GPEN vs OSCP 2024: Which Pentesting Certification is Best?

GPEN vs OSCP 2024: Which Pentesting Certification is Best?

While GPEN and OSCP are both aimed at cyber security professionals looking to niche down into penetration testing, these certifications are very different.

Both should give you the theoretical knowledge you need to begin assessing and exploiting network and system vulnerabilities, but the respective courses and exams tackle things in different ways.

In broad strokes, GPEN is more knowledge-based, and OSCP is more hands-on, but there are plenty more differences besides that.

In this GPEN vs OSCP guide, we’ll look through the two certifications’ respective GIAC and OffSec syllabi, eligibility requirements, fees, and first-hand candidate reports and job boards advertising United States-based GPEN and OSCP roles.

We’ve also given you the most recent information for both pen testing certifications, ensuring all info is up-to-date for 2024.

Read on to learn more about OSCP vs GPEN and decide which is the best pen testing certification for you.

What Are GPEN and OSCP Certifications?

GPEN and OSCP are vendor-neutral certifications that validate your ability to conduct penetration tests.

Penetration tests are simulated cyber attacks employed to discover system or network vulnerabilities that real attackers could exploit and, therefore, need to be patched.

Both pen testing certifications validate the candidate’s ability to undertake the entire pen testing process, from conducting reconnaissance and scans to assessing vulnerabilities, forming attack plans, and exploiting host targets.

The GPEN exam is more methodological and knowledge-based, while the OSCP exam involves more hands-on penetration testing.

About GPEN

The GIAC Penetration Tester Certification (GPEN) is an advanced penetration testing certification offered by Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC), a well-respected vendor that offers dozens of globally recognized information security certifications.

According to its awarding body, GPEN “validates a practitioner's ability to properly conduct a penetration test using best-practice techniques and methodologies.” Emphasis is placed on the practitioner’s ability to follow standard pen testing procedures to find and exploit network and system vulnerabilities.

To become GPEN certified, you must pass its open-book exam. While it’s not a hard requirement to study for this exam, candidates are expected to purchase the SANS Institute’s SEC560: Enterprise Penetration Testing partnered training course.

About OSCP

The OffSec Certified Professional (OSCP) certification—previously Offensive Security Certified Professional—is an advanced penetration testing certification offered by OffSec, the information security company of Kali Linux fame.

Are you curious about how to get started with Kali Linux? Read our guide:

25 Top Penetration Testing Tools for Kali Linux

OSCP is often considered the gold standard of pen testing certifications because of its focus on validating a candidate’s practical skills. In place of the usual multiple-choice and partially lab-based exam, OSCP tasks you with exploiting its vulnerable lab machines and systems and then reporting back your findings.

To sit OSCP, you must purchase OffSec’s PWK/PEN-200 (Penetration Testing with Kali Linux) course, which “introduces penetration testing methodologies, tools, and techniques in a hands-on, self-paced environment.”

Are you curious about how OSCP stacks up against Certified Ethical Hacker? Read this:

CEH vs OSCP 2024: Which One Should You Pursue?

GPEN and OSCP Exam Details

GPEN and OSCP have very different examinations.

The former is more of a traditional exam formed mostly of multiple-choice questions, while the latter is an entirely practical exam where the candidate must exploit lab targets.

GPEN Exam Details

The GPEN assessment runs for three hours (180 minutes) and features 82 questions. Most questions are multiple-choice, but some are lab questions that involve, for instance, typing Terminal commands to execute exploits.

The exam has a passing score of 75% and is proctored remotely via ProctorU or in-person via PearsonVUE.

The GPEN exam covers the following knowledge domains:

  • Advanced Password Attacks
  • Attacking Password Hashes
  • Azure Applications and Attack Strategies
  • Azure Overview, Attacks, and AD Integration
  • Domain Escalation and Persistence Attacks
  • Escalation and Exploitation
  • Exploitation Fundamentals
  • Kerberos Attacks
  • Metasploit
  • Moving Files with Exploits
  • Password Attacks
  • Password Formats and Hashes
  • Penetration Test Planning
  • Penetration Testing with PowerShell and the Windows Command Line
  • Reconnaissance
  • Scanning and Host Discovery
  • Vulnerability Scanning

OSCP Exam Details

The OSCP assessment is entirely practical.

Candidates are given 24 hours to perform exploits in the OffSec lab environment, followed by another 24 hours to create a report “thorough enough that your attacks can be replicated step-by-step by a technically competent reader.”

OSCP has a passing score of 70. 

Points are earned by gaining access to and compromising targets and capturing flag files as evidence. Ten points are awarded for low-privileged access to standalone systems, another ten points for root or admin access (three standalone machines total for 60 points), and 40 points for full compromisation of a three-machine Active Directory Domain.

Completing 80% of each PEN-200 module’s exercises and 30 of its lab targets earns you ten bonus points.

OffSec explains that a passing score can be accomplished by any of the following combinations of compromises (where “AD” stands for Active Directory):

  • 40 pt AD + 3 local.txt flags
  • 40 pt AD + 2 local.txt flags + 1 proof.txt flag
  • 40 pt AD + 2 local.txt flags + bonus points
  • 40 pt AD + 1 proof.txt + 1 local.txt + bonus points
  • 3 fully completed non-AD machines + bonus points

In 2023, OffSec changed the content of OSCP to focus more on Active Directory and remove Buffer Overflow Modules entirely, among other changes.

The PEN-200 course content, which is the core content meant to help pass OSCP, includes the following:

  • Report Writing for Penetration Testers
  • Information Gathering
  • Vulnerability Scanning
  • Introduction to Web Application Attacks
  • Common Web Application Attacks
  • SQL Injection Attacks
  • Client-Side Attacks
  • Locating Public Exploits
  • Fixing Exploits
  • Antivirus Evasion
  • Password Attacks
  • Windows Privilege Escalation
  • Linux Privilege Escalation
  • Port Redirection and SSH Tunneling
  • Tunneling through Deep Packet Inspection
  • The Metasploit Framework
  • Active Directory Introduction and Enumeration
  • Attacking Active Directory Authentication
  • Lateral Movement in Active Directory

Winner: OSCP

If we include practical knowledge in our assessment, OSCP covers more ground. To pass OSCP, you need a lot of the same knowledge required to pass GPEN, but you also need practical know-how, persistence, and real-world problem-solving abilities.

GPEN and OSCP Eligibility Requirements

There are no hard requirements to sit either exam and attain GPEN or OSCP certifications other than purchasing a registration. However, there are certain knowledge and skills that you should possess before you start studying for either exam.

GPEN Eligibility Requirements

Information required to answer all GPEN exam questions should be found in the SANS SEC560 course materials.

However, many networking and cyber security fundamentals aren’t explained in SEC560 because the candidate should know and understand them before studying for a GPEN certification.

If you don’t understand the fundamentals of networking, TCP/IP, DNS, etc., you’ll likely struggle to learn and understand GPEN’s contents.

Wondering if you have the pre-requisite knowledge for these exams? Brush up with our guides:

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The Best Cyber Security Courses Online for Beginners

OSCP Eligibility Requirements

While OffSec’s PEN-200 course helps set a candidate up with much of the knowledge required to pass OSCP’s tough tests, the hands-on nature of OSCP means candidates who have prior practical experience with networking, system administration, coding, and system exploitation techniques, should do better on the exam.

OffSec says that candidates should have the following knowledge before attempting to study the PEN-200 course and sit the OSCP exam:

  • Solid understanding of TCP/IP networking
  • Reasonable Windows and Linux administration experience
  • Familiarity with basic Bash and/or Python scripting

Winner: Draw

Neither GPEN nor OSCP have any hard requirements, and the soft requirements for both certifications are similar.

GPEN and OSCP Exam Difficulty

Both OSCP and GPEN are advanced, specialized certifications targeted at information security professionals. They’re primarily targeted at cyber security generalist practitioners looking to narrow their specialization into penetration testing.

Curious about what penetration testing involves? We break it down here:

Penetration Testing Steps: A Comprehensive Assessment Guide

Both certifications also require extensive knowledge about every aspect of penetration testing, from planning and reconnaissance all the way to reporting.

Despite these similarities, GPEN and OSCP offer very different challenges for prospective candidates.

GPEN Exam Difficulty

While the GPEN exam isn’t easy, it benefits from being open-book, meaning examinees can access learning materials while sitting the exam.

Because of this, the most beneficial studying technique often cited is practicing good indexing of your notes to find relevant information easily during the exam.

If candidates practice good note-taking and indexing, most find that the exam isn’t overly difficult but can be laborious. However, this only applies if you’ve bought the corresponding SANS SEC560 course, as the GPEN exam is directly based on this course’s content. Without SEC560, candidates are likely to struggle with GPEN.

OSCP Exam Difficulty

The OSCP exam is notoriously difficult. OffSec’s mantra, “Try Harder,” is evidenced in the persistence required to crack the lab systems for the OSCP exam. In fact, because the exam is intense and a lot is expected of candidates, OffSec gives candidates 24 hours to penetrate into these systems.

What makes OSCP so difficult is that it’s not guided. Examinees are expected to persist, using their own knowledge and creativity to discover and exploit vulnerabilities in target systems and networks, just like they’d have to in a real-life pen testing scenario.

While OSCP’s PEN-200 (PWK) course covers enough ground to give you the kind of knowledge and skills needed to start infiltrating the lab systems, you’re expected to learn to find your own answers to problems you encounter during the certification exam.

With the 2023 update, the new PEN-200 module guide (PDF) provides students with a more structured learning path that better consolidates learned information—thanks to, for instance, the new Capstone Module Exercises). But despite this, and because of its thoroughly practical nature, the OSCP exam is still very difficult.

Winner: GPEN

OSCP has a notoriously difficult hands-on exam. While this is good for validating an information security professional’s real-world pen testing skills, it’s not easy on the prospective candidate.

However, the GPEN exam is easier because it’s open-book and knowledge-based. Everything that crops up on it has been taught in the corresponding SANS SEC560 course.

GPEN and OSCP Job Opportunities

Both the OSCP and GPEN certifications are aimed at cyber security professionals looking to become penetration testers.

As such, fewer jobs cite these certifications than less advanced, more generalist certifications. Nevertheless, there are ample job opportunities for GPEN and OSCP certification holders.

To compare job opportunities, we looked through several job and salary sites, such as Indeed, ZipRecruiter, Payscale, and GlassDoor, filtering jobs and salaries by ones requiring these certifications in the United States.

GPEN

Job Roles

The most common job roles citing GPEN that are listed on job sites include:

  • Security Assessor/Cyber Assessor
  • Penetration Tester (Junior/Senior/Intermediate)
  • Principal Consultant
  • Senior Information Security and Risk Analyst
  • Incident Response Analyst
  • Red Team Manager
  • Offensive Security Tester
  • Information Technology Security Officer
  • Vulnerability Consultant
  • Application Security Penetration Tester
  • Cybersecurity Engineer
  • Information Security Analyst
  • Security Operations Center (SOC) Analyst

Volume of Opportunities

At the time of writing, 233 United States-based jobs listed on Indeed cite GPEN.

Salary

According to Payscale, GPEN certification holders in the United States can expect an average salary of about $110,000 p/a.

Indeed salary for Penetration Tester/Vulnerability Assessment Specialist job that mentions GPEN certification
Source: Indeed

There’s some variation within the job market for GPEN holders, with Junior Penetration Tester and Junior Analyst roles, for instance, starting as low as $70,000. Instead, more senior roles such as Senior Penetration Tester and Senior Red Team Operator often reach about $200,000.

OSCP

Job Roles

OSCP is one of the most well-respected certifications on the job market. The most common job roles citing OSCP that are listed by our resources include:

  • Penetration Tester (Junior/Senior/intermediate)
  • Senior Vulnerability Researcher
  • Senior Application Penetration Tester
  • Red Team Operator
  • Cyber Assessor
  • Senior Security Analyst
  • Red Team Manager
  • AI Penetration Tester
  • Red Team Consultant
  • Information Security Analyst
  • IT Internal Auditor
  • Principal Red Team Engineer
  • Information System Security Officer

Jobs citing OSCP seem to include a larger proportion of penetration tester or pentester-adjacent roles than those citing GPEN. There are also more senior roles listed for jobs citing OSCP, which include, for instance, Chief Information Security Officer (CISO).

Volume of Opportunities

At the time of writing, 480 United States-based jobs listed on Indeed cite OSCP, which is over twice as many as those citing GPEN.

Salary

According to ZipRecruiter, OSCP certification holders in the United States can expect an average salary of about $120,000.

Indeed salary for Senior Vulnerability Researcher job that mentions OSCP certification
Source: Indeed

Because a larger proportion of job roles listed for OSCP are senior ones, salaries are higher.

At the high end, salaries can reach up to $300,000 with positions such as Senior Vulnerability Researcher or Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). More frequently roles are above $200,000 with Senior Application Penetration Tester and Senior Penetration Tester roles.

Keep in mind that years of experience play a significant factor in these higher-end salaries.

Winner: OSCP

Both pen testing certifications have much to offer employees in the job market, but OSCP is renowned and respected by more employers, and this shows in the number of jobs currently available listing it as a requirement—over twice as many as those that list GPEN. It also shows in the seniority and corresponding higher salary of a large proportion of these jobs.

GPEN and OSCP Cost and Recertification

OSCP and GPEN have very different payment and recertification structures.

For starters, OSCP is a lifetime certification, meaning that once you have it, you don’t have to renew it or maintain it.

You also can’t buy the OSCP exam on its own, but you can buy the PEN-200 course, which starts at $1,649 for a bundle that includes an OSCP exam attempt. If you fail this exam, you can retake it for $249.

The $1,649 PEN-200 bundle comes with course training videos, lab exercises corresponding to the lessons, a PDF course book, and 90 days of access to a lab of vulnerable host systems for you to test your pen testing skills against. With this bundle, you get one attempt to pass the OSCP exam.

There are more expensive bundles, too. The Learn One package costs $2,599 per year and includes an extra exam attempt as well as a full year of lab access. It also includes PEN-103 and PEN-210 courses, 1x KLCP and 1x OSWP exam attempts, as well as access to OffSec Proving Grounds hands-on labs.

GPEN operates under a more traditional certification structure, where it needs to be renewed and maintained. 

The exam itself costs $979 with a $100 discount for a retake, but the SEC560 course costs $8,525, and because GPEN is based directly on these course materials, which change with each course and exam update, it’s advised to buy SEC560 if you want a good shot at passing the exam and getting GPEN-certified.

To maintain your GPEN certification, you must pay a $479 renewal fee every four years and have earned 36 Continuing Professional Education (CPE) points over those four years.

CPE points can be earned from things such as:

  • SANS Training, New GIAC Certification
  • ISO-17024-Accredited InfoSec Related Certifications and Affiliated Training
  • Graduate Courses
  • Published Works
  • Other InfoSec Related Training
  • SANS NetWars
  • Cyber Ranges/Activities
  • Field Work Experience
  • Community Participation
GPEN and OSCP Cost

Winner: OSCP

If we only consider the initial exam costs, GPEN is technically cheaper; however, this doesn’t factor in the corresponding courses. SEC560 is pretty much a soft requirement for passing GPEN, given the reliance of the GPEN questions upon this SANS course’s content. This means the total cost to sit GPEN is over $9,000. Plus, you must pay to renew it every four years, while OSCP is a one-and-done deal.

GPEN vs OSCP: What’s Best?

GPEN vs OSCP: Verdict

While both OSCP and GPEN certifications validate your ability to conduct penetration tests and cover the same kinds of knowledge domains, that’s where the similarities end.

The OSCP exam is a hands-on, 24-hour slog, and its difficulty is justified by the fact that it demonstrates real-world pen testing ability rather than theoretical know-how.

This shows in the job market for the two certifications. While there are plenty of jobs out there for both GPEN and OSCP holders, the latter have more jobs open to them, and better-paying, more senior ones at that.

Because OSCP’s course-exam combo is cheaper than GPEN’s, it lasts forever without the need to renew, and there’s plenty of reason to choose OSCP over GPEN. That is, provided you can deal with the difficulty.

If, on the other hand, you’d prefer a more knowledge-based approach to penetration testing with the benefit of an open-book exam, GPEN might be for you—and it’ll certainly be if an employer is willing to pay SANS for the course fee, which is how many people end up attaining their GPEN certification.

Regardless of whether you’re considering GPEN or OSCP, you’ll need the networking, cyber security, and penetration testing knowledge and skills to sit them.

If you’re looking to get a leg up, the StationX Accelerator program gives you access to all you need, from exclusive exam prep courses, practice tests, labs, and even personal mentorship to keep you on track with your learning.

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  • Jacob Fox

    Jacob is a professional technology writer, academic researcher, and cyber security buff. When he's not working towards his PhD in philosophy, he's writing about the latest computer hardware developments or fiddling with his most recent technology impulse buy. If you'd like to talk tech or writing with Jacob, you can contact him or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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