I love pretending that there are tangible, truly objective ways to measure nebulous things like experience, intelligence, or aptitude. Formal schooling is all about this sort of thing, and my whole life has been instance after instance of trying to measure up to imposed standards, jumping through hoops, and earning letters after my name. My degrees make me feel like I’ve accomplished something, and they (theoretically) convey that accomplishment to other people in meaningful ways:
“Oh, wow, she went to college, like, four times. She can totally work a cash register. Let’s start her at $7.25 an hour.”
But as much as I love school (not even kidding) and as much as I believe in formal education and having agreed upon standards, I also know that no system is perfect. I have seen firsthand how SAT scores, grades, and degrees are not always reliable measures for competence, long-term performance, intelligence, and a lot of other things that we often take for granted. Working in academia quickly taught me that having a Ph.D. in the humanities is often only a reliable indicator of two things: your capacity for withstanding bullshit and how much money you have laying around. Bright students can flunk out, the incompetent can win praise, and countless others will never have the chance one way or the other simply because they have been arbitrarily denied access.
Formal education might be one of the better indicators of experience, ability, and potential that we have, but obviously it is a problematic system.
Tarot certification is much the same, on a smaller scale.
The first problem, of course, is that there is no universal standard for what makes a competent tarot reader, worthy of the client’s time and money. A university must earn accreditation through an external board of reviewers according to standards that are applied to all other universities of its type (and fork over a shit ton of money in the process). A tarot reader can only be measured according to the standards established by what is usually a private business (often owned by only one or two people) interested primarily in generating a profit (which is not a criticism—money is awesome—but let’s be honest).
There have been organizations in the past (such as the now defunct American Board for Tarot Certification) that have attempted to establish more objective standards for readers, awarding titles like “apprentice” and “master” and even “grandmaster,” but these often only guarantee that the so-titled has passed a series of online quizzes and essays, perhaps published in some capacity, or performed a certain number of readings (with testimonies provided by clients who could just as easily be conspiring friends). While these might be likely indicators of ability (like college), they are only surely indicators of free time (and, hopefully, professional commitment to tarot), expendable income (because there are fees all along the way), and perhaps writing and networking abilities. It does not guarantee the ability to give a great reading.
But I don’t want to sound like I’m totally nay-saying certification. I’m not.
Like formal schooling in other disciplines, determining whether or not they’ve undergone any kind of certification (or even just attended workshops or classes) is still a useful way for potential clients to gauge a reader’s experience. It doesn’t mean that they’re definitely going to be a better reader than someone who taught themselves and just works out of their tent at summer festivals, but it at least tells you that they’re committed enough to tarot to further their studies in a (usually) more rigorous ways.
It’s not a guarantee, but if this was a racetrack and you were placing bets, you’d be better off choosing the person with some kind formalized training. As a client, you still might lose in the end, but the odds are better.
As a reader, my own work with certification has been enormously beneficial. Studying with the Tarot School doesn’t make me a “certified” anything per se, but I do get to talk about fancy “degree” levels. Will it mean anything to a client that I’m working on a degree through Tarot School? Probably not. It usually doesn’t mean anything to other readers beyond HOLY SHIT THAT’S A LOT OF MONEY (correct, but thus far cheaper and with greater profit margins than my entire graduate career). But I’m a completely different sort of reader because of it, and my experience with and knowledge of tarot has developed to such an extent that I can hardly believe I ever thought myself competent beforehand.
Tarot School is quite a bit more academic than a lot of other available programs (not to mention longer), and absolutely will not appeal to everyone (nevermind the cost). There are a lot of others to choose from. The Tarosophy Tarot Association has about a dozen classes (including its own degree program) that I’d love to take, including a “Tarot Certificate” course. Biddy Tarot is another popular site (and, I believe, a sole proprietorship) that offers a kind of certification, though I can’t personally speak to the quality of the material (I know I’ve got some followers who can, though).
If you’re considering certification, my advice would be to go for it as long as it’s affordable. It’s certainly possible to be successful without it, and it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be a better reader. But you probably will be. It demonstrates seriousness to potential clients, helps you to meet others, hopefully challenges you to consider things in a different light, and will almost surely make you more confident.