Cytotechnologist Certification - 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 11 percent between 2020 and 2030—the addition of 36,500 fresh openings (BLS May 2021). This rate is much faster than the national average for all occupations (8 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 ASPC 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 ASPC 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 ASPC 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 $240 and $290 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 ASPC 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 ASPC 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, ASPC certification, state licensure, or other requirements for those with expired CT(ASPC) 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 ASPC
  • 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 (2021) predicted an 11 percent increase in openings for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians, a general occupation that includes cytotechnologist specializations, between 2020 and 2030, much more than the average growth anticipated across all U.S. occupations during that same decade (8 percent).

As far as the salaries are concerned, here were the salary percentiles for clinical laboratory technologists and technicians in the US (BLS May 2021):

United States
Number of professionals employed 318,780
Annual mean wage $56,910
10th percentile $30,280
25th percentile $37,990
50th percentile (median) $57,800
75th percentile $74,530
90th percentile $79,340

Lastly, while the BLS doesn’t specifically track salaries for cytotechnologists, (June 2022)—a site that relies on self-reported data—found that the median annual salary for a cytotechnologist was $73,652. Among the 326 cytotechnologists reporting their annual salaries, Payscale found these percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $58,000
  • 50th percentile (median): $73,652
  • 90th percentile: $91,000

Entry-level cytotechnologists earn 25 percent below the average, while experienced cytotechnologists (ten to 19 years) earn 3 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, Indeed (June 2022) found an average annual salary of $92,444 among United States cytotechnologists.

Rachel Drummond
Rachel Drummond Writer

Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. A dedicated Ashtanga yoga practitioner, Rachel is interested in exploring the nuanced philosophical aspects of contemplative physical practices and how they apply in daily life. She writes about this topic among others on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).