Taking classes to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA) is a great first step toward a career in nursing. Whether you are fresh out of high school or making a career change, a job as a CNA provides a dependable salary, an introduction to the nursing field and a rewarding career helping patients and their families. Before you enroll in a CNA training program, here is what you can expect during and after CNA classes.

RELATED: Learn more about CNA Certification Requirements in your state.

Classroom Learning

The first component of a CNA training program is coursework that will take place in a classroom and/or laboratory. Classroom learning, in addition to home studying of textbooks or other required reading, will provide students with the basic knowledge all CNAs need in order to begin caring for patients. Aspiring CNAs will learn important information about human anatomy and physiology, observing patients, basic patient care principles, patients' legal rights, tracking and reporting patient information and safety protocols. All of this coursework prepares students for the next phase of their training: clinical practice hours.

Clinical Practice

Once students have completed their classroom studies, they are ready to put the principles they've learned into action by working directly with patients. In a clinical setting, which may include hospitals, nursing homes or other care facilities, students will learn how to take vital signs, care for a patient's personal hygiene, perform range-of-motion exercises and engage in patient communication.

CNA training courses are designed to provide students with the knowledge nursing assistants need to provide basic care for their patients, as well as the ability to practice this care under the supervision of certified nurse instructors. Training programs are tailored to prepare students for the certification exam for their individual state so students will complete the program ready to become certified and find their first job as a CNA.

Work/Life Balance During CNA Training

For many, nursing assistant training will be mentally and physically challenging. Coursework is detailed with a lot of important information to take in and remember, and clinical practice can mean many long hours on your feet helping patients in ways that can be physically demanding. Additionally, many students need to work full- or part-time while taking classes in order to support themselves and their families. In order to complete CNA training successfully, students need to find ways to strike a balance between committing to CNA training and fulfilling work and personal obligations. Here are some tips for striking that balance:

  • Be Prepared for Class: You won't take in all the information you need to pass your CNA exam if you aren't prepared to be an engaged student. It is critical to complete assignments according to deadlines, finish required reading and arrive at class on time ready to learn. This means allowing time in your schedule to study course materials and commute to school or complete online assignments. Test out your drive or public transportation options before the first day of classes to ensure you will arrive on time without rushing or stressing and purchase any needed supplies prior to the first day. These skills will come in handy when you are applying and interviewing for CNA jobs after certification as well.
  • Take Care of Yourself: Another component of ensuring you are a successful nursing student is making sure you are taking care of yourself physically and mentally. Nursing assistant work, such as helping patients perform therapy exercises or dressing and bathing, can be physically demanding, so it is important for nursing assistants to be physically fit. The best way to ensure you are up to the physical demands is by maintaining a healthy diet, drinking plenty of water, getting regular exercise and getting a full night's sleep. Moderating alcohol consumption is another way to ensure you are mentally prepared for your classroom work.

In addition to practices for maintaining a healthy body, it is critical to develop healthy habits for managing stress. Nursing jobs can be high stress and emotionally taxing, so it is a good idea to develop ways to cope with stress during your training courses as well. For instance, regular exercise, meditation or prayer and journaling are all ways to cope with feelings of stress. Determine which stress management practices work best for you, and make time in your schedule for them.

  • Prioritize: For many nursing students, CNA classes are just one item on a very busy plate of responsibilities that can also include a full-time job, family obligations and other personal commitments. When you are a student, it is important to prioritize your commitments to ensure you have adequate time and energy for your studies. This might mean putting a time-consuming hobby on hold while you complete your training, asking family members for help with childcare or rearranging your work schedule to accommodate your class times. In order to be a successful student, you will need to prioritize your studies alongside your other commitments. If this seems difficult, remember that CNA training is temporary and is required in order to start your new career as a nursing assistant.

CNA Certification

Once you have completed your training program, you will be adequately prepared to take your state's nursing assistant certification exam. Each state has specific requirements regarding nurse assistant training and the certification exam. Specific questions on the exam will vary from state to state, but in general the exam will cover the following topics:

  • patient safety
  • anatomy and physiology
  • patient care principles and activities of daily living
  • vital signs and testing
  • patient communication
  • infection control
  • data collection and reporting
  • legal/ethical issues

CNA Certification Exam Structure

The exam will be divided into a written portion and a clinical skills portion, in which students are expected to perform a handful of skills using a mannequin or fellow student. Examples of nursing assistant skills that may be included in the clinical skills portion of the exam include hand washing, taking vital signs, dental care, transferring a patient to/from a bed or stretcher and providing catheter care.

Prior to taking the exam, ensure you have read your state's exam requirements, including what forms of identification are needed on test day. In addition, there are several practice exams and clinical skills videos online you can use to prepare for the CNA exam. On the day of the exam, make sure to eat a healthy meal and plan to arrive at least 20 minutes early to park, check-in and settle into your seat. Now all your hard work and studying will pay off. Good luck!

Learn more about CNA certification.


Rules and standards for renewing expired CNA certifications will vary from state to state. In California, for example, if your certification is more than two years expired, or it is more than two years since you have worked as a Certified Nurse Assistant, you are required to have 24 hours of continuing education as well as sit for a Competency Evaluation. Check with your state’s governing board for the requirements on renewals.

Many nursing students find value in working as a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) during nursing school to add to their basic care and time-management skills. Most employers will allow nursing students to bypass the requirement of being certified, but check the job announcements for these allowances. Many states will allow those with nursing education and background to sit for the examination without taking an official CNA course. Check with your local state certifying board for details.

Enrollment in an accredited BSN program and completion of foundational nursing skills coursework may qualify the student for certification as a CNA. Depending on the state-specific Board of Nursing regulations, BSN students may apply for CNA certification and listing on the state Nurse Aide Registry. Some states require that students sit for a CNA registry exam regardless of enrollment in an accredited nursing program, while other states accept completion of nursing courses as verification of skills testing.

Post-Exam Job Search

Once you've passed your CNA certification exam, you are ready to begin your job search! Nursing assistants are in-demand healthcare professionals, and job openings for CNAs can be found at nursing homes, long-term care facilities, hospitals and home health agencies. You may have gotten a sense of which setting you are most interested in working based on your training program experience, but with a wide range of employers looking for nursing assistants, it pays to pursue many job openings to find the one that best fits your skills and interests.

Certified nursing assistants also need to satisfy their state's requirements for continuing education. Make sure to check with your state's board of nursing for the requirements that apply to you. For many states, CNAs need to complete 48 hours of continuing education courses every 24 months in order to re-certify. Topics for these courses may include infection control, preventing patient abuse, HIV/AIDS, and preventing medical error.

CNAs can also find educational and networking resources and assistance by joining an association, such as the National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA).