The Power of Nursing Specialty Certifications


The Power of Nursing Specialty Certifications

97 percent of nurses say it boosts confidence

By Sue Montgomery, RN, BSN
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You know you’re good at what you do, so why invest the time, angst and money involved in pursuing specialty certification? It’s a good question, but if you understand some of the potential benefits of certification, you may find yourself signing up before you know it.

The term “certification” can be somewhat confusing because it has several possible meanings. The focus of this article is on voluntary specialty certification rather than advanced practice certification.

Voluntary specialty certification generally requires an exam provided by a national association, while advanced practice certifications are typically state-specific with requirements comparable to those of licensure. In California, the Board of Registered Nurses administers eight advanced practice certifications; you can find out more at

While specialty certification is voluntary, obtaining it can be a tremendous benefit to almost any registered nurse. Nurses who validate their expertise through specialty certification set the standard for the profession. They help their patients, their employers, the coworkers around them and ultimately, themselves.

Don’t be surprised if your next patient asks if you’re certified. A 2002 Harris Poll found that 78 percent of consumers were aware of nursing certification. Seventy-three percent said they’d prefer to receive care in a hospital filled with certified nurses.

Certification allows instant recognition of your skill and expertise not just by patients, but also by colleagues. As nurses, we’re often busy beyond reason and we rely on the competence of our coworkers. Certification demonstrates to your coworkers — even ones with whom you’ve never worked before — that you are a nurse worthy of their trust and someone they can count on when the next crisis hits.

Certification is also a good way to remind your facility’s management team of your capabilities. If you love your job and have a good relationship with your manager, you might not see the need. However, if your manager retires or moves on or if the hospital is sold, you might suddenly need to prove yourself to people who can’t even pronounce your last name.

The same is true if you’re after a promotion or looking for a new job. Having one or more certifications under your belt will help you stand out and identify you as someone worthy of hiring, promoting or rewarding.

Of course you’re confident — you’re a nurse. Nevertheless, studies show that nurses who are certified in their areas of specialty reported feeling even more confident in their work and more satisfied with their jobs. Even if you know your specialty inside and out, improving your credentials can give your confidence a boost and help you enjoy the work you do even more.  

Certified nurses are powerful examples for others. Once you complete your certifications, you may be peppered with questions from colleagues wondering how they can do the same. 

•    90 percent of nurses agree that certification enhances nurses’ credibility.
•    97 percent of nurses report more confidence in their clinical abilities after certification.
•    86 percent of nurse managers prefer to hire a certified nurse.
•    74 percent of institutions provide one or more certification incentives.
•    Certified nurses make at least $7,300 more per year than their non-certified peers.
•    Research links certification to better patient care.

The certification process is intimidating and most everyone fears it on some level. However, once you’ve survived it, you’ll be viewed as a leader that others can follow. Just imagine having a cohort of certified peers working together like a well-oiled machine.
Now that you know some of the benefits of certification, here are a few strategies that will help lead you to success.

Taking the first step is the most important part of the process and often the most difficult. Take a deep breath, put one foot in front of the other and head to the Internet to find out what certifications are available in your specialty area and what you need to do to get them.

The organizations that issue professional certifications generally have a handbook or list of instructions explaining everything you need to know for the certification exam. Download or order a copy to review.

Here are some of the points you’ll need to cover:
✿ Determine eligibility: Most certification exams have specific requirements and prerequisites.
✿ Deadlines: You’ll need to know how often the exams are given and be clear on the deadlines for application and payment.
✿ Test format: Many exams are conducted electronically and offered in testing centers.
✿ Test structure: Do the questions need to be answered in a specific order? Can you go back if you skip a question or are you able to review all your answers before you submit them?
✿ Scoring: Understand how your results will be determined.
✿ Content: Most tests cover a range of topics and assign a certain percentage of the total score to each area.
By now, you may be feeling overwhelmed. Don’t be — just take a deep breath and keep going.

Everyone studies differently, so develop a study plan that’s right for you. Just remember that you may not be as young as you used to be, so an all-nighter before the exam isn’t going to cut it. Give yourself plenty of time to pace your study, create a schedule to do it and enjoy the process. Don’t approach it grudgingly or resentfully; you may learn a lot more than you think.

There are several resources available to help you study. You may decide to pick one or use a combination of several.

✿ Core curricula: The professional associations that issue certifications often publish core curricula or guidebooks that cover the specialty’s knowledge foundation. These are often available on the certifying organization’s website. Since much of the information in the curriculum is likely to be on the test, those guides are very useful and highly recommended study tools.
✿ Books and test guides: Educational companies often release core curricula and test guides for specific certification exams. You can find these guides by searching for “nursing certification review” on online bookstores like Amazon. You may also find great deals on used guides as well as reviews from nurses who’ve used them. Just be sure the guide is still current!
✿ Sample tests:  There are more online sample tests than you can shake a stick at, along with printed test booklets you can order. Two websites offering numerous practice tests are and Sample tests are a great way to get a feel for the questions and the range of material that may be covered on the exam. Just keep in mind that many of these tests are created by third-party companies, not the certifying associations themselves (although certifying organizations often provide samples of previously used exam questions).

The big day has arrived and the butterflies in your stomach are in chaos. Here are a few practical tips that’ll help drive them into formation:
✿ Wear layers. Your nerves may make you sweat or give you the chills. Depending on the time of year, the testing center may also be unreasonably hot or cold. Be prepared.
✿ Believe in yourself. You’re a great nurse and you know your stuff.
✿ Take a deep breath. It’ll help you calm down and jog that great memory of yours.
✿ Focus. Ignore the people around you and commit yourself to the task at hand.
✿ Be aware of the time. Don’t rush, but know how fast you’re proceeding and how much time you have left.
✿ Celebrate when you’re done. You’ve done it and can now go home and collapse or indulge your favorite guilty pleasure. When Certified Nurses Day rolls around on March 19 each year, you can celebrate with your colleagues and even eat cake.  



The number of available nursing certifications is vast. Below is a list of 18 of the most common categories of certification and the corresponding certifying organization. Many of these organizations also offer a variety of sub-specialty certifications; you can find out more by visiting their websites.

Sue Montgomery, RN, BSN, is a freelance healthcare writer. She’s held roles from staff nurse to administrator in hospice and critical care. She is a member of the Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association and the American Medical Writers Association.  

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