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How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Explore the key steps to become a registered nurse, from choosing the right program to applying for jobs and nailing the interviews

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Two female healthcare professionals, one wearing a white coat and another in blue scrubs, are walking and discussing in a hospital corridor with large windows.

Nurses are often the unsung heroes of the healthcare field, providing essential care and support to patients in their most vulnerable moments. Becoming a registered nurse (RN) is a satisfying career choice for those with the right blend of compassion, empathy, and dedication. As a nurse, you can expect to positively impact people’s lives, forge meaningful connections with patients, and be a crucial part of a collaborative healthcare team.

The path to becoming an RN is diverse, with numerous educational paths, modes of learning, and degrees available to suit your aspirations. Whether you’re pursuing an associate degree in nursing (ADN), a Bachelor of Science in nursing (BSN), or even higher-level degrees such as a master’s or doctorate, there is a program that can meet your needs. Each pathway offers advantages and opportunities, allowing you to customize your nursing education and shape your career in this ever-evolving field.

Explore the various paths to becoming an RN, learn the benefits and challenges of each degree option, and get guidance on how to choose the best route to achieve your goals. From understanding the prerequisites and admission requirements to navigating the job market and licensing process, this article will serve as your roadmap to a successful and fulfilling nursing career.

Should You
Become an RN?

Registered nursing is an in-demand career, but it may not be for everyone. Use these questions as a starting point to decide if becoming an RN is right for you.

  • Are you comfortable making important decisions on your own?
    Registered nurses often work under the supervision of a doctor or other medical professional, but they still have a high degree of autonomy. They need critical thinking ability to make certain discretionary decisions on their own.
  • Can you handle unpopular working shifts?
    Like many other important professions, many of the newer or “rookie” nurses will have to work the less popular times of the day or days in the year. This means during their first few years, RNs may need to work on major holidays or night shifts.
  • Do you have emotional resiliency?
    Due to the direct contact RNs have with patients, there will certainly be times when they witness suffering or severe emotional or physical discomfort. This can take a heavy toll on a nurse. Future RNs need to understand they may encounter unpleasant situations and will have to find a way to work through them.
  • Are you ready to learn?
    Recent nursing grads might think they are fully trained to handle any situation in a medical setting. Nothing can be further from the truth. Even though they are licensed, RNs will spend much of their early careers learning as much from their job as they did in nursing school.
  • Are you physically strong?
    Registered nurses don’t need to handle extreme physical rigors like a firefighter or soldier might, but it is still a very physically demanding job. Much of a nurse’s time will be spent standing, walking, and lifting or moving patients.

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be a great fit for registered nursing, and, most notably, a career as an RN.

How Long Does It Take to Become an RN?

Depending on your professional and educational background, it can take as little as 12 months of school before you’re ready to sit to take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam necessary for state licensure. But for those starting with no nursing experience or education at all, it can take as long as four years.

How much time do aspiring nurses spend in school to get certain degrees? Here’s a ballpark estimate of how much time it takes to earn each credential.

1 1. Associate degree in nursing (ADN) 2 years
2 2. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) 4 years
3 3. LPN to RN 2 years to become an LPN, additional
12 to 18 months for the RN

To learn more about these three primary avenues for becoming a registered nurse, keep reading.

Chart Your Educational Journey

When you choose a nursing school, it’s essential to consider three significant variables that will impact your educational experience. First, consider the type of program that will suit you best, whether it’s an associate or bachelor’s degree, or even a bridge program designed for licensed or practical nurses. Second, explore the various types of educational institutions available, such as community colleges, career institutes, vocational schools, and traditional colleges or universities. Finally, consider the learning format that works for you. While in-person classes were once the norm, many registered nurse programs now offer online courses, with hands-on clinical training being the primary in-person component. Reflect on how these factors align with your personal and professional needs and goals to make the most informed decision for your nursing education.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN or ASN)

For most people without any nursing background, the associate degree will be the quickest path to becoming a registered nurse. Usually taking two years of full-time study to complete, the associate degree is different from a certificate or diploma program in that graduates will earn a college degree. Compared to a bachelor’s degree, which takes four years to earn, the associate degree in nursing takes half the time. The biggest advantage for earning an associate degree is the speed in which you can become a registered nurse. The disadvantage is that having only a two-year degree may limit future professional opportunities that require a bachelor’s degree or add extra time in the future for those who want to obtain a master’s degree in nursing.

Best for? The associate degree path is best for someone who needs to start working as a registered nurse as quickly as possible and is okay with a lack of advancement.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

The bachelor’s degree is one of the most common academic routes a future nurse can take to becoming an RN. In a non-accelerated program of full-time study, students will take four years to earn their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. The BSN provides a more rounded and comprehensive college education, including more general education courses and healthcare-based coursework, such as nursing classes in research and public health. For many students, the extra schooling is worth it, as it opens up more potential nursing positions.

Best for? A BSN is a good choice for anyone who wants to have the greatest opportunities for professional growth in the near and distant future.

LPN to RN Programs

LPN to RN programs are some of the quickest paths to becoming a registered nurse. As a result of an LPN’s licensing, work experience, and educational background, they can earn an associate degree in nursing in one to two years and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in less than four years. Another advantage of bridge programs is that because the nursing student is a licensed nurse, they can continue working while in school to become an RN. This may add time until graduation, but it can alleviate some of the financial burdens of nursing school.

Best for? As its name implies, LPN or LVN bridge programs are best for anyone who is already working as a licensed practical or registered nurse and who wants to take the next step in their nursing career.

Types of Schools for Registered Nurses

Where can you find the education to become an RN? Let’s take a look at some of the most common education institutions.

Vocational Schools

Vocational schools, sometimes referred to as trade or tech schools, are postsecondary institutions that focus on skilled trades and professions that require an extensive set of hands-on skills. Besides nursing, many vocational schools will offer programs in building and cosmetology areas. A major advantage of these schools is that they’re usually among the most affordable. However, because there are little to no general education requirements, students will not receive the most well-rounded education.

Best for? For a student on a tight academic budget who wants to start working as quickly as possible, attending a vocational school might be a good option.

Specialized Academies/Institutes

These are less common because they focus primarily on one type of profession or industry. For example, many will focus on just building trades, cosmetology, or healthcare fields. One advantage of these institutions is that because they specialize in one area, they can provide a top notch education and will have an extensive network of graduates working in the same fields as current students. One disadvantage is that students are limited in the type of coursework and programs they can complete.

Best for? A specialized academy might be best for a student is fully confident that the nursing or a healthcare field is what they want to go into.

For-profit Colleges

As the name implies, for-profit schools are in the business of making money. However, many still provide a solid education as long as they are properly accredited. They often pioneer advancements like distance learning, fast-tracked curriculums, and customized academic pathways catering to nontraditional students. These may include military veterans, working parents, or professionals pursuing a career change.

Best for? A for-profit school could be a great fit for anyone who needs the maximum level of learning flexibility, such as asynchronous online programs.

Community Colleges

Community colleges focus on certificates, diplomas, and associate degrees. One of their advantages is their cost and flexibility. Tuition for in-state residents is usually very affordable. Many community colleges serve as feeder schools for larger neighboring colleges and universities, which makes it easy to transfer credits if you decide to attend a four-year university later to continue your education.

Best for? Students seeking an associate degree in nursing or those who might want to eventually earn a bachelor’s degree would be well served enrolling in a community college.

Four-year Colleges & Universities

These traditional institutions have been around for centuries. They usually offer four-year undergraduate degrees as well as graduate programs. Many will have certificate programs as well, especially on the graduate level. These schools are good for those who want a bachelor’s degree or who plan on attending graduate school in the near future. However, one drawback of these schools is that they tend to have higher tuitions than what you’ll find at community colleges and vocational schools.

Best for? A future registered nurse who wants to have the greatest openings for professional advancement should consider a four year nursing degree.

Make the Decision

Now that you’ve figured out which type of educational path you want to take and the type of school you’d like to attend, it’s time to pick a few schools to apply to. Let’s go through a checklist to help you choose the best ones.

  • Is the school regionally accredited?
    Accreditation ensures the education provided by a specific institution meets basic foundational requirements. Graduating from a school that doesn’t have regional accreditation may make it difficult to find a job. It also makes it almost impossible to obtain financial aid.
  • Is the program recognized by a top nursing body?
    In addition to regional accreditation, applicants should check to see if the specific nursing program has programmatic accreditation. The two major accrediting bodies for nursing programs are the CCNE (Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education) and the ACEN (Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing).
  • Does the cost meet your needs?
    Nursing school isn’t free, even for those lucky enough to earn generous scholarships or grants. Prospective nursing students should take some time to consider if they can afford the cost of attendance and fees.
  • Does the length of the program fit your schedule?
    Even the fastest path to a career in registered nursing will still take at least a year. This is a significant time commitment. Besides that, keep in mind that the faster the program, the more intense the curriculum. This might make it harder or even impossible to work while in school.
  • Will your program prepare you for the NCLEX-RN?
    This is the national certifying exam that all nursing graduates must take before they can receive their state nursing license to practice as a registered nurse. A good way to ensure a nursing program effectively prepares its graduates for the NCLEX-RN is to look at the exam passage rates of its graduates compared to the national average. A low NCLEX-RN passage rate doesn’t automatically mean it’s a bad program, but it could be something worth looking into before applying.

How to Become an RN Fast

All nursing students want to be done with their nursing education as quickly as possible. Determining exactly how long it will take to become a registered nurse depends not just on the type of nursing program, but also what you bring to the table when you begin that program. Here’s what to expect:

1. Non-nurses with a bachelor’s degree
For students who already have a bachelor’s degree, an accelerated BSN program will probably be their best option. Many of these accelerated programs are designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. Since you’ve already got general education requirements under your belt, you’ll focus mostly on nursing classes along with any gaps in your previous education.

2. A recent high school graduate
If you’re starting out with a high school diploma as your highest level of education, then the fastest route to becoming an RN will be through an associate nursing degree program. Of course, a bachelor’s degree in nursing program is also a possibility but it will take longer.

3. LPNs and LVNs
The LPN/LVN to RN bridge programs is the fastest route to working as a registered nurse because it builds off of the LPN’s prior work experience. These bridge programs typically give academic credit for the nursing courses an LPN would have previously taken, which can further reduce the time it takes to become an RN.

How to Become an RN Online

Because nursing is such a hands-on career, it might surprise you to know that it’s one of the most popular fields for online learning. However, unlike some academic subjects where students can earn their degree without ever stepping away from their computer, becoming a registered nurse requires some in-person training. A registered nursing program will have two key components: classroom and clinical work.

In most online nursing programs, the classroom work is entirely or mostly online. A few programs might require students to come to campus to complete a weekend or two of “intensives” or labs. As for the clinical work, obtaining the several hundred hours necessary to graduate an RN program will require the student to find a healthcare facility where they can obtain their clinical hours.

The result is that online nursing programs are primarily hybrid programs combining online and in-person instruction. Online nursing programs can be found at three academic levels:

  • Online ADN programs:
    Online associate degree in nursing programs will usually allow students to complete 100% of their classroom learning through distance methods, such as listening to recorded lectures, uploading assignments using course management software, and engaging in class discussion. Assignments might be synchronous (at a specific time) or asynchronous (whenever you want), depending upon the school. To complete clinicals, the vast majority of online programs will have arrangements with local hospitals or allow students find their own healthcare facility that is most convenient for them. Learn more about ADN programs online.
  • Online BSN programs:
    Online BSN programs are similar to online ADN programs in that most or all of the classroom instruction can be finished online and the clinicals can be completed at a facility close to the school or one near the student. However, BSN programs will require far more academic credits, in both general education and nursing courses. Luckily, the clinical requirements are about the same. Read more about online programs for RNs and accelerated online BSN programs.
  • Online LPN to RN programs:
    Even though LPN to RN programs have students with nursing experience, they must still complete their clinical hours. The coursework can usually be completed entirely online. To learn more about this academic pathway, check out hybrid and online LPN to RN programs.

Apply to Your RN Program

Now that you’ve identified the type of RN program you want to apply to, it’s time to begin the application process. Before you spend the time gathering your application materials, you’ll need to figure out what’s involved when applying. For example, will you need to show that you have taken prerequisite courses and achieved a minimum GPA in them before applying? Or can you apply first, and then take the prerequisite classes later? Before sending off your application, make sure you have a full understanding of the following points.

Prerequisites

Practically all RN programs will require foundational coursework before the core nursing curriculum begins. These classes usually consist of courses such as:

  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • A college level math course
  • English composition
  • Introduction to Communications

In many nursing programs, students will complete these prerequisites after acceptance into the school, but before applying to and being accepted by the nursing program. Most nursing programs also require students to finish those courses with a minimum GPA.

Application process & fees

Every school and program usually requires the same basic elements:

  • Completion of an application form
  • High school transcript
  • Entrance exam score, such as the SAT or ACT
  • Be able to pass a criminal background check
  • Provide documentation that shows the applicant is current on all immunizations
  • Payment of an application fee

One additional requirement for LPN to RN programs will be proof of a current LVN license in good standing and any transcripts concerning completion of the student’s LPN program.

Funding your program

Besides completing the application, you need to plan how you’ll pay for your schooling. This might seem daunting, but there are plenty of financial options available. To pay for an RN degree, you’ll want to explore options like scholarships, grants, financial aid, loans, work-study programs, and employer tuition reimbursement. Check out our financial aid page for more information.

Complete Your RN Coursework

The early portions of an RN program will cover relatively basic nursing and medical concepts, such as:

  • Introduction to genetics
  • Nurse informatics
  • Pharmacology
  • Nutrition
  • Foundations of nursing

As the nursing student progresses, their coursework will apply the prior classroom information into more complex situations and medical concepts. As an upperclassman, nursing students can expect to take classes including:

  • Nursing management of adult patients
  • Nursing research
  • Child patient management and treatment
  • Professional nursing ethics
  • Medical-surgical nursing

Many of these advanced courses have a companion class that consists of clinical hours within a healthcare setting. These clinicals will serve as the student’s primary face-to-face curriculum requirements.

Finish Your Face-to-Face Requirements

Clinicals are a critical component of any nursing program. In these special learning arrangements, nursing students will go to a healthcare facility and work under the supervision of a preceptor. Students will engage in physical tasks that they are likely to encounter as an RN.

In addition to offering practical experience, clinicals can also serve as networking opportunities. There’s a good chance the clinical location will also be a place where the nurse could seek post-graduate employment. Relationships formed during clinicals can also serve as valuable references and advice for a nursing student who has just earned a license. Some of the clinicals a nursing student will need to complete include:

1. Community Nursing:
Students will receive an overview of the role of the registered nurse in maintaining and improving health within a community.

2. Clinical Problems Solving:
Students will deal primarily with patients with serious health issues and apply critical thinking skills throughout the treatment process.

3. Professional Nursing Practice Transitions:
Nursing students will work under the supervision of a preceptor who will find opportunities for students to demonstrate the synthesis of their knowledge and application of theories learned from the classroom.

Pass the NCLEX-RN

Each state has its own licensing process as overseen by a state nursing board. But one thing they all have in common is requiring nurses to first pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Without passing the NCLEX-RN, you cannot practice as a registered nurse.

This exam is owned by the NCSBN (National Council of State Boards of Nursing) and administered by Pearson VUE. It is taken on a computer and is almost entirely multiple choice, but some questions require filling in answers or identifying sections on an illustration. Test takers may take up to six hours to complete the exam and will answer anywhere between 75 and 265 questions. The exact number of questions and length of time to complete the NCLEX-RN will depend on the individual test taker’s performance. To find out more about the NCLEX-RN, check out the following links.

1. Kaplan:
Well-known for their SAT preparation materials and programs, Kaplan also provides NCLEX-RN preparation materials, some of which are available for free.

2. NCSBN:
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing creates the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCSBN website is where individuals can learn more about the exam and register for it.

Get Your RN Resume Ready

If you’re new to the registered nursing field, you might be anxious about crafting the perfect resume to secure your dream job. While the resume’s style and format ultimately depend on personal preference, there are some general tips that can benefit most aspiring nurses.

For instance, recent graduates could opt for a functional resume format that emphasizes their education, certifications, and skills. Highlighting these three aspects is crucial, particularly for those with limited work experience as a registered nurse.

Professional experience can also be included, but it’s unlikely new nurses will have much, unless they completed an LPN/LVN bridge program. If you’re looking for additional information to include, you can add any volunteer experience you have and membership in any nursing organizations you belong to in order to show your commitment to nursing.

1. Indeed:
A comprehensive employment resources site with information to help job seekers, including salary research, company reviews and sample resumes for nurses.

2. LiveCareer:
Offers a very good set of registered nurse resume templates and examples.

3. Monster.com:
One of the biggest employment listing websites, monster.com also has a plethora of career resources, such as interview tips and advice on writing a resume for a particular career.

4. Nurse Journal:
A comprehensive website for anyone thinking about a new career in nursing or looking for advice on taking the next step. One of their resources includes a how-to on writing a nurse resume.

Shine During the Interview

If you’ve landed an interview, you’re halfway to getting hired. To ensure you ace the interview, prepare to answer the following questions.

  1. What medical software do you have experience with?
  2. What is HIPAA?
  3. Are you CPR certified?
  4. What medical procedures have you assisted with?
  5. Have you worked with children or the elderly?
  6. Why did you choose a career as a registered nurse?
  7. What soft skills do you possess that would make you an effective RN?
  8. Tell me about a mistake you made during a clinical and how you learned from it.
  9. Why do you want to work at this particular hospital or medical facility?