How Do I Become an RN?

Find out how you can work as one of the healthcare industry’s most vital providers.

As one of the most versatile roles in the nursing industry, registered nurses (RNs) are in demand, says the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Working as an RN may be incredibly rewarding and impactful, as well as a great stepping stone if you decide you want to advance your career.

What can you expect on the job and how can you get started? Read on for answers to all these questions and more about becoming a registered nurse.

What Is a Registered Nurse (RN)?

Typically found in hospitals, medical offices, nursing care facilities, and clinics, a registered nurse assists doctors and other nurses in providing critical care to patients.

While you may hear the registered nurse designation referred to as an “RN degree,” that wording is misleading. An RN is a nurse who has completed an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and has then taken a test that is required to earn RN credentials.

In other words, you can earn an ADN or BSN degree to become licensed as an RN.

What Jobs Can I Hold as an RN?

There are many types of jobs registered nurses can hold, from pediatric nurses who see children for routine wellness exams to operating room nurses who help prep patients for surgery and assist the operating team during procedures.

Where Can RNs Work?

RNs can work in a variety of locations, says the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook. These may include hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, home healthcare services, and outpatient clinics. But you may also find them in a number of other locations as well, such as schools, churches, government offices, community centers, and more.

What Do Registered Nurses Do?

While an RN’s daily responsibilities are as varied as the nursing field itself, most registered nurses can typically expect to have responsibilities such as:

  • Running and analyzing diagnostics tests
  • Dressing wounds and incisions
  • Reviewing and determining treatment plans
  • Helping doctors during surgery
  • Guiding patients in healthy habits
  • Providing emotional support to patients and families

RN vs. LPN: What’s the difference?

Licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, are often confused with RNs, but their jobs are actually very different. LPNs report to RNs and perform more entry-level duties such as taking vital signs, assisting with tests, administering medication, filling out medical records, and helping patients with daily activities like eating and getting dressed.

While LPNs aren’t required to hold a college degree, education in a state-approved program is necessary. These typically take between 12 and 18 months. Following successful completion of the program, LPNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to earn their credentials.

Often, nurses who are already working as LPNs decide to go back to school to become RNs. There are special LPN-to-RN programs designed specifically for licensed practical nurses looking to further their education and career path. 

How Much Money Do RNs Make?

Median salary for an RN:

Lowest 10% of RNs averaged:

Highest 10% of RNs averaged

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2020 Occupational Outlook Handbook

The salary of an RN can vary greatly depending on their specialty, level of education and experience, additional certification, and workplace location. That said, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites the median annual wage to be $75,330. The median for those working in nursing home facilities skews lower, at $68,450 per year, while nurses working in hospitals earn an annual median of $76,840.

Salaries are also dependent on where in the U.S. you live. Top-paying locations, according to the BLS, include California, Hawaii, Alaska, Massachusetts, and Oregon.

What Job Opportunities are Available for RNs?

As the baby boomer population retires out of the workforce and the need for age-related healthcare increases, the demand for RNs is only going to grow. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 7% through 2029; a faster rate than the average for all other occupations.

How To Become a Registered Nurse

The path to becoming a registered nurse takes a little time, but the journey is a rewarding one. It’s a bit like getting a driver’s license in that you study and practice, take the test, and apply to get your license.

Step 1
Pick a career path

Registered nurses need to hold either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) in order to work as an RN. While most employers prefer to hire those with BSNs, earning an ADN is a good way to get started in the nursing field with an education pathway that is generally quicker and less expensive. If you pursue an advance practice registered nurse degree, or APRN (required for jobs such as nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and nurse anesthetist), you’ll need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) as well.

Step 2
Take and pass the NCLEX exam

Following graduation from an approved program, all U.S.-based RNs must take and pass the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The test is used to determine whether you’re prepared for entry-level nursing and includes a minimum of 75 questions. You’ll answer up to 265 questions if you haven’t reached a passing score after the first round.

Questions on the test cover topics such as basic care and comfort, prevention and detection of disease, coping and adaptation, and pharmacological therapies. You can find sample tests online or in books, you can or take an NCLEX prep course through various schools and companies.

Step 3
Get your RN license

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX exam, you can apply for RN licensure in the state where you want to work. Each state has its own requirements, fees, and length of time that it takes to obtain a license, so you’ll need to do a little bit of research.

Another option to consider is the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). This initiative allows nurses to get a multi-state license and practice in any state that’s a member of the alliance. As of 2021, there are 34 states that have enacted NLC legislation, and 13 more states who have legislation pending. The NLC is a particularly good option for RNs who think they may want to pursue a career in travel nursing within the U.S.

Will RNs Need a BSN by 2030?

The National Academy of Medicine has convened an expert committee to study the future degree requirements for registered nurses. This follows a 2010 recommendation by the Institute of Medicine that 80% of nurses needed to earn their BSN by 2020. While that goal has not been met, the industry is continuing to push for BSN licensure for RNs. Many believe this will be required by 2030. In fact, New York recently adopted legislation that requires nurses who finish an associate’s degree program to obtain BSN qualification within 10 years after their initial RN license.

Nursing School Admissions Requirements

Each nursing program will have its own set of unique requirements, however there are several prerequisites you can expect to have to fulfill.

Is There a GPA Requirement?

You’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED in order to apply for a nursing program. Some schools will accept students with a GPA of 2.5, while others require a 3.0 or higher. As you’d expect, the most in-demand schools require the highest GPAs.

Do I Need to Take the SAT/ACT or Any Admission Tests?

To get into nursing school, potential students are often required to take a test specifically designed for nurses—typically the National League of Nursing Pre-Admission Exam (PAX) or the Nursing Entrance Test (NET). The tests are meant to rate your abilities in areas such as comprehension, communication, critical thinking, as well as your knowledge of the core subjects involved in the healthcare field.

Each school will have its own SAT or ACT requirements, although current events have upended the usual test-taking protocol. Many schools are making the submission of SAT or ACT scores optional. You’ll want to check each school for their specific requirements.

For schools that require standardized test scores, where you live in the U.S. plays a part in which test you’re more likely to take. The SAT continues to be the most popular on the East and West coasts, especially in the northeast. The ACT is more popular in the Midwest, where many states require the exam as part of their statewide assessments.

What Type of Accreditation Should a Nursing School Have?

There are two main accreditation organizations that you should look for when choosing a school. They are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). If you go on to earn an advanced degree, look for schools that are also accredited by organizations specific to the specialization.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Nursing Degree?

The time it takes to earn a nursing degree depends on the program you choose. An ADN will likely take two years to complete, while a BSN typically takes four.

If you already hold an ADN and want to pursue a BSN, you may be able to do so in a shorter time than a typical bachelor’s. Often, you may find programs that let you transfer you associate’s credits and earn a BSN in 1 to 2 years.

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
2 years

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
4 years

LPN-to-RN Program
2 to 3 years

Similarly, if you are already a licensed practical nurse (LPN), you can use your education and experience as a starting point to a higher paying job with more responsibility. You will find LPN-to-RN programs in two forms: one that will earn you an associate’s degree (LPN-to-ADN) and another that will lead to a bachelor’s degree (LPN-to-BSN).

What Classes Will I Take?

The courses you take may depend on the program you choose. Entry-level classes include anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, and psychology. If you advance your education, you’ll dive deeper into subjects like emergency care, nursing research, and population-based practice.

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How Many Course Credits are Required?

Typically: 120 credits

There’s no nationwide requirement for course credits. The number of credits taken will be dictated by the state and the individual school. That said, a typical BSN course consists of around 120 credits, with two-thirds focused on nursing classes and one-third on general education.

Popular Concentrations

There’s a seemingly endless number of concentrations you can pursue. Of these, some of the most popular roles include gerontology or working as neonatal nurse, travel nurse, or psychiatric nurse, or in nurse informatics.

Can I Study to Become an RN Online?

Online classes and degree programs are becoming more and more popular–and universally accepted. While nursing is a hands-on profession, you can earn your associate’s or bachelor’s by completing most of your coursework in a virtual environment, while your required clinical training is completed in a local medical setting. Such hybrid programs are often an ideal option for working RNs who are looking to advance their degrees, allowing them to fit in online coursework when it’s convenient for them.

Of course, there are still programs that are taken 100% in person. These involve both classroom and clinical experience. These are often best for those who are just starting out in the field of nursing. If you’re a working RN looking to advance your education, you may be able to find classroom programs held at night and on the weekends.

Certification and Continuing Education

Even though you’ve earned your RN license, you’ll likely be required to complete a certain number of continuing education courses to keep your license current. Not all states require this, but many do. Courses you’ll need to take may depend on the type of nursing job you hold.

If you’re interested in specializing in a particular field, you can increase your knowledge—and your paycheck—by earning specialty-specific certifications. Options for certifications are nearly endless, with common specialties including ambulatory care, cardiac vascular nursing, gerontology, home health nursing, informatics, medical-surgical nursing, nurse case management, and pediatric nursing. The certification process typically involves passing an exam to prove your competency in a particular area. Certifications can be found through organizations such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the National Certification Corporation.

You may also continue your education beyond a BSN and consider earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Hybrid MSN programs are also becoming increasingly popular. These combine nursing practice with classes in education, administration, or technology. These are particularly useful if you’re looking to pursue a career such as a nurse informaticist, nurse manager, or nurse educator.

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Financial Aid and Student Loan Forgiveness for Nurses

You may be able to qualify for financial aid through loans, scholarships, work-study programs, and grants. The first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is used by the U.S. Department of Education to determine how much they estimate you can pay and how much assistance—either through loans or grants—they’ll offer you. Private loans can also be found through banks and many other institutions.

Scholarships are another great choice when you’re looking to fund your education. There are many different scholarships available for nursing students of all kinds. Some are open to most potential students, while others are designed specifically for those with certain specialties, cultural identities, medical situations, and more.

While you don’t have to pay back a scholarship or grant, keep in mind that you’ll be expected to pay back any loan you receive, plus interest. Depending on the type of loan, you may or may not have to begin paying it back while you’re still in school.

There are options for loan forgiveness, however. Depending on your unique situation, you may be eligible to be relieved of part or all of your loan. In some cases, tuition reimbursement through your employer may also be possible. Many large hospitals and medical centers have programs in place to help an employee begin a nursing program or advance their degree.

Professional Organizations

Joining a professional nursing organization may also have a positive impact on your career as it connects you to others in the field. These organizations also provide continuing education, certification opportunities, and chances to attend conferences and events.

While organizations like the American Nurses Association and the National League for Nursing have a broad focus, there are more than 100 nursing organizations in the U.S. You can find an association that centers around nearly any patient population, healthcare setting, disease process, or advanced practice.