Students finish high school in different ways and due to different circumstances. Not every student graduates on time, and some students drop out before the end of high school for any number of reasons. But if you want to attend university or college, you’ll need to have either a high school diploma or a certificate of completion -- though there are many differences between the two.

High School Diplomas

Most students who get their high school diploma do so while in high school, completing all of the necessary courses and passing all of their tests. In each state, the rules for graduating are slightly different. Some states, like California and Michigan, have high school exit exams that students must pass before they can graduate. Your high school diploma is used when applying for jobs or entering the military, and your high school transcripts play a part in determining if you can get into a particular college or university.

Certificate of Completion

Certificates of completion are regulated state-by-state and have different rules in each state. In Michigan, for example, a certificate of completion is not an academic credential. In Indiana, certificates of completion are given to students who aren’t on track to graduate but who are ready to leave school and begin working. A certificate of completion has a different value in each state. In California, it has the same subject area requirements as a diploma and signifies that you met your high school course requirements. In other states, it’s the culmination of an independent education plan and a celebration of that completion.

After High School

If you dropped out of high school or were unable to finish for any reason, you can still obtain either a high school diploma or a certificate of completion. For a high school diploma, you can attend adult school or night school to work toward the credits you need to finish. You can obtain your certificate of completion at an adult school, or you can work toward your classes requirements via correspondence or online. This depends on where you live and what the local school board offers.

Advantages and Disadvantages

The San Juan Unified School District outlines the key differences between a diploma and a certificate. In California, both have the same subject area requirements: English, US and world history, math, fine arts, government, social science, economics and science plus electives. An advantage of a high school diploma is that it is accepted by all employers and colleges and some branches of the military, but a certificate of completion is only accepted by some colleges and by most employers. The high school diploma could take longer for a mature student to obtain, however, and requires still passing the high-school exit exam while the certificate doesn’t require an exit exam.