There's More Than One Path to AICP Certification

The AICP Candidate Pilot Program launched in 2017 allows for planners to begin the journey to AICP certification earlier in their careers—even while they are still in school.

Read Time: 6 minutes

September 6, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell


2019 National Planning Conference

The Photo Group / Courtesy of the APA

In 2017, the American Planning Association (APA) launched a AICP Candidate Pilot Program that provides new opportunities to start with the process of AICP certification earlier in a planning career and provides new flexibility in the certification timeline.

Pitched as an improvement to the certification process and a new opportunity for students and early career professionals to start the certification process, the AICP Candidate Pilot Program transforms the traditional journey to certification. While the traditional path to certification is still an option, the AICP Candidate Pilot Program might be more of a fit for your career plans.

AICP Candidates and those who have already accomplished AICP Certification under the pilot program report benefits from getting a head start on the exam and certification maintenance requirements and the ability to identify themselves as an AICP Candidate (with the commitment, extra study, and hard work that implies) while networking and job searching.

The two certification programs offer substantial differences in the timing of the various steps in the process toward certification. The costs, and the sum total of requirements of each program, are the same.

One of the key changes implemented by the pilot program is the invention of an "AICP Candidate" period, during which a planner enrolled in the program can take the AICP certification exam and also start racking up the certification maintenance (CM) credits necessary for full professional certification. The ability to take the exam during this AICP Candidate period represents a significant alteration of the traditional timeline for certification. The AICP Candidate Pilot Program was created in part to allow students and recent graduates to keep the lessons of their undergraduate and graduate educations fresh while studying for the exam, and to make it easier for early-career job seekers gain employment, with the extra recognition that the AICP Candidate designation offers.

4 Steps to AICP Certification

Step 1: Enrolling in the AICP Candidate Pilot Program

The first step in the AICP Candidate Pilot Program is enrollment, which is available to all students and graduates of Planning Accreditation Board-accredited programs. 

To enroll, students and graduates are required to send graduation documentation that includes either a diploma, transcripts (official or unofficial), or a letter from the head of the program. Any documentation needs to show the degree conferral date and the name of the program. 

The APA website lists the programs with Planning Accreditation Board (PAB) accreditation. Students from non-PAB-accredited programs must use the traditional certification program.

Students and graduates can enroll at any time—enrollment is open year round. The only immediate deadlines to consider correspond to upcoming certification exam dates, but the exam is not an immediate requirement of the program. Enrollment makes it possible to start logging AICP Certification Maintenance (CM) credits. 

Enrollment does start the clock on the one big deadline of the program. All of the steps that follow, including passing the exam and logging 16 hours of CM credits, must be completed within five years. If you don't complete all four steps in five years, you would enter the traditional certification program.

Step 2: Take the AICP Exam

Unlike enrollment, graduation is required to register for the AICP Certification Exam. The date of graduation, and the date of enrollment, will determine the next availability for an exam date. Take the exam prior to earning professional planning experience. You can, however, take the exam prior to earning professional planning experience.

The APA recommends using the APA website's knowledge center for tips on how to pass the AICP exam, in addition to connecting with the professional development officer (PDOs) at local APAS chapters. The primary job of PDOs is to help candidates toward certification, by offering study tips and resources and advice for the later steps of the process, like submitting professional planning experience and the criteria essay. 

Planetizen also offers a full exam prep course, taught by Emily Talen, Phd, FAICP.

A passing grade on the AICP Certification Exam confers the designation of AICP Candidate.

Step 3: Submit Professional Planning Experience

The process of submitting professional planning experience is punctuated by two annual deadlines, usually in the spring and the winter. You'll want to check the AICP Candidate Pilot Program for the specific dates of the next deadline.

AICP Certification requires two years of professional planning experience for those with graduate degrees, and three years for those with bachelor degrees. 

Applicable professional experience accrued while earning your degree does count toward certification, with one caveat to consider: internship experience can be eligible for this requirement only if it didn't fill academic or graduation requirements. 

It can take up to four weeks to review submittals—so a degree of patience will be required to clear this step. Another scheduling issue to note: Step three must be completed before proceeding to step four.

Step 4: Submit Professional Planning Experience Essays

In addition to the completion of step three, another prerequisite for the final step in the AICP Candidate Pilot Program includes 16 hours of CM credits. All of those CM credits must be logged and approved before submitting the essays. 

To complete step four, AICP Candidates must submit three essays addressing professional planning experience submitted in step three. The APA suggests paying close attention to these essays, and not underestimating their importance. Essays can be denied. If that happens, you'll have to wait until the next window to resubmit denied essays, unless you use a feature of the AICP Candidate Program that allows for expedited review for a fee. Again, the local APA chapters have PDOs who can offer guidance on this critical final step, as does the APA's Career Services Department.

Current enrollment is not a prerequisite for step four. If you're between jobs, you can still cross the finish line to AICP certification to boost your job search and career.

Once your essays are approved, the only thing left to do is pay AICP dues. After that, you'll have earned the AICP designation.

The AICP Candidate Pilot Program So Far

The APA identified strong participation in the program in the frist years of the AICP Candidate Pilot Program. In the first year of the pilot program, 1,050 enrolled in the program, including 700 graduates. In the first year alone, 137 passed the May 2018 AICP Certification Exam to become AICP Candidates, and by June 2018, 20 had successfully achieved AICP Certification. After two years, over 1,700 had enrolled in the program; 402 passed the AICP Certification Exam, and 127 successfully achieved AICP Certification.

AICP Candidates and those who have already accomplished AICP Certification under the pilot program report benefits from getting a head start on the exam and certification maintenance requirements and the ability to identify themselves as an AICP Candidate (with the commitment, extra study, and hard work that implies) while networking and job searching.

For more advice and insight on the AICP Candidate Pilot Program, visit the AICP Candidate PIlot Program website and watch the video of an open house hosted by Renee Kronon-Schertz, senior leadership associate at American Planning Association, posted below.


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