I am very interested in an online course which can be enrolled either for free without a certificate or with money and a certificate.

The contents in both cases are absolutely the same. I wanted to know whether a certificate makes any difference in the grad application since as far as I know they don't ask to show certificates and I can mention the course even without a certificate in my CV.

So, is there any use at all of the certificate if the course content without the certificate is exactly the same?

  • Accredited by who, exactly? And a "course" is more than its content.
    – Buffy
    Apr 13, 2021 at 14:04
  • Well, generally speaking, it depends on the opinion of who reviews your CV. Some people don't care about these online courses at all, but some people might have attention to that. But in my experience, it's not something that could change someone's opinion from NO, to YES. It might be better instead of investing time on online courses, accredited or not, try add some research experiences to your CV. Apr 13, 2021 at 14:29
  • 1
    @Buffy For instance I am doing a course in particle physics on Coursera made by University of Geneva. They have quizes, weighted grades etc and the quizes can be attempted onle by a valid name signature etc. Would certificate from such a course help at all while applying to graduate progams?
    – Lost
    Apr 13, 2021 at 14:29
  • @Alone Programmer I will anyways do this course since I am doing it to educate myself but I wanted to know if getting a certificate along with the knowledge be useful?
    – Lost
    Apr 13, 2021 at 14:30
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    The explicit answer is: Not really... if you put it on your CV it's better than nothing but, is it useful? That only depends on the opinion of the reviewer. Apr 13, 2021 at 14:32

1 Answer 1


This is a personal view and I think that there would be a lot of variation in what people accept for a graduate program; especially for a doctoral program.

I would tend to discount almost all such courses for the simple reason that I have no real idea about what the student learned in the course, independent of whatever grade the received. I have no idea what they did and I have no idea how to evaluate a course that relies only on online quizzes and tests. To me, the value of a certificate is just that of a piece of paper. Probably virtual paper, actually.

I would think that such courses are fine for the person who simply wants to learn something and is willing to do a lot of work (exercises, projects,...) based on it, but not for any "accreditation" purposes.

The exception would be a reasonably scaled course with a professor and sufficient staff so that the student/staff ration is less than 30/1, preferably closer to 20/1. Most online courses don't have that characteristic (though Harvard's CS50 does, actually, as do courses run by Open University in UK).

A person learns through reinforcement and feedback. Massive online courses have no real way to judge whether such learning has happened. The reinforcement can't be enforced (so to speak) and the feedback to the student is minimal. An individual might be able to judge that they, themself, learned something, but an outsider would find it difficult to impossible.

I can't guarantee (or even guess) how many feel similarly, but the educational background of most of the people judging things now is very different from such massive "courses".

I don't think they are worthless, though it is impossible for me to make a judgement about their worth with enough confidence to predict the success of a student in a graduate program (especially, again) at the doctoral level. I would base my judgement on other factors, and especially those of recommenders.

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