How to Become a Registered Nurse: Step-by-Step Guide

What is a registered nurse? A registered nurse (RN) is a licensed medical professional who has graduated from an approved nursing program and has taken the state boards (NCLEX) test to obtain a nursing license. A licensed RN can then work in a variety of settings providing patient care.

See What Do Nurses DO? An RN explains.

Being a registered nurse is a rewarding career as a healthcare professional. Nursing is an in-demand occupation and the job outlook for nurses continues to be good.

Registered nurses make a good living too, making about $75,000 a year.

How does one become a registered nurse? Here are the steps to take…

Go to nursing school. Pass the NCLEX and get your license. Get a job.

Easy, right? Well, the pathway to becoming a registered nurse is fairly simple. But ask any nurse or nursing student and they will tell you it certainly isn’t easy.

The steps are a little more involved. What are the requirements? How long does it take? I’ll explain all that and more below.

1. Choose a nursing degree path.

Your first step is to decide on a nursing degree such as ADN or BSN. That is, will you pursue a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from a 4 year college, or an associate’s degree (ADN) from a community college?

Learn more about ADN vs BSN here.

If you already have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you may opt for an ABSN (accelerated bachelor of science in nursing). These degree programs are not as common as regular BSN or ADN programs, so you  might not have one in your area. If that’s the case, you should have a lot of credits from your previous schooling that will give you a head start on your BSN or ADN program.

Diploma programs are another option if offered in your area. Diploma nursing programs are hospital-based and clinically focused. Upon earning your nursing diploma, you are eligible to take the NCLEX. Diploma programs are becoming increasingly rare, so there may not be such an option near you.

Another path is to become an LPN (licensed practical nurse) or LVN (licensed vocational nurse) first. You can then work as an LPN while you pursue your RN degree. In some ADN nursing programs, you earn your LPN then continue on for ADN. There are also stand-alone LPN programs.

2. Establish how to pay for nursing school.

The reality is that higher education is expensive. It’s a good idea to start thinking about how to pay for your nursing education before you even start considering what school to attend.

What can you afford? Do you have money saved? Do you have scholarships? Will you take out student loans? Will you have to work while attending school?

How much does it cost to become an RN? Nursing school costs $14,000-$100,000 depending on the school and degree you want.

Generally, a four-year college will cost more per semester than a community college. And obviously, in a 4-year program, you’re paying tuition more times than in a 2-year program.

If you have no previous college credits, taking all the prerequisites for an ADN program could take almost two years. In that case, it may make sense to go for the BSN because you’re going to be in school 4 years anyway.

How much does it cost to become an RN text box.

3. Choose a nursing school.

Once you’ve decided on pursuing an associate degree ADN program or a bachelor’s degree BSN program, you can work on finding the right college.

Location may be a deciding factor if you want to stay where you live now.

Cost is definitely a factor.

Make sure the college you choose has an accredited nursing program and has good NCLEX pass rates. You should be able to find the accreditation and NCLEX pass rates on the college’s website.

4. Take prerequisites.

Prerequisites may include English composition or writing, math, and science courses such as chemistry, microbiology and anatomy & physiology.

5. Apply for admission.

This is the step that causes a lot of stress for prospective nursing students. Many nursing programs are quite competitive to get into. There are consistently more applicants than available slots in most nursing programs.

Requirements for admission generally include:

An application fee.

A high school diploma or GED certificate.

High school courses in English, math and science.

A 3.0 or higher GPA. The GPA requirements vary between programs. In competitive nursing school admission, having the minimum GPA may not be enough to get you into the program.

Possibly take an admission exam.

Some programs require a certain score on an entrance exam such as the TEAS.

Even after you’ve been accepted to the college of your choice and you’re working on pre-nursing classes, you’ll still have to be accepted to the nursing program to advance to upper-level nursing coursework.

Some BSN programs offer Direct Admit programs for exceptionally well-qualified (high SAT/ACT, high GPA) high school seniors who will be entering their freshman year of college. Direct Admit means that as long as you maintain the requirements in your lower-level coursework, your placement in the upper-division nursing program is guaranteed.

6. Get accepted and prepare for nursing school.

Once you have been accepted, it’s a good idea to get your life organized before classes start. Clean your house, put your bills on autopay, figure out childcare if you need it.

You’re going to be tremendously busy! It helps to have supportive friends and family members who understand how busy you are with nursing school.

7. Spend a lot of time studying.

Now that you’ve been admitted, be prepared to have a very busy schedule.

You’ll be learning about how to care for patients with varying health conditions.

You’ll learn the fundamentals of nursing and all kinds of clinical skills like giving shots and starting IVs.

You’ll learn pharmacology and pathophysiology and how to apply these concepts to patients across the lifespan.

You’ll learn about nutrition and ethics and mental health nursing and community health.

You’ll learn to care for babies and children and adults and elderly adults.

There is a lot of material to be covered in 2 years.

8. Pass excruciatingly difficult nursing exams.

Nursing exams are hard! They test your knowledge and application of what you’re learning in your lectures. They’re written to assess your ability to think critically.

Nursing school tests are also designed to accustom you to answer the kinds of questions you’ll see when you take the NCLEX.

9. Pass clinical.

In addition to all the book learning you’ll learn in your classes, you’ll also spend many hours doing clinical rotations.

This is your opportunity to apply what you’ve learned in class to a live hospital setting with real patients. You’ll practice your critical thinking and all those clinical skills you learned first in skills lab.

You’ll work with other nurses and your clinical instructor to provide care to real patients. This clinical experience is vital to your success as a nurse.

10. Graduate!

After you’ve passed all the required courses, and proven your skill in your clinical experiences, you finally graduate.

How long does this take from start to finish? How long does it take to become an RN?

It takes 2-4 years to earn a registered nursing degree.

In addition to your college graduation commencement, nursing school has a pinning ceremony.

How long does it take to become an RN? text box.

11. Apply for your state nursing license.

The next step is to apply to take the NCLEX-RN in your state and apply for your nursing license. You’ll pay a fee for the test and the license and possibly a criminal background check.

Licensing requirements and application processes vary from state to state. The one thing all states have in common is the requirement to take (and pass!) the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination).

When your application has been accepted, you’ll receive an Authorization to Test (ATT). Once you have the ATT, you can schedule your date to take the NCLEX-RN test.

12. Pass NCLEX-RN exam.

You’ll also hear the NCLEX called “state boards.” This is the test of all tests for nurses.

This computerized exam, taken at a testing center, will test your ability to apply all the information you’ve been learning the last several years.

Passing the NCLEX shows that you are capable of practicing safely as an entry-level RN.

Learn more about the NCLEX at the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) website.

13. Obtain state nursing license.

Once you’ve passed the test (you’ll get your results in a few days), your state will issue your RN license. You’re now officially a Registered Nurse!

14. Choose a specialty.

There are numerous specialties in the nursing field and nurses work in a variety of healthcare settings.

Most new grad nurses start in direct patient care. They work in clinical settings such as hospitals, long-term care nursing facilities, or physicians’ offices or clinics.

Most registered nurses (about 60%) work in hospital settings. Within the hospital, nurses work in many different departments. Each area has its own particular skill set, such as oncology or orthopedics or pediatrics.

If you are passionate about a certain area of nursing, such as ICU or ED (emergency department), inquire about nurse internships or residencies. Many hospitals offer internships that give new grads extensive training and orientation in a specific area.

15. Apply for your first nursing job.

There is a high demand for registered nurses in the U.S. in most areas of the country. Many older nurses are retiring and there are not enough nurses to care for an aging population.

According to the United States bureau of labor statistics, job growth in the nursing field will continue over the next several years. US BLS predicts nursing jobs to increase at 9% a year for the next decade.

Hospitals often prefer RNs with BSN degrees over those with ADNs, but nursing jobs are available with either degree.

If you can’t get into your dream job right away, that’s ok. Anywhere you work as an RN will give you valuable experience and you can apply for another position in a year or two.

For example, you want to be a critical care nurse, and you can’t get an ICU or ED nurse right away. Take a job in med-surg or step-down, and work on your nursing skills. As a new grad RN, there is plenty for you to learn in any healthcare setting.

Your nursing career path can take many directions, and your career goals may even change once you start working.

How much do nurses make infographic.

16. Pursue Advanced degrees (optional).  

If you graduated with an ADN, you can earn your BSN online.

Depending on your career goals, you may decide to pursue a graduate degree such as a master’s degree or doctorate degree in nursing.

Advanced practice nurses such as nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, nurse educators and clinical nurse specialists have at least an MSN (Master of Science in Nursing).

Increasingly, some of these roles are requiring a DNP, Doctor of Nursing Practice.

Many family nurse practitioners have a doctoral degree.

17. Be a lifelong learner.

Whether you pursue an advanced degree or not, you’ll always be learning.

The nursing profession is always changing with new medical and nursing knowledge, and technological breakthroughs. Every patient is different and you could never know everything there is to know in nursing.

You may wish to pursue a certification in your specialty, such as the CCRN for critical care nurses, or OCN for oncology nurses.

Some states require a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) every year in order to renew your nursing license.

Congratulations for choosing to pursue a career in nursing!

If you have more questions about How to Become a Registered Nurse, please comment below.

Leave a Comment