Cytotechnologist Certification - CT(ASCP)

For laboratory science-minded professionals who want to work in healthcare, becoming a certified cytotechnologist can prove an ideal career choice. Cytotechnologists (CTs) and other allied health professionals work behind the scenes of an examination room in laboratories to examine tissue samples for evidence of cancerous and pre-cancerous cells and infectious diseases.

Using a microscope, CTs look for cell abnormalities and support physicians and pathologists in making patient diagnoses. Through diligent independent work and communicative teamwork, cytotechnologists can help save lives by providing a timely diagnosis so a patient can begin treatment and increase their chances of survival.

Cytotechnologists are in-demand in a wide range of healthcare facilities including hospitals, clinics, and university research laboratories. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that clinical laboratory technologist and technician jobs, a general occupation that includes cytotechnologist specializations, are expected to swell 5 percent between 2022 and 2032—the addition of 16,800 fresh openings (BLS Sept. 2023). This rate is much faster than the national average for all occupations (3 percent) during the same time period.

The pathway to becoming a cytotechnologist is fairly straightforward. Like many allied health professions, most employers prefer to hire applicants who have completed an accredited educational program and earned certification in their field. Given the importance of accuracy and the time-sensitive nature of this profession, cytology certification is highly valued by healthcare professionals and patients. An incorrect tissue sample diagnosis could cost someone their life or cause severe emotional distress, so it is imperative that CTs receive a high-quality education, including didactic coursework and hands-on training, and be able to demonstrate comprehensive knowledge.

While not all states require certification and licensure, aspiring cytotechnologists are strongly encouraged to complete a bachelor’s degree program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) to be eligible to take certification exams given by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) Board of Certification (BOC). The ASCP formed more than 90 years ago in 1928 and has been issuing credentials to medical technicians (MTs) and laboratory technicians (LTs) since the 1930s. The specialist certification in cytotechnology (CT) was established in 1957 and the most recent certification added in 2018 was the specialist in molecular biology (SMB) 2018. Currently, there are more than 560,000 laboratory professionals who hold an ASCP certification.

Read on to learn more about how to earn ASCP certification as a cytotechnologist (CT).

Early Preparation to Become a Cytotechnologist

High school students who know they are bound for allied health careers should take as many math and science courses as possible in biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, advanced algebra, and calculus. Pursuing part-time work, internships, or volunteer work in a laboratory or medical office can give students a real-world laboratory and microscope experience. Students are advised to keep their grades high in order to gain admission into a reputable and CAAHEP-accredited bachelor’s degree program.

Post-High School CT (ASCP) Certification Preparation

A four-year bachelor’s degree from a CAAHEP-accredited program is required for CT professionals who want to take the ASCP certification exam. Most CAAHEP-accredited programs are 12-month programs that culminate in a bachelor of science in cytotechnology.

To be eligible to apply for these one-year undergraduate CT programs, students must complete a certain number of prerequisite courses in English, humanities, math, science, history, social sciences, and other general education requirements. Each CT program has its own unique prerequisites.

For example, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences offers a 12-month CAAHEP-accredited cytotechnology program. To be considered for admission, students must complete 80 credits of general education courses at any regionally-accredited college or university. A minimum of 20 credits is required in biology and eight credits in chemistry are required on a student’s official transcript.

Students in this program are prepared for entry-level cytotechnology positions and are required to complete a clinical internship as well as demonstrate cytopathology skills. Graduates from this program are eligible to take the Board of Certificate examination in cytotechnology from the ASCP to earn the CT(ASCP) credential.

CT (ASCP) Certification Exam Preparation

The CT (ASCP) certification exam includes 100 multiple choice questions and must be completed within 2.5 hours. The questions are administered using computer adaptive testing, meaning the level of question difficulty continues to increase until a question is answered incorrectly. Students have time to review answers and changing an answer doesn’t affect the previously answered questions. The cost to apply to take the CT exam is $250 and $300 for the specialist in cytology (SCT) exam.

The exam includes questions covering the following content areas:

  • Gynecological cytology: CT (40 to 45 percent); SCT (20 to 25 percent)
  • Non-gynecological cytology: CT (25 to 35 percent); SCT (15 to 25 percent)
  • Respiratory system: CT (8 to 12 percent); SCT (5 to 10 percent)
  • Genitourinary system: CT (8 to 12 percent); SCT (5 to 10 percent)
  • Body cavity fluids: CT (8 to 12 percent); SCT (5 to 10 percent)
  • Fine needle aspiration and other: CT (10 to 15 percent); SCT (15 to 25 percent)
  • Laboratory operations: CT (15 to 20 percent); SCT (35 to 40 percent)

Sample CT and SCT exam questions for the content areas above are provided by ASCP and study guides are available for purchase. Test takers are notified via email of their scores four days after completing the exam and will receive a paper certificate in the mail three to five weeks after the exam.

Credential holders must renew their certifications every three years and must earn 36 points via laboratory or patient safety education, cytology, lab specialty, management, education, or another related area of laboratory interest. CT credential holders are advised to keep track of their continuing education with opportunities through ASCPs online credential maintenance program (CMP).

State Licensure for Cytotechnologists

The ASCP holds the opinion that all states should license laboratory personnel to “ensure that laboratory personnel possess appropriate academic and clinical training, pass competency-based examinations conducted by an approved national certifying organization, and participate in continuing education programs.”

A complete list of states that require ASCP licensure for cytotechnologists includes the following:

  • California
  • Florida
  • Hawaii
  • Louisiana
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Puerto Rico
  • Tennessee
  • West Virginia

Some states have unique pathways to CT certification via state-specific licensure, ASCP certification, state licensure, or other requirements for those with expired CT(ASCP) certification.

For example, the California Department of Public Health requires that cytotechnologists hold a license through the state office of Laboratory and Field Services to perform examinations on cytology specimens. The following is a list of requirements, the state of California applicants need when applying for CT licensure:

  • Earning a CAAHEP-accredited 12-month bachelor’s degree program or earning a bachelor’s degree with 20 semester-units (or the equivalent) of biological science, eight semesters of chemistry, and three semesters of mathematics
  • Completing a 12-month cytotechnologist program accredited by CAAHEP (or equivalent) or five years of employer-verified full-time clinical laboratory experience in cytology with time-sensitive limitations
  • Passing the CT exam offered by the ASCP
  • Renewing the certificate every two years, which includes paying a fee and submitting documentation of continuing education

Since every state has unique licensure requirements, degree-seeking cytotechnologists are advised to research the state requirements where they live or plan on working in the future.

Cytotechnologist Career and Salary

It’s not surprising that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) predicted an 5 percent increase in openings for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, a general occupation that includes cytotechnologist specializations, between 2022 and 2032, much more than the average growth anticipated across all U.S. occupations during that same decade (3 percent).

As far as the salaries are concerned, here were the salary percentiles for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians in the US (BLS May 2022):

  United States
Number of professionals employed 333,600
Annual mean wage $59,130
10th percentile $35,220
25th percentile $40,440
50th percentile (median) $57,380
75th percentile $74,920
90th percentile $84,670

Lastly, while the BLS doesn’t specifically track salaries for cytotechnologists, (Oct. 2023)—a site that relies on self-reported data—found that the median annual salary for a cytotechnologist was $78,946. Among the 372 cytotechnologists reporting their annual salaries, found these percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $59,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $78,946
  • 90th percentile: $94,000

Entry-level cytotechnologists with less than one year of experience earn 17 percent below the average, while experienced cytotechnologists (10 to 19 years) earn 5 percent above the average, and late-career cytotechnologists (20+ years) earn 6 percent above the average.

It is important to note that these figures also vary based on the source of data. By illustration, (Oct. 2023) found an average annual salary of $132,891 among United States cytotechnologists.

Rachel Drummond, MEd
Rachel Drummond, MEd Writer

Rachel Drummond has contributed insightful articles to since 2019, where she offers valuable advice and guidance for those pursuing careers in the healthcare field, combining her passion for education with her understanding of the critical role that healthcare professionals play in promoting physical and mental well-being.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.