Does CNA Experience Help? What Future Nursing Students Should Know

illustration of a cna pushing a patient in a wheelchair to see a provider

You can picture yourself donning scrubs and entering the workforce as a nurse someday. But getting to that point seems so intimidating. You have to get into nursing school, earn your degree and pass the NCLEX exam. You’re not sure you can handle all that right now!

Luckily, there are other paths to turn your healthcare career dreams into a reality. Becoming a certified nursing assistant (CNA) is an accessible goal and working as one can provide valuable experience that may be an asset for future nurses down the line.

There are still some questions you need answered to make sure this is a solid plan. Does CNA experience help for nursing school? What’s the benefit of CNA work experience when your ultimate goal is to become a registered nurse (RN)?

We spoke with experts in the nursing field who have all the info you’re looking for! Read on to find out how CNA experience can help you achieve your nursing career goals and what’s required to get started in this healthcare role.

What is a CNA?

Certified nursing assistants are healthcare workers that, well, assist nurses with basic tasks as they care for patients. States have differing laws about what CNAs are allowed to do, but some of their usual job duties include helping patients with personal care like dressing and bathing, taking vital signs and moving or repositioning patients.

“I had to change bedpans, help calm patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia that were frustrated and confused and generally take care of all of their essential needs, like bathing and feeding,” says Alaina Ross, PACU RN and expert contributor for Test Prep Insight.

A CNA’s work can be challenging, but that’s exactly the experience that can give CNAs a leg up when they get to nursing school.

How being a CNA prepares you for nursing school

The hands-on experience you gain as a CNA can be a valuable first step on the road to other healthcare careers, including nursing. We spoke with nurses who began their careers as CNAs to learn how this role prepared them for nursing school and beyond.

You get a close-up view of what nurses do all day

“Being a CNA provides a basic understanding of the duties and responsibilities that RNs handle,” Ross says. Many nursing students have a rose-colored view of what it’s like to be a nurse. Experiencing life as an RN for the first time can be a shock for them. CNAs won’t be surprised, though. They already know what a nursing career entails!

No one wants to go through nursing school only to realize that a career as an RN isn’t the right fit. Becoming a CNA first gives you a firsthand look at the field, without the time and financial commitments of nursing school. “You'll know within the first week whether nursing is for you,” Ross says.

You’ll already have experience in core nursing competencies

Some of the most intimidating parts of nursing school can be learning the basics of patient care, called “core competencies.” These are skills that aspiring nurses have to master to work in the field. But CNAs have a leg up—they’ll enter nursing school with plenty of experience in these skills already under their belts.

“It was easier for me to pass some of the beginning core competencies in nursing school, like measuring blood pressure, bed baths, patient transferring and bed-making, because I had already successfully developed those skills while working as a CNA,” says Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, nurse educator and advisor at NurseTogether.

You may be more academically ready for nursing school

If you want to succeed as a nurse, you need to gain a basic knowledge of the human body, patient care, essential medical skills and more. It’s a lot to learn! CNAs who have already been immersed in the healthcare field have a definite head start in this department.

“My CNA experience gave me a working knowledge and context to draw from while in nursing school,” Liphart Rhoads says. She believes her CNA experience helped her advance in her nursing career as she mentioned the role in both her nursing school application and her resume when applying for RN positions.

You may be more comfortable working with patients

People are a lot harder to predict than what you might find in a textbook. Because of this, most nurses don’t start their first day on the job feeling completely at ease with patients. It takes time to be comfortable caring for patients and tending to their needs. This can be an awkward hurdle for nursing students to get past when completing their clinicals.

Once again, the experience CNAs have gives them the upper hand in this area. “My CNA experience helped me have the confidence to interact with patients during nursing school,” Liphart Rhoads says. The more confident you are interacting with patients, the better you’ll be able to serve them—and focus on practicing your other budding nursing skills during clinicals.

You’ll have the grit to persevere when nursing school gets hard

Even with all these advantages, completing nursing school can still be a challenge. There may be times when you feel like giving up. Having experience as a CNA can give you the grit and resilience it takes to make it through nursing school when the going gets tough.

“The rigors of being a CNA prepare you for anything,” Ross says. “Nursing school is tough, with long hours of studying, tough subject matter and competitive grading. If you can handle back-to-back, 12-hour shifts as a CNA, nursing school will be a breeze.”

The training and education you’ll need to become a CNA

Becoming a CNA can provide a great foundation to build upon in healthcare. You’ll be able to gain valuable healthcare experience before worrying about nursing school—but what kind of training is needed to become a licensed CNA?

The basic requirements for CNA licensing are simple: obtain a high school diploma or GED, be at least 18 years old and have no criminal convictions on your record. If you’re eligible based on these requirements, your next step is to enroll in a CNA program. These programs can often be completed in a matter of weeks.

From there, you’ll need to pass the CNA certification exam and apply for licensing through your state. Voila! You’re ready to enter the workforce as a CNA and begin gaining valuable experience that will help you through nursing school down the road.

CNA experience: A solid first stop on your path to nursing school

So does CNA experience help for nursing school? After hearing from expert RNs who have taken this route, you can confidently answer, “Yes, it can!”

While CNA experience can be an asset as you pursue further education, getting into nursing school is still a process. Completing the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) is one substantial piece of that process. But don’t let the TEAS exam hold you back! Learn more about this important step with our article “Don’t Fear the TEAS Test: 5 Common Questions Answered.”

TheNursing Assistant Certificate at Rasmussen University is only available at the Mokena / Tinley Park campus in Illinois. This program is NOT eligible for participation in Title IV federal student aid programs. ¹HSC 1748 Nursing Assistant and MLT 1325 Phlebotomy are not offered every quarter. The Nursing Assistant course has been approved as a Basic Nurse Assistant Training Program (BNATP) by the Illinois Department of Public Health, Training and Technical Section. Completion of a BNATP and achievement of a passing score on the written competency test within 12 months is one way to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) in Illinois. This program is not designed to prepare graduates for any other state-issued professional license or certification. Additional certification eligibility requirements may apply. Rasmussen University does not administer the written competency test. This program requires specific immunizations prior to professional practice experience. In addition to meeting all other admissions requirements, Illinois apply. Rasmussen University does not administer the written competency test. This program requires specific immunizations prior to professional practice experience. In addition to meeting all other admissions requirements, Illinois applicants must successfully pass a background check through the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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