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IT certification vs. certificate: What's the difference?

IT certifications vs. certificates: Two distinct credentials that can kickstart or bolster an IT career. But which one is right for you?
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Written by Matthew Sweeney, Contributing Writer on

If you are an IT student or professional looking to benefit your career, you may have pondered the difference between a certification vs. a certificate. 

A certification is a professional credential awarded by a national organization, while a certificate is a diploma offered by a college or university. Each can serve you in different ways.

Though people often confuse the terms "certification and "certificate," these are two distinct kinds of credentials. This page breaks down the differences and explains how each can be useful to IT professionals at different career stages.

Certification vs. certificate

Certification

Certificate

  • From an organization that meets industry standards
  • Affirms knowledge/expertise in specific area or skill
  • $200-$500 exam fee
  • Recertify every few years
  • Awards a professional designation
  • From an accredited educational institution
  • Allows you to gain entry-level or advanced knowledge or skills
  • Costs anywhere between $500-$5000
  • Awards a diploma or other credential

Information technology certification

IT certifications are awarded by organizations that meet industry standards. A certification demonstrates your expertise with a specific IT skill or tool, such as ethical hacking or cloud technology. 

Established IT professionals looking to boost their resumes may pursue IT certifications. Entry-level IT certifications — such as Cisco Certified Network Associate — also exist.

To qualify for a certification, you typically need a degree and a certain amount of professional experience. You may complete a course or required experience hours, which could take three months to a year. The last step is an exam. Exam fees usually cost between $200-$500.

Certification usually lasts around two years. You recertify by presenting documented relevant experience and paying a fee.

Some certifications award you with a professional designation, such as CISSP. The best tech certifications offer prestige and professional advantages.

Information technology certificate

A certificate, on the other hand, is a non-degree credential offered by accredited colleges and other education providers. 

Upon completing a 20-60 credit program, you receive a diploma certifying your knowledge. Some certificate programs offer a credential upon completion, such as the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate.

Options include undergraduate and graduate certificates.

Undergraduate certificate

Undergraduate certificates usually appeal to students seeking entry-level work. Most undergraduate IT certificates are general overviews of a topic — such as a web development certificate or a certificate in computer science.

Earning an undergraduate certificate typically takes three to six months and costs $500-$2,000. Many have no prerequisites or require only entry-level math courses.

Graduate certificate

A graduate certificate offers an advanced curriculum for graduate students pursuing career-specific technology skills and knowledge. 

A graduate certificate in software engineering or a network administration graduate certificate will feature in-depth, subject-specific coursework preparing students for specialized careers.

It typically takes 5-11 months and $3,000-$6,000 to earn a graduate IT certificate. Programs may require prerequisite coursework in statistics, computer science, and advanced mathematics.

Which is right for me?

Certificates and certifications serve different kinds of professionals. Certifications typically cost less than a certificate but require recertification every few years. 

Certificates come from a regionally-accredited source usually, but they are geared more towards entry-level learners. Explore the advantages of certificates vs. certifications below.

An information technology certification might be right for you if…

  • You are a beginner or experienced IT professional

  • You want to affirm or deepen your skills within an IT niche or a specific IT tool

  • You would enjoy the prestige of a designation that shows expert knowledge and skills

An information technology undergraduate certificate might be right for you if…

  • You want to transition to an entry-level IT position upon completion

  • You want to transfer credit from your certificate toward an information technology degree

An information technology graduate certificate might be right for you if…

  • You want to gain skills or knowledge for a more advanced IT career

  • You want to bolster your undergraduate or graduate IT degree

Maximize your return on investment by choosing a certificate program or certification based on your professional goals, education and experience level, and budget. 

The right credential fits your career plans and background.

In conclusion

For someone looking to advance their technology career, the decision between certificate vs. certification can appear daunting. Before choosing, consider what you want from an IT credential. 

To continue your research, consult your local college or university for information about available certificates. Attend events for IT professionals for more on useful certifications.

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