We need nurses now more than ever. The American Nurses Association predicts registered nursing will top the list of job openings through 2022. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says nursing will outpace other all growth professions. So, why is it so hard to get into nursing school?
Every single day nurses make decisions that can forever impact the lives of their patients. They care for our communities and step up in times of crisis. We demand so much from our nurses, so nursing schools look for candidates they know will rise to this challenge. Whether you’ve always known you want to be a nurse or you are just beginning to explore the possibility, you need to know that applying to nursing school is a serious undertaking.
Choosing the right school for you increases your chances of admission. Even if you are convinced you know exactly which school you want to attend, convincing the admissions committee is a whole other story. This guide walks you through the steps to applying and offers concrete, actionable advice as you make your way through the process.
Know Before You Go
Before you start the application process, you need to narrow down your list of schools. Many schools use the NursingCAS, nursing schools’ common application. Even with the common app, the process can be intense and expensive.
Having even a general sense of the sort of career you want is an important first step. While you are likely to get a variety of clinical experiences, some programs are better suited to a particular style of nursing. If your goal is advanced practice nursing, then you want to be sure your entry-level degree is compatible with further education.
Matching your learning style and level of academic achievement to your school, makes you a more attractive candidate and increases your chances of success in the program.
As you begin to build your list of schools, consider these questions.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? It’s a common question for prospective nursing students, because it is an important one. Think beyond simply getting into a program. Ask yourself what kind of nurse you want to be.
- What kind of hours will you need? A regular 9-to-5? Third shift?
- Do you want to travel?
- What kind of patients do you want to work with? Adults? Kids? Seniors?
- Are you passionate about a certain field like oncology or emergency medicine or sports medicine?
- What kind of setting do you see yourself in? A doctor’s office or clinic? A hospital?
Nursing isn’t a one-size-fits-all profession. The job of a pediatric ICU nurse is very different from the job of a physician assistant at a community clinic. The education you will need, bachelor’s or master’s, and training certifications vary accordingly. Here are some common and not-so-common career paths to think about:
- Medical-surgical nurses work with ill and injured patients, helping them recover from injury, illness, and surgery.
- Disaster response nurses deploy after hurricanes, tornados, floods, fires, and natural disasters. Some may serve in war zones.
- NICU or neonatal intensive care nurses care for premature and medically complex infants.
- Nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses who provide primary or specialty care.
- Orthopedic nurses work with patients suffering from musculoskeletal disease and disorders resulting from injury or conditions such as arthritis or genetic malformations.
- Physician assistants practice medicine under the supervision of licensed physicians and surgeons.
Here again, you need to do some soul searching. Be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to nursing school. If, realistically, your answer is not much, are you willing to go back to school once you have started working to achieve your goals? Figure you where you want to start your career and where you want it to go.
Start by asking yourself the questions to find out what you need from your nursing program:
Degree or certificate?
Your answer will depend on 2 things—your time and your goals.
- Training time: Certificate programs last a year or two and will prepare you for practical nursing (LPN or LVN). Registered nurse training lasts between two and three years for an associate degree (ADN) or four years to earn your bachelor’s degree (BSN).
- Career goals: Your scope of practice and responsibility corresponds to your degree level. Practical nurses often work under the supervision of RNs. BSN nursing encompasses more than ADN nursing. If your ultimate goal is an advanced practice nursing specialty, you will need a bachelor’s degree and potentially graduate study as well.
Online or in person?
Can you commit to attending classes on campus? If you opt for online courses do you prefer synchronous or asynchronous? Do you want all in-person clinicals or a hybrid of online simulation and hands-on practice?
Does accreditation matter?
Yes. Your school should be specifically accredited for your nursing program. Here’s where to check:
- Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education for bachelor’s, master’s, doctoral, and post-graduate APRN programs.
- Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing for diploma, associate, bachelor’s, and graduate degree programs.
- Council on Accreditation for Nurse Anesthesia Educational Programs for nurse anesthesia master’s or doctoral degrees.
- American College of Nurse-Midwives for graduate study in midwifery.
What about certification?
Nurses must pass the NCLEX to practice. An easy way to see if the school’s curriculum is up to snuff is to check it’s NCLEX pass rate.
Remember your nursing program is part of a larger school and community. Here are some things you need to consider:
- Location: Will you attend a brick-and-mortar school or take classes online? Will you live on campus or off campus or at home? If you plan to commute, is the location convenient?
- Clinicals: Find out the number of hours for supervised clinicals and where you’ll complete them. Is it realistic for you? Does the school have other internship or externship opportunities to further your nursing practice or help you specialize?
- Cost: Look beyond tuition to see what sort of financial aid is available.
- Support: Does the school feel welcoming? Does it use a cohort model? Does it offer academic support?
- Class size: Check student-teacher ratios.
Here are five tips for building your list of schools:
Apply to multiple schools. Admissions are very selective. Applying to multiple programs increases your chance of acceptance.
Match your needs to your goals. Choose schools that meet your financial needs, your time constraints, and your career goals. Don’t sacrifice one for the other.
Be realistic. Put some “reach” schools on your list, but take care to include schools in which you clearly meet or exceed all admissions criteria.
Use the common app. Nursing school applications are notoriously complex. Use NursingCAS to streamline the process for participating schools.
Show up. Some schools require attendance at an informational session. Others will require interviews.
Get Ready, Get Set, Get In
You’ll be juggling multiple deadlines and application materials, so you need to be strategic when you apply.
Create a system to keep track of what you have and what you still need to do:
- Create a spreadsheet to track and compare each of your school’s requirements.
- Make a checklist for your application to-dos.
- Make a folder for each school’s application materials.
- Use a wall calendar or an e-calendar to keep track of due dates.
- Set reminders ahead of time so that you never miss a deadline.
Once your system is set up, you are ready to get started.
Speak to a Counselor
Nursing school applications can be extremely specific. Reaching out for help can make you more successful. Here are some ways to get help:
- High school guidance counselors or college and career counselors can help you build your application. However, the onus is on you to dig out the requirements for individual schools.
- College admissions counselors have in-depth knowledge of their school’s requirements, but may not be able to field all of your questions.
- Paid consultants work as admissions counselors or coaches and help you navigate the admissions process.
- Contact teachers and students in the program. They know what it takes to be a successful applicant and a successful student. It’s the best way to find out if the program is truly a good fit for you.
Here are 5 things to ask of any potential program.
A: The overall NCLEX pass rate for first time exam takers hovers over 85% for RNs and PNs. Repeat takers’ pass rates are roughly 40% or lower. Choosing a school with a proven track record of NCLEX preparation clearly matters.
Research Admissions Requirements
Do you meet or exceed the basic admissions standards to be accepted into a nursing program? Go through this checklist to see if you have what it takes to get in.
A high school diploma is a baseline requirement for admission to most nursing programs. Without a diploma, a GED is an internationally recognized alternative.
The GED is a test that covers four core subject areas—math, language arts, social studies, and science. Prospective nursing students will want to focus on math and science. To take the test, you must sign up on the GED site. It is a one-stop shop complete with study materials and test tips. However, some students benefit from separate prep courses. Check your state eligibility rules for age requirements.
To pass the GED, you need to score 145 in each of the test areas. Scoring above 165 shows that you are ready for college. Scoring over 175 can earn you up to 10 hours of college credit.
Some technical or trade schools that allow you to enroll without a high school diploma or GED. Often, they include GED courses in their program. Others may require proficiency testing.
Know and Understand Your Schools’ of Interest Admission Requirements
Once you know what it takes to get into a nursing program, it’s time to figure out how to get into the nursing program you actually want to attend. Planning for high school students should start by junior year. Going back to school to earn your RN? You still need to keep an eye on those admission deadlines. Make a plan and be realistic about your schedule.
College counselors often recommend that you choose at least one school that is a reach based on your GPA, test scores, and other qualifications. Find at least one school that is a realistic option and at least one that is reliably certain to accept you.
Gather basic admission information, request packets and research if your schools have separate requirements for nursing programs.
Prepare and Write Your Essays
Your admissions essay can separate you from the pack of applicants. To make sure yours shines, follow these five tips.
You aren’t just applying to any school; you are applying to a nursing school. Tell them why. Do you have a parent or sibling in medicine? Did a relative or friend’s illness spark a desire to go into nursing? Don’t talk in generalities, like “I’ve always liked helping people.” Show them where your drive to be a nurse really comes from.
Dr. LaTashia Kiel of UT-Austin counsels students to find the aspects of their lives that will make them stand out and make their essay unique. She reminds students that applications for nursing schools and nursing jobs come in all at the same time. Schools and employers are looking for something in your applications that stands out. She recounts a story of including a high school job in a fast food restaurant. It’s a job that taught her about customer service, responsibility, and cleanliness—skills that definitely translate to nursing.
Career statements essentially answer that ‘where do you want to be in 5 or 10 years’ question that is so important to nursing school admissions. Nursing schools want to know that you have ambition. With limited seats available in each program, they want to know you are a safe bet. They want to know you’ll not only finish the program, but you’ll finish strong. A well written statement says all of this.
Statements are not meant to be another essay and some schools will use them in lieu of personal essays. These are succinct, clear statements of purpose and passion. Follow guidelines for in-application statements or objectives. If you are putting a career statement at the top of your resume, it should be a maximum of three to four sentences or bullet points.
Key points to hit:
- Your motivation
- Your preparation
- Your vision
Career Statement Do’s and Don’ts
Play up your strengths. Use examples that show the personal characteristics that make or will make you a good nurse.
State goals. Have a realistic idea of what you want to do as a nurse. Then, connect this to your motivation for becoming a nurse.
Show them you are serious. Indicate what steps you have taken to build your career. High school seniors can use a CPR class or hospital volunteering.
Highlight your data. Quantify your experience whether it is the number of years you have worked, employees you supervised, or AP classes you aced.
Rehash essay. They don’t want to hear your whole life story here. Keep it short and sweet.
Overstate your goals. Just because Sylvia Trent-Adams was the first nurse Surgeon General, doesn’t mean this is a realistic career goal for you.
Be insincere. Don’t tell them what you think they want to hear, make your statement reflect your reality.
Use generalities. Use concrete examples and real numbers.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation or references are essential parts of your application. Just as your essay or personal statement tells them who you are, your references are there to vouch for you. You will need at least one recommendation and perhaps more based on the school’s requirements.
These surefire tips will help to get good letters of recommendation:
- Only ask for a reference from someone who will give you a good one.
- Make sure this is someone who will speak specifically to the qualities that will make you a good nurse (not just a good person) like academic achievement, critical thinking skills, or compassionate nature.
- If you need more than one reference, make sure they are varied. Coaches, teachers, volunteer supervisors, employers, and club advisors can all provide useful perspectives.
Compile Your Extracurriculars, Volunteerism, and Other Accomplishments
You are more than your grades and your application should reflect that.
Schools want to know how you choose to spend your time, because it shows a lot about your interests and priorities. Your extracurriculars and activities are great examples of your leadership, perseverance, and accomplishments. These extras give you another chance to show what makes you nursing school material.
Some schools will ask you for a resume, portfolio, or CV. Other schools may ask you to list your activities within the application. Still others may expect to see evidence of your extracurricular activities in your essay.
Here are 5 ways to highlight your out-of-the-classroom strengths:
Class president? Captain of the track team? Yearbook editor? Show them you can handle responsibility.
Low on the “extras?”
You have two options.
Find ways to showcase your out-of-the-box activities. Can you frame experiences from your after school or summer job? Did you help tutor friends?
Get involved now. It’s not too late to fill in that resume. Find the activities that reflect your interest in nursing. Volunteer at a hospital or day care. Join an after school club. Enter an academic contest. Get active in your local community center. You can always find ways to round out the resume and better late than never.
Nursing schools have a lot of highly qualified candidates to sort through. Interviews are one tool they use to find those students who will fit in well to their program and have what it takes to succeed.
For prospective students, interviews can be nerve wracking. The best antidote to anxiety is preparation.
Here are 10 tips to ace that interview.
Okay, you won’t be able to get the actual questions before your interview, but a quick search on YouTube or Google will give you a good handle on the type of questions you’ll be asked.
How to Stand Out on Your Nursing School Application
With a nationwide nursing shortage, you may be asking yourself why it’s so hard to get a seat in a nursing program.
Nurses are expected to make critical decisions that impact the lives of patients and their families and their communities. So, nursing schools are only looking for the best and brightest. To prepare nurses for success, student clinical rotations also have low student-to-teacher ratios that further limit nursing school’s capacity.
With the stakes this high, you really need to set yourself apart. Here are some ways to make yourself get ahead of the pack.
Nothing shows commitment more than volunteer work. It’s also a good way for you to find out if you are cut out for a career in nursing.
- Hospital volunteer. Most local hospitals have volunteer or shadow programs for high school students. Your duties may range from delivering flowers to answering phone calls to entering data.
- Homeless shelter. Caring and compassion are critical skills for nurses. Here too, you may be answering phones and running errands, but you will also have opportunities to connect and care for shelter residents.
- Daycare centers. If you hope to work with children or specialize in pediatric nursing, day care experience can be invaluable. You may have opportunities to read and play with children while supporting daycare staff.
- Nursing homes or senior centers. Visiting with seniors is as rewarding for the volunteer as it is for the residents. Volunteers often help with games or activities. They may keep residents company during meals or help staff with clerical duties.
- Veterinary offices or animal shelters. While the patients may have four legs instead of two, volunteering with animals is another way to gain great experience.
Insight from a Nursing School Professor
Dr. LaTashia Kiel, DNP, RN, CEN is a Doctor of Nursing Practice prepared registered nurse who has an interest in cancer care, acute nursing care, and community advocacy. A three-time graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Kiel received a bachelor’s degree in Nursing and went on to further her nursing education with a Master’s degree in Adult Health with a Focus on Teaching, and eventually her doctorate in nursing. She currently teaches a Professional Nursing Management course at UT-Austin where she helps students prepare for careers in nursing.
Nursing school applications come in all at the same time. You need to find a way to set yourself apart. Students are often thinking about the best way to showcase how smart they are or what they’ve accomplished.
Students are thinking about it from their own perspective, not the school’s perspective, so it all looks the same. You want to put something in there that shows how you are different, something that makes you stand out.