My Tips for People Pursuing Certification

I was recently certified by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. It was a long process to create a portfolio of work samples. I know there are several readers of this blog who want to become certified in the future, or who are already working on their portfolios. I learned a lot from creating my portfolio and going through the process, and thought I would share some of the things I learned.

You won’t find the time, you have to make the time

Compiling a portfolio is a lot of work. It has seven different components, some of which have taken me hundreds of hours to complete. If you wait until you find the time, it will never happen. If you are serious about certification, you will have to make it a priority and make the time.

I am someone who likes to work in bursts. Initially I took every Friday off, but that didn’t really work for me. Towards the end, I just blocked whole weeks to do research, write and edit.

women setting time on a clock

Credits: Rob Bogaerts, collection Nationaal Archief (CC-BY)

There is no one right way

If I would give a pile of sources relating to a family to ten different Certified Genealogists®, and ask them to write a case study based on the evidence, you would get ten different pieces. They would probably reach the same conclusions, but they would construct their arguments in totally different ways.

Meeting standards does not mean you have to do everything a certain way. Meeting standards means knowing how to find and read sources, how to analyze evidence, how to build a proof argument. Judges don’t want to see you copying some excellent example, they want to see how you handle things. There is room for your own style, for your own approach. This is why you will see many different examples that have different ways of handling the same situations, but still meet standards.

Education before Certification

Education is a great predictor of success in certification. People who have been to genealogy institutes, have an academic degree in genealogy, or completed the Professional Genealogy Study Group (Pro-Gen) are more likely to pass.

I am the odd one out; without any formal education except going to the Salt Lake Institute for Genealogy just three weeks before submitting my portfolio. Most of it was done by then. But I do take education seriously by reading books about methodology, attending webinars, reading the leading journals of our field and exchanging ideas with great genealogists. I recently joined a study group to study articles from the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. I love writing case studies and can learn so much from studying how these great genealogist construct theirs.

Certification is not the end point of your education

Certification is not the end of your education. You will continue to learn. In fact, you will be tested on your continuous education efforts when it is time for recertification, every five years.

While education is necessary, some people seem to get stuck in education mode and never actually start on their portfolios. “If I could just learn about this methodology… If I could just go to one more practicum…”

There is not going to be a point when you know it all, so don’t wait for that to happen. The more you know, the more you realize there is to learn. You may not think you are ready, while you may be over-ready. Elissa Scalise Powell once told me that the over-ready freak out. The under-ready don’t realize they should 🙂

At some point you just have to tell yourself that you know what you are doing, and have an independent assessment by submitting your portfolio to the BCG. Worst case, you will get great feedback to guide your further education. Best case, you get certified. Either way, you will continue to educate yourself.

Combine education with practice

Just having an education is not enough. You have to internalize that knowledge by practicing it in your every-day work.

If you have never written a proof argument, you are not ready for certification, no matter how many you’ve read.

If you have never done reasonably exhaustive research into a problem, you are not ready for certification, no matter how many source guides you’ve studied.

If you have never solved a case using indirect or negative evidence, your research experience is not broad enough to have learned how to apply these standards.

If that is you, I recommend you work on other people’s families. You will learn a lot about methodology by working on other families, out of your comfort zone.

When I started taking clients, I had been doing genealogy for twenty years. Much of that time was spent on a one-place-study, working with the same sources, solving the same kinds of problems. In terms of experience, that was more like two years of experience, repeated ten times, although I did not realize it at the time. My skills began to grow when I worked on other people’s projects, first pro bono and then for paying clients. Working in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar sources forces you to fall back on solid methods for research planning, analysis and correlation of evidence. If you master that, you can learn to do it anywhere.

Last January, I participated in the Advanced Evidence Practicum at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy, solving problems from all over the United States, in places where I’d never done any research, using sources I had never worked with. Despite these challenges, my understanding of solid research practices helped me to keep up with my fellow classmates and solve most of the problems. That confirmed for me that I was ready to submit my portfolio.

school children

Classroom in the Netherlands Antilles. Credits: Willem van de Poll, collection Nationaal Archief (CC-BY)

Getting help

Your portfolio has to be all your own work, without anyone proofreading or reviewing it. That was a challenge for me, as English is not my native language. At one point, my spell checker gave up on me, since there were too many errors (read: Dutch names that are not in the English dictionary) to keep checking the document.

No proofreading or reviewing also means there’s no asking for advice on how to handle a pesky citation or which order makes the most sense for presenting your case study. But you can ask questions about the certification process.

A wonderful place to ask these questions is the BCG Action mailinglist, to which all people are invited who have submitted their initial applications (people who are “on the clock”). I found it a great place to meet other people who care about doing genealogy the right way, and learned a lot from the questions they asked. Several BCG trustees on the mailing list help answer the questions about the process. There is also a BCG Facebook group that is open to anybody who is interested in certification, which is a great place to ask questions if haven’t submitted your initial application yet.

Selecting the items for your portfolio

Harold Henderson gave a great piece of advice for creating your portfolio: never turn in the first of anything. Don’t submit a client report if that’s the first time you have ever written one. Take some clients or pro bono cases and learn how to write a good report. Create some transcriptions and get feedback by people who know what they are doing. You can’t use these for your portfolio, since none of the work may be proofread, but getting feedback on items that you won’t submit will tell you what you need to work on.

When I started working on my portfolio, I had been working for clients for about six months. I thought I had the perfect report for my portfolio, in which I had identified the father of a child who was born out of wedlock. By the time I finished my portfolio three years later, I had done over fifty more client reports, and realized how superficial that first report was. While it reported the sources I used and included a proof argument to explain how I came to the conclusion about the identity of the father, I did not analyze any of the sources deeply, or correlate and contrast information from different sources. That early report was not a good demonstration of my skills. I ended up choosing one of my later reports instead.

When selecting your items, ask yourself: Is this an interesting subject? Or is this interesting research? I had one case involving a famous ancestor, which I thought was pretty cool. But then I realized that while the ancestor was interesting, my research was actually pretty boring, using direct evidence from common sources. I ended up not using that report either. Judges aren’t impressed by Mayflower ancestors or lines back to Charlemagne. They are impressed by skillful analysis and correlation of evidence, presented in a well-reasoned argument that supports a conclusion, regardless of who the subjects are.

For my Kinship Determination Project (KDP), a narrative describing three generations of one family, I chose my Kastein family. The middle generation, Arend Kastein, has been my favorite ancestor since I first discovered him. He was a police constable, who left lots of interesting records. His father was a wooden-shoe maker who immigrated from Germany to the Netherlands and his son was a teacher who became involved in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa and was shipped to Madras, India as a prisoner-of-war, keeping a diary while he was there. When I had to pick a family to write about, this was the only family that ever came to mind.

There were pros and cons to my selecting this family:

  • In most portfolios, the Kinship Determination Project is the largest item. You are going to be spending a lot of time with this family, so you’d better select one that you love working on. I certainly did that!
  • This was not the easy choice. This family lived on four continents and I used records from six different countries in seven different languages. They all had many children. Doing reasonably exhaustive research on all these people in all these different places took a lot of time. I could have made things a lot easier for myself had I chosen a smaller family who all stayed put, or maybe migrated once. The judges liked it though. One judge remarked that it used “an exceptionally impressive array of sources.”

You don’t need to make things this hard on yourself. For most portfolio items, there is no rubric for that it needs to be complex (only the case study requires it is based on indirect or conflicting evidence). That being said, your portfolio has to show off your skills, so you don’t want to select the most straightfoward projects you have ever worked on. You want to showcase your understanding of the standards.

Edit: In response to this post, Paul K. Graham, CG, commented on Facebook:

“You don’t need to make things this hard on yourself.” <– THIS.
When I look at sample portfolios available at conferences, I always think about how different my application was. I didn’t write a 100+ page novella for my KDP. Mine was 20 pages (including footnotes) and 5700 words (excluding footnotes) and met enough of the relevant standards to pass. The certification process is a test to see if you can meet a set of standards; it is not a contest to see who can collect the most sources and write the longest paper.

Thank you, Paul, for this addition and allowing me to use it in my post. I know it will be encouraging to others to read that a shorter KDP can also pass. It’s the quality of the work that counts, not the quantity. Our KDPs were quite different (mine was 74 pages, 42,000 words), yet both meet the standards.

It does not have to be perfect

I made some errors in my portfolio; things like choosing a numbering system more suitable for a genealogy than a lineage, misnumbering a footnote, and using some words incorrectly. It did not fail my portfolio. I had a few “partially meets standards” instead of “meets standards,” but as a whole, the judges could see that I know what I’m doing. “The work is strong in all respects and exemplary in many,” was the conclusion of one of the judges.

Your portfolio does not have to be perfect. My three judges each pointed out some errors, but were unanimous in recommending certification. If the judges see you have a good understanding of standards, and trust that you will be able to fix the problems if they point them out to you, you will pass.

window washer

Credits: J.D. Noske, collection Nationaal Archief (CC-BY)

Have fun

For me, building my portfolio was the most fun project I’ve ever done. I honestly loved working on it. I loved the challenge. I loved the writing. I loved spending time with my own ancestors.

For those of us who do client work, our own ancestors often go on the back burner. Working on my portfolio gave me the opportunity to work on my own family for a change, and to delve much deeper than any client would ever be able to afford. It is fun to work without limitations on time and money!

It took me three years of being on the clock to finish my portfolio. I was probably having a bit too much fun 🙂 Which brings me to my next point:

Just turn the sucker in

By the time I was nearly done, I went through the Chicago Manual of Style again to see if there were things I missed. When I came to the paragraph about dashes, em-dashes and en-dashes, I went through my whole portfolio again to make sure I had the appropriate dashes in all the right places.

Yeah, I know. Freaking out over details, like many people who are “on the clock.”

When I shared this with a friend who was already certified, she said “if the worst thing the judges will have to say about your portfolio is that you used a wrong dash, then you’re in pretty good shape.” I realized she was right.

Judy Russell told me “It’s pass-fail, you know. You can’t get an A. Just turn the sucker in.”

Many of us who are working towards certification are type-A personalities. We are perfectionists. We want to dot every i, cross every t and have every dash just the way it ought to be.

But perfection is the enemy of good. You won’t get certified unless you Turn. The. Sucker. In.

Judy gave me that advice six months ago. I submitted my portfolio a few weeks later and passed. As I said to my fellow applicants on the BCG Action mailing list: “We Can Do It!”

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink is a professional genealogist in the Netherlands. She has been doing genealogy for almost 25 years. Her expertise is helping people from across the world find their ancestors in the Netherlands. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Judy Russell gave me great advice too!

  2. Thanks, Yvette. And again, congrats!

    • Tom Jones says:

      Yvette gives great recommendations, and this blog posting should become a classic. This advice was true some thirty years ago, when I applied for certification, and it is true today. If applying for certification sounds hard, it’s because it is. It’s also great fun for anyone who enjoys assembling puzzles and solving problem.

  3. Brad Stone says:

    Great article, Yvette. As one “on the clock,” your suggestions and insights ring true. One thing that I would add is that even those that start the BCG application and never submit a portfolio will learn a whole lot about professional genealogy – most of which they didn’t know that they didn’t know.


  4. Elizabeth Gomoll says:

    I’m building my portfolio. This is just the encouragement I needed.

  5. Thank you for writing this! I have been contemplating getting my certification. This opened my eyes to the process and where I need to do some more work. But it also made me realize with a bit more work I can do this too. 🙂 It is nice to hear from someone who has done it and their feelings going through it. Specially at some point you just have to hand the sucker in! For me it almost is paralyzing to start…I have the knowledge and the plan in my head but it actually has to be processed and put on paper.
    You have given me a push to get going!

  6. Kathy Walker says:

    I appreciate your sharing your experience. It is a long adventure and one I look forward to begin!

  7. Thank you for the great advice, Yvette. I do need to get over the “type A” thing and just get to work!

  8. Annie Stratton says:

    Yvette, I finally got a chance to finish reading your tips this evening. My computer crashed earlier (serioiusly crashed, giving me a screen I’ve never seen before). It rebooted and came back up, but I had to leave on a couple of errands. Only mildly panicked, as I’d see this coming and ordered a new computer a few days ago. And religiously backup. (Of course, the computer has been on best behavior since.)

    But what I was thinking as I did my errands was this: what if I hadn’t backed up and HAD lost everything and had to start over? And I knew that I could, and would, start over. Because, in terms of going for certification, what mattered about what I had done was the skills I’d acquired while doing it. Lots of mistakes, lots of re-researching, lots of rethinking, lots of writing and rewriting, and all of it becoming part of my experience as a genealogist.

    Lately I’ve begun taking on an occasional “pro bono” client. It still feels funny to refer to them that way, I just feel like I’m paying something forward. A favor to someone else. But I realized that they are doing me a favor too by trusting me with the information they had, and also trusting me to do the right thing with it. That makes me go all out to do the very best I can for them. Then I discovered something else: how very much I enjoy doing this for other people. Yep, time for me to go on the clock.

    And when I got home, put groceries away, and finally set down and finished your post, that’s what you said too. I’m just starting my portfolio. If I take three years, I’ll be 76 when I finish. I’m going to try to follow Judy Russell’s advice, and just Turn That Sucker In when it feels gestated enough.

  9. Cricket Crigler says:

    Thank you for posting your viewpoint and sharing your wisdom. You are right! I have to make the time.

    Cricket Crigler

  10. K. VanDeVusse says:

    Congratulations on your certification! I have enjoyed reading your website, blog and articles. Keep up the great work!

  11. Chris Washler says:

    Great article and advice! I have to admit that it caught me off guard that you were “on the clock” for three years. I’ve known for a couple of years now that I want to go through the certification process, but I’ve held off submitting the initial application because I guess I just assumed that there would be a time limit on how long I had to submit my portfolio. Apparently, based on your experience, I’ve been fooling myself on that and just delaying getting started unnecessarily.

    • Thanks! To clarify: if you submit your initial application, you have one year before your portfolio is due. You can get an extension, but will have to pay another fee and will then have to follow the rules as of the date of the extension. I extended twice.

  12. Thank you for all the helpful tips!

  13. Ricki King says:

    Thank you. I read this in June and again today and I’m sure I’ll read it again before I turn in my portfolio in December. Your story helps settle my nerves and gives me courage to go on and believe I can do this.

  14. Inspiring me, Yvette. Thanks for the info.

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