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A certificate is an official document affirming some fact. For example, a birth certificate or death certificate testifies to basic facts regarding a person's birth or death. A certificate may also certify that a person has received specific education or has passed a test, and is considered below the standard of an academic degree.

Due to the low cost of production as compared to other awards like trophies or plaques, certificates are used to recognize most any minor achievement throughout many levels of society. For example, in U.S. schools certificates of attendance are given to students who miss less than a certain number of days of school. A matriculating elementary or secondary school student may receive a certificate stating he was most improved in science, mathematics, or a language. Certificates are often used as an inexpensive positive reinforcement to encourage desired behaviors in many contexts.

In computing and especially computer security and cryptography, the word certificate generally refers to a digital identity certificate, also known as a public key certificate. It also may be awarded as a necessary certification to validate that a student is considered competent in a certain specific networking skill area in today's ubiqutous and necessary information technology. Thus a computer engineer or computer science graduation most likely will have to obtain additional certificates on and pertaining to the specific technologies or equipments used by the hiring corporation; if not, such employer may suffer unwanted penalties like foregoing (voiding the contract) the protections of a certain level of customer service or warranties.

As an academic award

A certificate, in addition to certifying that someone has passed a test or reached a specific standard of knowledge, may also be the name of an actual award.

In many countries, certificate is a qualification attained in secondary education. For instance students in the Republic of Ireland sit the Junior Certificate and follow it with the Leaving Certificate. Similarly other countries have awards, for instance, in Australia the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in New South Wales, the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) in Victoria, etc., is the examination taken on completion of secondary education.

In many countries, certificates are qualifications in higher education. For example, in Ireland, the National Certificate, which is soon to be replaced by the "Higher Certificate". These have the titles Certificate (at an undergraduate level), Graduate Certificate (at an undergraduate level, but requiring the completion of a prior undergraduate degree for admission) and Postgraduate Certificate (at a postgraduate level). In Hong Kong, form five students take the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination. Certificate is below the standard of the associate degree and higher diploma, which are below the bachelor degree. Postgraduate certificate are taken after the bachelor degree and are more vocational oriented than master's degree.

In Australia, a certificate is a qualification offered by a university or other higher education provider which is shorter than a degree or diploma. Certificates are generally provided by TAFE colleges or non-academic Registered Training Organisations (often workplaces). There are four ranks of Certificate in Australia, indicated by Roman Numeral, e.g. Cert. IV in Horticulture. The time spent varies, but in general a Certificate I will be granted after a course of only a few weeks, while a Cert. IV may take up to six months. A Diploma directly follows Cert. IV and may rightly be considered equivalent to a hypothetical Certificate V.

In the United Kingdom, a Certificate of Higher Education (CertHE) requires successful completion of 120 CATS Points at Level One. This is equivalent to one year of full time university education, at first year level. Each credit point takes about 10 hours to achieve, and as such the CertHE is 1, 200 hours of study. This compares with 360 Credit points for an undergraduate degree, and 240 credits for a Diploma of Higher Education.