ANCC or AONL - Which Exam Should I Take?

Close-up of hand holding a pen and writing an exam
Close-up of hand holding a pen and writing an exam

Spring Arbor University’s accredited MSN/MBA program offers a robust nursing and business curriculum rooted in ethical practice. Students graduate prepared to emerge as leaders in the field, ready to gain experience, and sit for the AONL Certified Nurse Manager exam or the ANCC Nurse Executive Certification exam. Read more to find out which exam is best for your career goals.


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What is an MSN/MBA program?

Spring Arbor’s online MSN/MBA program is designed for BSN prepared nurses already working in the field who want to take their career to the next level. SAU also offers a fast-track for RN-MSN/MBA students, so they can develop the credentials needed to advance into management roles, earning their BSN along the way. This program helps students cultivate leadership and operation skills in tandem with clinical practice. Graduates can position themselves to step into leadership roles such as managing clinical operations, creating procedures for patient care, and improving protocols for health policy.

The benefit of a dual degree is that you’re getting two degrees at the same time and in less time than it would take to get each degree individually. Classes also have subject overlap so one class may be credited towards both degrees. 

Both the RN-MSN/MBA and the MSN/MBA offer concentrations as areas of focus for the degree: Healthcare Administration, Human Resource Development, Management, Organizational Consulting, and Executive Leadership. Depending on your career goals, your concentration will provide specialized skills and help you prepare for the field.

What can I do with a dual-degree?

A combined MSN/MBA degree will open your career path to a number of nurse leadership roles. You can find jobs in nursing leadership in hospitals, clinics, health systems, nursing homes, nursing schools and more.

Nurse managers, executives and administrators are in charge of:

  • Directing nurse responsibilities
  • Supervising nurses
  • Managing finances, policies and procedures of a unit
  • Implementing changes in policy, technology or regulations as dictated by federal, state or organizational laws

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for healthcare executives is expected to grow 20 percent by 2026, meaning there are plenty of career opportunities for those with an MSN/MBA dual-degree. The average salary for a healthcare executive or manager is $99,000 or more.

A Closer Look at Certifications

While earning an MSN/MBA dual degree will provide you with a competitive skill set, you can take a competency-based exam to become a certified nurse manager or executive leader after obtaining management experience - either the AONL Certified Nurse Manager exam or the ANCC Nurse Executive Certification exam, depending on your career goals.

How Do Both Exams Differ?

  • The AONL Certified Nurse Manager and Leader exam is a certification intended for those who already have experience in the nurse manager role. Nurse managers typically oversee nursing staff and act as an intermediary between hospital leadership and nursing teams. They also help create and enforce policies and procedures to promote optimal healthcare environments. The American Organization for Nursing Leadership requires nurses to have a minimum of 2,080 hours of experience in a nursing management role to be eligible to take the exam. After passing the exam, you will receive the credential of Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML).

The CNML exam covers topics including human resources, technology, financial management, performance improvement, and strategic management. Effective nurse managers and leaders need a strong knowledge base to be able to effectively plan and implement change, influence others, and manage unit finances.

Passing the AONL exam shows potential employers you have the required nursing management experience and leadership skills necessary to be a manager[1]  or leader.

  • The ANCC Nurse Executive Certification exam tests your knowledge of clinical skills required to manage the operations of a unit, specialty service, or serve in upper-level management or an administrative position. Nurses must have at least two years of experience in a nursing management position to be eligible to take the exam. Those interested in this exam may be nurse managers with an interest in becoming a nurse executive, such as a Chief Nursing Officer.

The Nurse Executive Exam includes four domains of practice, including structures and processes, which covers the topics of financial, human resources, and health policy management, a professional practice section, which includes care management, professional practice models and environment, and communication, a leadership section, covering effective leadership, vision and planning, and ethics and advocacy. The final domain is knowledge management, which covers quality improvement and monitoring, evidence-based practice, research, and innovation.

Earning this certification demonstrates that you can facilitate healthy collaboration, educate and mentor staff, manage the finances of a unit and most importantly, advocate and foster an environment for stellar patient care. After passing the exam, you earn the Nurse Executive-Board Certified (NE-BC) credential.

Next Steps

The knowledge areas tested in AONL and the ANCC exams are covered in Spring Arbor’s MSN/MBA dual degree program. Students graduate confident and ready to embark on rewarding careers in nurse management or healthcare leadership. Contact us to learn how a dual degree can help you reach your career goals.

Be sure to read our MSN/MBA blog “Leadership in Nursing: Why Get a Dual Degree?”


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Medical and Health Services Managers: Occupational Outlook Handbook: (n.d.). Retrieved from

Writers, S. (2019, June 21). Nurse Administration Careers & Salary Outlook - 2019 Retrieved from

Medical and Health Services Managers : Occupational Outlook Handbook: (n.d.). Retrieved from

American Organization for Nursing Leadership. (N.d).

American Nurses Credentialing Center. (N.d). Test content outline.