Certificate vs. Diploma vs. Degree: What’s the Difference?

Academic institutions can grant all three of these awards, but each award refers to a slightly different thing.

Is it best to say diploma or degree? What about diploma or certificate? Well, that depends.

In this post, I want to discuss the differences between these three awards and how to use them in your writing. After reading this post, you shouldn’t mix up the words certificate vs. diploma vs. degree again.

When to Use Certificate

diploma versus certificate in schoolsA certificate generally refers to two types of documents. The first has an academic sense; the second has a governmental/legal sense.

In the first sense, a certificate is a document issued to a person completing a course of study not leading to a diploma. In this sense, you may be getting a certificate for completing an individual course or receiving a certificate of completion for a certification program.

Certification programs are typically specialized in a single skill set or industry area. For example, plumbers, welders, electricians, HVAC specialists, etc., usually go through certification programs. These programs are very specialized to a particular field and have very little if any academic coursework.

Instead, they focus on practical training and troubleshooting. Many certification programs require an apprenticeship program for completion.

The second sense of certificate is a legal document that states that you can officially practice in certain professions. For example, a certification in cosmetology will allow you to officially work as a hairdresser.

When to Use Diploma

certificate vs degree programsA diploma is similar to a certification but is usually more in depth. Many schools offer diploma programs in nursing, for instance, which is generally a two-year program of course work and on the job training.

Diploma programs, which are usually offered by community colleges and technical schools, offer people efficient ways to change careers, as the programs are more focused than a degree program but more in depth than a certification.

High School Diploma or High School Degree?

Secondary schools, i.e., high schools, award diplomas, not degrees. It is a somewhat common hyperbole to overstate the achievement of a high school diploma and conflate it with a college degree. For example,

  • “Arroyo has a chance for a happy ending, if not the high-school degree he fell three credits short of earning.” – USA Today

– should read –

  • Arroyo has a chance for a happy ending, if not the high-school diploma he fell three credits short of earning.

When to Use Degree

degree or diploma certificate vs diplomaColleges and universities award degrees to successful candidates. There are four primary degrees awarded by institutions of higher learning.

Associates Degrees

An associate’s degree is two-year degree most commonly granted by a community college or technical school. They can, however, also be granted by four-year colleges and universities.

Bachelor’s Degree

A bachelor’s degree is a four-year degree that is granted by a college or university. Most schools that grant bachelor’s degrees require a specific course load and a minimum number of credits to graduate.

Master’s Degree

A master’s degree is what is called a post-graduate degree because you go on to get one only after you have graduated with your bachelor’s.

Master’s degree programs are typically an additional two years on top of your bachelor’s and usually require some level of student teaching, conducting research, and a thesis paper to be written.

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

A Ph.D. is another example or a post-graduate degree, and is several more years of study and intensive research. Ph.D. programs vary in length, but they are generally four or more years.

High School Degree or High School Diploma?

What is the difference between degree vs. diploma in a high school setting?

As I mentioned above, the proper term for the award granted after the graduation of high school is diploma.

A degree is earned upon the graduation of college. A diploma is earned after the graduation of high school.


All three of these awards, certificates, diplomas, and degrees all show a level of achievement, oftentimes academic achievement. They do, however, have different meanings.

Here are the main differences between degree vs. diploma vs. certificate summarized,

Certifications are specialized and industry specific.

Diplomas are specialized but more in depth than certifications. Diplomas are also what you receive upon graduating high school.

Degrees are awarded by colleges and universities.