5 steps you should take to get into nursing school

Being prepared before you start nursing school will help you make better decisions later on.

If you have an interest in healthcare, helping others, and working as part of a large medical team, a career in nursing is a great way of bringing together your passions while you make a positive impact. To work as a nurse, you’ll first have to get an education to learn the skills you need for the job. From choosing a degree to selecting the right program, find out about each of the steps for getting into nursing school.  

Steps for getting into nursing school

The exact steps you should take will depend on your goals, but in general, there are five main points to hit as you work to get into nursing school. In addition to

Step 1
Pick a career path

Before anything else, you’ll need to decide on the kind of nursing career you want. There are many ways to work in the field, from entry-level assisting to top-tier executive roles. Beyond that, there’s a seemingly endless list of specialties to choose from, along with a variety of medical facilities in which you can work. Together, these factors will affect the kinds of nursing programs you pursue.

Step 2
Choose a degree

Every role within nursing requires a minimum level of education for licensing. While entry-level nurses can enter the field more quickly, those with more advanced degrees can often find greater opportunities and earn significantly larger salaries. The level of degree you choose depends on your career goals and the licensing requirements of your state.

Certified nursing assistant certificate or diploma

Designed for those who want to enter the nursing field as quickly as possible, CNA programs can take just weeks and prepare you to take on the most entry-level duties.

Licensed practical nurse certificate or diploma

LPN programs train students to work under the supervision of RNs, providing much of the same care as CNAs along with some more extensive duties.

Associate’s degree in nursing

An ADN is the fastest track to becoming a registered nurse, a role that can provide more critical care to their patients. Currently, an associate’s is all you need to earn an RN license, though many employers prefer to hire those with bachelor’s degrees.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A BSN can make you more competitive for jobs than you’d be with an ADN. While not a requirement nationwide, certain states will make it necessary for RNs with associate’s degrees to eventually earn their bachelor’s. If you have a bachelor’s in a non-nursing field, you could earn a “second-degree” BSN in a shorter length of time.

Master of Science in Nursing

An MSN degree is primarily designed for someone who wants to specialize as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). APRNs include roles such as nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists, as well as RNs who want to move into leadership and administration.

Doctoral degree in nursing

If you want to teach at the university level, work in nursing research, or take on executive-level roles, a doctoral degree might be your best bet. Depending on your goals, there are several options to consider, including a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Doctor of Nursing Science, Doctor of Philosophy, and Doctor of Education in Nursing.

Before you even begin applying, it’s crucial to decide what you’re looking for. Picking the right nursing programs to apply for involves asking yourself questions such as:

  • Is the program accredited?
  • Do they offer the right degree for the career I want?
  • Do they have specialty courses that interest me?
  • How much clinical rotation time will I get?
  • What’s their access to top-quality equipment?
  • How well do students do on licensing exams?
  • Does the school offer career placement programs?
  • Can I afford the tuition?

Something to consider is attending information sessions at the various schools you might be interested in. This can give you a better feel for the specifics of the program and help you decide if it’s the right fit. Some schools may even let you sit in on certain classes or meet with professors.

What about online nursing school?

Another thing to ask yourself is whether the format of a program fits into your life. While many students still attend traditional on-campus programs, an increasing number of people are looking for online options that let them pursue higher education while balancing other responsibilities in their lives. The good news is that these programs do exist in a hybrid format. In these, the hands-on, clinical portion of your coursework will need to be done in person, but most of your nonclinical classes can be taken online.

Step 4
Meet the prerequisite and admission requirements

Once you’ve decided which schools and programs could be right for you, the next step is to make sure you meet their requirements for prerequisites and admission.

Is there a GPA requirement?

Requirements vary by school and level of degree, but in most cases, you can expect to need an acceptable high school GPA (or equivalent score on the GED) or have good grades from any postsecondary education you’ve already completed. CNA and LPN programs might not have a minimum GPA, while many associate’s programs require at least a 2.5. College and universities offering bachelor’s and graduate degrees often require a 3.0 or higher. The more advanced the degree and prestigious the program, the better your GPA will need to be.

What are the prerequisites for nursing school?

You’ll also need to verify what prerequisites your programs require. Lower-level degrees will likely need you to have completed general education courses such as English and math, as well as a few science-focused studies like anatomy, chemistry, and biology. Advanced degrees will have more specific requirements depending on your concentration. If you don’t already have the necessary courses under your belt, you’ll need to earn those credits before you can apply.

Entrance exams

Most programs require you to take entrance exams—general tests like the SAT or ACT, exams designed specifically for nurses, and sometimes 1 of each. These are meant to assess your ability in areas such as reading and math, and help schools determine a nursing candidate’s potential to succeed in school. There are many different tests that are available, but some commonly used exams include:

Each exam has its own format, subject matter, and scoring design, so it’s important to do your research to know what you can expect for any test you need to take. Practice exams are incredibly useful for helping you achieve your best score and getting accepted into your school of choice.

Additional requirements

As you’ll be working in the healthcare field, you need to provide proof that you’re up to date on your immunizations and have CPR certification. Beyond that, essays, letters of recommendation, a career statement, and an in-person interview might also be a part of the process, particularly if you’re applying to graduate school.

When you’ve gotten all of these materials together, you can submit your application and pay any necessary fees.

Step 5
Apply to nursing school

Now that you’ve done the hard parts, it’s time to put the final touches on your application and send it to your dream school.

If the university or college you’re applying to offers early acceptance, consider it. Doing so demonstrates your interest in the program and increases your chances of acceptance.

How do I stand out when applying to nursing school?

Along with the standard requirements for admission, there are other things you can do to increase your chance of getting in.

Consider community service or volunteering

Especially in a healthcare setting, demonstrating an interest in volunteering and helping your community can make your candidacy stand out. Hospitals often have open volunteer opportunities, from working in the emergency department to assisting with childcare. Doing so can not only give you valuable experience but connect you with professionals who could be important resources as you start your career.

Pay a visit to every nursing school you’re considering

By talking to advisors, students, and professors, you might gain insight into what the admissions committee looks for and how competitive the program really is.

Submit a letter of recommendation

Even if your chosen program doesn’t require it, it might help in the long run. Supervisors from any volunteer service you’ve done can be an incredible resource, as can former teachers from any health or science courses you’ve taken.

Worried that you might not get accepted due to bad grades or poor test scores? Consider starting smaller and working your way up. If your goal is to become an RN or higher, completing a CNA program first can look great on future applications. Gaining practical knowledge and hands-on experience could matter more than your previous grades.

How to pay for nursing school

Once you’ve been accepted into nursing school, the next step is to figure out how to pay for it. Start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Using your current financial and family situations, the FAFSA determines which government assistance you qualify for, including loans, grants, and work-study.

Beyond that, scholarships are a great way to fill in any gaps in funding. You can find awards that are available to all kinds of students, as well as others designed for those with certain specialties, backgrounds, cultural identities, and more.

Student loan forgiveness

Other than preparing you for a rewarding career, another benefit of attending nursing school is that it gives you the chance to take advantage of several student loan forgiveness programs. Nurses have more resources than most when it comes to these programs, with federal initiatives that grant students up to tens of thousands of dollars.


Why is nursing school so challenging?

Not only can getting into nursing school be difficult but completing has proved to be challenging as well.

The main reason nursing school is so challenging is that nursing is such a demanding profession, it requires an equally rigorous curriculum. Successful nursing students understand complex and demanding concepts apply them to practical scenarios.

How long is nursing school?

It depends on your past experience. If you are a recent high school graduate without any prior nursing experience, it will typically take four years to earn a BSN, two years to earn an ADN, one year for to finish an LPN program, and four-to-12 weeks to complete.

For nurses with prior experience or a degree in another field, an accelerated nursing program will take typically 12-to-18 months to complete. An RN-to-BSN program will take an additional two years on average.

How long are nursing clinicals?

Nursing clinical, which typically start after you finish your general education courses, and as soon as your second semester. These supervised periods under a nursing educator will test the information you learned in the classroom in a real-world setting.