With people from all over the country applying for the same jobs, courtesy of the internet and platforms like LinkedIn, it can be really difficult to stand out in the sea of resumes. One way to set yourself apart is to earn professional certifications—certificates that declare you have special skills desired in your industry.
Getting these certifications will cost you time, effort and money. But are they really worth it?
That depends, said career coach Kathy Caprino.
“Like with anything having to do with careers, some things are helpful and some things are not,” she said. “There are some certifications that are a complete waste of time and the industry knows it, and there are some that are valuable.”
All certifications are not created equal, and getting one isn’t the secret to success. Before you drop money for a certificate, consider these four things:
If you know your career goals, search on LinkedIn for people who have something close to your dream job.
“Look at… the roles that are really juicy for you that you want, and find people on LinkedIn and see what certifications they have,” Caprino said.
By looking at enough LinkedIn profiles, you might be able to identify some trends in what certifications those people do and don’t have. That can give you a good starting point for your research—if a lot of people with your dream job have a certain certification, it might be worth looking into.
There are some jobs that require certifications. If a job description says a certain certification is mandatory, be prepared to get it.
If not, call a few recruiters in your field, Caprino said. Explain your career and salary goals, and ask them what certifications they see are making a difference for applicants.
The career you want to have has everything to do with what certifications you should get. It’s a waste of your time and money to pursue certificates without a goal, Caprino said.
“You don’t want to do this in a blanket way,” she said. “You want to know the role you want next. …
“Do research on who has that kind of role and what is the trajectory for those people with those kinds of roles. What are… the industry associations (and) organizations recommending about the best certifications for your trajectory?”
Pursue professional certificates based on what really excites you, Caprino said. It shouldn’t only be about making more money or landing the best job—continued learning should also play into your passions.
“Figure out what you really want, what you’re really jazzed about, not what you think you have to get,” Caprino said. The training should be “something you’re really jazzed about that’s going to add to your toolbox in a way you’re going to be thrilled about.”
If reading about a certain certification program makes you “feel like taking a nap…, you’re wasting your time,” even if it’s been recommended to you based on your industry or career goals, she said.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” Caprino said. “Either the role that you want to go for that requires this certification isn’t the right role, or this training isn’t the right thing. Don’t do it simply because you think it’s going to get you a better job.”
If reading about the training excites and energizes you, go for it. Getting the right certificate can indicate to employers that you’re truly passionate about your field, and willing to spend time, energy and money to further your education simply because you want to.
“There are some that you’re just going to pay a fee and take a test,” she said. Those are “not as valuable to show a passion for learning and studying and excelling in a particular area of your field.”
At the end of the day, that certificate on your resume won’t boost your application to the top of the pile.
“A lot of people are looking for shortcuts to make themselves stand out from the competition, and I would say that easy shortcuts won’t get you where you want to go,” Caprino said.
A more reliable way to stand out is for application materials and online presence to indicate how passionate and excited you are about your chosen industry, Caprino said.
“I can look at someone’s LinkedIn profile and in five minutes I can tell how excited they are about their work—mostly it’s how not excited they are,” she said.
What can you do to bring your LinkedIn profile up to snuff? Use it more actively, rather than as just a repository for your work experience. That means posting regularly and exploring the networking tools that are available but often underutilized.
“Do you have thought leadership? Are you connecting with other people and sharing discussions about your field, curating great articles about your field? Are you in groups that are in your field? … Are you following thought leaders in your field? Are you attending conferences? How are you demonstrating your interests and passions beyond going to work from 9 to 7?”
Make your work experience section more active, too. Rather than just listing what you did in each of your roles, describe the positive outcomes you were responsible for.
“What you want to do is (convey) not the task but the ‘who cares?’ about it,” Caprino said. “What outcome can you contribute that any employer would say, ‘wow, we want that’?”