I read tarot privately for 15 years before I heard about certification through the Tarot Certification Board of America (TCBA). In November 2012, just for the experience, because after I learned it existed, tarot certification made it on my bucket list, I applied for the first level of certification and over the next few months, made my way to the level of certified tarot master.
The folks behind the TCBA are fantastic people. I have had an incredible, pleasurable, rewarding experience with every one I interacted with, from the examiners to the mentors to the board directors. I literally have not one negative thing to say about them. And yet I want to proceed with my account of the certification experience objectively and critically. So here you go. I warn you this is going to be a long posting. I’ve tried to compensate for the verbosity by including cartoon caricatures of my certification journey, comics I’ve created with the help of bitstrips.com.
To Certify Or Not To Certify
I started by reading about certification on online tarot forums and the opinion pieces of many tarot writers. I tried to ask some of these forum members about certification and almost got my head bitten off. Apparently certification is a hot button issue among tarot practitioners and has been for decades. I just didn’t know because I was reading tarot in a bubble. I continued my absorption of info: I listened to certification debates on podcasts. I went up to a local tarot reader in Berkeley, CA who I admired greatly and asked her, “Are you certified?” to which she made a disdainful face at me and replied, “Fuck no.” Alrightey then.
The majority seemed to lean against certification, and not just a little bit against it, but treated the concept of TCBA certification like it was offensive. Those who were in favor of certification and sang its praises were either affiliated with TCBA’s executive management or had already obtained the highest echelons of certification. Some really angry test-takers even decried the TCBA as a scam.
Yet at the conclusion of my readings, I opted to certify, in part believe it or not, because I wanted to be able to write this piece on certification.
Level 1: The CATR – Certified Apprentice Tarot Reader
The first level of certification is Certified Apprentice Tarot Reader (CATR). If you’ve been reading tarot, super easy stuff. Get your tarot deck in hand and whiz off your keyword for each card into the test form. Since I didn’t study, didn’t research, and pretty much didn’t know how anyone else in the world practiced tarot because I had been reading tarot privately in my own little bubble, I didn’t use keywords. I typed in phrases. So the test was returned to me with a note that pretty much said, “Keywords, dunce cap, keywords. Not a dissertation.” So I took the test again.
For the CATR, an examiner will send you three questions that you need to use 1-card, 2-card, and 3-card spreads for. Also simple enough. My law school training compelled me to IRAC the test responses. (Inside joke among law students, I suppose.) I: Issue. Restate the question asked. R: Rule. State which card was drawn and an objective overview of what the card means. A: Application. Apply the meaning of the card to the question asked. C: Conclusion. Concisely answer the question.
From my understanding, no one was testing “psychic” abilities or comparing my approach to card meanings with any “correct” standardized approach. It seemed like the examiner was more interested in whether I applied my own given keywords to my analysis of the card meanings in the test readings and my overall analytical process in giving the readings. And that’s fair enough. I even get to choose which deck I want to read with and the examiner will accommodate accordingly.
Level 2: The CTR – Certified Tarot Reader
The second level of certification is Certified Tarot Reader (CTR). Here I felt the CATR and CTR could be consolidated into one certification level. Dividing it into two was suspect to me: it gave me the impression that the TCBA wanted another opportunity to charge exam fees to earn money. The CATR test required keywords for all 78 cards upright and a few simple tarot spread readings. The CTR test required keywords for all 78 cards in reverse and a few multi-card spreads, namely a 5-card spread and a 7-card spread. Very reasonable requests for entry-level tarot certification.
I had asked the TCBA whether I could consolidate the CATR and CTR or skip to the CTR since I had several years of reading experience and didn’t even really need to study for the two levels. They said no. Everyone had to take the exams level by level. Okay, fair enough. So I proceeded.
I passed the CATR and CTR within weeks of each other and frankly, most of the hold-up was on the side of the TCBA as they reviewed my test responses. Had the turnaround time been faster, I believe I could have knocked out both within days so that I could continue to the next level faster.
Level 3: The CPTR – Certified Professional Tarot Reader
The third level of certification is the Certified Professional Tarot Reader (CPTR). Here ethics was tested heavily. I needed to draft my own code of ethics for tarot practice; provide a statement on how I apply that code of ethics to my clients; and explain how I handle “troublesome or impossible questions and situations.” At the CPTR level, the TCBA also wants to see that applicants are proactively becoming mentors. I needed to provide a statement on my approach to teaching tarot to would-be students.
The CPTR started to challenge me in an incredibly rewarding way. As a licensed professional in a different field, but one that also required a strong emphasis on ethics, I was able to transfer much of my analytical process from that field to tarot. You can also get a sense of the code of ethics I submitted for this certification level on my Code of Ethics page on this website.
The CPTR exam also requires you to rephrase three “impossible questions.” Questions like “When will my illness get better?” are supposed to be rephrased to, say, “How do I cope with my current health concerns?” or “What is the name of my future husband?” to “What do I need to know about my future marriage prospects?” Initially the concept of having to rephrase “impossible questions” stumped me a bit and also seemed a little judgey on the part of us, the tarot readers. But after some thought I understood the purpose of testing this and why it is crucial that professional tarot readers guide clients to ask the right kinds of questions that will be empowering.
One aspect of tarot certification that I have not mentioned yet that I suspect can be a dealbreaker for many in deciding whether to certify or not is the issue of exam fees. When I went through the process, the CATR was $50, the CTR was another $50, and the CPTR was yet another $50. I am privileged to be able to expend $150 just for a fun experience, but that is not the case for many individuals who would be pursuing tarot certification for professional reasons. So for that, I would urge the TCBA to be more creative about its own organization’s funding and reduce the test fees for its applicants. In the alternative, the TCBA should offer a fee waiver to those applicants who can demonstrate financial need.
I imagine that anyone who is interested in opening up shop to be a tarot reader professionally would need to obtain at least up to CPTR. Asking $150 for that given the nature of the field of tarot is unreasonable. The TCBA can find a more resourceful way to handle its funding. In fact, I don’t even think overhead for testing an applicant up to CPTR amounts to $150. Where the heck is the money going? After I passed each level, I received a home-generated PDF certificate that I could have designed myself with minimal graphic design software (and skill) and that was it. Where did the $150 go? Certainly not for the TCBA website. My benebellwen.com website costs less than $100 to maintain each year.
That said, I was able to raise over $150 just by completing the final requirement for the CPTR: 25 professional readings. I offered the readings for free, but asked for donations. Since I went to my arm’s length social network, my clients were generous with their donations and I made enough money to cover all my certification exam fees.
My experience taking the CPTR was enjoyable. I had to think about tarot ethics, which I admit I had not thought about before, and learned so much through the whole process. While I found the CATR and CTR exams blah, I was happy with the CPTR. This was more in line with what I would have expected from a test-taking experience in tarot studies.
My CATR and CTR certificates came as PDF attachments in my e-mail box on the same day November 29, 2012. I got my CPTR certificate on December 4, 2012.
Level 4: The CTC – Certified Tarot Consultant
The fourth level of certification is the Certified Tarot Consultant (CTC). When you pass, the application fee for this is $75 compared to the $50 for each preceding level.
Like the CPTR, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience taking the CTC examination. It requires: (1) an article on what it means to me to be a tarot consultant and my practice philosophy, (2) writing a paper that synthesizes tarot with another esoteric or metaphysical study, such as astrology, the Qabalah, parapsychology, runes, etc., (3) short creative pieces on every card in the Major Arcana (that’s 22 short creative pieces, FYI), and (4) compile a list of referrals I can give to clients who need psychological counseling, suicide prevention help, medical, legal, financial, or other forms of counseling. Let’s go through my thoughts on these 4 points one by one.
(1) the tarot consultant essay – Simple enough, and pertinent enough. Anyone who wants to become a CTC should be able to manage such an article. The essence of my article was this: tarot consultants serve two primary yet distinctive roles. The first is as a spiritual counselor to clients who seek out the consultant for tarot readings. The second is as a knowledgeable scholar of tarot studies, one who guides and mentors aspiring tarot practitioners. In the consultant’s second role, he or she should work actively to pass on the vibrant traditions of the tarot.
(2) tarot and [insert another -ology or -osophy] paper – I treated this seriously and approached it as I would a master’s program academic term paper with citations and all. My paper was very [not] creatively titled: Tarot and the I Ching: A Divination Fusion. From the title, guess what it was about.
(3) 22 creative pieces on the Majors – At first when I read this requirement, I rolled my eyes. What did this have to do with anything? But after I wrote my short psalms for each Major Arcanum, I was glad I did the exercise. It was a fun creative challenge, though I’m still not clear why a certified tarot practitioner would be required to complete such an exercise. Yes, a tarot consultant should have a strong command of the Majors, but there must be a better way to test that.
(4) client referrals list – I guess this requirement makes sense for the individual who wants to become a professional tarot reader. For me, though, it was just something I was forced to do if I wanted to proceed with certification. For me personally, I had no intention of becoming a full-time professional tarot reader or hang out a shingle for such services, so I didn’t really feel too connected to the fourth requisite.
At this level of certification, the TCBA examiner who is assigned to the applicant takes on a greater mentorship role with the applicant. I really enjoyed this aspect of the process. My mentor took me seriously, gave great insights into my submissions for the requirements, and I learned from the overall experience. He guided me throughout the process, gave phenomenal feedback, and I left with a positive impression of the TCBA. Now, I can’t say whether I just lucked out and got an awesome TCBA mentor/examiner or whether they truly all are trained to be that awesome, but I have nothing but praise for how the individuals behind TCBA handled certification up to this point.
I got my CTC certificate December 26, 2012, my husband’s birthday.
Level 5: The CTM – Certified Tarot Master
The fifth level of certification is the Certified Tarot Master (CTM). My bucket list stopped at CTM. I wasn’t interested in going any further than “certified tarot master.” That title was cool enough for me. I would get a lot of amusement out of telling people I was a certified tarot master, I thought. So this would be my last stop in terms of tarot certification.
The CTM requirements are: 3 tarot book reviews; 5 published articles on the tarot; 7 tarot deck reviews; and a record of mentoring 5 individuals in tarot.
What a mountain-load of work and writing! I love it!
For starters, I emerged from my little private bubble and researched tarot communities and publications. I began to make connections with other tarot practitioners, something I had not done before. For such a long time my only teachers were books and my own imagination/intuition. Now my teachers were peers. My own approach to tarot was deeply enhanced by these connections and I don’t think I would have reached out to others if it weren’t for the CTM objective, so for that I am grateful. I am slowly beginning to join a beautiful, thriving community of tarot practitioners and enthusiasts, a community I didn’t interact with before, and didn’t even really know existed.
I also volunteered to be a mentor through the ATA’s mentorship program and found some of my mentees that way for the mentorship requisite. As I said, to pursue the CTM, I had to come out of my shell and establish connections. That was the primary way I found mentees. The deck reviews also pushed me beyond the comforts of my trusty Rider-Waite and even Thoth to explore all the other wonderful contemporary decks on the market. Some of those deck reviews are published on my blog, Intermittent Thoughts on Tarot.
While I enjoyed my journey to attaining the CTM, I did not quite understand the relevance of the requirements. Why book reviews? Why three of them? Why seven deck reviews? And you cannot adequately review a tarot deck without owning it and working with it. Assuming each deck is $20 (and that is assuming a lot), you need to spend a minimum of $140 just to complete the deck reviews. That would be fine, if the requirement to write seven deck reviews made any sense.
Writing book and deck reviews and posting them online or in flimsy newsletter circulars may be of interest to some tarot folks, but in the grander landscape of tarot studies, it does not advance the field in a significant way. It is taking the personal hobby of some who practice tarot and turning it into a uniform standard for all. That bothered me. Objectively it does not make any sense to require reviews. Writing reviews should be an option, one way an applicant can satisfy a writing requirement for the CTM, but it should not be the spelled out demand.
Instead, the CTM should have a heavy writing component that can be met through a variety of written work. An applicant may write book reviews or deck reviews or interview the creators of tarot paraphernalia. An applicant should also be given the option of completing a major research project in tarot to satisfy the written component. That would definitely contribute to the field. The applicant could compile an anthology of articles or creative writings on tarot for publication. Or create his or her own tarot deck. Then, whatever project the applicant completed toward the CTM should be presented to a panel of examiners from the TCBA. The applicant’s final work should be published and available somewhere on the TCBA website or elsewhere for the public to reference. That kind of a requirement for the CTM makes much more sense than book reviews and deck reviews.
The CTM took me a bit longer. I was informed that I passed on March 28, 2013, between a full moon and Good Friday, and was issued my CTM certificate on April 2. That concludes my tarot certification experience.
The CTI, Certified Tarot Instructor & CTGM, Certified Tarot Grand Master
First of all, I can’t say “tarot grand master” without breaking out a little into giggles. Sorry about that. I do want to take this seriously. I understand that there are grand masters in chess and those people are taken very seriously, so why not in tarot?
After the CTM, an applicant can go for certification as a tarot instructor, the CTI. To obtain the CTI, you need to write a curriculum for teaching tarot and verify that you have certified or taught 25 students in tarot. I have already written a curriculum for teaching tarot and currently mentor students with that curriculum. But as of this writing, I have no intention of pursuing the CTI.
Now I have a confession to make. I stopped at CTM and did not proceed to CTI for a very superficial reason. You ready for it? Please don’t think less of me. I didn’t think “CTI, Certified Tarot Instructor” sounded all that prestigious. “CTM, Certified Tarot Master,” on the other hand, sounded thoroughly cool and I will have a ball bragging to my friends that I am a certified tarot master. For those who know nothing about tarot and its certification process through the TCBA, tarot master sounds very rock and roll. Tarot instructor sounds boring. Oh, so you teach people how to read tarot? Shrug. Okay. I know, I know. I’m an awful human being. But that’s why I stopped at CTM and didn’t go for the CTI.
Then there’s CTGM, Certified Tarot Grand Master. To get that, you probably need to have published a book or two on tarot and then you petition to the TCBA for the title. There’s no exam process. It’s a title granted to individuals at the discretion of the TCBA. That just– whoa– screams all shades of nepotism to me, even if there isn’t any. The TCBA could be fair and impartial about how they grant the CTGMs for all I know, but the bottom line is it smells like fish to the ordinary observer. Whether or not there is actual bias in the process of granting CTGMs isn’t even of relevance to me; the fact that it bears the appearance of discrimination and preferential treatment should be deeply concerning.
An Alternative Approach to the Fees and Certification Levels
In total I spent $300 on certification fees to reach the CTM level. I was able to fund it through the professional readings I did, but even if I couldn’t, $300 was a worthy investment for the experience of becoming a certified tarot master. That said, I’m not sure others in the tarot community would feel the same way. No one wants to talk openly about the money, but it needs to be addressed.
Many of the test levels can be consolidated. Per the TCBA website, it seems the examiners volunteer their time for free, so that isn’t even part of the organization’s overhead. Even if it were, $25 to grade a consolidated CATR-CTR exam is sufficient compensation for the examiner and if TCBA is a non-profit, then it does not need to skim any of that amount for itself. So a consolidated CATR-CTR exam should reasonably cost no more than $25.
The CPTR and CTC should also be consolidated into a second level certification after the CATR-CTR consolidation. A token compensation amount of $50 can be given to the examiner for reviewing the CPTR-CTC consolidated exam. So far now that’s $75 only to the individual tarot reader aspiring for certification.
A CTM and CTI consolidation should also be considered. The fee to the applicant at this point can be $100 to obtain the CTM-CTI consolidation. $50 of it goes to the examiner as a token fee and $50 goes toward TCBA’s coffers for its operations.
Additionally, while I agree that the certifying agency should not also be giving educational classes, it can sell educational materials. The TCBA should consider publishing a few manuals, books on tarot, etc. keyed to its certification process and sell those texts. All revenue made on those texts will go toward funding TCBA’s administrative expenses. Finally, it should create an application on its website that allows people to donate money to the TCBA. Accepting donations will further help fund the organization so that it can reduce its exam fees for the individual applicants.
Even if the TCBA maintains its current certification levels at its current exam fees, it should offer a fee waiver to applicants who can demonstrate financial need. If an applicant completes a disclosure form of his or her financial situation demonstrating income below a certain amount, then he or she should be eligible for fee waivers and should be able to take the exams free of charge. Then the current fee schedule can be maintained and the fees collected from the applicants who can pay the set amounts will go to offset those with financial need. Overall, that’s more than fair and I don’t even understand why no one has thought to offer it.
Final Thoughts on Tarot Certification
For me, tarot certification was a worthwhile journey. I gained so much out of the experience than cannot be quantified. As a professional licensing organization, the TCBA might be served well with an examination restructuring. However, I also acknowledge the logistical difficulties of that when an organization is under-staffed, under-funded, and is constantly the subject of such scrutiny with so few of those critics willing to roll up their sleeves and step up to the challenge of improving the system.
In consideration of both its strengths and weaknesses, pros and cons, I’m in favor of certification as a means for standardizing tarot practice among the professionals, but in its current format, wonder whether it is really serving its original purpose.
I can tell you that as a client seeking a tarot reader, I don’t care much about your certification. I care about, first of all, how legitimate you are as an honest business and second, your track record with previous clients. I would want to read client testimonials. If you have past clients who are amenable to talking to prospective clients, I would want the contacts to these past clients so I can ask them about their experience with you. Also remember that clients don’t just pick you; you pick your clients, too. A client who is unreasonably adamant about certification might not be a client you want to take on anyway.
As your fellow tarot reader colleague, I also don’t care much about your certification. Certification does not tell me anything more about your knowledge of tarot than I would learn from one conversation with you or from reading your writings. As a colleague, I am more interested in which decks you use for readings and why, which interpretive method you adopt, your approach with clients, the spreads you use, and your thoughts and impressions of particular cards. So my takeaway from the certification experience is this: if it’s on your bucket list, then do it.
February 2016 Update
This post still seems to get a lot of views, 3 years later, while much has changed in the tarot landscape since I wrote this. Therefore I feel compelled to give a quick update. The TCBA has since gone inactive, though I have been told they are not defunct. After TCBA’s inactivity, many new tarot certification organizations have cropped up, all within the last few years, brand spanking new, with no history and no established roster of certified members that are respected by the community at large. TCBA was a non-profit. These organizations appear to be privatized and for-profit. Therefore, please do your due diligence before shelling out hundreds of dollars of your money that you could be devoting directly to tarot study.
March 2017 Update
Rose Red, Jaymi, and I talk about tarot certification in the podcast Tarot Visions. Check out our conversation!
“Further Certification Discussions with Benebell Wen” (March 31, 2017)
October 2017 Update
Please also see my updated take on tarot certification:
“On Tarot Certification – Redux” (October 24, 2017)