How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

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Updated November 4, 2022

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Highly trained nurse practitioners are in demand and earn top pay. This guide explains how to become an NP, including nurse practitioner school requirements.
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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners (NPs) perform many of the same duties as physicians, and hold more responsibilities and authority than registered nurses (RNs).

This guide looks at what nurse practitioners do, how to become a nurse practitioner, and the potential specialization areas and work environments available to NPs.

How Long to Become

6 years, plus RN work experience

Job Outlook

46% growth from 2021-2031

Degree Required

Master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP)


What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

NPs hold advanced training in a nursing specialty area such as adult-gerontology, family nurse practice, neonatal, pediatrics, psychiatric, and women's health.

NPs diagnose and treat patients in hospitals, physician's offices, outpatient clinics, and community health centers.

Becoming a nurse practitioner can increase an RN's career advancement opportunities and earning potential. While nurse practitioner schooling takes about six years to complete, graduates find the extra school well worth the time and effort.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 46% growth rate for NP positions from 2021-2031 and reports a median annual salary of $123,780.

Visit the nurse practitioner career overview for additional information about what nurse practitioners do and where they work.

Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

NPs often start as licensed RNs with several years of clinical work experience. After beginning their master's or doctoral studies, prospective NPs must apply to a specific program.

Graduates take a national certification exam in their specialization to obtain advanced practice registered nursing (APRN) licensure in their state.

While NP education specifics depend on concentration areas and program offerings, most candidates complete the following steps.

1. Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree (BSN) Degree.

The first step toward becoming an NP entails earning a BSN. Traditional BSNs take four years to complete and include general education and nursing-specific coursework, along with hands-on clinical training.

Associate degree in nursing (ADN)-holders with RN licenses may enroll in RN-to-BSN bridge programs and quickly earn a BSN. There are other fast-track options for those with non-nursing bachelor's degrees who wish to earn a BSN.

Go to "Nurse Practitioner Schooling."

2. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam.

Prospective RNs must earn a passing score on the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure. The adaptive computerized exam consists of up to 145 questions and tailors itself to the test-taker's performance.

3. Gain RN Experience.

Most graduate programs require 1-2 years of clinical experience before admission. RNs can also use this time to explore specialties to help them decide on a future NP focus.

Go to "Choosing a Specialization."

4. Enroll in a Nursing Graduate Program.

Currently, a master of science in nursing (MSN) is the minimum educational requirement to become an NP. However, there are many advantages to pursuing a doctor of nursing practice (DNP).

By 2025, you need a DNP to become an APRN. For now, an MSN is still sufficient. DNPs come with higher earning potential, and increased job opportunities.

MSN programs last 1-2 years, and DNPs take 3-6 years to complete. Both degree tracks require students to focus on a population specialty.

Go to "NP Credentials."

5. Earn Specialty Certification and NP Licensure.

NPs become licensed as APRNs. While some licensing criteria may vary by state, all states require a passing score on a national board certification examination in the applicant's specialty area, such as critical care, family nurse practitioner, pediatrics, or women's health.

Administered by accredited certifying organizations, the rigorous exams test general advanced practice nursing competency and specialty population knowledge. Candidates can register for exams only in the areas in which they earned their degrees.

Go to "Working as an NP."

6. Find Employment.

NPs can work in a variety of settings. Some top work sites include hospital outpatient units, hospital inpatient units, private physician practice, and urgent care clinics.

NPs also work in community health centers, corporate clinics, federally qualified health centers, rural health clinics, and emergency rooms.

Many hospitals offer paid fellowship programs for NPs, allowing them to rotate through specialities with the possibility of an employment offer at the end. These fellowships provide a great way to break into the NP job market as a new graduate.

Featured Online RN-to-BSN Programs

Nurse Practitioner Schooling

The amount of time a candidate spends becoming a nurse practitioner depends on many factors: nursing education background, work experience, specialization, type of graduate degree pursued, and career goals.

The section below summarizes BSN, MSN, and DNP degrees' typical length, requirements, and content.

BSN Degree

Both ADN- and BSN-holders qualify to take the NCLEX-RN exam and obtain RN licensure. However, most NP schools offering MSN or DNP programs require BSNs for entry.

  • Admission Requirements

    Common admission requirements include a high school diploma, transcripts, a minimum 2.5-3.0 GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and a resume. Programs often ask for personal essays and letters of recommendation.

  • Program Curriculum

    BSN programs combine didactic coursework and clinical rotations at healthcare facilities. Representative courses include anatomy, nursing informatics, pathophysiology, pharmacology, research, and statistics. Clinical experiences involve shadowing RNs and applying classroom skills in healthcare settings.

  • Time to Complete

    BSN programs often take four years to complete. Transferable credits can shorten the timeline. RNs with ADNs or non-nursing bachelor's degrees may qualify for bridge or accelerated programs.

  • Skills Learned

    BSN curricula teach skills such as empathy, case management, community participation, critical thinking, decision-making, and leadership.


MSN Degree

NPs must hold a graduate-level nursing degree, or an MSN at minimum. Advantages to earning an MSN instead of a DNP include a shorter graduation timeline and fewer educational expenses.

  • Admission Requirements

    Most MSN programs require a BSN, an RN license, transcripts showing a 2.5-3.5 GPA or higher, personal essays, and recommendation letters. Some NP schools request GRE or MCAT scores and interviews.

  • Program Curriculum

    The MSN curriculum includes classroom study and clinical hours. While classes focus on students' specialty populations, core courses include advanced pharmacology, physiology, and pathophysiology; health assessment; and nursing administration and ethics.

  • Time to Complete

    MSN programs can take as little as a year to complete, but 1-2 years remains the norm. The exact time frame varies by concentration area, educational history, and enrollment status.

  • Skills Learned

    MSN programs emphasize core concepts such as master's-level nursing practice, advanced clinical skills, ethical decision-making, collaboration, and leadership. Students develop skills in organization, healthcare technologies, disease prevention, and health promotion.


Doctor of Nursing Practice

While the MSN remains the requisite degree for NPs, a DNP will become the new minimum in 2025. A DNP offers enhanced professional marketability, expertise, and salary potential.

  • Admission Requirements

    DNP schools often admit MSN-holders or BSN-holders who have completed nursing research and statistics prerequisites. Applicants submit transcripts demonstrating a minimum 3.0 GPA, valid RN license, resumes, and GRE scores.

  • Program Curriculum

    DNP programs encompass clinical, lab, and classroom experience. Common courses include advanced health assessment, pathophysiology/physiology, and pharmacology, along with contemporary issues in advanced nursing practice, healthcare economics and finance, principles of epidemiology, as well as a capstone project.

  • Time to Complete

    While full-time learners can complete their DNP in 3-4 years, many students continue working and attend school part time. Most schools allow completion within 6-7 years.

  • Skills Learned

    DNP-holders often take on leadership roles in large healthcare organizations or in clinical teaching and research. These positions demand skills such as attention to detail, critical thinking, communications, and resourcefulness.


NP Requirements By Degree Type

Associate Degree in Nursing

NP programs for individuals with an associate degree in nursing often require an RN license. While other admission requirements depend on the school, applicants often need a GPA of 3.0 or higher.

Additional admissions materials may include GRE test scores, letters of recommendation, official transcripts, a completed application, and a statement of purpose.

Learners can also explore RN-to-NP bridge programs and ADN-to-NP bridge programs, allowing students to satisfy degree requirements at an accelerated pace.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Many colleges and universities offer BSN-to-NP programs that require candidates to hold an RN license and a BSN. While admission requirements vary between institutions, applicants can expect some similarities between programs.

Prospective BSN students should provide a completed application along with their official high school transcripts. Most schools expect candidates to meet a minimum GPA requirement, often between 2.5 and 3.0. 

Other admissions materials can include letters of recommendation, a statement of purpose, and ACT or SAT test scores.

Some programs require degree-seekers to demonstrate at least one year of prior nursing experience, although many BSN-holders go directly into an NP program without practicing as an RN first. In addition, students can often earn their degree online and complete their clinical hours at a location near their residence.

Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree

Can you become a nurse practitioner with a biology major? Accelerated NP programs allow RNs who hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing discipline to satisfy BSN requirements before fulfilling nurse practitioner prerequisites.

Programs often require applicants to meet a minimum GPA requirement, such as 3.0 or higher. Other nurse practitioner admission requirements include a completed application, official transcripts, a statement of purpose, and letters of recommendation. 

Applicants may also need to take prerequisite courses in nutrition and human anatomy.

Candidates often hold at least two years of RN experience prior to admission, along with a strong academic record. Accelerated bachelor’s programs can last 2-4 years and consist of 45-55 course credits.

Students can explore a variety of flexible online programs, pursue their degree on campus, or enroll in hybrid programs, depending on their learning style.

Some NP programs accept applicants who do not hold an RN license and hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing discipline. These learners often hold a degree in a health or science-related field and must complete relevant prerequisite coursework.

Master of Science in Nursing

Prospective NPs can satisfy their state’s educational guidelines by earning an MSN or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). MSN programs take about two years to complete.

MSN candidates can take advantage of a variety of online program opportunities, which offer the flexibility learners need to continue working as they earn a degree. Once online students graduate, they can pursue national certification and begin working as NPs or enroll in a DNP program.

MSN-to-DNP program

Many nurses who want to expand their career opportunities enroll in DNP programs. Some colleges and universities offer MSN-to-DNP programs, which allow candidates to pursue an advanced degree in an accelerated format. 

Since learners in these programs already hold a master’s, they spend significantly less time earning a doctoral degree than individuals who hold only a bachelor’s or associate degree.

MSN-to-DNP candidates can often complete their program in as little as one year. Most curricula include 30-40 credits of coursework and around 500 hours of supervised clinical experience.

Popular Nurse Practitioner Courses

Course content varies depending on a program's specialization area(s). However, most curriculums include foundational courses for MSN students in ethics, health assessment, primary care, clinical decision-making, and healthcare policy.

These courses impart key concepts applicable to nurse practitioner focus areas ranging from adult-gerontology and acute care to pediatrics and psychiatric/mental health.

Here are sample descriptions of these courses:

1 Nursing Ethics

Topics in this course cover ethical issues in nursing practice and leadership, including ethical questions faced by NPs and the application of professional codes of ethics.

2 Advanced Health Assessment

This course combines theory and lab work to teach assessment skills and diagnostic reasoning for advanced clinical practice. Students learn to differentiate normal anatomic and physiological variations across the lifespan.

3 Primary Care Nursing

In this course, students analyze theoretical skills and apply clinical knowledge to diagnosis, evaluation, evidence-based practice, and management in primary care nursing of individuals and families.

4 Clinical Decision-Making

Enrollees gain skills in clinical diagnostic, problem-solving, and reasoning by applying theoretical concepts to hands-on clinical practice and holistic primary care.

5 Healthcare Policies and Issues in Practice

Learners develop skills in synthesizing organizational leadership, theory, and management processes to influence healthcare policy from historical, ideological, political, socio-economic, and technological perspectives.

How Much Will an NP Degree Cost?

Tuition at nurse practitioner schools varies significantly. Degree level (MSN, DNP, or postgraduate certificate), type of college (public or private), residency status (in state or out of state), and program length all affect cost. Other considerations include school prestige, program format (online or in person), and credit requirements.

Nurse practitioner candidates may pay around $30,000-$98,000 in tuition to earn their degrees. Attending a public university and paying in-state tuition often offers a more affordable option than enrolling in a private institution and paying out-of-state tuition.

Prospective students need to consider other costs they may incur during their studies, including housing, travel, books, and tech-related expenses.Financing options for nurse practitionerdegrees include scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans.

Nursing majors can also pursue student loan forgiveness programs. In addition, many larger medical centers associated with schools of nursing will offer tuition reimbursement for RNs pursuing MSN/DNP programs.

How to Select Your Nurse Practitioner School

Depending on your career goals, you will have specific criteria in mind when selecting a nurse practitioner program. Whether you're interested in attending a prestigious nursing school or a program that you can complete as quickly as possible, tuition costs are often key factors for many students.

This section examines important considerations when choosing a school.

How Much Will an NP Degree Cost?

Tuition at nurse practitioner schools varies significantly. Degree level (MSN, DNP, or postgraduate certificate), type of college (public or private), residency status (in state or out of state), and program length all affect cost. Other considerations include school prestige, program format (online or in person), and credit requirements.

Nurse practitioner candidates may pay around $30,000-$98,000 in tuition to earn their degrees. Attending a public university and paying in-state tuition often offers a more affordable option than enrolling in a private institution and paying out-of-state tuition.

Prospective students need to consider other costs they may incur during their studies, including housing, travel, books, and tech-related expenses.Financing options for nurse practitionerdegrees include scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans.

Nursing majors can also pursue student loan forgiveness programs. In addition, many larger medical centers associated with schools of nursing will offer tuition reimbursement for RNs pursuing MSN/DNP programs.

How to Select Your Nurse Practitioner School

Depending on your career goals, you will have specific criteria in mind when selecting a nurse practitioner program. Whether you're interested in attending a prestigious nursing school or a program that you can complete as quickly as possible, tuition costs are often key factors for many students.

This section examines important considerations when choosing a school.

  • Competitiveness

    The best nursing programs can be difficult to get into, so the competitiveness of the school is important to understand. If you have the grades and the test scores, an Ivy League or top-tier state school may be the best way to achieve your professional aspirations. If not, quality programs exist at lesser-known schools.

  • Program Length

    MSN programs average about 2-3 years to complete, but your individual circumstances can alter the time frame.

    If you need to continue working while you're earning your graduate nursing degree, you may be looking at a year or two more of schooling. But an accelerated curriculum may be for you if you want to (and can) graduate as soon as possible.

  • Cost/Financial Aid

    A program's tuition and other expenses are a concern for many nursing students. Questions to ask include what kind of financial aid is available, whether taking online courses can save money, and if a less expensive school can get you where you want to go.

  • Accreditation

    Regardless of which program you select, you want to make sure that it holds accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Accreditation is important to ensure that the curriculum meets national standards for nurse practitioner education.

    Employers may require graduation from an accredited program, and government financial aid applies only to accredited schools. Furthermore, to sit for any certification exams and to become licensed in any state as an advanced registered nurse practitioner (ARNP), you need to attend an accredited program.

Choosing a Specialization

Graduate nursing students focus on patient populations and specialization areas that determine their coursework, clinical rotations, and board certification, in addition to their future career. Pathways lead to a variety of clinical, research, and administrative positions, and NP specialties like adult-gerontology are in demand.

NPs at the MSN level often pursue concentrations like acute care, family practice, mental health, nursing education, pain management, and women's health.

DNPs often specialize in areas such as nurse anesthesia, midwifery, pediatric endocrinology, psychiatric nursing, and clinical research. Additionally, DNPs can teach at the graduate level. Many MSN programs require their instructors to hold a DNP.

See the list below for additional specialty areas.

Pain Management Nurse Practitioner

Pain management nurse practitioners work with patients experiencing chronic or acute pain and prescribe treatments.

  • Salary: $102,247
  • Job Outlook: 46% job growth for all NPs between 2021-2031

Family Nurse Practitioner

A family nurse practitioner typically works as a primary care provider for patients of all ages in different healthcare settings. Most nurse practitioners work as family NPs.

  • Salary: $97,940
  • Job Outlook: 46% job growth for all NPs between 2021-2031

Neonatal Nurse Practitioner

Neonatal nurse practitioners provide nursing care for newborn infants, generally in hospitals. While they care for infants, they also work with the new parents.

  • Salary: $110,330
  • Job Outlook: 46% job growth for all NPs between 2021-2031

Adult Nurse Practitioner

Adult nurse practitioners provide primary care for adults in a range of healthcare settings, including hospitals, health systems, and independent practices.

  • Salary: $102,570
  • Job Outlook: 46% job growth for all NPs between 2021-2031

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Psychiatric nurse practitioners, also known as mental health nurse practitioners, specialize in providing mental health treatment, in both inpatient and outpatient settings.

  • Salary: $112,950
  • Job Outlook: 46% job growth for all NPs between 2021-2031

Women's Health Nurse Practitioner

Women's health nurse practitioners specialize in women's health, especially obstetric and gynecological (ob/gyn) health. They typically work in hospitals, health systems, and independent practices.

  • Salary: $96,500
  • Job Outlook: 46% job growth for all NPs between 2021-20301

Nurse Practitioner Credentials

NPs must earn and maintain two types of credentials: state licensure and national board certification. Candidates seeking board certification take an exam that tests their competency in her or his specialty area, and the certification and graduate education specialties must match. State nursing boards require national certification for NP licensure.

Certifications

Mandatory certification requires passing a specialty-area examination from an organization like:

The examinee's specialty area determines which exam they take.

Depending on the certifying body, NPs may need to complete clinical practice hours, take advanced continuing education courses, or recertify by examination.

Licensure

NPs must hold a current RN license and an APRN license. State licensure boards impose their own licensing criteria but often require an MSN (at minimum) or a DNP from an accredited graduate nursing program and a passing score on the certification exam in the applicant's specialty area.

State law mandates NPs' scope of practice, along with the type of prescriptive authority. Renewal requirements also follow state law but tend to mirror the requirements for national certification maintenance.

Working as a Nurse Practitioner

Recent graduates can take advantage of their program's career counseling services to find jobs, or tap into the contacts made during their clinical rotations.

Most NPs enjoy an average annual salary over $100,000, even just starting, and work in many different settings.

1. Private Group Practices

NPs practice primary or specialty patient care, manage assessment and treatment, and direct referrals to other healthcare providers.

2. Hospitals

NPs work with both inpatient and outpatient primary or specialty care, direct assessment and diagnosis, advise patients on care, and lead and supervise nursing teams.

3. Community Health Centers

Practitioners treat illnesses and injuries, educate patients on improving and maintaining good health, conduct exams, and administer vaccinations.

Questions About Becoming a Nurse Practitioner


How many years does it take to become a nurse practitioner?

NPs can spend six years earning their undergraduate and graduate degrees and gaining work experience in a clinical setting. Accelerated programs along with RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN bridge programs can shorten the time to an NP career. Certain specializations and part-time study can extend a candidate's timeline.

What is the quickest way to become a nurse practitioner?

The quickest way to becoming an NP involves earning a two-year ADN, obtaining an RN license, working for 1-2 years, and entering a two- to three-year RN-to-MSN bridge program. Students seeking to fast track their NP schooling should expect to study full time for 4-5 years.

How hard is it to become a nurse practitioner?

NP education can be challenging. Courses cover advanced healthcare topics and ethical considerations. Clinical rotations involve long hours standing and walking (and sometimes running, in the case of emergency medicine). Many candidates struggle with testing, and prospective NPs must pass the NCLEX-RN and board certification exams.

Do nurse practitioners get paid well?

A 2019 AANP report cited the median base salary for a full-time NP at $110,000. Top-earning NPs included those with adult psychiatric/mental health certification who earned $125,000 a year, and emergency room NPs who made $135,000. NPs in California and Hawaii out-earned those in other states, enjoying salaries above $140,000.


Page Last Reviewed: October 10, 2022


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