Certificates and certifications: what’s the difference?

Here are some questions about certificates and certifications from an upcoming FAQ: 

What is the difference between certification and a certificate?

The terms “certification” and “certificate” are used inconsistently and sometimes interchangeably, so they are easily confused. But there are important distinctions:

  • A certification is a credential, earned as the result of an assessment, that demonstrates the holder’s specialized knowledge, skills, and experience.
  • A certificate is a limited, or single, educational offering. (The term “certificate” can also refer to a document conferred at the conclusion of the offering.)

The following table* illustrates the differences between the terms certification and certificate as we are using them.

Certification Certificate
Results from assessment of an applicant’s current knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) in a particular specialty Results from completion of an educational or training process
Typically requires professional experience Available to newcomers and experienced professionals
Awarded by a third-party, standard-setting organization (in our case, the STC Certification Commission) Awarded by educational programs or for-profit organizations (such as a tools vendor or a training company)
Indicates competency or mastery as assessed against a legally defensible set of standards Indicates completion of a course or short series of courses with a specific focus
Standards set through a legally defensible, industry-wide process (job/task analysis) that results in an outline of KSAs Course content determined by the specific instructor, provider, or institution, not in a standardized way
Typically confers a designation that can be added after your name Typically confers a certificate document that is suitable for framing; usually listed on a résumé detailing education
Requires ongoing demonstration of competency to maintain Requirements vary from simple attendance to knowledge of course content at the completion of the process
Can be revoked by the awarding organization Cannot be revoked

*Some content in this answer adapted from Certified Fund Raising Executives International (www.cfre.org).

How does STC certification differ from the STC certificate programs?

STC offers certificate classes, which are educational offerings on individual subjects available to anyone. The STC Certification Commission offers a certification, which is granted to qualified individuals after an assessment of their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) in technical communication.

How does STC certification differ from the technical writing certificate program offered at my local community college?

A number of educational institutions offer certificate programs in technical communication. A typical requirement is three courses totaling 12 credit hours; the certificate is awarded upon successful completion of the courses.

In contrast, the STC certification is granted to qualified practitioners after an assessment of their knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) in technical communication.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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