What's the Difference Between a Certificate and a Certification?
What's the Difference Between a Certificate and a Certification?

Certificates and certifications … the names for these credentials sound confusingly similar. But there are important differences. Here’s what you need to know about these resume-enhancing options — and how they might advance your career.

What is a Certificate?

Earning a certificate is about education.

Certificates are academic credentials awarded by colleges, universities or other educational institutions. Students in certificate programs learn new knowledge in a specific subject or discipline and earn a certificate by successfully completing the coursework.

"The students whom I’ve seen excel in a certificate program have a knowledge gap in a specific area, and they have the discipline and determination to make the program a priority to close that gap,” says Luke Panezich, an instructor for the UW Certificate in Project Management.

Many certificate programs have few, if any, admission requirements, making them an excellent option if you want to move forward in your career. The programs are usually noncredit and take less time to complete than a degree. Certificates are commonly listed on resumes as education, and some meet education requirements for first-time or renewed certifications.

"A certificate can give you a running start in job searches and help you advance in your career,” says Julie Bianchi, an instructor for the UW Certificate in Fundraising Management. “It gives you that edge on a resume.”

What is a Certification?

When you have the professional knowledge you need, a certification allows you to prove it.

Certifications indicate mastery of skills or standards. Professional certifications are granted by industry groups or career-related organizations. These groups assess your qualifications, usually through an exam or application process. Many certifications include the privilege to use a related designation following your professional title. (A certification differs from a license, which permits you to work in a certain profession and is usually issued by government or regulatory agencies.)

“A certificate program [like the Certificate in Fundraising Management] is the front door — it introduces you to the concepts and the different areas and specialties. Certification is equivalent to the final test that says you understand these areas.”

Instructor Julie Bianchi
Bianchi, who is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), describes certification as a “stamp of approval” that you have specific core competencies in your field.

“A certificate program [like the Certificate in Fundraising Management] is the front door — it introduces you to the concepts and the different areas and specialties,” Bianchi says. “Certification is equivalent to the final test that says you understand these areas.”

How Can Certificates and Certifications Benefit My Career?

While earning an academic certificate isn’t the same as being professionally certified, these paths can be complementary.

Recruiters look for professional certifications when selecting job candidates, and professional designations can be a factor in the algorithms used by job-search engines. Panezich, who holds three certifications from the Project Management Institute, including the well-known Project Management Professional (PMP), notes that he often checks for professional certifications when he’s reviewing candidates in his field. 

“I work in the technology sector, and I know the major project-management certificates that exist globally,” he says. “When I’m evaluating a candidate for a role, I can very quickly look at their resume or LinkedIn profile and see what certifications they have.” 

Earning both a certificate and a certification sends a powerful message to employers, colleagues and clients, Bianchi says.

“I see more and more job descriptions that are saying ‘CFRE preferred,’” Bianchi says. “If you’ve put in the time to go through a certificate program and earn your certification as a CFRE, it definitely signals that you’re in it for the long haul.”

Some organizations specify an amount of education needed for certification. In some cases, certificates programs can help meet these requirements.

For example, instructor Shelby Petro, who is certified as a Professional Wetland Scientist (PWS), says the UW Certificate in Wetland Science & Management counts as university-level credit hours toward the PWS designation, which also requires five years of related work. When local employers are looking to hire early-career scientists still working toward certification, they often seek UW certificate grads, Petro says.

“They put the certificate program as a preference [on their job descriptions], because then they know which applicants have been through a rigorous program,” she notes.

Prepare for Certification with UW Certificates and Courses

Currently, UW Professional & Continuing Education offers more than 15 certificate programs and courses that can help you prepare for professional certification or licensing.

For example, Panezich says the UW Certificate in Project Management gives students actionable, real-world experience, as well as the understanding that they must also study for one common certification exam, the Project Management Professional (PMP). (UWPCE also offers a separate PMP® Exam Prep course.)

“When they finish our program, not only will they have learned a lot about and actually practiced project management,” Panezich says, “but they’ll also have a head start on preparing to sit for that exam, as compared with someone who has not taken the program.” 

Programs and Related Certifications and Licenses

UW Certificate or Course

Helps Prepare You For

Certificate in Accounting State of Washington CPA exam  
Certificate in Biotechnology Project Management Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification
Certificate in Business Analysis

Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) 

Certification of Capability in Business Analysis (CCBA)

Certificate in Cybersecurity

Systems Security Certified Practitioner (SSCP) 

Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

Certificate in Cybersecurity Risk Management National Initiative for Cybersecurity Careers and Studies Certification
Certificate in Guardianship Certified Professional Guardian (CPG)
Certificate in Health Informatics & Health Information Management Registered Health Information Administrator (RHIA)
Certificate in Human Resources Management Professional in Human Resources (PHR)
Certificate in Lean Six Sigma Management: Green Belt IASSC Certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt (ICGB)
Certificate in Private Investigation Licensed Private Investigator in Washington state
Certificate in Program Management Program Management Professional (PgMP)
Certificate in Project Management Project Management Professional (PMP) certification
Certificate in SQL Server & Database Development Microsoft SQL Server certification
Certificate in Wetland Science & Management Professional Wetland Scientist (PWS)
Cold Regions Engineering State of Alaska Arctic Engineering License
PMP® Exam Prep Project Management Professional (PMP) certification

For more career tips and industry trends, visit the News & Features section of our website, and subscribe to our email list. To learn more about UW Professional & Continuing Education certificates, specializations, degrees and courses, explore your options or contact us.

Author Kate Dixon

Kate Dixon

Kate Dixon is a content and communications manager at UW Continuum College, where she’s proud to support innovation, excellence and access to world-class public education. An alumna of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kate earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s degree in strategic communications.

Kate enjoys showcasing diverse stories of learning momentum, student success and the power of education to inspire positive change and brighter communities.

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