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IT Certifications That Will Jumpstart Your Career

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Hey, you!

Yeah, you, with the freshly minted computer science degree. Or you, who took a break and are ready to get back on the IT job market. Or you, who just decided on a tech-based career change.

I’m willing to bet you want your resume to stand out. And for the beginners in the group, I’m sure you’d like to have a way to demonstrate relevant industry knowledge to a prospective employer.

But when you’re just starting out, it seems like even entry-level jobs ask for things like, “five years of experience,” or, “must have been to Mars,” or some other seemingly impossible qualification.

IT Certifications

Getting an IT certification is one way to prove that you have knowledge in your field, even if you’ve never held a job in tech.

But the requirements for getting an IT certification can sometimes feel like those ridiculous entry-level job descriptions. You go to sign up for an exam or a class when you discover that, to get certified at one level, you need to hold three other certifications already.

And many certifications require a certain number of years of experience in your field before you can sit for an exam.

Below I’ve outlined a handful of valuable entry-level IT certifications that could help jumpstart your career in tech. You’ll find information on:

  • Vendor-neutral certifications
  • OS-specific certifications
  • Computer networking certifications

While there are obviously other areas of certification in IT, these areas are some of the few where you can receive certification with little to no previous formal experience.

Vendor-neutral certifications

Since you are just starting out, you might not be quite sure of the direction you want your IT career to go. You might also be worried about pigeonholing yourself.

While specialization implies expertise in a specific subject, beginners are often expected to be generalists. You don’t want to limit your job options too early on in your career.

Below are some certifications based on a general IT skill set.

A+ certification

Offered by: CompTIA.

CompTIA is the largest provider of vendor-neutral IT certifications in the world and has issued over 2 million certifications to IT professionals since its founding in 1982. The certifications gained through this nonprofit organization are good for three years.

That’s more than enough time to establish yourself as an IT pro. In the meantime, you can get hands-on experience and go on to earn more advanced certifications.

Any certification you acquire through CompTIA has to start with the A+ certification. Over 1 million IT workers hold this certification, which tests your understanding of common business hardware and software issues.

What it takes to get certified: To gain this credential, you have to earn a passing grade on two exams. Each exam lasts 90 minutes, has 90 multiple choice questions, and costs $205 dollars.

The prerequisites: While there are no prerequisites for this exam, CompTIA recommends six to 12 months of experience before sitting for your tests.

Average salary after certification: A+ certified techs earn an average salary of over $67,000. And for beginners, that’s a pretty decent sum.

Once you’ve earned your A+ credential, you can go on to specialize further with CompTIA’s Network+ or Security+ certifications, which have more focused areas of concentration.

How to prepare:

Web Foundations Associate

Offered by: CIW

CIW wants to teach people how to navigate at technology-driven world. As such, it’s a pretty good starting point for those who want to become more familiar with tech but aren’t quite sure what direction they want to take.

The Web Foundations Associate certification is aimed at “professionals who use the internet on the job.”

While that might sound pretty broad, it’s intended to serve as a gateway to more specific certifications including web design, databases, and eCommerce.

What it takes to get certified: The exam consists of 90 questions that must be completed in 90 minutes. It costs $160.

Average salary after certification: The average salary for someone with this certification is over $70,000.

How to prepare:

Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)

Offered by: Project Management Institute (PMI)

If you think project management has little to do with IT, you’re wrong. Someone has to lead the complicated projects you’ll work on as part of a tech team. You’ll still need the basic tech experience required to work on a tech project, but if you’re interested in managing or directing teams, you should look into either the CAPM or the PSM (discussed below).

The CAPM will help you with the fundamentals of managing larger projects. Whether you’re leading a team or working as part of one, you’ll better understand how to effectively use project resources and move a project through its various stages.

What it takes to get certified: Before sitting for the $225 (member pricing) or $300 (non-member pricing) 150 question exam, you’ll need either a secondary degree and 1,500 hours of project experience or 23 hours of project management education. The exam takes three hours to complete.

The CAPM certification is good for five years.

Average salary after certification: Beginners with this certification make a median annual salary of over $45,000.

How to prepare:

Professional Scrum Master

Offered by: Scrum.org

Scrum is a type of Agile project management methodology often used in the IT world. If you’re interested in project management but want a certification that’s more focused than CAPM, check out Scrum.org’s offerings.

Scrum.org was founded in 2009 by Ken Schwaber, one of the co-creators of the Scrum methodology. Its mission is to improve software delivery, and certifying people to effectively use Scrum is part of that mission.

A PSM has three levels of certification, but you can become PSM-certified by taking its entry-level exam, the PSM I Assessment.

What it takes to get certified: The PSM I requires a fundamental knowledge of Scrum. The exam has 80 questions and must be completed in an hour. It costs $150.

Average salary after certification: The average salary for ScrumMasters, both certified and uncertified, is between $57,000 and $120,000. So as you gain experience—and take PSM Assessments I, II, and III—you can expect to move up the ranks in pay, as well.

How to prepare:

OS-specific certifications

Maybe you want to get away from general skills and be the go-to person when specific IT issues arise.

Certifications from Microsoft or Apple are a good place to start, since most business hardware and software runs on those operating systems (OSs).

Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS)

Offered by: Microsoft

1.2 billion people across the globe use a Microsoft Office product or service. And according to the same report, 50,000 small business customers choose Office 365 every month.

Whatever your feelings might be about the various versions of Windows, it’s undeniable that the business world largely runs on Microsoft products. And Microsoft offers several certifications for their giant suite of offerings.

The MOS might sound like a certification any general office worker could hold. And that’s not wrong—the MOS is most popular among office managers and administrative workers.

But if you want to work in cloud computing or technical support, guess which products you’re going to be dealing with a lot?

That’s right, anyone experiencing an issue with Office products will likely need you to walk them through it step by step. So if you’re a certified specialist, your familiarity with those products will give you a leg up in helping your coworkers or clients.

What it takes to get certified: There are no prerequisites for the MOS certifications. There are five exams, each centered around a different Office product. If you pass the product-related exam, you’re certified in that product. You can take just one exam or all five.

The cost of each exam varies by location, but you can purchase an MOS voucher through Certiport for $96.

Average salary after certification: If you’re in IT, you could earn an average salary of over $47,000 with this certification.

How to prepare:

Microsoft Technology Associate (MTA)

Offered by: Microsoft

The MTA is an entry-level certification with three branches. You can choose to focus on Database, Developer, or IT Infrastructure issues. But each of these branches has several associated tracks. So although you do have to choose a focus, you’re not limiting yourself too much at the outset.

The MTA isn’t required to obtain a more advanced certification such as an MCSA, which we’ll discuss below. But if you’re starting largely from scratch with your IT skills, the MTA will help you gain and master fundamental IT knowledge in whatever track you want to pursue.

What it takes to get certified: In order to earn your MTA certification, you have to pass one exam of 30 to 50 questions (this varies year by year), and it costs about $50.

The MTA exams are largely aimed toward academic institutions to supplement coursework upon graduation. If your skill level is a bit more advanced, you’ll probably want to take a look at the MCSA certification instead.

How to prepare:

Microsoft Certified Solutions Associate (MCSA)

Offered by: Microsoft

MCSA certification has many different tracks, from cloud platforms to machine learning to SQL database development. It’s intended for those seeking entry-level IT jobs.

If you already have an MTA certification, the MCSA is the logical next step. Otherwise, you just need a working knowledge of introductory IT skills.

What it takes to get certified: To earn your MCSA, you have to pass two exams. Each one costs $165.

Average salary after certification: With MCSA certification, you can expect to earn anywhere from $43,000 per year to over $100,000 depending on your experience level.

How to prepare:

Apple Certified Associate (ACA)

Offered by: Apple

With the rise of BYOD policies, there’s an ever-increasing chance that employees will choose Macs over PCs. Or, at least, operate business software via a mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad.

If you’re looking to start a career in IT service or support, you might want to consider earning your ACA for Mac management or Mac integration.

These certifications qualify you to manage Mac computers on a large network or integrate them into your PC-dominated workplace.

What it takes to get certified: Each exam costs $65 and must be completed within two hours. Fortunately, you can take either or both of these exams from the comfort of your own home.

These certifications allow you to get a foot in the door as far as managing and maintaining iOS computers. For more advanced certification, look into the ACSP (Apple Certified Support Professional).

How to prepare:

Download free study guides from Apple for Mac management and integration

Computer networking certifications

But maybe your passion lies more in a specific field, such as computer networking, and not so much in general skills certification. If so, the below certifications will put you on the right track.

Cisco Certified Technician (CCT)

Offered by: Cisco

Cisco is the starting point for all things network-related. This industry giant has been around since 1984. And with its networking dominance, it’s not going away anytime soon. To jumpstart your networking knowledge, getting certified through Cisco is a pretty safe bet.

A CCT certification shows that you can diagnose, repair, and replace Cisco devices at customer sites. There are two branches that you can follow for this certification: Data Center and Routing & Switching.

What it takes to get certified: The test for either track consists of 60 to 75 questions and takes 90 minutes to complete. Both tests cost $125.

How to prepare:

Cisco Certified Entry Networking Technician (CCENT)

Offered by: Cisco

The CCENT shows that you have the skills required of an entry-level network support professional. You can use it to stand out from other entry-level applicants or as a stepping stone to a more advanced certification such as the CCNA, which we’ll discuss below.

What it takes to get certified: To earn your CCENT certification, you have to pass one exam of 45 to 55 questions, which you’ll have 90 minutes to complete. The exam costs $165.

Average salary after certification: The average salary for those with CCENT certification ranges from $30,000 to over $90,000, based on experience level.

How to prepare:

Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)

Offered by: Cisco

You can have your choice of several different tracks with the CCNA certification, including areas such as Cyber Ops, Industrial, and Security.

The CCNA is considered one of the most difficult entry-level certifications, but it’s also the gold standard in networking technology. Plus, it’s a required certification for more advanced Cisco certifications.

What it takes to get certified: Earning the certification requires passing two exams. One costs around $200, while the other costs closer to $300. Each consists of 45 to 60 questions and takes 90 minutes to complete.

Average salary after certification: For beginners with less than one year of experience, the median salary for those with CCNA certification is over $45,000.

How to prepare:

Citrix Certified Associate for Networks (CCA-N)

Offered by: Citrix

Another solid choice for networking certification is Citrix. Citrix’s mission is to create a world where “things are securely connected and accessible.”

If that sounds like a motto you can get behind, you might want to check out their networking certifications.

CCA-N demonstrates your skills in administering enterprise environments that use NetScaler Gateway “for secure remote access.” If you’re interested in becoming a network architect, engineer, or administrator, you might want to look into the CCA-N certification.

What it takes to get certified: The exam costs $200 and consists of 65 questions. You have 105 minutes to complete the test.

How to prepare:

Wireshark Certified Network Analyst (WCNA)

Offered by: Wireshark

Wireshark is a free/OS network-protocol analyzer that boasts over 1 million users.

Wireshark’s entry-level certification is the WCNA. With this certification, you’ll confirm your use of Wireshark to diagnose network problems. You’ll also demonstrate your general knowledge of TCP/IP network communications.

What it takes to get certified: The exam includes 100 questions, which must be completed in two hours. You can take the exam in person or online. It costs $299.

Average salary after certification: The average salary for someone holding WCNA certification (as of 2015) was over $87,000.

How to prepare:

Things to keep in mind before obtaining certification

If a certification on this list catches your eye, that’s great! You could be one step closer to taking your IT career to the next level.

Keep in mind, however, that certification isn’t everything; nothing can beat experience in your particular field. If you can find a job without a certification, that might be your best bet. And remember, some employers will pay for certification study materials or even the cost of the exam.

Ultimately, the formula looks like this: Experience + Certification = Best Possible Hire

And, while the certifications we’ve covered here are geared toward IT fundamentals, whenever you’re choosing a certification, make sure it’s in line with your overall career goals. For example, if you’re not going into a career in computer networking, it’s probably not a good idea to spend time and money pursuing a certification from Cisco.

Next steps

If you’ve evaluated your options and have decided that getting an IT certification is the best path for you, then let’s get started!

  1. Choose the certification that’s right for your career.
  2. Find study or training materials that will help you do well on the exam.
  3. Find or create a study group to help keep you on track (and to meet people in your field).
  4. Take a practice exam, so you have an idea of how the real exam will go.
  5. Sign up to take the test (or tests, as the case may be)!

You can also check out some of our resources on different aspects of the IT experience:

Let’s get some certified opinions

Is there anyone in the tech community that has an opinion about these entry-level IT certifications?

If anyone holds these certifications, how did they affect your career? Were they worth the time and effort you spent on them?

Let us know in the comments below!

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About the Author

Kelsie Anderson

Kelsie is a writer and researcher for Capterra. She has a background in English and French literature, so she can read pretty good. When she's not reading and writing about software trends, she enjoys reading about literally anything else, dabbling in comedic pursuits, and settling Catan.

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