Frequently Asked Questions About PCCN Certification

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Q: What is PCCN certification?

A: PCCN certification is a credential granted by AACN Certification Corporation that validates your knowledge of nursing care of acutely ill adult patients to hospital administrators, peers, patients and, most importantly, to yourself. PCCN certification promotes continuing excellence in progressive care nursing.

Q: What does PCCN stand for?

A: PCCN is a registered service mark of AACN Certification Corporation and denotes certification in adult progressive care nursing. 

Progressive care is the term used by AACN to collectively describe areas in which acutely ill patients are cared for, such as intermediate care units, direct observation units, stepdown units, telemetry units, transitional care units and emergency departments, as well as to define a specific level of patient care. AACN recognizes progressive care as part of the continuum of critical care.

Q: Why a progressive care certification?

A: National practice analyses of progressive care nursing conducted in 2008 and 2012 validated the progressive care environment, the patient populations served and the core competencies, basic knowledge and skills needed by progressive care nurses. 

The acuity of patients admitted to hospitals has steadily increased and with it the demand for critical care beds. With this demand and decreased availability of critical care beds, patients are often transferred from critical care units while still requiring an increased level of nursing care and vigilance. Patients who were formerly admitted to critical care units are now routinely admitted to progressive care units.

Q: Why would I want to obtain PCCN certification?
A: PCCN certification helps you maintain an up-to-date knowledge base of care of acutely ill adult patients. In addition to providing you with a sense of professional pride and achievement, PCCN certification reinforces the special knowledge and experiences required for progressive care nursing. Research studies link higher levels of clinical knowledge, skill and experience with certification.

Q: What are the PCCN exam eligibility requirements?
A: Candidates for the PCCN exam must meet the following requirements:
  • Current unencumbered licensure as an RN or APRN in the U.S.
  • Meet one of the following clinical practice requirement options:
    • Option 1: Practice as an RN or APRN for 1,750 hours in direct care of acutely ill adult patients during the previous two years, with 875 of those hours accrued in the most recent year preceding application. 
    • Option 2: Practice as an RN or APRN for at least five years with a minimum of 2,000 hours in direct care of acutely ill adult patients, with 144 of those hours accrued in the most recent year preceding application.
  • For more information about PCCN exam eligibility, please refer to the PCCN Exam Handbook

Q: Which nurses are eligible to sit for the PCCN exam?

A: The PCCN exam is for nurses who provide direct care to acutely ill adult patients, in areas such as step-down or telemetry units (see list in second item above) — or in other units as appropriate. Final determination of eligibility is not based on unit type but on patient acuity, as patient placement varies by facility and bed availability.

Q: Should I take the PCCN exam or the CCRN exam?

A: This will depend on the acuity of the patients you care for in your practice. Progressive care encompasses care delivered to patients whose needs fall along the less acute end of the critical care continuum. Nursing care required is determined by patient needs rather than a geographic location. Refer to the PCCN or CCRN Exam flyer and the test plan for each exam to identify content areas tested and see how your practice aligns.

Q: How many questions are on the exam, and what content is covered?

A: The 2 ½-hour PCCN exam contains 125 items; 100 items are scored and 25 are used to gather statistical data on item performance for future exams. 

The items are based on the AACN Synergy Model for Patient Care, with 80% focusing on Clinical Judgment and 20% focusing on Professional Caring and Ethical Practice. The PCCN Test Plan, found in the PCCN Exam Handbook, provides a breakdown of content areas.

Q: Is the PCCN certification exam accredited?

A: The PCCN exam is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).

Q: What does “board certified” mean? Are AACN certifications considered board certifications?

A: Board certified is a term primarily used by physician organizations. Only 3 of the 34 national nursing certifying organizations that are members of the American Board of Nursing Specialties (ABNS) label their credentials/programs in this way. While an organization may use the term board certified when referring to their nursing certification programs, it does not reflect a different or higher level of certification.

Board certified in the nursing world simply refers to certification from a nationally-accredited organization that is governed by a board of directors. As such, AACN certification programs are, indeed, board certified. 

Q: How do I sign up for the PCCN exam?

A: You may Apply Online. For information about the exam and a paper application, refer to the PCCN Exam Handbook, available online or by requesting a copy via email at

Q: When is the PCCN exam offered?

A: The PCCN exam is offered via computer-based testing year-round, Monday through Saturday, at more than 300 testing sites across the U.S.  

Q: How soon after testing will I find out if I passed the PCCN exam?

A: Those who complete the exam via computer-based testing will receive their results and a score report upon completion of the test. Those who complete the exam via paper and pencil testing will receive their results and score report by mail 6 to 8 weeks after testing.

Q: If I do not pass the PCCN exam on the first attempt, what can I do?

A: Referring to your PCCN exam score report, you will want to identify the topic areas in which you have the most room for improvement. Candidates may sit for the PCCN exam up to 4 times in a 12-month period. A discounted retest fee is available to candidates who do not pass the exam and is available until the exam is passed.

Q: Once I pass the exam, how long is my PCCN certification effective?

A: PCCN certification is recognized for a 3-year period.

Q: How do I renew my PCCN?

A: During your 3-year certification period, you must continue to maintain current, unencumbered RN or APRN licensure and complete the Renewal by Synergy CERPs program requirements or pass the PCCN exam. You must also have met the clinical practice requirement of 432 hours in direct care of acutely ill adult patients, with 144 of those hours accrued in the 12-month period prior to your scheduled renewal date. 

For details, refer to the PCCN Renewal Handbook. You are encouraged to Renew Online

Q: How are CERPs calculated?

A: CERPs (Continuing Education Recognition Points) are similar to contact hours, or CEs. The Recognition Point system is used because credit is also awarded for activities that don’t strictly fall into the contact hour category, such as writing articles, serving on committees or being a mentor/preceptor.

One CE, CME or contact hour of class time is equal to one CERP. For example, a 6-hour ACLS course (minus lunch and breaks) would be worth 6 CERPs.

Q: What are the different Renewal by Synergy CERPs categories?

A: Renewing PCCN candidates must complete a minimum of 100 CERPs during the 3-year certification period, with at least 60 CERPs in Category A and 10 each in categories B and C; the other 20 CERPs may be in Category A, B or C. 

The following list of examples is not all-inclusive. The corresponding Synergy Model components for each category appear in italics.

Category A (Clinical Judgment, Clinical Inquiry) examples include lab values, BLS, ACLS, PALS, NRP, ECG, IV therapy, heart failure, pharmacology, assessment, pathophysiology, technical skills/new equipment, statistics, clinical research, evidence-based practice, auditing, publishing, practice protocols, QI/QA, clinical aspects of bioterrorism, exam review courses.

Category B (Advocacy & Moral Agency, Caring Practices, Response to Diversity, Facilitation of Learning) examples include safety, legal or ethical issues, charting/documentation, reducing medication errors, public policy, HIPAA, the Joint Commission, patient support groups, cultural aspects of care, diversity, medical Spanish, therapeutic communication, psychosocial aspects of care, mental illness, geriatric care, spiritual considerations, addiction/recovery, violence/abuse, end-of-life care.

Category C (Collaboration, Systems Thinking) examples include communication skills, teamwork, healthy work environments, AACN Synergy Model for Patient Care, redesigning hospital care, disaster/emergency planning, developing policies or procedures, community resources, committees, leadership, management, risk management, AACN membership, case management.

For more information, refer to the Renewal by Synergy CERPs Brochure

Q: Can I still maintain my PCCN credential if I move away from providing direct care to acutely ill adult patients?

A: If you are no longer eligible for active PCCN status, you may be eligible for PCCN-K renewal. Other renewal options include Inactive status, Alumnus status or Retired status. More information about these options can be found in the PCCN Renewal Handbook

Q: Can I meet the PCCN clinical hour eligibility requirement for practice hours completed outside the U.S.?

A: Eligible clinical practice hours for AACN Certification Corporation exams and certification renewal are those completed in U.S.-based or Canada-based facilities or in facilities determined to be comparable to the U.S. standard of acute/critical care nursing practice, as evidenced by Magnet® designation or Joint Commission International accreditation.