How to Become a Nurse – 9 Steps to Consider

With human needs constantly evolving and numerous health care specialties available, nursing is a profession that may offer you variety, as well as the opportunity to do meaningful work. Because nurses administer valuable patient care, those aspiring to become one must take specific steps to complete a nursing education and get licensed.

If you’re wondering how to become a nurse, how long it takes, and what to expect in this profession, this guide is for you. Read on for common steps you can take to become a registered nurse.

Step 1: Make Sure a Career in Nursing is Right for You

Becoming a nurse is a serious career choice. Nurses take on a lot of responsibility—and the rigors of the profession alone can cause high stress and anxiety. But it can also be an extremely rewarding profession if you’re committed to helping people through your work. To start your journey, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I enjoy interacting with people of many different backgrounds and life experiences on a daily basis?
  • Am I prepared to deal with patients who may be struggling with serious health problems?
  • Can I manage my time effectively, work long hours, and stay calm under pressure?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may wish to explore the field of nursing.

Know that nurses have a very specific educational track—and not a lot of freedom to stray from it, due to the various licenses and standards they must uphold. Be prepared to commit at least two to four years to earn your degree and complete the rigorous NCLEX licensure exam to earn licensure in your state as a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or registered nurse (RN).

Step 2: Find Out Which Type of Nurse You Would Like to Become

As a nursing professional, there are many areas in which you can work. RNs can work in nearly any setting that provides health care, including:

  • Hospitals
  • Physicians’ offices
  • Home healthcare services
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Schools

In addition to choosing the care setting, nurses also have freedom to specialize and work with a population or in a department that appeals to them the most. For example, RNs can pursue additional certifications to provide cardiovascular care, gerontological (adult) care, or ambulatory care among others.

After becoming an RN and earning some experience, nurses may wish to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). These masters-level nurses may provide care independently or in collaboration with a physician. Some may be able to prescribe medications, depending on their state of practice and licensure requirements.

The most important thing to remember is that should you choose to become a nurse, you’ll have options—and plenty of potential opportunities to advance your career. 

Step 3: Explore What Type of Education is Needed

You’re probably aware that nursing candidates may earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to help them secure their license. But there are other educational avenues to explore if you think you’ll want to pursue more advanced roles. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is required to become an APRN—and many MSN programs even offer concentrations in advanced practice realms like midwifery and women’s health. There are many ways to earn your degree, including online nursing programs.

Choose a Nursing Degree

  • A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is what you might pursue to get your license—or further your education if you already possess an associate’s degree.
  • A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) will typically be completed after an individual has earned a BSN. The MSN is a next step toward becoming an APRN. There are also bridge programs that can speed the trajectory from becoming an RN to earning an MSN degree for those who hold an associate’s degree.

Pursuing an undergraduate degree is often a starting point for aspiring nurses. It may help you understand if nursing is right for you and decide on whether to invest in a graduate education later on.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

Sponsored

Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 19 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

Earn a Master of Science in Nursing online from Simmons University.

  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

Earn your MSN online from USC’s Top-Ranked School of Social Work.

  • Prepares RNs to pursue board certification as family nurse practitioners
  • Earn a CCNE-accredited MSN in as few as 21 months
  • Choose from part-time and full-time study options

Sponsored

Choose the Type of Program 

Many nursing students have unique circumstances—from working a full-time job to having geographical limitations. Today, there is flexibility in how you attend your nursing degree program. The different types of programs are as follows:

  • Full-time programs. A full-time nursing degree program is completed with a full course and credit load. A full-time program will often be the shortest to complete since students are dedicating a majority of their time to schooling. 
  • Part-time programs. Part-time programs offer flexibility for those with other commitments outside of school, like family or a job. Part-time students may not attend class every weekday and will often have a more manageable course load each semester.
  • On-campus programs. On-campus programs are typically held entirely in-person. Students are required to attend all classes and laboratory sessions, and their clinical experience may end up being close to the school. 
  • Online programs. Accredited online programs usually match the rigor of on-campus programs. Some utilize both synchronous and asynchronous instruction methods, enabling students to complete some of their work on their own time.

Some schools may also offer unique hybrid programs, or any combination of the above (for example, part-time online schooling), which can help empower nursing students to finish their studies.

Find a List of Schools

When searching for schools to attend, the results may be overwhelming. To narrow down your options, keep in mind that there are some important factors you will want to consider. 

One of those factors is a program’s accreditation. Nursing degree programs are awarded accreditation through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Accreditation ensures that a program meets certain quality standards and can adequately prepare you to obtain nursing licensure. 

As mentioned above, there are also program concentrations to consider. If you’re hoping to specialize in a certain area, look for schools that offer the concentration you’re interested in. Next, you’ll need to confirm you meet the specific admissions requirements. For example, schools may require a certain GPA or prerequisite coursework to gain entry.

Lastly, the program format—online, on-campus, full or part-time—is extremely important if you have specific scheduling and flexibility needs to consider. You can find nearly any program type or level, from online MSN programs to RN to MSN online programs to online nurse practitioner programs.

Step 4: Complete Prerequisites and Apply to Schools

To get into nursing school, you’ll need to meet certain academic prerequisites and program requirements. Depending on the type of program you apply two, requirements may vary. For example, many BSN programs are four years in length. Accelerated options can be two years long  and require you to hold an associate’s degree in nursing, or equivalent coursework/credits. Other requirements include:

  • A GPA of 2.0-2.5 or above
  • A resume
  • A letter of intent
  • Professional letter(s) of recommendation
  • Transcripts from previous programs of study

There is typically an application fee and some programs require an interview for consideration.

Step 5: Complete Your Nursing Program

When you’re accepted into a nursing program, you can expect to get straight to work learning foundational elements of the profession. Coursework may include anything from communicating with patients to understanding diseases and medications. The amount of time you spend in class and studying each week depends on whether you’re attending full or part-time, but typically, for every one hour spent in class, you can expect to spend two or more studying and completing assignments.

Your degree will also include clinical field experience. This typically takes place toward the end of your program, where you can apply all of the cumulative knowledge you’ve learned.

Step 6: Choose a Specialty and Earn a Certification

Once you’ve completed an RN program and gained experience as a general nurse, you can set your sights on a more specific goal. You can get certified in a specialty you’re interested in and then make it your nursing career path. Certain APRN careers even have master’s degree program concentrations to help candidates prepare for these roles. Some specialties include: 

  • Family Nurse Practitioner – A family nurse practitioner is an APRN specializing in family health care. If you’re interested in helping all members of a family unit keep healthy, you may wish to explore this role.
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Practitioner – This type of nurse helps patients working through various mental health conditions, making them feel comfortable and at ease.
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner – Women’s health NPs focus on women-specific health issues—from pregnancy to menopause. 
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist – This type of nurse may care for patients before and after childbirth, after surgery, or in other cases where anesthesia is administered. 
  • Certified Nurse Midwife – Certified nurse midwives specialize in providing care to pregnant and postpartum women. 
  • Intensive Care Unit (ICU) Nurse – An ICU nurse aids patients who need a high level of assistance for critical conditions. Most ICU nurses work long hours.
  • Neuroscience Nurse – Neuroscience nurses care for patients who may have a range of neurological conditions. Many of these conditions can be quite serious, and nurses in this department should be prepared for stressful situations.
  • Informatics Nursing – This type of nursing is combined with data science to identify trends, research evidence-based treatments, and improve workflow efficiency in healthcare settings.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

Sponsored

Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 19 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

Earn a Master of Science in Nursing online from Simmons University.

  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

Earn your MSN online from USC’s Top-Ranked School of Social Work.

  • Prepares RNs to pursue board certification as family nurse practitioners
  • Earn a CCNE-accredited MSN in as few as 21 months
  • Choose from part-time and full-time study options

Sponsored

Step 7: Obtain the Proper Licenses & Credentials in Your State

There are different types of licenses and credentials nurses must obtain before being able to provide care. The requirements vary by state and role, so you should research the specific process and requirements in the state you intend to work in. Each state has its own board of nursing to determine its respective requirements. 

Find Out How to Become a Nurse in Your State

Already know which state you’re planning on working as a nurse in? View requirements for some of the top states that employ nurses below. You can also review your nursing licensure requirements by state, to get an idea of what is needed in your area.

How to Become a Nurse in California

Nurses in California have a breadth of options for their practice. There are licenses you can obtain with undergraduate-level education, including public health nurse, psychiatric nurse, and registered nurse. If you have a master’s degree, you can qualify for a clinical nurse-midwife or nurse practitioner license, among other options.

Learn more on how to become a nurse in California.


How to Become a Nurse in Texas

In Texas, nurses can pursue more general licensure as well as specializations. Those without a master’s degree may qualify to become a licensed vocational nurse or registered nurse. Those with a master’s degree can become a certified nurse-midwife, certified registered nurse anesthetist, clinical nurse specialist, or nurse practitioner.

Learn more on how to become a nurse in Texas.


How to Become a Nurse in New York

New York licenses LPNs and RNs. Nurses in the state with a master’s degree may pursue a career as a nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist, midwife, or CRNA.

Learn more on how to become a nurse in New York.

Complete Any Required Exams

After meeting all education and state-specific license requirements, the final step in making yourself eligible for employment is completing the required nursing exam. The NCLEX examination is required for all candidates who wish to work as an entry-level registered nurse or practical nurse. 

If you decide to become an APRN, you may need to take additional exams. One of the most prominent options is offered by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. The other is the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) certification

The exams for these certifications test your practical knowledge before you transition to the workforce as a nurse.

Step 8: Find Employment 

Once you’re credentialed and licensed, you’re almost there—you just have to find a job! You can start your job search by looking for positions in your area on popular job boards or by reaching out to local health care sites to confirm if they have any openings. When you speak with potential employers, demonstrate to them why you chose to become a nurse and what aspects you’re most passionate about.

Step 9: Continue to Advance Your Career 

In the nursing profession, you can advance your career by continuing to learn and grow. As the demand for nurses increases, specializations and continued education may help you stand out and land the role that you have eyes on.

One way to further your career is to earn your Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). This degree can help you transition to a more big-picture role and enable you to influence policy in health care organizations.You can also keep earning new professional certifications and specializations.

All of the certifications you earn will eventually need to be renewed to keep your knowledge current. A common renewal period is every 5 years, according to the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Beginning Your Journey as a Nurse

Becoming a nurse can feel daunting, but with the right knowledge, you can identify the best area of nursing for you. Before you decide to go into the field, familiarize yourself with nursing degree information and the various types of nursing specialties available. It also important to gather as much career information as possible. If you’re considering a job as an APRN, you can explore our APRN career guide.  

Remember, at the core of the profession, nurses specialize in helping people overcome health challenges or maintain good health.

FAQs

Considering becoming a nurse? Here are a few of frequently asked questions regarding the profession.

Why become a nurse?

The journey to becoming a nurse will provide you with more than just clinical expertise. It will teach you valuable skills that are applicable to an array of roles. If, after obtaining your degree, you decide the traditional route isn’t for you, opportunities await at pharmaceutical companies, schools, research laboratories and other settings.

Are nurses in demand?

The aging population in the U.S. has created a positive outlook for the nursing industry. Between 2018 and 2028, the field of registered nursing is projected to grow by 12%, adding an average 210,400 jobs each year.

How long does it take to become a nurse?

Depending on the certifications and designations you plan to obtain, becoming a nurse could take anywhere from a single month to four years. The fastest route into nursing is through a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course, which provides a basic foundation of the field in four to eight weeks. The Red Cross offers such CNA courses. Licensed practical nurses (LPNs) can complete their training in as little as 12 months, while registered nurses (RNs) may earn an associate degree in nursing. That typically takes 18 to 24 months to complete. 

For aspiring nurses who plan on advancing to senior roles, a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree can make it easier to apply to graduate school down the road. This is also the typical route for those hoping to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

How much does a nurse make?

In addition to having multiple job opportunities, nurses can make above-average salaries. Of course, that depends on factors such as location, employer and education level. In 2019, the BLS reported that the median pay for registered nurses was $73,300 per year. The median annual salary for nurse practitioners in 2019 was $109,820

LPNs typically make $47,480 per year. Generally, nursing assistants make significantly less—$29,660 per year on average, according to the BLS.

Are there nursing scholarships available?

Like most higher education opportunities, nursing school can be pricey. Luckily, there are a number of nursing scholarships available to help you manage costs. Consider applying for a few—any amount of money can make a huge difference in getting you closer to your goal of becoming a nurse. 

Information on this page was last retrieved in July 2020.