How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
January 20, 2022 · 6 Min Read
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This guide covers everything you need to know about becoming a nurse practitioner in six steps.
Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?
Nurse practitioners (NPs) perform many of the same duties as physicians and hold more responsibilities and authority than registered nurses (RNs).
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 52% growth in employment for APRNs from 2020 to 2030 and earn a median salary of $117,670 per year as of November 2021.
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.
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 can take between two to six years to complete, graduates find it well worth the time and effort. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 45% growth rate for NP positions from 2019-2029 and reports a median annual salary of $117,670.
Visit our nurse practitioner career overview for additional information about what nurse practitioners do and where they work.
Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner
NPs typically start as licensed RNs with several years of clinical work experience. After beginning their master's or doctoral studies, prospective NPs select a patient population-based specialty area. Graduates take a national certification exam in their specialization to obtain advanced practice registered nursing licensure in their state.
While NP education specifics depend on concentration areas and program offerings with licensure requirements varying by state, 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. Other fast-track options exist for those with non-nursing bachelor's degrees who wish to earn a BSN.
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 computerized exam consists primarily of up to 205 multiple choice questions along with additional question formats and tailors question difficulty 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.
4. Enroll in a Nursing Graduate Program
Currently, a master of science in nursing (MSN) comprises the minimum educational requirement to become an NP. However, there are many advantages to pursuing a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). These include adapting to a possible shift to the DNP as the minimum NP degree, 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.
5. Earn Specialty Certification and NP Licensure
NPs become licensed as advanced practice registered nurses (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 only register for exams in the areas in which they earned their degrees.
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 which allows them to rotate through specialities with the possibility of employment at the end. These fellowships offer a great way to break into the NP job market as a new graduate.
Nurse Practitioner Education Requirements
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) cites two key schooling requirements for NPs. A candidate must hold at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) to enter graduate-level NP school. Secondly, candidates must complete a general or specialized master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.
An MSN is the minimum education needed to qualify for NP licensure. However, organizations like the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) advocate for the DNP designation to become the new standard for APRNs. Therefore, prospective NPs may avoid the need to upgrade their credentials in the future by opting for a DNP instead of an MSN.
Notably, multiple nursing schools offer BSN-to-DNP programs that allow students entering with a bachelor’s degree to graduate with terminal credentials. These programs generally demand a greater time commitment, but they also maximize students’ career potential since they culminate in the highest degree designation.
Meanwhile, experienced RNs seeking quick advancement may find more value in accelerated MSN programs. The links below detail the various educational paths a student can follow to earn the educational credentials needed for NP licensure.
The amount of time a candidate spends becoming a nurse practitioner depends on many factors, including 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.
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 usually 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.
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 has become a more popular option. A DNP offers enhanced professional marketability, expertise, and salary potential.
- Admission Requirements: DNP schools generally 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, and principles of epidemiology.
- Time to Complete: While full-time learners typically 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 assume 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
NP programs for individuals with an associate degree in nursing typically require an RN license. While other admissions requirements depend on the individual school, applicants are often required to hold 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.
Many colleges and universities offer BSN-to-NP programs that require candidates to hold an RN license and a BSN. While admissions 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; usually, between 2.5 and 3.0. Other admission 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.
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. While most programs set slightly different admissions criteria, they also hold some similarities.
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 typically 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.
Prospective NPs can satisfy their state’s educational guidelines by earning a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Typically, 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.
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. Students interested in learning more about MSN-to-DNP programs can find more information on this page.
Featured Online Programs
Popular Nurse Practitioner Courses
Courses vary among the best NP schools, but most programs require core and elective classes, along with clinical/practicum hours. Degree level and specialization will influence coursework.
An NP curriculum usually covers advanced health evaluation, nursing ethics, advanced pharmacology, and issues in healthcare policy. Below, we describe five common courses for nurse practitioner students.
How Much Will an NP Degree Cost?
Tuition at nurse practitioner schools varies significantly depending on factors. Degree level (MSN, DNP, or post-graduate 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 typically 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 practitioner degrees include scholarships, fellowships, grants, and loans. Nursing majors can also pursue student loan forgiveness programs.
How to Select Your Nurse Practitioner School
Prospective enrollees should research many factors to choose their nurse practitioner programs. Below, we describe some of the most important considerations.
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 typically pursue concentrations like acute care, family practice, mental health, nursing education, pain management, and women's health. DNPs generally 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 a DNP for their instructors.
See the list below for additional specialty areas.
Pain Management Nurse Practitioner
Family Nurse Practitioner
Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
Adult Nurse Practitioner
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner
Nurse Practitioner Licensure and Certification
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.
Mandatory certification requires passing a specialty-area examination from an organization like the American Nurses Credentialing Center, American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Pediatric Nursing Certification Board, American Association of Nurse Practitioners, and National Certification Corporation. The examinee's specialty area determines which exam they must take.
Depending on the certifying body, NPs may need to complete clinical practice hours, take advanced continuing education courses, or recertify by examination.
NPs can choose from more than a dozen certifications. Some examples include:
- Acute care nurse practitioner
- Cardiac nurse practitioner
- Certified pediatric nurse
- Family nurse practitioner
- Oncology certified nurse
Nurse practitioners can also add specialized certifications, such as:
- Adult gerontology (acute or primary care) nurse practitioner
- Neonatal nurse practitioner
- Orthopedic nurse practitioner
- Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner
- Women's health nurse practitioner
Eligibility requirements for these certifications vary. For example, highly specialized certifications often demand that candidates have active NP licensure and significant, recent clinical experience in the desired practice area. General credentials like family nurse practitioner certification are available to candidates with an RN license and an MSN or DNP degree.
NPs can hold multiple certifications. Many NPs begin with generalized credentials and add specialized certifications as they gain experience and develop new areas of professional interest. These certifications typically need renewing every 3-5 years. Renewal standards differ by certification.
NP Recertification Requirements
Recertification requirements vary according to specialty area. The following table explores renewal requirements from the American Nurse Credentialing Center, the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board, the National Certification Corporation, and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program.
- Specialties: Acute Care, Adult, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care, Adult-Gerontology Primary Care, Adult Psychiatric-Mental Health, Family, Gerontological, Pediatric Primary Care, Psychiatric-Mental Health, School, and Emergency
- Renewal Cycle: Every 5 years
- Requirements: To renew ANCC certification, professionals should provide evidence of continual learning and competence by completing activities in the following categories: Assessment, Practice hours, Professional service, Preceptorship, Publication or Research, Presentations and lectures, Academic courses, and Continuing education
- Specialties: Pediatric Primary Care and Pediatric Acute Care
- Renewal Cycle: Every year
- Requirements: Professionals must recertify annually, completing PNCB Pediatric Updates modules and pharmacology coursework over a seven-year period. Individuals can track their seven-year cycle requirements online.
- Specialties: Neonatal and Women’s Health
- Renewal Cycle: Every three years
- Requirements: Candidates receive an education plan developed according to the results of their continuing competency assessment. This plan determines the number and type of continuing education hours needed to maintain certification. Requirements range from 10-50 hours.
- Specialties: Adult, Family, Gerontological, and Adult-Gerontology Primary Care
- Renewal Cycle: Every five years
- Requirements: Professionals can recertify by completing at least 1,000 hours of clinical practice and 100 contact hours of advanced CE credits, or by completing either the A-GNP or FNP National Certification Exam.
NPs must hold a current RN license and an APRN license. State licensure boards impose their own licensing criteria but generally 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 usually 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.
Private Group Practices
NPs practice primary or specialty patient care, manage assessment and treatment, and direct referrals to other healthcare providers.
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.
Community Health Centers
Practitioners treat illnesses and injuries, educate patients on improving and maintaining good health, conduct exams, and administer vaccinations.
The NP Job Hunt
Experts recommend that nurse practitioner job-seekers always update their resumes before entering the employment market. In addition to their advanced credentials, NP school graduates also accumulate significant clinical hours, which their resumes should highlight.
Many nurse practitioner schools offer career services to place graduates in APRN positions. These are great places to launch an NP job search. Other avenues include personal and professional networks and professional organizations that offer employment listings.
The following job boards can help new NPs find work:
Should I Become a Nurse Practitioner?
Prospective nurse practitioners should evaluate whether the role matches their personal and professional goals. Experienced RNs with BSNs typically need to pursue an additional 2-4 years of education to acquire the necessary degrees and certifications. Nurse practitioners also carry more responsibility than RNs, which can cause stress.
With this increased responsibility comes higher pay. As of May 2020, the BLS reports a median annual salary of $75,330 per year for RNs, while APRNs earned $117,670. Over a 25-year career, that can translate to more than $1 million in additional earning potential at current rates.
Aspiring nurse practitioners must display high levels of drive and commitment to succeed. As such, becoming a nurse practitioner generally appeals to ambitious RNs seeking to advance to their profession’s highest level.
Becoming a Nurse Practitioner: FAQs
How many years does it take to become a nurse practitioner?
NPs typically 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. Conversely, 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.
Learn More About Nurse Practitioners
Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, is a nursing professional with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.
Gleason is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners here.
Page last reviewed November 30, 2021
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