Dr. Jan Olson By: Dr. Jan Olson
How to Become a Nurse

So you want to learn how to become a nurse? Nurses are in demand because of an aging population and the retirement of current nurses and a chronic shortage of credentialed nurses. A career in nursing is rewarding both financially and emotionally. Whatever your reason for wanting to become a nurse - this guide is for you!

Step #1 - Carefully Consider Career Objectives

Step #2 - Research Nursing Degree Options

Step #3- Identify and Complete Nursing Program Prerequisites

Step #4 - Apply to attend a Nursing Program

Step #5 - Finish Coursework & Clinical requirements

Final Step - Pass the NCLEX-RN Examination; Apply for an RN License

A Nursing career is a rewarding career. 

Nurses help people

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), the nursing field is considered the largest of all healthcare professions. In fact, nurses outnumber physicians in the nation by 3 to 1. 

However, it takes a meaningful commitment to complete the education and training that leads to a nursing license and thus, a nursing career. So, before you select the exact education path to follow to meet your career objectives, be certain that you know (or are close to knowing) the answers to these queries:

  • What kind of nursing do you want to practice?
  • How much time do you have to devote each week to studies?
  • What are your budgetary constraints, if any?

When you have answered each of the above-noted questions, you are prepared to determine the education path that best suits your situation and needs. 

There are essentially two pathways to becoming a registered nurse. Read on to learn about each option. 

Ultimately, a Registered Nursing license is issued to those who meet the eligibility requirements, and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. It is the nursing student’s decision as to how fast they want to sit for the NCLEX exam. However, this decision is not as simple as it might seem at first.

The Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) – The Fast-Track

Earning an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)– which is generally completed in two years or less - prepares students to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam after graduation. An Associate’s Degree in Nursing graduate enters the workforce with a specific technical specialty. 

And while the fast track may appeal to many nursing students, be forewarned: There is strong industry interest in mandating that all hospital staff nurses complete, at minimum, their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. This licensing modification was initially proposed in 2010 when the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering & Medicine recommended, through its Future Nursing Report, that hospital nurses hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. 

At the end of 2017, the state of New York passed a law requiring all Registered Nurses to earn a BSN within ten years of earning their RN license. More evidence that the trend continues.

The Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree (BSN)

Like the ADN degree program, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program prepares degree graduates to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. However, a BSN degree program requires four-years (if you attend full-time) to complete. The comprehensive BSN program prepares students:

  • To participate in nursing positions across a spectrum of healthcare settings
  • To study  didactic courses of nursing in depth, including evidence based practice, population health, leadership and medical surgical care.
  • To apply healthcare training to the sociopolitical, ethical, and economic factors that impact healthcare delivery.

The reality is that RNs who hold a bachelor’s degree are simply more qualified for jobs in the areas of consulting, management and research.

The RN to BSN Degree Program 

Fortunately, nursing schools now offer RN to BSN degree programs, in response to the industry shift towards a minimum BSN standard for hospital staffing. The American Association of College of Nursing (AACN) sets forth guidelines to which RN to BSN degree programs must comply.  A partial list of program requirements includes –

  • Practical Experience within Various Healthcare Settings and with a diverse set of Patients
  • Faculty Oversight throughout Coursework
  • Baccalaureate Competencies of Direct and Indirect Care, among others

Accelerated Nursing Programs

Nursing students who have earned a bachelor’s degree in an area other than nursing are encouraged to research available accelerated nursing programs. Program details differ, as does the time required to complete the various accelerated programs. However, most fast track nursing programs require a full-time commitment from the student. Financial assistance may be available to help cover living expenses while attending school. 

Graduate Nursing Degrees

Nursing professionals often choose to earn advanced nursing degrees to secure positions of leadership and management. These include -

  • A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program.  
  • A Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Nursing degree program – this is generally research oriented. 
  • A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program- this is practice oriented.

A Few Words about Nursing School Accreditation

Each school makes the decision to earn accreditation voluntarily. A nursing school that has been accredited by a federally approved industry oversight agency (or professional organization) reveals to potential students that the program they offer meets pre-set industry standards. Accreditation is an assurance that the program that is promised is the degree program that is delivered. 

The United States Department of Education sanctions three accreditation organizations. 

  • The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  • The Commission for Nursing Education Accreditation (CNEA)


All nursing programs will have prerequisite courses that must be completed prior to applying, these often include Anatomy & Physiology, Microbiology, Chemistry, and Statistics, among others.

Prior to applying to a nursing program, it is important to determine which classes must be completed prior to admissions, and how many credits are needed in order to apply.

While some nursing programs may include the option for prerequisites, others may not,  so program research and identifying pre admission requirements is critical.

The next step is to move forward and apply to a nursing program that aligns with your personal and career objectives

everything youve ever wanted

The requirements to enroll in nursing school may appear daunting at first, but when each step is managed one by one, the task is not difficult. Work methodically and consistently to complete the task. 

Do Well on Your Nursing School Entrance Exams

Most nursing schools will require you to take and pass a nursing school entrance exam such as the HESI or TEAS.  Here are some resources to help you do well on these exams:

Free HESI Practice Exams

Free TEAS Practice Exams

HESI and TEAS Exam Prep Courses from BoostPrep.com


When you have been accepted to nursing school, be prepared to spend years exploring and studying to create a foundation of nursing knowledge and a solid set of nursing skills. The length of time required to graduate will depend upon the nursing degree program. 

  • The time required completing an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) degree program generally falls between 1.5 – 2 years. 
  • The time required for completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program is typically completed in 4 years for full-time students.
  • The time required completing an RN to BSN degree program varies. Students are advised to compare programs carefully.
  • The time required for completing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program is typically 1.5 – 2 years.

Coursework will cover the areas of epidemiology, psychology, mental health, human development, pharmacology, biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. 

Nursing Clinicals

Nursing school degree programs require students to gain real-world experience. The nursing clinical is an opportunity for nursing students to apply the nursing skills and academics taught in traditional classrooms. Schools refer to these important experiential practices as clinicals, internships, capstones or practicums. No matter what you call the experience, these hands-on occurrences are an effective way for students to learn to thrive in a variety of healthcare settings under the supervision of seasoned nursing professionals. 

A nursing clinical is considered one of the most significant and valuable segments of a nursing degree program. 

Upon completion of an accredited nursing program, you will be ready to sit for the NCLEX. When you are ready to take the NCLEX-RN exam, consider yourself rounding third base on a baseball diamond. In essence, preparing to take the NCLEX-RN exam places you on the home stretch towards a nursing license. 

The NCLEX-RN examination (technically known as the National Council Licensure Exam) is the last step before becoming eligible to apply for a Registered Nursing license. 

The NCLEX-RN six-hour test should be taken quickly after graduating from a degree program to ensure your retention levels from school are at their max. 

The NCLEX-RN exam is designed to assess the test taker's knowledge of related nursing fields and critical thinking skills. Students are encouraged to prepare thoroughly for the NCLEX-RN exam by taking NCLEX-RN practice tests. Preparation is critical to successfully passing this last hurdle before becoming a licensed nursing professional. To register for the NCLEX-RN exam, contact NCSBN.org.

Each state (and Washington, DC) is tasked with the responsibility of managing the requirements for nursing licenses. Generally, each state’s Board of Nursing (BON) must

  • Determine the requirements for initial Registered Nurse Licensure
  • Establish the requirements for retaining a Registered Nursing License – i.e. fees and continuing education and ethical mandates 
  • Create the parameters for a scope of practice as dictated by state law 
  • Establish complaint procedures and punitive actions for license law violators 

Each State’s Board of Nursing is the acting oversight agency or watchdog of the nursing profession within the defined borders of that state. 

What Is The Nursing Licensing Compact?

To accommodate nursing shortages in parts of the nation, the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) introduced the concept of a multi-state initiative – The Nursing License Compact (NLC). The fundamental purpose of the NLC is to mitigate state licensing differences and facilitate job possibilities across state lines. 

The Nursing License Compact is a concept that allows for licensed nurses (registered and practical/vocational nurses) to be eligible to use their RN credential for employment in any state that is a member of the nursing compact. 

Essentially, the nursing requirements for those states that are members of the NLC are the same, which permits the sharing of the licensing. 

State statistics for the NLC include –

  • 29 member states 
  • 9 states have pending legislation to join the NLC
  • 2 states are set to join July 2019 


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