NCSF and NASM are two of the fitness industry’s top personal trainer certifications. Both NASM and NCSF have excellent training curricula. The NASM OPT Model is hard to beat, but NCSF covers a similar level of material. Compared to NASM, NCSF is less well-known, but it’s also more affordable.

I highly recommend that you take the quiz and find out which personal trainer certification is best for your career goals.

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NCSF vs NASM - Tyler Read holds up NCSF and NASM textbooks on table

Welcome to my PTPioneer article comparing NASM vs NCSF training certifications

I write this after taking both NCSF and NASM CPTs, and passing the final exams, using my experience as a personal trainer and coach for over 10 years. 

Our team has trainers certified through both NASM and NCSF as well as through most of the other main organizations and we have a good idea of which certifications gyms and other employers like to see on a resume. 

Once you have finished reading this article, you will know which of these two certifications and organizations is the best for you and your future career in the fitness industry: NCSF or NASM?

I dive into:

  • General pricing, package details, and prerequisites for personal trainer certification
  • Deep dives into the content, knowledge, and skills within NASM and NCSF
  • Challenge of NCSF and NASM, timelines for final exam prep, and review of the study materials

Let’s begin by looking at the organization and the domains of skills its certification programs cover.

NCSF vs NASM
CPTACSM vs ACE Quick BreakdownFeaturesPrice
NASM-CPT

NASM-CPT

  • NCCA accredited program
  • The most popular and recognized certification providers in the world
  • Specializing in corrective exercise technique methodology
  • Great for newcomers and seasoned professionals
  • More expensive
  • Difficult exam
View on NASM Website
NCSF-CPT

NCSF-CPT

  • NCCA accreditation
  • Lower cost than most other CPT certs
  • Solid textbook packed with all essential training knowledge
  • Outstanding e-learning portal for study materials
View on NCSF Website
Product
Product
Exam cost
Exam cost
$599
$349
Study Material Cost
Study Material Cost
$749-$2699 (includes exam)
$799 (includes exam)
Prerequisites
Prerequisites
18 years of age, High School Diploma/GED, CPR/AED Certified
18 years of age, High School Diploma/GED, CPR/AED Certified
Exam Passing Score
Exam Passing Score
70%
70%
Exam Pass Rate
Exam Pass Rate
60% – 67%
75%
Average Completion Time
Average Completion Time
3 – 6 months
3 – 6 months
Trainer Academy Guides
  • Complete curriculum study preparation
  • Audio guide, flashcards, and mnemonics
  • 800+ practice questions
  • Exam pass refund guarantee
  • Cheaper pricing than premium materials
Provider Materials
  • Curriculum study preparation
  • Includes text, graphics, and videos
  • 200+ practice questions
  • No exam pass refund guarantee
  • $999 for NASM starter package
PTPioneer Study Guides
  • Curriculum material overview
  • Complete chapter breakdowns
  • 60 practice questions
  • 130 flashcards
  • Exam cheat sheet
  • Free from PTPioneer

What is NASM?

NASM has been in the fitness industry since its inception in 1987. It has been around for a long time, and its certifications are possibly the most well-known today.

NASM-national-academy-of-sports-medicine-logo-4

The NASM CPT certification has been their bread and butter cert, along with some fantastic options for specializations, such as through the Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) or Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) certs.

The NASM holds accreditation through the gold standard NCCA. The NCCA, or National Commission for Certifying Agencies, accredits all top health and fitness certifications. 

NASM stands for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, and unlike some of the other top names (NSCA, ACSM), it is a for-profit organization. 

One standout feature of NASM is its teaching and programming method, known as OPT, or Optimum Performance Training Model. This state-of-the-art method helps them sit firmly at the top of fitness and gives trainers an easy way to periodize their programming.

NASM also acquired the AFAA a few years ago, and now has an excellent group fitness program. 

What is NCSF?

NCSF stands for the National Council on Strength and Fitness. They have been in the fitness industry for approximately 25 years, so not as far back as NASM, but pretty close. There are others like ACSM that have over 50 years in fitness. 

The NCSF is a for-profit organization, just like NASM. They set out with the mission being “inspiring people to become their best.”

Like the NASM, the NCSF is found globally with certified professionals in as many as 160 total countries. They do not have as many trainers as NASM, but they have a nearly equal global reach. 

The NCSF is a well-respected organization for personal training, although not quite as well-known. 

The NCCA also accredits NCSF, so we will see a lot of the main domains covered nearly perfectly by both organizations. 

It should be noted that both of these organizations’ programs can be done online. This is very advantageous for learning in this day and age. 

Pros and cons of NCSF vs NASM

NASM vs NCSF - Tyler Read holds up NCSF and NASM textbooks against white board with lettering

When I compare NCSF and NASM, both certifications excel at giving you a well-rounded approach to being a fitness trainer.

On the positive side, both programs teach excellent exercise science, resistance training, offer great programming tools, and nutrition content.

In general, the NASM curriculum just comes out slightly ahead when it comes to depth on these topics and NASM, of course, has more overall content.

On the positive for NASM, their study system material is fantastic, while NCSF’s online platform works, but doesn’t offer you as much.

In fact, NCSF is a lot cheaper certification program than NASM, which is a pro for NCSF and a con of the NASM CPT. 

Finally, NASM is an incredibly well known certification organization around the world that draws a lot of attention, while NCSF flies kind of under the radar, so this can be a pro or a con depending on what you’re looking for. 

NASM and NCSF certification packages and study materials

NASM vs NCSF - NCSF and NASM textbooks on table with gold coins and money bag

Let’s break down the packages for these two fitness training certifications, starting with NCSF.

The first package from NCSF is the Home Study Course and Exam Package. This NCSF Certification cost starts at a $799 base price (although right now it is on sale for $479).

Included in this package is the following:

  • Personal Training Textbook 2nd Edition(Digital)
  • Instructional Videos
  • Lesson Notes
  • Practice Questions and Answers
  • Review Quizzes
  • Instructor Support
  • Membership (One Year)
  • NCSF Personal Trainer Certification Exam

The second package from NCSF is the Home Study Course and Exam Plus Package. This package costs a total of $899 when not on sale.

Included in this package is the following to help with your studies:

  • Personal Training Textbook 2nd Edition
  • Personal Training Textbook 2nd Edition(Digital)
  • Instructional Videos
  • Lesson Notes
  • Practice Questions and Answers
  • Practice Tests
  • Instructor Support
  • Membership (One Year)
  • NCSF Personal Trainer Certification Exam

The NCSF also offers many packages that have multiple certifications thrown together. For example, they have the master trainer program, which holds three certifications: CPT, Strength Coach, and Sports Nutrition.

They also offer two certifications together, like CPT with sports nutrition or the strength coach. 

Now let’s look at the main range of offerings for the NASM CPT certification.

The first entry option for the NASM CPT certification is the Self-Study package. This Personal Trainer Certification costs $999 ($749 on sale).

The Self-Study program is one of the best in the industry, as NASM is the top CPT certification.

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Provided in this first package is the following:

  • 100% Online Course
  • NCCA Accredited Exam
  • State-of-the-Art, Digital Learning Platform
  • High-End Learning Videos
  • Audio Chapter Summaries
  • Exercise Demonstration Library
  • Biodigital 3D Models
  • Handouts and Resources Library
  • Practice Exam, Quizzes and Knowledge Checks
  • Virtual Coaching Specialization: Train Clients in the Gym and Online!

The second option for the NASM CPT program is the Guided Study Package, which will include the materials from the entry-level option plus a few extras. This NASM certification costs $1,799.

Provided in this second package is the following assistance:

  • Everything in Self Study plus…
  • Job Guarantee**
  • One-year NASM EDGE Trainer Plus
  • Certification Exam Retest
  • Unlimited Access to NASM Fitness Experts
  • NASM-CPT Hardcopy Textbook
  • Bonus Course: Motivational Interviewing for Coaches

The third and final option for the NASM CPT personal trainers program is their All-Inclusive Package, which comes at $2,699. This is a hefty price but has the main selling point of offering gym experience and the ability to recertify for life.

Provided in this final package is the following:

  • Everything in Guided Study plus…
  • NASM’s EDGE CPT Exam Prep
  • Gymternship™
  • Recertify for Life
  • CPR/AED Certification Online

You can also find these CPT programs packaged with other NASM packages with certifications like their nutrition or strength coach cert.

After looking at these deals, it is important to consider that they can be found on regular deals for 15 – 30% off. 

If you are looking for a cheaper certification, the NCSF is the way to go, and it also includes a ton of materials found throughout all CPT intro packages on the site. 

If you want the best personal trainer certification, I recommend using the NASM packages. Their most popular program will be the Guided Study with its addition of a few extra tips and tricks to help students pass the exam.

You still cannot go wrong with either of these certifications, so no matter which you choose, you will have a successful future in personal training.

Both give you enough assistance with understanding the material, but NASM just edges out NCSF on account of having more options and more included in each study series. 

NCSF vs NASM course layouts

NASM vs NCSF - textbooks table of contents, which course is better?

These two CPT certifications from NASM and NCSF have a lot of crossovers and cover many of the exact domains to equal degrees. The two closely cover the main concepts of personal training due to their NCCA accreditation. I will still cover the standout differences. 

The main domains I cover in the study materials are exercise science, behavior change, consultation, screening, program design, and special populations.

Exercise Science

The NCSF handles exercise science well in its certification study materials, as does the NASM.

The NCSF covers all the needed and expected basics in a top certification. A difference between these organizations is that NCSF does not offer near as many forms to study this in. 

Their text and online portal are effective and work for the average student, but the multiple styles of study from NASM make it a bit more superior. 

The NASM offers lecture and audio options not always found in other study programs. They have a superior online study portal, which helps them teach all types of learners more effectively. 

Both organizations do well in this section, covering things like muscle anatomy, biomechanics, and physiology topics on the page, which comprise exercise science’s primary focus. Many of these are covered in sort of depth you might find in college classes. It is concise and detailed at the same time.

NASM sets up this information for their OPT model for program design, and we will go over that later. The knowledge and skills taught here will directly improve program design with the OPT model.

You couldn’t go wrong with these two CPT certifications for exercise science, but you could learn it quicker with NASM.

Next, let’s look at how behavioral coaching is handled.

Behavior Change Coaching 

Behavioral coaching sees the most significant difference between all the study domains in these two certifications. 

The primary type of coaching skills taught in behavior change coaching would be:

  • Motivational interviewing
  • Developing rapport
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • Empathy
  • Active listening

The NASM handles behavior coaching well. They focus significantly on the stages of change model, which utilizes five stages a client can be in while teaching coaches how to progress the client. 

The stages-of-change model is quite effective. The NASM also discusses other models, but a focus is placed on this effective one.

SMART goals are another behavior change focus in the NASM and NCSF. The NCSF is not as detailed and solid at giving real-life examples as other certifications can be.

The NCSF discusses the stages-of-change model just like NASM, but they do not offer as much detail, and it doesn’t feel like one comes out as a superior and preferred behavior change method. 

Neither organization is as good at behavior change as ACE is with its model for the topic. But, if you were to choose which of these two certs in the article does behavior change coaching better, you would go with NASM.

Next, consider client health and movement screening as another main domain.

Client Health and Movement Screening

NCSF vs NASM - NASM and NCSF textbooks open to pages on client assessments

Health screening is covered well in the NCSF and NASM. There is no clear winner with this topic, as they handle the use of health screening and movement screening equally well. 

The health screening portions see all the required documents mentioned, and the organizations show how to implement it for clients. These include documents like informed consent, PAR-Q, medical history questionnaires, and more random documents for specific times. 

For the NCSF, it could be beneficial to separate some of these concepts from the movement screening concepts so they can be learned separately. But that is a minor complaint. 

The movement screening is also done equally well, which is surprising since NASM does exceptionally well with their specializations offered, like the CES and PES. Those specializations help out these domains of study quite a bit, so it’s nice to see the NCSF still stand up to them. 

Movement screening is enhanced in both certification study portals with their extensive library of exercise videos. It is a significant benefit for learners to see other trainers and teachers lecture and demonstrate the various assessments for movement screening.

Regarding NASM, the movement screening applies directly to the pre-program essentials for their OPT model. This works for NCSF also, but they do not have an equivalent model to apply these concepts to. This is something that can be made slightly easier to understand via NASM.

Let’s look at the program design for resistance training next.

Resistance Training

NASM has the industry’s best resistance training program design formula, so it will be hard for NCSF to stand up to that. 

NCSF, thankfully, still has a solid amount of information and stands up well to the other top certifications; just not quite the best CPT from NASM.

Resistance training is a primary area of focus for personal training as it has much more information required for training individuals. There should be a focus on the main movements of exercise and teaching of form. Many certifications will offer video exercise libraries for people to learn on their online platforms. 

NCSF does the central teaching of resistance training throughout one chapter, which is a significant chapter. They teach the principles of training and the use of variables very well in a workout or program.

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There is also a good amount of focus on lifestyle factors and how they influence resistance training workouts. This can sometimes be skipped over in certifications.

The adaptations, benefits, and training styles flow together well, and the graphs are implemented to nail down the information for new trainers further. 

Training goals all get their focus, as well as when these goals should be started and what needs to come before building the proper foundation.

There is even a focus on more advanced training styles, like ballistic and plyometrics. And all of these training styles get their focus in the online portal with exercise video instruction. The library of videos is not as extensive as NASM, but it still holds many exercises.

Now, the NASM does resistance training perfectly, and the rest of the industry looks to them to try to imitate their programming.

The OPT model is one of the best ways to learn the fundamental resistance training methods for personal trainers. The Optimum Performance Training model is covered in multiple chapters throughout the study materials for NASM. 

The OP model utilizes five different phases of training that use scientific evidence and principles to progress clients through these phases for long-term results. 

The five phases are: 

  • Phase 1: Stabilization Endurance
  • Phase 2: Strength Endurance
  • Phase 3: Hypertrophy
  • Phase 4: Maximal Strength
  • Phase 5: Power

These follow the phases of progression that should be used with all of the clients in training. It is essentially the same as other programs, but they also do not define it.

The end goal of training clients isn’t necessarily phase 5: power training; instead, the programs need to have the foundations of the previous phases before advancing. Many clients will never pass strength endurance or hypertrophy. But, if they did, they would go to power slowly. 

Based on this system, you work on improving balance and mobility first before adding heavy weights, so you can progress safely and avoid needless injury in clients as they strike to strengthen their muscles or achieve weight loss. 

The online exercise video library also follows the exact phases here, making it easy for those who know all about the OPT model but harder for those who haven’t learned it.

The NASM also uses all of the principles of resistance training and acute variables to enforce the strength training program design. 

All in all, these two organizations handle resistance training excellently. You will be an excellent trainer when teaching form and designing programs for resistance training. NASM edges out and beats the competition with its OPT model.

Next, look at the aerobic program design for these two certifications.

Aerobic Fitness Training

Aerobic fitness training is the other half of program design and is a less complicated aspect of fitness than what is needed in resistance training. The form is touched on, but it is crucial with all exercises, so the study materials will still cover that part. Online exercise videos cover some aerobic exercises and equipment.

We can discuss these organizations’ CPT coverage for cardio fitness together, since there is so much overlap, and they are essentially equal in this domain.

NCSF and NASM teach the optimal methods for gauging the intensity of exercise in a session. This includes using the RPE scale, the talk test, and a variety of other popular options. These are all covered perfectly for personal trainers to understand and implement in their program design.

Both certifications also cover more scientific parts of training, such as METs and energy expenditure methods. 

NASM and NCSF do an excellent job teaching program design specifically for aerobic fitness training. 

Next, let’s look into Special Population Training.

Special Population Training

Special population training is the final domain of knowledge and is equally covered throughout these two great CPT certifications. 

NASM and NCSF cover these special populations throughout multiple chapters. These chapters consist of a significant amount of information breaking down and describing the different special populations and the effects these issues may have on exercise. 

Both certifications give quite a significant number of guidelines that stem from the general population guidelines. It is very effective to have them in the same format and have all of the differences discussed and compared to the standard procedures. 

 Each organization misses out on some of the athletic training population, which is a surprising missed opportunity for both certifications. 

This is minor, but it is a slight consideration for trainers to look into, depending on where they see their career headed. 

Nutrition

NASM and NCSF are similar in their nutrition coverings for certification for personal trainers.

Nutrition for both of these cover the macronutrients, micronutrients, and the functions and structures of these molecules and their roles in the body. 

NASM still has a better foundation set when we look into the specific nutrition offerings, and they also cover it better throughout the exam. So, there is a bit more importance placed on this foundation.

Both organizations cover most of the simple topics, introducing all types of nutrients, such as macronutrients, micronutrients, and supplements. These are essential topics. 

NASM has more information included, especially when it comes to dietary suggestions for everyone. 

Regardless, you should find some quality with both of these fitness coach certifications, and they should satisfy the basics you would get for an intro to their nutrition certifications.

Note that, as a trainer, your services must remain inside the scope of practice, so make sure to cover your bases there. You are there to help people reach their fitness goals, but you are not a dietitian. 

CPT Content Coverage Summary

Altogether, we see that NASM is slightly ahead of NCSF when we compare them side-by-side. 

Mostly, these are tiny issues with domains like resistance training, special populations, and a bit in behavior change coaching. For the rest of the domains, the two certifications are nearly equal.

To find more differences to help decide which cert suits you best, we will need to look at more basics for the organizations’ CPT cert requirements.

NASM vs NCSF prerequisites

The requirements for CPT certification are nearly the same across the board. In the case of NCSF and NASM, they are the only ones that change these to a small degree.

Regarding the NCSF, you are only required to be 18 years old. They do not require a high school diploma or anything to that level, which is odd in the industry. 

Getting a CPR and AED certification through an outside resource is a good idea, but again, it is not required for the actual certificate. It is unlikely that a job will accept a personal trainer without this CPR/AED certificate for safety reasons. 

And then, we have the NASM certification. This cert is going to require more of the standard requirements. 

NASM requires people to have CPR/AED certification and a high school diploma or an equivalent GED. You can also have a higher degree, and it would benefit more in an employer’s eyes to have college experience. 

NASM does not strictly write down that someone needs to be 18 years old as a requirement. But, in general, it is a rule for personal training, as a trainer requires some form of personal trainer insurance, and to get that, one must be 18 years old–so adults only. 

That wraps up all of the requirements for these two great certifications. They both steer from the norm in the fitness industry, and it’s not easy to say one is better than the other here. 

NCSF vs NASM salary

According to ZipRecruiter research, average NASM trainers make $50,905 per year.

Because NCSF is a smaller organization, there are no exact figures on what the average NCSF trainer earns. Anecdotally, I’d say the amount is going to be similar to what you earn as a NASM trainer or maybe slightly less due to the recognition of NASM over NCSF.

However, your actual income as a personal trainer depends very little on what certification you pick (as long as it’s properly accredited) and more on your level of talent, experience, luck, and sales skills. 

NASM vs NCSF exam, which is harder?

NASM vs NCSF - NCSF and NASM textbooks with scantron exam sheet and sharpie

These two certification tests are pretty similar for NCSF and NASM. Let’s see the details for both.

The NCSF exam has 150 multiple-choice questions, which you must answer within a 3-hour time limit. 

For success with the exam, you need to get 70% of these questions right, and the pass rate is around 75%, which is a tad higher than NASM. It is not a guaranteed pass but requires more study effort than some organizations, so make or use a good study guide for test prep. Practice with flashcards. 

The exam is broken down into this list of areas:

  • Functional Anatomy – 12%
  • Exercise Physiology – 8%
  • Health and Physical Fitness – 11%
  • Screening and Evaluation – 13%
  • Nutrition – 7%
  • Weight Management – 9%
  • Exercise Programming – 19%
  • Training Instruction – 15%
  • Considerations for Special Populations – 3%
  • Professionalism and Risk Management – 3%

Then we have the NASM, which has 120 multiple-choice questions taken within 2 hours. 

A passing score with this exam will also be 70% or higher, but the passing rate is much lower, currently at around 60%.

This shows how much harder NASM is compared to the exam process for the NCSF.

The exam breakdown looks like this:

  • Basic and Applied Sciences and Nutritional Concepts (15%)
  • Assessment (16%)
  • Fitness Program Design (20%)
  • Exercise Technique and Training Instruction (24%)
  • Client Relations and Behavioral Coaching (15%)
  • Professional Development and Responsibility (10%)

Keep in mind that the NASM is a much more challenging test, no question, and you are more likely to fail it. 

They both require test-takers to pay a fee for retesting. 

For NASM, it costs $199 to retake the exam, and for NCSF, it costs half that, giving you a little more financial flexibility in case you don’t pass the first time. That’s why some people prefer buying packages that give you a free retest, like the NASM All-Inclusive option. 

NCSF vs NASM recertification 

Continuing education units are required for all CPT and fitness certifications. They are essentially hours you get credit for and need within a set period to renew your certification.

Continuing education units ensure that personal trainers and fitness professionals maintain their education and offer clients the most up-to-date information.

Let’s start by looking at NCSF first. 

NCSF uses a two-year recertification period, requiring 20 hours of credits, which equals 10 CEUs by their standards.

The recertification fee is $75, which is lower than most CPT certifications.

Then we have NASM, which runs on the same two-year period NCSF runs on. They calculate their hours differently, as you need 2.0 continuing education units. 

Thankfully, these 2.0 CEUs equal the same 20 hours of continuing education.

The recertification fee is $99 for NASM. They also have the option to choose their recertify for life, which costs $399 if it is not included in your package already. 

Recertify for life is valuable if you plan to stay certified for a long time, as it pays for itself after 3 – 4 cycles of recertification. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How does NCSF Stack up to NASM?

The NCSF does not have the same level of recognition as NASM, which sits at the top of fitness, but they still hold up well enough to justify the slightly lower pricing model. You can’t go wrong with these two certified personal trainer courses, as they teach personal training fundamentals and progress well through the typical study materials.

How can I get into personal training?

You can learn the fundamentals of exercise science careers and fitness programming through an educational experience such as a fitness certification in order to become a personal trainer.

Is Personal Training with a credential from the NASM or NCSF organizations worth it?

Yes! A credential from either of these locations will serve a personal trainer very well in the long run. NASM and NCSF offer top-of-the-line study materials for reasonable prices, so you should find value regardless of which one you choose.

Is a degree necessary to become a personal trainer?

You do not need a degree to enter personal training, but more education will never be bad. For some jobs, such as strength and conditioning, you must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The S&C field requires more advanced exercise prescription and wellness knowledge. So, yes only if you want to coach athletes. 

Is the fitness industry growing?

It is a great time to get into fitness. The industry is growing faster than most other industries, and with the decline in health, people require professionals to assist them.

What specializations are popular in fitness?

There are many popular specialization paths for fitness trainers to take, like these additional certifications:
– health coach certification
– group fitness instructor
– nutrition specialist
– healthcare exercise specialist
– certified strength and conditioning coach
– yoga
– and more…

How much do personal trainers make?

Personal trainers make an average of $40,000 per year or more. The salary is constantly growing and can depend on your nationally certified training certificate.

Conclusion

NASM vs NCSF - NASM and NCSF textbooks on table with yellow stars and question mark boxes

All in all, both of these organizations are great for becoming quality certified personal trainers. They have a lot of similarities, but only one wins when compared side-by-side.

The best choice for most trainers will be the NASM CPT certification. I would consider this the best personal training certification between the two, as it ranks higher in most categories or ties with the NCSF in the categories it does not beat.

The OPT model is highly valued in the fitness industry as an easy and effective model for learning and designing programs. 

NASM costs a bit more, but you will likely have an easier job when applying for jobs, as the name carries more weight in the eyes of employers. 

NASM also has some great niche specializations for a trainer to pursue. 

Both organizations offer some excellent packages and similar pricing, making them quite worth it for new trainers learning the business. Make sure to look at their website for deals going on.

I hope you enjoyed this comparison article; stay tuned on PTPioneer for more free study guides and reviews for fitness and top personal training certifications.

Tyler Read - Certified Personal Trainer with PTPioneer

Tyler Read


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Ask me a question and I will reply ASAP

2 thoughts on “NASM vs NCSF – Which Cert is right for you in 2024?”

  1. Hi I need advice on which CPT course to take. I live in Trinidad and Tobago and interested on working for myself. Thanks

    Reply
    • Hey, both NCSF and NASM are quality certs, but NASM is definitely the preferred one for most people. Both will be recognized internationally but will depend on the employer as well.

      Reply

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