Clinical Nurse Leader Certification Programs

Clinical Nurse Leader Certification Programs

A clinical nurse leader provides extensive patient care, practices healthy communication, and remains steady in tough situations. Becoming a clinical nurse leader (CNL) involves an additional step beyond earning a basic nursing license. While CNL positions do not require a CNL certification, the certification helps distinguish candidates from the competition.

Earning a CNL certification may result in promotions and subsequent pay raises, so the certification often appeals to those aiming for managerial roles. As of July 2021, PayScale reports that a CNL earns an average annual salary of $83,180. By comparison, the typical registered nurse earns an annual average salary of $66,335 as of July 2021.

While CNL positions do not require a CNL certification, the certification helps distinguish candidates from the competition.

This page explores the requirements to earn and renew a CNL certification to help advance your nursing career.

Clinical Nurse Leader Certification

Nurses can distinguish themselves from other applicants by earning the CNL certification. The CNL credential highlights a nurse’s expertise and adherence to professional standards within the field. Nurses can earn the certification after passing a rigorous exam hosted by the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC), an independent sect of the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. The program holds accreditation from the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.

A CNL certification serves as evidence that a nurse can handle complex situations and effectively coordinate care. The communication and coordination skills developed through mastery of CNL materials can help nurses deliver more unified healthcare services. CNL holders often pursue supervisory roles involving information management and systems analysis.

A CNL certification serves as evidence that a nurse can handle complex situations and effectively coordinate care.

Since the launch of the CNL certification in 2006, over 75 nursing schools adopted its curriculum and offered CNL education programs. According to a 2015 CNC survey, 97% of certificate holders also reported that they use CNL knowledge in the workplace. CNL course materials get created and updated based on an extensive study of useful skills and techniques in the profession.

Continue reading to learn how to earn the CNL certification and explore resources to guide your path to the clinical nurse leader exam.

Clinical Nurse Leader Certification


American Association of Colleges of Nursing


Cost: $425


Requirements: Graduation from or enrollment in an eligible CNL program


Renewal Cycle: 5 years

What Do I Need for a CNL Certification?

Students and graduates must pass the CNL certification exam to earn the credential. While applicants can retake the exam, they must pay a separate fee each time. The certified nurse leader exam consists of 140 multiple choice questions taken over three hours. The test does not replace any other licenses or certifications, so students must earn a nursing license regardless of CNL status.

Enrollees and alumni of CNL graduate programs approved by the CNC can sit for the exams. Students interested in the certification should factor CNL eligibility into selecting a graduate school. Active students in an official CNL program must wait until their final semester to take the exam.

Students and alumni must work with their CNL program’s director to submit an exam application. The CNC provides a submission portal on its website that guides applicants through each step of the process. During the application process, candidates should research and select a time and location to take the exam.

Candidates can view the certification’s official list of requirements and other resources on CNC’s website.

Clinical Nurse Leader Programs How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

How Do I Prepare for the CNL Exam?

To pass the CNL exam, candidates must earn a scaled score of at least 350 out of 500 possible points. While the test includes a total of 140 multiple choice questions, only 130 factor into the score.

A background with case studies in nursing may help test-takers, as the exam may include several questions based on a case study.

The CNC’s 2017 guide for test materials breaks down the exam into three weighted topics: nursing leadership (32%), clinical outcomes management (23%), and care environment management (45%). The guide includes a further breakdown of the exam’s topics. Students may want to spend additional time studying the care environment section of the test since it accounts for a larger portion of the score.

The official site provides a host of resources to help candidates prepare for the exam. Candidates may also sign up for official CNL practice exams and take the practice version as many times as they’d like. CNC offers self-assessment tools to help students identify what areas they need to study.

Renewing and Maintaining CNL Certification

Nurses must renew their CNL certifications every five years before the official expiration date listed on the certification. Failure to renew the certification before expiry may result in a late fee on top of the $310 renewal application. If a CNL does not renew their certification for 12 months or more after the expiration, they must retake the exam.

To become eligible for renewal, certification-holders must meet these requirements:

  • Submit an application and the required fee according to renewal status.
  • Maintain a registered nurse license and have good standing with the state nursing board.
  • Keep to the CNL standards of conduct listed in the renewal application.
  • Work a minimum of 2,000 hours in a nursing position within the five-year period. The position does not require a CNL job title to be eligible.
  • Earn a minimum of 50 hours of contact or continuing education within the five-year period. Contact hours can include activities such as attending conferences, hosting webinars, teaching, mentoring, and publishing papers related to CNL.

Nurses are responsible for documenting their achievement of the above requirements in the five years between renewals.

Resources for Clinical Nurse Leaders


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is the clinical nurse leader exam hard?

    Candidates must be enrolled in or graduated from an approved CNL graduate program to sit for the exam. While education provides preparation for the test, adequate study time is also important.

  • How do I pass the CNL certification exam?

    Applicants must score 350 or higher on a scale of 500 points within a three-hour time frame. Applicants may take the exam multiple times after paying a fee for each attempt. The CNC provides multiple study aids and resources on its website.

  • Can I pursue clinical nurse leader certification online?

    Some of the schools and programs approved by the CNC offer online programs to earn a postgraduate degree in clinical nurse leadership. Examples include the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Lander University, and the University of Pittsburgh.

  • How do I become a licensed CNL?

    The official CNL certification does not count as a license. A license allows a person to practice within a particular field, such as the registered nursing license. While earning a CNL certification requires an active nursing license, the certification alone is not necessary to practice nursing.


Featured Image: Fly View Productions / E+ / Getty Images

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