If you’re considering pursuing an advanced-level cyber security certification, you’ve probably heard of the CISSP and CISA certifications.
These certifications are tailored for seasoned information security professionals with a minimum of five years of experience, offering a pathway to strengthen their skills in assessing security controls and auditing processes.
Additionally, they share common ground in several knowledge domains. So, when we consider CISSP vs CISA, which one aligns better with your goals and career progression?
Let’s discuss the differences and similarities between the two and find out!
What Are CISSP and CISA Certifications?
The Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification is an advanced-level credential specializing in auditing information systems. This differs from the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP), which centers around implementing, operating, and maintaining information systems. While these certifications share a semblance and even exhibit an overlap in content, their primary focuses differ.
Despite their technical and vendor-neutral nature, CISA and CISSP can have significantly different investment returns for individuals pursuing these certifications. Let's dive into these differences and explore how they contribute to the unique strengths of each certification.
The Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certification is the premier certification offered by the International Information System Security Certification Consortium (ISC)2. Widely recognized, CISSP validates individuals' ability to design, implement, and manage a cyber security program. CISSP covers eight key knowledge domains, focusing on real-world applications from a managerial perspective. The certification ensures proficiency in safeguarding organizations from various cyber threats.
The Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA) certification is a distinguished credential designed for information systems auditing, control, and security consultants and professionals. CISA is offered by the Information Systems Audit and Control Association (ISACA) and signifies expertise in evaluating and managing IT systems, ensuring compliance, and mitigating risks. Covering five key domains, CISA equips individuals with the skills to navigate complex auditing processes and enhance organizational resilience against cyber security threats.
With both certifications covering vast ranges of knowledge domains, there are similarities between the two exams. However, some key differences exist due to their unique focus areas and special exam systems.
CISSP Exam Details
The CISSP exam lasts four hours and is a 100-150-question proctored exam. Questions fall into two categories: multiple choice and “advanced innovative questions,” which tend to be drag-and-drop or place-in-order challenges similar to the performance-based questions on CompTIA exams.
Additionally, within that set of questions, up to 25 questions can be categorized as “beta” questions. This means those questions are technically unscored questions that are being tested out for future implementation in exam revisions.
CISSP also employs the “CAT System” for its exams. The CAT system, shorthand for the Computerized Adaptive Testing format, means that exam questions will change in difficulty depending on how you previously answered. (ISC)2 explain the CAT system as follows:
“Following a candidate’s response to an item, the scoring algorithm re-estimates the candidate’s ability based on the difficulty of all items presented and answers provided. With each additional item answered, the computer's estimate of the candidate’s ability becomes more precise…”
In short, the exam becomes more difficult as you progress. However, regardless of the difficulty of the CAT system in your specific experience, the CISSP is scored out of 1000 points and requires a 700 to pass. Questions in the exam fall within the following knowledge domains:
- Security and Risk Management - 16%
- Asset Security - 10%
- Security Architecture and Engineering - 13%
- Communication and Network Security - 13%
- Identity and Access Management (IAM) - 13%
- Security Assessment and Testing - 12%
- Security Operations - 13%
- Software Development Security - 10%
The main thing to note is that these domains aren’t from a technical expert's perspective but a manager's. You need to consider how a CISO, manager, or consultant would consider these topics. For instance, you should evaluate what is most efficient, cost-effective, and has long-term scalability rather than how to implement them from a hands-on-keyboard viewpoint.
CISA Exam Details
The CISA exam consists of 150 questions being proctored as well. ISACA has published the following knowledge domains within the exam:
- Information Systems Auditing Process - 18%
- Governance & Management of IT - 18%
- Information Systems Acquisition, Development & Implementation - 12%
- Information Systems Operations and Business Resilience - 26%
- Protection of Information Assets - 26%
To pass the CISA exam, students must score at least 450 points on a scale of 200 to 800 possible points.
The content of these domains is focused on auditing, making it stronger than CISSP in this regard. However, because of this, it doesn’t carry over to the broader topic of cyber security within an organization.
Due to its large knowledge domain coverage and ability to push students to perform at an extremely high level, the CISSP comes out on top for exam quality.
Both the CISSP and CISA certifications have specific and very similar requirements. Let’s break each down.
CISSP Eligibility Requirements
To be eligible to earn the CISSP certification, pursuers must have verifiable work experience in the Information Technology field. You can submit proof of work experience via your employer(s) documentation and contact info. Additionally, your work experience must be endorsed by a current CISSP holder. A certification pursuer must hold five years of cumulative paid work experience in two or more of the eight domains in the CISSP CBK (Common Body of Knowledge).
The CISSP CBK covers topics relevant to cyber security professionals. It establishes a common framework of information security terms and principles. You can find more information on the CBK here.
Continuing on the required work experience, you can satisfy one year of this requirement with a four-year degree or security certification from the (ISC)2 approved list. Regardless of your work experience, however, technically, a certification pursuer can take (and pass) the CISSP exam without the required work experience.
If that is the case, you would be awarded an “Associate” title. You will then have six years to earn the five years of the required experience, and once earned, you will be awarded the full CISSP holder recognition.
CISA Eligibility Requirements
CISA requires at least five years of information security audit, control, assurance, or security experience. Additionally, at least two years must be from within the CISA job practice areas. Certification pursuers can waive up to three years of the requirement if they hold a master's degree in information systems or two years for a degree in a non-information systems field.
CISSP’s robust vetting and verification approach ensures that all CISSP holders have proven a high level of security proficiency even before earning the certification. The fact that CISSP has more options to satisfy a year of experience and allows you to write the exam early and gain experience after makes it a more accessible certification to qualify for.
Both the CISSP and CISA certifications are well known for their difficulty. This is due not only to their long list of knowledge domains tested against but also to the complexity of the questions. This combination makes exam questions more difficult than most other certifications. However, some special systems in place differentiate the testing experiences for students.
CISSP Exam Difficulty
As previously mentioned, (ISC)2 uses the Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) system for the CISSP exam. This system dynamically adjusts the difficulty of questions as you progress through the exam. When you answer questions correctly, CAT selects more challenging questions from the same knowledge domain.
The trade-off is that, as questions become harder, they also carry more points. Successfully answering increasingly complex questions may lead to an earlier exam conclusion should you reach a passing score before the four-hour or total question limit.
The determination of whether to end the exam with a pass or fail is based on the assessment of your score on question 100. If the CAT system finds a 95% likelihood of you passing, the system will conclude the exam with a passing grade. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Should the CAT system find a 95% likelihood of you failing, it will end the exam session with a failing grade.
If, when you reach question 100, the likelihood of passing or failing is less than 95%, the system continues to reassess after each subsequent question until question 150, at which point the exam concludes regardless.
The CISSP exam is exceptionally well known for its difficulty in depth and breadth of question domains. The addition of the CAT system has kept that difficulty bar high.
CISA Exam Difficulty
The CISA exam is also known for being complicated. Because of its wide range of knowledge domains and the complexity of questions within those domains, the exam can be a challenging goal for anyone. However, the certification exam comprises multiple-choice answers and doesn’t currently put any advanced testing systems in place during exams.
Those who hold both certifications widely consider the CISA exam more manageable than the CISSP exam due to CISA being entirely multiple choice and the overlap in domains.
CISA is like an easier CISSP with a smaller curriculum. CISA has the same sort of questions as CISSP but with a smaller curriculum.
This does not make the CISA exam less valuable. However, those who hold CISSP will have a greater range of knowledge and preparation than required for the CISA in most elements.
Both CISSP and CISA can open up many doors for your career progression. However, these doors differ in function, volume, and salary. Let’s compare the impact that either certification might have on your career.
As an advanced certification requiring five or more years of experience, the CISSP is geared toward high-level roles within the cyber security landscape. This is irrelevant for entry-level or intermediate-level positions and thus mostly coincides with high-level roles in an organization.
Typical roles that stipulate CISSP as required or desired certification can be:
- IT Security / Cyber Security Analyst
- Chief Information Security Officer
- Chief Information Officer
- IT Manager/Director
- Senior IT Desktop Specialist
- Cyber Incident Response Coordinator
- Security Architect
- Network Architect
- InfoSec Risk Specialist
- Lead Infosec Systems Engineer
- Security Auditor
- Cyber Security Consultant
However, there is one caveat we must address about this. An unfortunate trend in the industry currently is job advertisements for entry-intermediate level positions with CISSP listed as a ‘required’ or ‘highly preferred’ certification. This does not accurately represent where the CISSP should be required.
Because of the CISSP’s extremely well-known name and its deep relationship with the DoD 8570 requirements, hiring managers who don’t fully understand the CISSP certification will increasingly put it on a job requirement out of simple ignorance of the certification world. Do not get confused when you see the certification listed on a job posting that requires “at least one” year of experience; it does not fit.
Volume of Opportunities
It is no surprise that the CISSP certification is found in a large volume of job advertisements. On ZipRecruiter alone, we discovered over 8,600 job postings with the CISSP listed as a required or highly preferred certification!
Undoubtedly, holders of the CISSP certification can use that accomplishment to make themselves more desirable in the information security job market.
According to ZipRecruiter, the national (U.S) average salary for a CISSP holder is currently advertised at over $112,000 USD a year. This makes a lot of sense due to the CISSP’s advanced name recognition and the consideration that CISSP holders have at least five years of experience. The combination of the certification and the years of experience makes this advertised salary believable.
Similarly, the CISA certification is most often directed towards high-level positions in Information Technology. These positions are often managerial or even C-Suite. ISACA itself lists the following job titles as the most common job titles a CISA certification holder is either applying for or holds:
- Chief Information Security Officer
- Chief Information Officer
- Security Officer/Manager
- Compliance Analyst/Program Manager
- Risk Analyst/Program Manager
- Data Protection Manager
Volume of Opportunities
The CISA certification also strongly represented the current job market at just below 4,000 occurrences on ZipRecruiter: an impressive number but less than half of CISSA’s demand.
The advertised salary for the CISA certification on ZipRecruiter is almost identical to the CISSP, coming in at over $109,000 USD annually in the U.S. This can also be attributed to not only the certification’s recognition but the required work experience of five years to hold it as well.
CISSP touts a significantly large volume of opportunities not only in number but also in various positions. Additionally, also very close, CISSP is reported to have a slightly higher average salary. Because of this, the CISSP comes out on top.
Cost and Recertification
Both certifications operate on an upfront exam cost and a yearly fee.
The CISSP certification exam costs an upfront $749 USD to take. If you successfully pass the exam, there is an annual fee of $125 USD. The CISSP expires after three years and can be renewed by submitting 120 CPEs.
The CISA certification exam costs non-ISACA members $760 USD or $575 USD for members. CISA also carries an annual fee of $45 USD for ISACA members or $85 for non-members. CISA is required to be renewed every three years with 120 continuing professional education credits. These can be earned via attending official ISACA meetings or submitting self-study work. More information can be found here.
Both certifications operate in virtually identical ways. They share an exam cost that is almost the same; however, CISSP’s annual membership fee is significantly higher. Also, if you hold another ISACA certification, the costs associated with CISA decrease significantly.
CISSP vs CISA: Which One’s Better?
Although both certifications can be fantastic resume builders and professional knowledge enhancers, the CISSP certification generally offers a higher return on investment.
Not only does the certification have a more recognizable name in the industry, but it can help you build a more extensive network of (ISC)2 certified professionals and boasts higher salary prospects and double the volume of job advertisements.
All in all, although you can’t go wrong with either certification, the CISSP certification can give a significant boost to your career.
However, if you have enough resources to earn both certifications, we recommend you pursue the CISSP certification first and CISA after.
Holding both will grant you an impressive resume, and there is value in earning both. In addition, acquiring your CISSP will greatly prepare you for the CISA exam, making it much easier as a result.
Preparing for either or both? A StationX membership grants you access to courses, study groups, mentors, labs, and more!