Getting Into Your Master of Nursing (MSN) Program: An Admissions Guide

Ready to take your nursing career to the next level? Learn what it takes to gain admission to an MSN program, from course prerequisites to exam scores and clinical experience.

Search hundreds of schools
for the degree you want ......

I want my
In

Written By

Kenya McCullum

- Bio

last updated

12/29/2021

If you’re thinking about earning an MSN, you already know the benefits such a degree can provide. In addition to helping you pursue advanced roles, these programs also offer a variety of concentrations that allow you to specialize your focus in areas such as primary and acute care, nurse midwifery, and adult-gerontology nursing. Earning an advanced degree like an MSN can help you gain traction with hiring managers in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and physicians’ offices alike – and qualify you to earn higher salaries with more leadership opportunities.

As with any other advanced degree, admissions requirements for an MSN will vary from program to program. To know what will be expected of you, it’s best to start researching various admissions requirements from prospective schools early. If you know what to expect, you can narrow your school list and start focusing on putting forth a solid application. From general to specific admissions requirements, find out what you’ll need each step of the way.

General Admissions Requirements

Before you even start the admissions process, it’s important that you know how it all works. With some MSN options, you may need apply directly to the school via a general admissions process before completing a specialized application with the nursing department. Other institutions use a decentralized approach, meaning prospective students apply directly to the department in which they would be studying.

Making sure you understand how different schools go about this process is important, as it will impact how and where you send your applications. If you only need to apply to the nursing department, you may submit more documentation but only to one source. With the centralized method, you must first gain general admission before applying to the MSN.

For programs requiring general admission first, you’ll typically need to submit some or all of the different types of materials outlined in this section.

Graduate School Admissions

Admissions requirements for graduate schools vary. In general, you are expected to have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and to complete certain prerequisite classes, which may include math, English, and natural and social sciences. To get into some schools, you may also need a standout score on a graduate school standardized test, like the GRE or GMAT.

Undergraduate degree

While most schools require you to complete a bachelor’s degree before you can start your master’s, nursing is a unique profession. Nurses can practice with an RN degree, and becoming an RN only requires an associate degree. So does that mean you can get into graduate school with just an associate degree? Maybe. For some MSN programs you’ll need a bachelor’s degree. Other schools offer RN-to-MSN bridge programs that allow you to build on your education and experience as a working nurse and go directly to the master’s degree. Make sure you read the school and program requirements thoroughly.

Undergraduate GPA

Generally, you’ll need somewhere between a 2.5 and 3.5 GPA to get into graduate school, though the exact GPA depends on the school you apply to. However nursing graduate programs may have different standards for admission, so be sure to review the requirements.

Test scores

In the past, graduate schools have required scores from the GRE for admission to a master’s degree program. However, more and more schools are waiving the GRE requirement. As for program requirements, in most cases nursing schools require a passing score on the NCLEX exam to be admitted to an MSN program.

Prerequisite courses

Schools may require certain prerequisite classes that demonstrate applicants will be able to handle the rigors of a graduate program. Plus they expect students to earn at least at 3.0 GPA in these classes, which might include science, mathematics, English, foreign language, composition, or social science. Review admissions requirements carefully and, if necessary, take the classes you’re expected to complete.

Official transcript

To demonstrate that you’ve completed prerequisites and prove your grade point average, submit official transcripts to the graduate schools you apply to. To do this, arrange for the school where you earned your undergraduate degree to send copies of your transcripts to each graduate school. Make your request through the school registrar’s office (online or on campus) and provide the addresses of the programs you’re applying to. Each official transcript will cost $10 to $20.

Funding Your Tuition

When you applied to colleges for your undergraduate degree, you probably applied for financial aid, too. The same is true for graduate schools; when you apply you should also apply for financial aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This allows your school to evaluate what types of financial aid you qualify for, including loans and grants.

Financial aid may be awarded based on merit, need, or a combination of both. Remember, when you take out loans you are required to pay them back; however scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid. Some scholarships are based on need, others are based on academic performance, and others are a combo. Grants are solely based on need.

Besides the funding you may receive directly through your school, you can boost the amount of financial aid you receive by applying for help through other sources. For example, your state may offer grants to those who qualify financially, and you also may be able to get scholarships from nursing professional associations and healthcare facilities or companies. To qualify, you may need a certain grade point average, participation in community services, or a specific work history.

Program Admissions Requirements

Although the admissions requirements for an MSN program can be similar to the requirements for the college or university, you may encounter some differences. Continue reading to learn more about nursing program admissions requirements.

Undergraduate GPA

To be admitted to a master’s program in nursing, you’ll likely be expected to have at least a 3.0 GPA in your undergraduate studies. Some schools require at least a 3.0 overall and a higher average for nursing coursework.

NCLEX scores

MSN programs expect applicants to earn a passing grade on the NCLEX to obtain their nursing license. If you haven’t yet taken the exam when you apply for an MSN program you may still be admitted, however if you don’t pass the school may rescind the offer.

Prerequisite courses

Nursing schools expect applicants to have successfully completed various prerequisite courses during their undergraduate years and often require a 2.5 or 3.0 GPA in these classes. Much of this coursework is in natural sciences, including physiology, anatomy, nutrition, microbiology, chemistry, and lifespan development. You also may be required to complete classes in social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, and communication, as well as mathematics and English courses.

Clinical hours

Applicants may be required to have a certain number of hours of clinical experience to be admitted to an MSN program, particularly if they want to study a specialization. This can include clinical experience you obtained after graduation and hands-on training you participated in as you earned your undergraduate degree.

Essay/personal statement

Nursing schools generally ask you to submit a personal statement when you apply to an MSN program. This gives you the opportunity to let the department know what your experience has been, what your career goals are, and how you believe the program will help you achieve those goals. This is a chance for you to sell yourself and describe what you bring to the table as an advanced nursing student.

Letters of recommendation

Nursing schools ask for two or three letters of recommendation to augment the material you supply in your application. Recommendations may come from professors who know you from your undergraduate program and/or people who have supervised you at work.

Resume

Graduate schools are interested in your professional background, so a resume is required with your application. This is especially important if you apply to a program with a nursing specialty, such as pediatric, psychiatric, or gerontological nursing.

GRE

Many nursing programs don’t require GRE scores when you apply to an MSN program, but others do. If you’ve taken the GRE and done well, schools that don’t require the test may allow you to submit scores if you feel they will strengthen your application.

Program Admissions Interview

An admissions interview gives the nursing department an opportunity to get to know you better—and gives you the chance to learn about the program to make an informed decision. Interviews may be conducted in person, online, or via phone.

During the interview, you may be asked questions about why you want to pursue a master’s degree or a specific nursing specialty, what your experiences have been in the profession, and the characteristics that make you a strong candidate for the program. Also, you may have to describe your strengths and weaknesses as a nurse and explain how you handled challenging situations on the job.

You’ll find lots of admissions interview practice questions online. Review these and formulate your answers. Practice answering questions aloud and get feedback from a friend or colleague. If you’d rather not practice with someone else, take a video of yourself answering questions and review it to determine areas in which you can improve. Also, be sure to bring questions of your own to get the information you need to make your decision. This will help you make an informed choice while showing the nursing school that you’re engaged and interested.

What About Direct Entry MSN Programs?

If you earned a non-nursing undergraduate degree and you’d like to make a career change to nursing, a direct entry MSN program will help you reach your goals without starting from scratch in another undergraduate program. These degrees, which can take two to three years to complete, provide an intensive look at nursing theory and practice.

To be admitted, applicants are required to earn a 3.0 GPA in their undergraduate studies and complete prerequisites. These may include anatomy and physiology, biology, chemistry, and statistics. When you apply, you’ll also be asked to submit letters of recommendation, a resume, and a statement of purpose.

International Student Admissions

International students who want to enroll in an MSN program need to meet the same requirements as students in the United States. However, there are additional steps they must take as well. For example, to prove English proficiency, international students should submit scores from the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), or the Duolingo English Test (DET). The required scores vary, but generally you’ll be expected to earn at least 100 on the TOEFL, 7.0 on the IELTS, or 125 on the DET. These tests may be administered on the Internet or taken in person at a testing center. After completing the exam, have your score sent directly to the schools you’re applying to.

International students should have the coursework they took in their undergraduate programs evaluated to determine if classes are equivalent to program requirements, particularly if their native language is not English. These evaluations are performed by agencies like World Education Services, Inc.; Educational Credential Evaluators, Inc.; or the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools. The goal is to verify your grades and assess the content of each course to ensure you’re ready for a graduate program.

Other Things to Think About

The application process for a nursing master’s degree can be complicated, so it’s important to get a picture of the steps from beginning to end. The following are additional considerations you should think about as you research schools and begin submitting applications.

Transfer Credits

If you previously completed coursework in an MSN program, you probably can transfer a portion of your credits to your new nursing program. To do this, the new program will evaluate your transcript to determine which classes will transfer and review your grades to ensure they meet minimum requirements. Schools have a cap on how many credits you can transfer to a program, so find out the guidelines for each school you apply to.

In addition to getting credit for classes you’ve completed, you may also be able to earn credits based on your clinical work. As a working nurse, you enter an MSN program with an understanding of clinical procedures and concepts. Some schools will reward students for this experience.

Accreditation

Accreditation should be a high priority when you’re choosing an MSN program. This designation means a nursing school has been proven to offer a high-quality education. To become accredited, schools go through a rigorous process that includes reviewing the curriculum and student outcomes. If you’re earning a master’s degree to specialize in a specific area of nursing, you’ll need to attend an accredited school to get a special certification. And if you’re a career-changer enrolling in a direct entry MSN program, you can only get your nursing license by attending a school that is approved by your state.

Nursing programs are accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Look for information about accreditation on an MSN program’s website or get it from the admissions office.

Besides accreditation for your program, your college or university should also be accredited. School accreditation is provided by national agencies like the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools and regional accrediting bodies like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges and the New England Commission of Higher Education. Regionally accredited schools may only accept transfer credits from other schools that have regional accreditation, so if you’re transferring to a new program pay close attention to accreditation.

Resources

7 Essential NCLEX Study Tips

This page provides helpful tips for those earning a nursing license for the first time.

10 Questions to Ask Before Selecting an MSN Program

This article from the University of Cincinnati discusses information about master’s degree specializations, support for students, and certification examinations.

Getting a Master’s Degree in Nursing: What Does an MSN Degree Mean to Your Career?

This site provides information on the return on investment nurses get from earning a master’s degree, including the job opportunities and how much graduates earn.

How Do I Incorporate My MSN Studies Into My Daily Workload as a Nurse?

Duquesne University provides information to help nursing graduate students with work/school balance.

Master’s Education

This page on the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s website explains master’s level education in detail, including the different types of master’s degrees available for nurses and the career options graduates can pursue.

Tips and Tricks: MSN and BSN to DNP Application Processes

This video from R.J. Byrnes and Doug Hettich, academic program coordinators for admissions and recruitment at The Ohio State University College of Nursing, provides information on the application processes for different graduate nursing programs.

Tips for Maintaining a Work-life Balance While Studying for an MSN-FNP

Students who need tips for juggling their graduate schoolwork with personal responsibilities will find useful information in this article from Bradley University.

The Top 5 Questions to Ask Your Nursing School Adviser

Marquette University Nursing addresses the questions MSN applicants should ask when they apply to a nursing school.

What Can You Do With a Master’s in Nursing in 2021?

This page outlines the skills that you gain when you earn a master’s degree in nursing and the jobs you can choose.

What Interview Questions Should I Expect at an MSN-FNP Interview?

This resource includes the types of questions applicants can expect when they participate in an admissions interview for a family nurse practitioner MSN program. The interview questions can be applied to interviews for other types of nursing master’s degrees, too.