An associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) will give you a solid foundation for a career in healthcare. Popular among registered nurses (RNs), this degree provides opportunities to work in entry-level nursing positions.
Education to Earn an ADN
You can earn an ADN in two to three years with a curriculum that includes nursing and liberal arts. This degree is ideal for students who want to pursue a professional nursing career but don’t have the time or money to complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. It can also help licensed practical nurses (LPNs) qualify for an RN license and move into professional nursing.
As an RN with an associate degree, you can qualify for a wide range of specialty certifications that can increase your career opportunities and salary potential. The degree can also serve as the foundation for earning a BSN, which can expand your professional and earning potential even more.
An ADN is ideal for students who want to pursue a professional nursing career but don’t have the time or money to complete a bachelor’s degree.
“Associate degree nurses play a very vital role in the nursing community and are an important part of the nursing workforce,” says Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP, FAAN, a nursing career expert, advocate, author, and motivational speaker known as The Inspiration Nurse. “The associate degree can either be a great starting point in nursing and students can take it where they want, or they can also have a very, very satisfying career at the associate degree level.”
Whether you’re a first-time nursing student considering where to start your professional studies or an LPN ready to pursue an RN license, an ADN can provide many nursing opportunities.
Curriculum and Clinical Requirements
The curriculum for ADN programs varies by school but includes about 70 credits to prepare you for entry-level nursing and for qualifying for an RN license in your state. “A minimum of an associate’s degree is considered by most to be necessary for entry into professional nursing,” Cardillo says.
A typical ADN program includes a school’s liberal arts core curriculum, which is required of all students pursuing an associate degree. These classes are considered prerequisites and usually must be completed before you can enter the ADN program:
Your ADN coursework will focus on nursing skills and practice and typically include:
Clinical hours give you the experience you’ll need to succeed as a nurse. “ADN programs often provide very good hands-on clinical training, as well as a grounding in science, nursing science, nursing theory, and patient care,” says Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC, a board-certified nurse coach, nursing career expert, nurse blogger, and host of the nursing career podcast “The Nurse Keith Show.”
Students complete an average of 700 clinical hours, but many do more. This training can include skills and simulation labs, clinical rotations, seminars, workshops, community service, and presentations.
Online Options to Earn an ADN
An online degree can be a good fit for students who must work or keep up with family responsibilities while they’re in school. The coursework for an online and classroom-based ADN is the same, but online students will have to attend labs for hands-on instruction to complete their clinical hours.
An online degree can be a good fit for students who have to work or keep up with family responsibilities while they’re in school.
“All nursing programs are rigorous, challenging, and you have to dedicate a lot of your time and energy in successfully completing a nursing program—so make sure you are in a place to give it your all,” says Damion Jenkins, RN, MSN, who is an NCLEX prep expert, nurse educator, and content writer, and CEO of The Nurse Speak.
Time to Complete an ADN
A traditional ADN degree typically takes two years of full-time study to complete.
Part-time and evening options are available but will take longer. Students who don’t have prerequisites also may be in school longer.
Applying Other Coursework to an ADN
Many students often decide they want to become a nurse after working in another healthcare field. For example, perhaps you’re a medical assistant (MA) looking to become an RN. Some schools offer an MA-to-ADN path, which allows you to apply some of your coursework from your MA program toward your associate degree.
Some ADN programs for students already in entry-level nursing roles—such as certified nurse assistant (CNA) or licensed practical nurse (LPN)—offer a fast track to graduation by eliminating breaks between courses. You may find this option at vocational-technical (vo-tech) schools or with online programs. Students with an LPN license may be able to take an LPN-to-ADN bridge program, a shortcut that builds on the education and experience they already have.
“Earning an ADN is a great way to quickly start your nursing career by beginning to gain experience and earn an income,” Jenkins says. “What makes an ADN program attractive for a lot of students is that it’s less expensive and time-consuming and offers more flexible options such as evening and weekend and online classes.”
What to Look for in a School
You can find ADN programs at vo-tech schools, community colleges, some four-year colleges, and online. Overall, you want to ensure that your education will prepare you to meet your professional goals. Otherwise, it won’t be worth your investment of time and money. Here’s what to look for in a school.
Accreditation is a review process that determines whether a school or program meets educational quality standards for a profession. You must attend an accredited program to qualify for federal financial aid and scholarships and most state licenses and specialty certifications.
School and program accreditation are awarded separately. You can verify a school’s accreditation on a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.
You must attend an accredited program to qualify for federal financial aid and scholarships and most state licenses and specialty certifications.
Professional organizations grant accreditation for ADN programs. Verify that your state board of nursing accepts a degree from the program you’re looking at and that it qualifies for the nursing licenses you’ll need. You can contact your state board to find out which programs it recognizes.
Also important to note: You need credits from an accredited program if you want to transfer them to another institution to meet requirements for a BSN or another educational program there.
Another way to evaluate a school is to check its reputation. Do this by looking at:
“It’s always great if you can find people who are in the program or have graduated from the program and talk to them about it,” Cardillo says. To get a sense of how professionals in the industry regard a school, talk to nurse recruiters, nurse leaders, and working RNs.
Prerequisites, Admission Requirements, and Required Standardized Tests
Most ADN programs have math, science, and liberal arts prerequisites to prepare you for the core nursing curriculum. Some schools and programs accept high school classes or transfer credits to meet prerequisites, so check their websites to find out if any of your previous education qualifies. Credits from Advanced Placement (AP) courses or the International Baccalaureate (IB) program could qualify.
Admission requirements vary by school but could include:
Job Placement and Career Counseling
Job placement and career counseling services can be important resources, especially as graduation nears. Find out what’s available when you’re comparing schools. Career counseling services can help you prepare for the positions you want and provide networking opportunities by connecting you to recent graduates and local employers.
Job placement and career counseling services can be important resources, especially as graduation nears.
Questions to Ask When Choosing an ADN Program
With so many ADN programs to choose from, finding the right one for you can be a daunting task. Information on accreditation and NCLEX pass rates are a good place to start. But also consider asking schools and programs some of the following questions to find the right fit:
“The most important thing to consider is whether the program meets your individual needs,” Jenkins says. “Programs vary wildly with scheduling, cost, program structure, etc. Therefore, I would recommend that all of the components of the program meet your personal preferences, lifestyle requirements, and career goals. Take your time to really get to know a program before choosing.”
Financial Aid and Scholarships
If you can’t afford to pay for an ADN degree on your own, you may be eligible for financial aid from your school or the U.S. government. To find out if you’re eligible for need-based assistance, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Schools and student loan lenders use this information for awarding grants and loans.
You may be in the running for nursing scholarships or financial awards based on academic merit or criteria not tied to financial need.
You may be in the running for nursing scholarships or financial awards based on academic merit or criteria not tied to financial need. “There is a lot of scholarship money out there that is not financial aid for those who choose to go after it. It’s available for nurses at any level,” Cardillo says.
Potential scholarship sources include:
NCLEX and Licensing
After completing your ADN, you can prepare to apply for an RN license in the state where you plan to work. Check your state board of nursing website for requirements and fees. Typically, you’ll need to provide proof of your ADN and clinical hours and other requirements such as CPR certification, fingerprinting, and background checks.
You’ll have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination-RN (NCLEX-RN) before a state will grant you a license.
You’ll take the six-hour test on a computer at a designated test site. The exam is called a “variable-length adaptive test” because your number of correct and incorrect answers will partly determine how long the test is. You’ll answer 75 to 265 multiple-choice questions based on your performance as you work through the test.
You’ll either pass or fail the test; you won’t be graded on a specific number of questions or given a percentage.
While there’s no certification required to become an RN, you can broaden your career opportunities by qualifying for specialty certifications in a wide range of areas.
“Having a certification can demonstrate to a potential employer that you’re dedicated and you’re not resting on your laurels,” Carlson says. “You are saying, ‘I’m really interested in this area, and I’m going to become an expert.’ If you’re strategic and you choose well, that can make you stand head and shoulders above other candidates for a particular job.”
There are many certifications for nurses with an ADN, including for pediatric, cardiovascular, psychiatric, and gerontological care. And that’s just a sampling. If you’re passionate about a particular type of care or patient, there could be a specialty for your ambitions.
There are many career options for RNs with an associate degree, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 9% job growth in nursing jobs from 2020 to 2030. This growth is largely due to two factors:
“Nursing is the most diverse profession on the planet, and there are many current and growing opportunities for nurses at every level,” Cardillo says.
According to the BLS, the median annual salary for RNs is $77,600, a number that includes RNs with associate and bachelor’s degrees. In general, nurses with a BSN may earn more than nurses with a two-year degree.
Your salary also could be influenced by where you live, your employer, your experience, and other factors. “Nursing is one of those careers that demonstrates pay increases with earned on-the-job experience,” Jenkins says.
Opportunities to Advance Your Education and Career
An ADN can be the first step in a lifelong career in nursing. For many nurses, the next logical step is to earn a BSN, which can expand your education in areas such as leadership, population health, and administration. And if your aim is to work in a hospital, especially in acute care, you may find that a four-year degree offers more opportunities.
If you do want to pursue a BSN—perhaps at your employer’s urging—you may be able to take advantage of employer tuition reimbursement programs. “Many people choose to first pursue an ADN program so they can enter the workforce, gain real-world experience, and then have employers assist in covering the costs of a BSN or MSN program at a later time,” Jenkins says.
If you do want to pursue a BSN—perhaps at your employer’s urging—you may be able to take advantage of employer tuition reimbursement programs.
An ADN serves as an excellent foundation for earning a four-year degree. The most efficient approach involves enrolling in an ADN-to BSN bridge program, which allows students to build on knowledge gained in an ADN program without duplicating coursework.
Stay Informed with Professional Resources
Staying on top of trends in nursing can help you plan educational and professional goals. By joining professional nursing organizations and specialty organizations in your areas of interest, you can gain access to resources for networking, mentorship, continuing education, and potential jobs.
“It’s never too soon to be affiliated with nursing professional associations,” Cardillo says. “That’s a very important part of being a professional nurse, and it starts when you become a student nurse.”
Here are some groups to get you started.
Most professional organizations also have public social media accounts that can help you keep track of hot topics without formal membership. Following industry publications such as the American Journal of Nursing, a peer-reviewed journal, and reports by nursing thought leaders can help you steer your career.
“Doing this can help you keep an eye on the direction in which the nursing profession is headed and may change your perspective on your plans for your future,” Carlson says.