Which Nursing Degree You Need as an RN

You’ll have plenty of job options as an RN once you earn your degree. Learn why an ADN or a BSN are key for a successful nursing career.    

smiling woman nurses fronts her medical team
female nurse stands in front of healthcare team

Registered nurses (RNs) are required to have a minimum of an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), but a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) can help you secure a job with more responsibility and higher pay.

While the RN designation is often referred to as a “degree,” that is actually incorrect. To become an RN, one must earn an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in nursing. Once you have one of those degrees, you are eligible to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam to be licensed as an RN.

What Registered Nursing Degrees are Available?

Associate’s Degree Programs

An Associate Degree in Nursing includes courses in anatomy, nursing, nutrition, chemistry, and microbiology, among others. You’ll also be required to take general liberal arts classes. Earning an ADN is a popular option for registered nurses. It can open the door to entry-level staff nurse positions which will provide you with hands-on experience in the medical field.

Earning an ADN is the fastest path to becoming a registered nurse: most associate’s degree programs take two to three years to complete.

Bachelor’s Degree Programs

An aspiring RN can earn a BSN in four years at a college or university. If you’re already an RN, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program which is geared specifically for RNs who hold an associate’s degree. This path usually takes about two to three years.

If you’re already a Licensed Practical Nurse, an LPN-to-RN program will earn you either an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, depending on the path you decide to take. The completion of either will allow you sit for the NCLEX-RN exam to become an RN. An LPN-to-ADN program takes between one and two years; an LPN-to-BSN program between two and four years.

An even quicker BSN option is for candidates who already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field. An accelerated BSN program allows students to apply general education credits from their first degree to the BSN. This route takes between one to one-and-a-half years.

Is a BSN Degree Better Than an ADN Degree?

It depends. If you are looking for an entry-level nursing job at a hospital or nursing home, for example, an ADN can help you get your foot in the door. An associate’s degree also takes about half the amount of time to earn as a bachelor’s degree, so if you want to get working sooner, an ADN might be a good choice.  

RNs with a BSN, on the other hand, tend to make more money and often hold positions with more responsibility.

What Testing and Licensing Will I Need?

masked female nurses holding clipboard

After completing your degree program, you’ll need to take the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, to qualify to become a licensed RN, which is 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 may answer up to 265 questions if you haven’t reached a passing score after the first round.

In order to sit for the exam, you’ll need to apply for a nursing license from your state board of nursing. Since each state has different eligibility criteria, check with your state’s agency to ensure you’ve met the requirements in order to take the exam.

The NCLEX exam covers four “categories of needs,” according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing:

  • Safe, effective care environment: Management care and safety and infection control
  • Psychosocial integrity: Coping and adaptation and psychosocial adaptation
  • Health promotion and maintenance: Growth and development through the life span and prevention and early detection of disease
  • Physiology integrity: Basic care and comfort, pharmacological and parenteral therapies, reduction of risk potential, and physiological adaptation

You can find sample tests online or in books, and you can take an NCLEX prep course through various schools and companies.

What Will I Learn in My Courses?

adn graduation cap graphic

Associate’s degree classes will include core education requirements such as:

Anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, and psychology, along with specific nursing topics.

bsn graduation cap graphic

Bachelor’s in nursing program coursework typically provides more depth and detail into various subjects, such as:

Emergency care, nursing research, and population-based practice.

How Long Will it Take?

Depending upon your level of dedication, a nursing degree can take the following time to complete:

  • Associate’s degree programs, which provide entry-level opportunities, usually take two years
  • A bachelor’s degree program takes four years
  • A bachelor’s degree with direct entry typically takes three years
  • An accelerated bachelor’s degree with direct entry typically takes three years
  • An LPN to RN takes one to two years
  • A RN to BSN program usually takes about two years

Attending part-time is usually an option at most schools, but the program will take longer to complete.

Are Online Programs Available?

Nursing is a hands-on profession, but both ADN and BSN degree programs can be completed at least partly online. Clinical hours are the exception. Clinicals are hands-on requirements that place a nursing student directly in a healthcare setting, and these must be fulfilled in person at a clinic, hospital, or other brick-and-mortar facility.

If you’re already an RN, online RN-to-BSN programs are also available. These programs are specifically geared toward working nurses and using an online classroom can make getting a nursing degree more convenient.

Accelerated, or second degree, programs can also be completed online and can usually help people starting a new career in nursing get going quickly (one or two years). Students with a bachelor’s degree in another field who want to enter nursing should have a high GPA and health care experience.

If you’re a nursing student in a rural area with no classroom programs within reach, an online program can give you access to a wide range of educational opportunities across the country. And if you’re already busy, online learning can give you room to meet responsibilities that prevent you from attending school in person.

How Much Will My Education Cost?

The type of degree you earn will factor into your education costs, as will the type of school you attend (public vs. private) and whether you attend an in-state or out-of-state school. A four-year BSN degree will usually, of course, cost more than a shorter ADN degree or bridge program. The most recent (2017) figures from the National Center for Education Statistics show the average cost (tuition and fees) of a four-year degree is $15,512, and a two-year degree is around $3,518. You’ll want to do your research and reach out to the school you’re interested in to find out cost specifics.

You may be tempted to go with the cheaper option (associate’s degree), but if your future career plans involve midwifery or nurse practitioner, you’ll need a master’s degree. In this case, a bridge program can sometimes be a cost-effective option.

If you need help paying for your education, financial aid and scholarships are always available.

Are There Prerequisites?

An associate’s degree in nursing or a nursing diploma is required to practice as a registered nurse, but entry to a program is based on a few things.

  • Minimum SAT or ACT exam scores
  • GPA range between 2.0 and 3.25 (check your specific school’s requirements)
  • Three years of math, including geometry and algebra II
  • Three years of science, including biology and chemistry
  • Four years of English
  • Two years of a foreign language
  • Nursing entrance exams

Entrance Exams

Nursing schools want to ensure you’re competent in a variety of subjects before enrolling you in a program, so you’ll likely be asked to take an entrance exam. There are a few different entrance exams schools use, but two popular ones are:

Assessment Technologies Institute’s Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS)

The Test of Essential Academic Skills is one of the most common tests required of aspiring nurses. The test evaluates and measures proficiency in math, English, science, and reading. You’ll be tested on scientific reasoning, algebraic formulas, grammar, and life sciences.

National League for Nursing’s Pre-Admission Examination (PAX)

Administered by the National League for Nursing, the Pre-Admission, or “PAX,” exam covers reading comprehension, general biology, geometry, algebra, earth science, first aid, and health in a multiple-choice format.

What Accreditation is There for My Program?

Accreditation is a sure-fire way to know if a program meets nationally recognized nursing education standards. Independent accrediting organizations register schools once they’ve undergone an arduous application process. For students, attending an accredited school is a must if you’re hoping to receive financial aid. Secondly, earning a degree at one accredited school allows a student to pursue further education at other accredited schools.

In addition to looking for accreditation, follow these tips for picking the right nursing school and program.

What are My Continuing Education Requirements?

male nurse with colleagues standing behind him

Once you’re working as a registered nurse, you’ll be required to take additional educational courses throughout your career to keep your license current. While not all states mandate this, your employer might require it in order to maintain a specialty certification.

What Can I Expect to Earn as an RN?

Your pay as an RN depends on a number of things: where you live, what specialty you choose, and your experience, to name a new. The average annual RN salary, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $77,460.

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