
Registered nurses need a graduate-level degree in nursing and a license to practice as NPs, and while requirements vary by state, certification usually is a prerequisite to gaining a license. Nurse practitioner certifications focus on treating specific conditions and populations, allowing nurses to choose their preferred specialization as they pursue new roles and advance their nursing careers.
What Is a Nurse Practitioner Certification?
The potential advantages of pursuing a career as a nurse practitioner are clear, and earning a certification holds its own benefits.
For graduates of advanced nursing programs that prepare their students for NP careers, obtaining a national certification typically is the next step toward becoming a licensed nurse practitioner. A variety of certifications are available, each signifying expertise in caring for a certain patient population or treating a specific medical concern.
5 Benefits of Nurse Practitioner Certifications
The reasons nurses seek NP certifications vary according to the type of certification. In general, however, the benefits of obtaining an NP certification include:
1. Taking the First Step Toward Licensing
Each state requires NPs to be licensed to practice. In most cases, national certification is among the requirements for obtaining that license.
2. Exhibiting a High Level of Expertise
Successfully meeting certification requirements shows a high level of expertise in advanced nursing care. Candidates for certification generally must complete education and training and then pass an exam that measures knowledge in a specific NP specialty.
3. Improving Credibility Among Employers
For employers seeking nurse practitioners, a certification can indicate that a job candidate has the knowledge and skill to provide high-quality care. This outstanding care can lead to improved outcomes for a medical provider’s patients.
4. Showing a Commitment to Advanced Education
Obtaining an NP certification — and recertification — requires a commitment of time, money, and effort. Earning a certification shows a nursing professional’s dedication to enhancing their knowledge and improving their skills.
5. Gaining Access to Opportunities for Career Advancement
Obtaining an NP certification can open doors to new opportunities for nurses. The certification can be a key step toward achieving their first NP position, or it can help them shift or build on the focus of their current role.
Types of Nurse Practitioner Certifications
NPs can specialize in treating a certain population, such as families, or a specific condition, such as mental health issues. They can provide primary care, acute care, or both. Primary care focuses on disease prevention, wellness, and treatment for common illnesses. Acute care is short-term treatment for a severe injury or illness.
Each certification shows expertise in a different NP specialty area. Master’s or doctoral nursing programs typically provide tracks that allow students to focus their studies on a certain specialization.
Nurse practitioner certifications include those targeted specifically to NPs as well as those related to first aid practices. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) provides a list of NP certifications and the organizations that provide them.
For those seeking new certifications, the following are the focus areas of those targeted to nurse practitioners:
- Family nurse practitioner (FNP) — Broad spectrum of services for families and individuals across the life span
- Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP) — Primary care for adults from adolescence through older adulthood
- Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP) — Acute care for adults from adolescence through older adulthood
- Psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) — Assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions in patients of all ages
- Primary care pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP-PC) — Primary care for young people from birth to early adulthood
- Acute care pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP-AC) — Acute care for young people from birth to early adulthood
- Emergency nurse practitioner (ENP) — Treatment for patients of all ages in emergency departments (EDs) or urgent care settings
- Neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP) — Treatment for infants at increased health risk due to a variety of medical conditions
- Women’s health care nurse practitioner (WHNP) — Assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of women’s healthcare needs throughout their lives
First Aid Certifications
In addition to credentials related to their area of practice, nurse practitioners may need certification in first aid procedures for certain roles. The American Red Cross provides first aid certifications, including tracks for healthcare professionals. Examples of first aid certifications include:
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) — American Red Cross CPR training focuses specifically on this emergency procedure performed on a person when their heart stops beating.
- Basic life support (BLS) — American Red Cross BLS training incorporates lessons on CPR, automated external defibrillator (AED) use, and ventilation
- Advanced life support (ALS) — American Red Cross ALS training focuses on topics such as chest compressions, airway management, and protocols for conditions like stroke and cardiac arrest.
Courses can last weeks or months. Training options for certification include in-person training only or a blend of online and in-person training. After successfully exhibiting the skills and knowledge required and becoming certified, the designation is valid for two years. Abbreviated courses are available for renewals.
Additionally, while it doesn’t provide what it considers to be certifications, the American Heart Association (AHA) provides first aid training for professionals in healthcare. Successfully completing each course indicates proficiency in the targeted skill.
The AHA offers classroom-based training as well as blended options that allow for online training as well as in-person experiences. AHA completion cards require renewal through additional training every two years.
National Certifying Bodies for Nurse Practitioners
National nurse practitioner certifications typically require a master’s or doctoral nursing degree — and nurses generally must hold a registered nurse (RN) license to complete these advanced programs. The typical certification also requires an exam and periodic renewal.
NP Certification Requirements by Organization
Five national organizations offer the most common nurse practitioner certifications. Although there is some overlap in the credentials they provide, each organization offers certification in its own set of practice areas.
The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board, for example, offers certifications for nurse practitioners specializing in family care, adult-gerontology primary care, and emergency care. The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board’s NP certifications include those for pediatric primary care and pediatric acute care.
NP certification organizations and their requirements include:
American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board
The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB) certification process features an exam with 150 multiple-choice questions. To qualify, applicants must have completed master’s or doctoral programs in the certification area of focus.
Applicants may attempt the certification exam twice in a calendar year, with retests requiring additional practice experience or continuing education (CE).
The certification requires renewal every five years, which entails meeting practice and CE requirements or testing.
American Nurses Credentialing Center
The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Certification Program, for graduates of eligible advanced nursing degree programs, includes a test with 150 to 175 scored items. If the applicant doesn’t receive a passing score, they may retake the test up to three times in a calendar year.
After five years, the NP must apply for renewal, which requires a combination of CE and other options such as practice hours or academic courses.
American Association of Critical-Care Nurses
The American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) Certification Corp. offers adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner certification (ACNPC-AG) for NPs with advanced nursing degrees focused on acute care. This credential requires passing an exam of 150 scored items. Applicants may attempt the test up to four times in a calendar year.
This certification must be renewed every five years, which entails meeting requirements such as practice hours and CE.
National Certification Corp.
For certification through the National Certification Corp. (NCC), applicants must have received a master’s or doctoral degree in their designated practice area within the past eight years. The certification exam includes 175 questions.
NCC-certified NPs must renew their certification every three years, which entails meeting CE requirements.
Pediatric Nursing Certification Board
The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) requires applicants for certification to hold an advanced nursing degree in their area of pediatric care. Certification requires passing a 175-question exam, which applicants may take three times in a 12-month period.
The organization requires an annual recertification, along with CE and pediatric pharmacology hours every seven years.
State Licensing for Nurse Practitioners
Nurse practitioners generally must hold state-issued licenses, and each state establishes its own licensing requirements. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) offers a resource for locating licensing requirements for each state.
Despite the differences in requirements by state, some standard qualifications for NP licensing apply regardless of location. Common requirements for state NP licenses include:
- Obtaining an RN license, which generally requires graduating from an approved undergraduate nursing program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)
- Completing a graduate-level nursing program, earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), or PhD in nursing
- Passing a national certification exam from a certifying organization
Although they currently differ by state, NP licensing requirements would become uniform under a proposal from the NCSBN that advocates a consensus model for requirements — including certification — that licensed advanced nursing professionals like NPs must meet.
The NCSBN proposal also calls for setting national guidelines for practice authority and autonomy for nurse practitioners and other advanced nursing professionals.
Nurse practitioners are in high demand across the country, which means nursing professionals have many opportunities to advance in their field. Obtaining an NP certification is an important step in becoming an NP, and an excellent way for current nurse practitioners to change or broaden their practice focus.
Learning about nurse practitioner certifications — and the organizations that provide them — can help nursing professionals prepare to pursue the career growth opportunities the credentials offer.