The Beginner’s Guide on How to Become a Nurse
The path to becoming a registered nurse requires hundreds of hours of lectures, studying, and clinical practice. The end result can be a rewarding and meaningful career that makes a positive difference in the lives of people. The most common path to becoming a nurse is to attend a registered nurse degree program at the associate’s or bachelor’s level. The bachelor’s level typically opens up the greatest range of job opportunities, so more prospective nurses are pursuing their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to better compete for available nursing jobs.
A nursing career provides a diverse range of opportunities including working in hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, private homes, and schools. It allows individuals to apply themselves as problem solvers, caregivers, patient advocates, and educators. Once you have obtained a nursing license, you can choose to work in an area that interests you, whether that be working with premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), with cancer patients in the oncology unit, with trauma victims in the emergency room (ER), or in one of the many other areas of nursing. Nursing job demand is expected to be stronger than most occupations in the coming years, with a projected 16% growth rate for registered nurses in the decade from 2014-2024.1
Should I become a nurse?
Besides being competent in science by taking coursework in anatomy and physiology, biology, nutrition, psychology, chemistry, and social sciences, prospective nurses should possess certain skills and qualities that are conducive to the career. People who are compassionate and caring by nature usually make excellent nurses, because they have the ability to identify with their patients and be empathetic to their pain and suffering. Nurses should also possess good communication skills so that they can understand their patients’ concerns and give instructions to provide effective treatment. Being well-organized and detail-oriented is helpful in the nursing field since nurses often are responsible for caring for several patients at one time. Physical strength is also an important trait for prospective nurses, since nursing is a mobile career, and nurses must be able to lift their patients if needed.
Steps for Becoming a Nurse
The guide below outlines the typical steps for how to become a nurse, from choosing the right educational path to deciding which licensure you would like to pursue.
Step 1. Choose your path to an initial nursing license (LPN or RN).
The first step is to decide on whether you want to become a licensed practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse (also known as an LPN or LVN) or a registered nurse (also known as an RN) for the initial license. This choice will help you choose a program, because, even though you will pursue licensure after obtaining your degree, you can decide on the nursing degree program for you based on your career goals. After you have obtained your initial license as an LPN or RN, you may pursue additional education later to advance your career in the field of nursing. A great majority of nurses who work in a hospital setting have obtained a minimum of a registered nursing license. One factor to consider in this decision is the potential salaries for each nursing path. While LPNs earn a median annual salary of $44,090 per year or $21.20 per hour, RNs earn a median annual salary of $68,450 per year or $32.91 per hour.2,1 The job outlook for both occupations is bright, with 12% growth projected for LPNs and 15% growth projected for RNs through 2026 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.2,1 Another factor to consider in this decision is the type of work you would like to do. In many states, LPNs are limited in the tasks they are able to perform. RNs, for example, can always administer medication and give intravenous (IV) drops to patients, but LNs may not be able to perform these tasks in certain states.2
Step 2. Choose a nursing degree program.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are over 2,000 LPN, LVN, and RN degree programs at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels across the country.3 Many programs are highly competitive and have limited openings due to the demand for programs and a national shortage in nursing school faculty (in 2016, nursing schools in the US turned away over 64,067 qualified applicants from bachelor’s and master’s in nursing programs).4 Many nursing schools also require applicants to pass an entrance exam.5
When choosing a nursing degree program you should consider some of the following factors:
- Flexibility of the program
- Type of nursing degree granted (LPN or RN diploma, ADN, or BSN)
- Prerequisites of program
- Acceptance rate into the program/available seats
- NCLEX pass rate of past students
- Location of clinical training
- Prestige/reputation of school
- Former or current students’ first-hand experiences
Learn about nursing degree programs in your state on our home page.
Step 3. Obtain your nursing degree.
Completing your coursework and clinical training is a challenging and rewarding experience that requires hard work, dedication, and perseverance. Nursing degree programs usually take one to five years to complete, depending on the degree granted. LPN programs take one year to 18 months to complete, associate’s degrees typically take two years, and bachelor’s degrees typically take four years of full-time study. Many practical and registered nursing programs include a clinical practicum component, during which you will spend time interning at a local medical facility or hospital working with actual doctors, nurses, and patients. These clinicals will give you valuable hands-on experience and introduce you to professionals in the field who may be able to help you in your job search later. See our comprehensive overview of nursing degrees to help narrow your choices.
Step 4. Submit your application for state licensure.
Each state has specific requirements for nursing licensure. Plan ahead by researching the requirements posted on your state’s department of health website. Read more about general licensing requirements or find out about your state’s requirements on our Nursing Licensure page.
Step 5. Complete a background check.
Most states require fingerprinting and a background check to ensure the safety of patients. Fingerprinting must be taken by local law enforcement, a government agency, or an approved third party. Check your state’s licensure requirements for details.
Step 6. Pass the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN exam.
The NCLEX examination is the final obstacle to overcome before you become a licensed nurse. Candidates are eligible to retake the test 45 days after their first exam date. Following this schedule, the NCLEX can be taken as many as eight times in one year. Studies show that students have a higher pass rate when taking their NCLEX soon after graduation.6
Step 7. Pursue employment as a nurse.
It is a good idea to get a head start on finding employment by applying for positions and building your network while still in school. Some activities that can help you secure a job include volunteering and networking with nursing professionals through a local nursing association. You can also make valuable connections during your clinicals while still in school, possibly opening up job opportunities for you after graduation. Check out our job board for the latest nursing job openings across the country.
Step 8. Continuing education and nursing certification.
To renew a nursing license, nurses must complete a specified number of hours of approved continuing education courses over a set time period determined by their state. Additionally, there are several nursing certifications that can demonstrate expertise in specialized areas of nursing. Examples of specialized nursing certification include the certified critical care nurse and the certified emergency nurse. You may also consider pursuing a higher degree through an LPN to RN program, RN or BSN program, or an RN to master’s in nursing (MSN) program to advance your career.
- Johnson & Johnson Nursing – Johnson & Johnson’s website providing nursing career and scholarship information.
- National Student Nurses Association – The NSNA provides opportunities for mentorship and professional development for future nurses.
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing – Links to each state’s Board of Nursing where you can find information about licensure requirements. This site also provides a summary of nursing license requirements for each state.
- American Nurses Association (ANA) Career Center – Provides tips for job hunting, writing a nursing resume, and interviews.
- RN.com – Provides continuing education courses and job interview advice for recent graduates.
- VA Careers – VA is the largest employer of nurses in the country and the career center provides information on how to serve veterans as a nurse.
- Nurse.com – Search for nursing job openings and read nursing industry news.
- BLS Metropolitan and Nonmetropolitan Area Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates – Find the average salary and employment numbers in your area.
- Projections Central – Find the projected job growth for nurses in your state.
- Nursing Career Interviews – Read interviews with current nursing professionals and authors to learn about a nursing career.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I become a nurse?
The steps to become a nurse depend on several factors. The basic steps for becoming a nurse are listed above. You should research the specific educational and licensure requirements in your state before beginning your quest.
How long does it take to become a nurse?
Becoming a nurse usually takes several years, no matter what type of career path you choose. While some LPN programs can be completed in as little as one year, the licensure process and NCLEX testing requirements tend to make becoming a nurse a years-long process. To become an RN, you typically need two to four years of schooling and clinicals, plus time to take and pass the NCLEX and to become licensed in your state.
What qualifications do you need to become a nurse?
Nurses need a foundational education in nursing, either in the form of an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) program, or a bachelor’s in nursing or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. In addition to an education, prospective nurses need to meet licensure requirements in their state, including passing a background test, and pass the NCLEX exam.
Advice for Getting Hired as a Nurse
Getting hired as a new nurse can be very difficult these days depending on where you are, but there are several things you can do to give yourself an edge over your competition. One of the most important things you can do while you are in your undergraduate program is to obtain an externship, ideally in a hospital where you might want to work after you graduate. But there is a lot of competition for externships too, so be prepared and take the interview process seriously. For any interview, dress appropriately, develop a professional CV, and work on your interview skills. Research the organization ahead of time so you can ask some intelligent questions that demonstrate you have taken the time to find out about the organization. Networking with practicing nurses will also be of great help to you. Attend meetings of the chapter(s) of your state nursing association in your area and get to know the members. Even if you are an undergraduate student, members will be impressed by your initiative and interest and once they know you, will most likely be happy to help you find a job with their connections. Finally, take advantage of opportunities at your school that might help you stand out. Your time is precious, so be judicious and choose activities that will highlight your unique skills. For example, if you speak another language, get involved in something where you can put that talent to use. If you enjoy research, see if you can help on a research or quality improvement project. Most importantly, remember to always behave professionally with your faculty and preceptors. You never know who they might know and if you impress them, they might be able to open many doors for you. Nursing school at any level can be very challenging, but stay engaged and cheerful and save your complaints and frustration to share with others away from campus and/or your clinical site. You will be remembered for your positive and enthusiastic attitude!”
-Rebecca Wheeler, PhD, MA, RN is President of the Georgia Nurses Association
- Work in a hospital as a tech or secretary during school.
- Choose a senior internship in a center you might be interested in working.
- Get involved in a professional nursing organization in the field of interest.
- Get your BSN before graduating from your nursing program!”
-Mary Kay Bader, CNS, MSN, RN, CCNS, CCRN, CNRN, SCRN, FAHA, FNCS.
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Registered Nurses: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Licensed Practical Nurses: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm
3. National Center for Education Statistics: https://nces.ed.gov/
4. American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Faculty Shortage: https://www.aacnnursing.org/News-Information/Fact-Sheets/Nursing-Faculty-Shortage
5. The University of Southern Mississippi: https://home.usm.edu/academics/undergraduate-programs/nursing
6. Johnson & Johnson Nursing: https://nursing.jnj.com/prepare-for-nclex/