How to Choose the Right MSN Program

One of the most common reasons for earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is to become an advanced practice registered nurse, or APRN. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job growth for APRNs from 2022 to 2032 is estimated to be 38%. Given this strong need for MSN-prepared nurses, many schools offer MSN degrees. However, many prospective MSN students are already practicing nurses with the desire to continue working (often full-time) while in school.

Schools offering MSN degrees have taken notice, with online MSN programs becoming commonplace. But how do you select the right one for you? Here are seven important factors to look for when researching potential MSN online programs.


Choosing the right online MSN program will usually consist of balancing a variety of factors. You might be willing to enroll in a more expensive program because it offers a specialization you want, for instance. But one nonnegotiable factor is programmatic accreditation.

Accreditation confirms educational quality and that your degree not only means something but that it will be accepted and recognized by other schools and future employers. For MSN programs, there are two main accrediting bodies: the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE).

Depending on your future nursing specialty, there could be other types of accreditation to look for. For example, if looking at a midwife program, you can also see if it’s accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Midwifery Education (ACME).

Learning Format

Yes, you’ll be enrolling in an online program, but not all online programs are the same. Many programs say they’re “fully” online, but they’re often referring to just the classroom instruction. There could be learning requirements, such as clinicals, practicums, and/or on-campus intensives, that you can only complete in person.

Most programs that have this hybrid curriculum will try to accommodate working students as much as possible. The on-campus requirements may take place over the weekend, and students can often choose where they complete their practicums, making it possible to complete these close to home or at the same healthcare facility where the student works.

Another program format characteristic to check is the ability to self-pace your learning. Many online MSN programs let you customize your course load each term to let you graduate as quickly or slowly as you want. But other programs will arrange students into cohorts which may limit your ability to adjust how quickly you can graduate.

In case you’re wondering, yes, there are 100% online MSN programs that have no in-person requirements. But these are usually in non-clinical concentrations, such as nurse administration or education.


You’re probably already looking at tuition rates when choosing an MSN program, but make sure you look at everything that will determine the real cost of your education. Tuition is where you start, but you’ll need to consider the availability of financial aid, especially gift-based aid such as scholarships, grants, fellowships, and employer-based tuition reimbursement programs.

There’s also the flexibility of the curriculum and whether it will allow you to continue working full-time while taking classes. Finally, consider travel costs if you’ll have to fly across the country for one or more on-campus orientations or intensives held throughout the program.

Specialization Options

When researching online MSN programs, you’ll probably have a good idea of which concentrations you’re interested in. Therefore, you’ll only consider programs that offer specializations or concentrations that you want to focus on. Even if you know what concentration you will choose, it doesn’t hurt to apply to MSN programs that offer more specializations and concentrations in case you change your mind. A more diverse array of specializations also makes it easier to customize your degree if you have the option to take electives.


This is often overlooked when researching MSN programs, but it’s important because the available faculty can make a huge difference in your education. You want to look for faculty members with years of clinical experience. If you have a particular area of interest, you’ll also look for faculty members with experience in that area. This includes not just nursing experience but also the research background of the faculty. For instance, do they have a PhD and if so, how much research are they consistently engaged in?

Admissions Requirements

If an MSN program being online is vital to you, then convenience is a major consideration. This convenience can be important for not just your learning but also the application process. You could find the perfect MSN program, but they may only accept students with a bachelor’s degree in nursing or a minimum number of years of experience in a certain clinical area. Or the admissions office requires a minimum undergraduate GPA that you don’t have.

There could also be an admissions exam requirement, like taking the GRE. If you haven’t taken the GRE within the past few years, registering for the test and preparing for it can be a major hassle, especially if you’re already working full-time. Other application requirements to think about include:

  • Application fee
  • Having a current and unencumbered RN license
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statement or essay
  • Completion of certain undergraduate classes

National Certification Exam Passage Rates

It’s the students that take these exams, not the school administrators or faculty members. Yet how well a program’s students do on standardized national certification exams can serve as a strong indicator of the effectiveness of a program’s teaching methods and availability of student resources.

There’s not typically a hard line or threshold you should set when applying to online MSN programs. Still, the higher-quality programs will often have national certification exam passage rates for first-time test takers that exceed 90%. To help put these numbers in the proper perspective, you should compare a particular program’s passage rates with other programs, as well as the national average.

You can normally find these statistics on a program’s website, but if you can’t, reach out to the appropriate program contact to ask them. Just keep in mind that the better a program’s first-time certification exam passage rates, the easier they will be to find on their website.