At the onset of their studies, students are given an opportunity to fly with an instructor and within just three weeks earn their first rating certificate, which allows them the right to fly solo.
The phrase "rating certificate" doesn't even make sense once you understand the difference. If they hadn't explained that it's for solo, I would have had no idea what they were talking about, especially since they meant "endorsement". The word "rating" is probably the most misused term in all of aviation, but this quotation set a new record for misuse.
A certificate is also informally referred to as a license. When you pass your first checkride, you'll have a Sport Pilot certificate or a Private Pilot certificate. If I'm addressing my college class or a flight student, I use the term certificate exclusively. If I'm talking to the media or a non-flying audience, I'll use certificate or license interchangeably. The difference is basically just a trivial, obscure bit of legal minutiae.
A rating is something that adds to a certificate you already have. You can't get an instrument rating without already having a pilot certificate, right? After all, what good would it do to be allowed to fly on instruments but not be able to fly an aircraft?
There are only a handful of certificates (sport, private, commercial, ATP—I just pretend the recreational certificate doesn't exist for reasons I'll explain in another post) but a soup of ratings: airplane single-engine, multi-engine, sea (which has its own single/multi-engine), rotorcraft, instrument, and even more.
As for categories vs. ratings, something that may help you remember the difference is that if it's something that extends abilities you already have (like being able to fly on instruments, being able to fly an airplane with an extra engine strapped on or with floats instead of regular landing gear), it's a rating. If it requires you to learn how to fly something completely different from what you're used to (like a helicopter, glider, balloon, etc.), then it's a category.
What both certificates and ratings have in common is a checkride with an FAA examiner or designee. If you had to take a checkride, you end up with at least a new rating and possibly a new certificate at the end of it. Your very first checkride will end up with you having both: a Private Pilot certificate with a single-engine rating (to use the most common example). If you learn to fly at a school that starts you off in a twin like a Seminole, you'll end up with a Private Pilot certificate with a multi-engine rating. Once you've done that, you can take another checkride to add your instrument rating to the private or commercial certificate you already have.
(You can't add an instrument rating to an Airline Transport Pilot certificate because the instrument rating is a pre-requisite to get an ATP certificate in the first place. You can't add an instrument rating to a Sport Pilot certificate because sport pilots can't fly on instruments.)
The easiest way to remember it is to look at the piece of plastic the FAA issued you, if you have one already. If it's on the front under the phrase "has been found to be properly qualified to exercise the privileges of", it's a certificate. If it's on the back, it's a rating. The FAA even helps you remember that the back contains your ratings by putting "RATINGS" right there.
So what about endorsements? Well, you can remember those as whatever privileges you can exercise with just an instructor's signature instead of a full checkride. One endorsement everyone who has ever flown an aircraft by themselves will get along the way is the solo endorsement. That's a set of signatures from an instructor saying that you have received all the training 14 CFR 61.87 requires, have taken the quiz, and can safely operate that particular make and model of aircraft.
If you go on past solo, you'll receive further endorsements. One allows you to take the FAA written exam. Another says that you've received training to prepare you for the checkride, and the last one you'll ever have to get is one attesting that you are ready to pass it. All of these are signatures in your logbook, not pieces of plastic.
Many people never get another endorsement after the checkride (except for biennial flight reviews). However, there are plenty more optional ones if you want to enhance your skills or expand the aircraft available to you. A popular one is the high-performance endorsement, which allows you to operate aircraft with an engine of more than 200 horsepower. It is often combined with the complex endorsement, which requires all three of the following: flaps, a constant-speed propeller, and retractable landing gear. If you want to fly conventional gear airplanes (or, as everyone else calls them, taildraggers), you can get a tailwheel endorsement. There is no such thing as a "tailwheel rating". No. Such. Thing.
A rare one among typical general aviation pilots is the high-altitude endorsement, which allows you to fly above 24,000 feet and does not require actually flying a plane. Again, what all endorsements have in common is that they are signatures in your logbook, and none of them actually are printed on your certificate itself. Endorsements are like ratings in that they add to the privileges you can exercise with your certificate, but endorsements require less official paperwork.
To make it even easier to remember the difference, here's a process for figuring out whether it's a certificate, rating, or endorsement:
Did I have to take a checkride to get this?
No: It's an endorsement. You're done.
Yes: Did it change the front or back of my license?
Front: It's a certificate.
Back: It's a rating.
The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.