Nurse Extern vs. Intern: What Are the Differences?

Charmaine Robinson, MSN-Ed, RN
Updated May 12, 2023
    Explore the differences between a nurse extern and intern and ways to prepare for each role.
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    • Nursing externships and internships offer you the opportunity to experience the real world of nursing.
    • Your decision to select a nurse externship versus internship has to do with knowing what you want to gain from the experience.
    • Finding the best opportunities requires a combination of dedication, openness, and the willingness to put yourself out there.

    Nursing externships and internships are vital for the transition from student to nurse. Explore the differences between the two and discover ways to land opportunities.

    Nurse Extern vs. Nurse Intern: Differences Explained

    Nursing externships and internships are great ways for you to prepare for your nursing career. Uncover the differences between the two and what makes each one unique.

    The Differences Between Nurse Externs and Nurse Interns

     Nurse ExternNurse Intern
    Program LengthA few weeksSeveral months (up to an entire school year)
    Eligibility RequirementsStudents must be enrolled in a nursing program and have completed at least one or two semesters/quarters.Students must be enrolled in a nursing program; final-year students are most eligible.
    Job ResponsibilitiesBasic tasks similar to a nursing assistantClinical nursing tasks
    Pay PotentialPaid or unpaid. Pay is comparable to a nursing assistant.Paid or unpaid. Average yearly pay in the U.S. is $47,360. (ZipRecruiter, April 2023).

    Program Length

    The goal of an externship is to introduce you to the real world of nursing independent of your school training. The program generally lasts a few weeks — enough time to familiarize you with the role of a nurse in a particular setting.

    The goal of an internship is to provide you with an extended opportunity to sharpen your clinical skills. As a nurse intern, you will practice under the direct supervision of a nurse. The program can last for several months and up to an entire school year.

    Eligibility Requirements

    Student nurses and nurse graduates who have yet to be licensed are eligible for externships. Facilities may require that you have been a nursing student for at least one or two semesters/quarters (some require up to two years).

    For nurse internships, your student nurse enrollment status gives you eligibility. Student nurses who are enrolled in the last year of a nursing program are most eligible for nurse internships.

    Job Responsibilities

    As a nurse extern, your primary role is to shadow a nurse. Some basic tasks include assisting the nurse with bedside skills, taking vital signs, collecting specimens, and performing clerical duties, essentially fulfilling the role of a nursing assistant.

    As a nurse intern, you perform nursing tasks similar to those you did during your clinical rotations. Some tasks include physical assessments, medication passes, patient education, bedside skills, and overall management of care.

    Pay Potential

    Nurse externships may be paid or unpaid. The pay may be comparable to a nursing assistant since your responsibilities do not require extensive clinical training.

    Earning potential for a nurse intern can depend on how the internship was arranged. If arranged by a nursing school, you will likely not receive pay as the internship is part of the curriculum and a prerequisite for graduation.

    If you arrange the internship yourself, you may or may not receive pay depending on the facility. According to ZipRecruiter, as of April 2023 the average pay for a nurse intern in the U.S. is $47,360 in comparison to $64,110 for an entry-level registered nurse.

    When determining which path you will take, consider what you want to achieve from the experience. If you want to gain more confidence in your nursing skills, an internship may be best because you can practice and perfect your skills.

    If you simply want to see what it would be like to work in a particular setting, an externship may be a great option, as you can get a feel for the environment without having to complete clinical tasks.

    If you want to get your foot in the door at a particular facility, an internship may be a great way to showcase your skills. Regardless of which path you choose, both programs are great ways to gain professional nursing experience.

    How to Find Nursing Internship and Externship Opportunities

    Finding nursing internship and externship opportunities does not have to be hard. A combination of determination and the willingness to put yourself out there can make all the difference.

    Here are three ways to find programs.

    1. 1

      Do a basic internet search

      You can find many of these programs through a basic internet search. Job boards (like,, and post opportunities too. Consider these internships and volunteer opportunities for pre-nursing students available in your state. You can also search for local job fairs and recruiting events for nurses.

    2. 2

      Reach out to facilities on your own

      Sometimes finding the right opportunity is simply a matter of asking for a chance. Try reaching out to local nursing homes, hospitals, and clinics for opportunities.

      Show that you are prepared by doing your research about the facility. Bring your resume, transcripts, and recommendation letters.

    3. 3

      Get your foot in the door

      If your goal is to find an internship, start out as a nurse extern first to get your foot in the door. A facility may choose to offer you an externship over an internship to reduce costs and legal risks.

      If permitted, introduce yourself to managers in various departments and offer help as needed. Make yourself memorable. You may be invited back as an intern one day.

    Preparing for a Nursing Internship or Externship

    Not ready to take the plunge yet? There are simple things you can do now to prepare for a nurse internship or externship. Start by learning what to expect, like common nursing internship dos and don’ts.

    Here are four more ways to prepare.

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      Keep your grades up

      Maintaining a good grade point average will show that you are a dedicated hard worker. Once you are ready to apply for these opportunities, you can show that you are a capable candidate for the position.

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      Start networking with other nursing professionals

      Professional networking in nursing is a great way to start preparing for these opportunities. Try joining LinkedIn or student nurse groups on Facebook for advice and support. Find a nurse mentor who can help you find opportunities in the future.

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      Get close to your nursing instructors

      While nursing instructors primarily teach, they can also connect you with the right person who may offer you an opportunity in the future. Ask them for recommendation letters and, if possible, keep in contact with them. If you have already graduated, try reaching out to your most recent instructors.

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      Start basic volunteering

      Volunteering shows that you can be committed to something for a cause. If facilities see that you have volunteered in the past, they may be more likely to offer you a volunteer nurse extern/intern position.

      Whether you are still a student or have graduated, there is still time to start preparing and searching for nurse internships and externships. Be open to opportunities and remain persistent as you move toward your goal of becoming a nurse.