How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Jody Dugan, RN, BSN
Updated May 29, 2024
Edited by
Reviewed by
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Highly trained nurse practitioners are in demand and earn top pay. Find out how to become an NP, including requirements for nurse practitioner programs.
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Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Nurse practitioners (NPs) rank among the highest-paid nurses and are in high demand. They share many responsibilities as doctors and are qualified to manage most patients’ healthcare needs, depending on the state.

Learn how to become a nurse practitioner, including certification requirements, education, and work settings.

How Long to Become

8-11 years, plus RN work experience

Degree Required


Job Outlook for All NPs

45% growth from 2022-2032

Popular Online NP Programs

Learn about start dates, transferring credits, availability of financial aid, and more by contacting the universities below.

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What is a Nurse Practitioner?

NPs perform many of the same duties as physicians and hold more responsibilities and authority than registered nurses (RNs). These healthcare professionals assess, diagnose, and treat patients in hospitals, nursing homes, physician’s offices, and community health settings.

Depending on their state’s practice authority, an NP may work independently or require a collaborative agreement with a physician to practice or prescribe medications. A collaborative agreement specifies activities that fall within the NP’s scope of practice.

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

Becoming a nurse practitioner can increase an RN’s career advancement opportunities and earning potential. While nurse practitioner schooling is an additional 2-3 years after completing a bachelor’s degree, a doctorate would take an additional 3-5 years.

Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner must have a master’s degree, active RN and NP licensure, and board certification in their specialty. Most employers require NPs to obtain basic life support certification, and some stipulate that they earn advanced cardiac life support credentials.

  1. 1

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

    Earning a BSN is the first step toward becoming an NP. Traditional BSNs take four years to complete, including general education, nursing-specific coursework, and hands-on clinical training. Associate degree in nursing (ADN)-holders with RN licenses may enroll in RN-to-BSN bridge programs and quickly earn BSNs. Those with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees who wish to earn BSNs can enroll in accelerated BSN programs.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam.

    Prospective RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for RNs (NCLEX-RN) to obtain licensure. The adaptive computerized exam contains 75-145 questions and tailors itself to the test-taker’s performance. The NCLEX-RN assesses clinical knowledge of four key areas: safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

  3. 3

    Gain Nursing Experience.

    Most graduate programs require 1-2 years of patient-centered nursing experience to enroll. Exploring different clinical settings and identifying your areas of interest can help you select a primary specialty and healthcare location to gain experience.

    As you choose a role in the field that attracts you, hands-on nursing practice will allow you to develop and refine your clinical skills and judgment. For example, working on a pediatric unit would be key for the pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP) path.

  4. 4

    Enroll in a Nursing Graduate Program.

    After gaining nursing experience, you can research schools and enroll in an NP program that aligns with your specialization. Admission requirements typically include a BSN, RN license, transcripts, personal essays, and letters of recommendation. Some graduate programs also require GRE or MCAT scores.

    The NP program curriculum includes classroom study (virtual or on-campus) and supervised clinical placements. Top-rated schools such as Georgetown University offer objective clinical intensives (OCIs) as an opportunity to work with other students and enhance your clinical nursing practice.

    Currently, the minimum educational requirement for NPs is an MSN degree. However, pursuing a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) has many advantages, and by 2025, NPs will be required to have DNPs. DNPs come with higher earning potential and increased job opportunities.

    MSN programs last 1-2 years, while DNPs take 3-6 years to complete. Both degree tracks require students to focus on specific populations or conditions.

  5. 5

    Earn Specialty Certification and NP Licensure.

    NPs must become licensed in their states to practice. While some licensing criteria may vary by state, all states require an advanced nursing degree and a passing score on a national board certification examination in the applicant’s specialty area, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP), psychiatric, pediatrics, or women’s health.

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

  6. 6

    Find Employment.

    Clinical experience and a professional resume largely determine a candidate’s ability to find an NP position. Skills in networking, the job search process, and interviewing are also key factors. NPs can also join professional organizations to find open roles.

    Using traditional job boards and searching directly on healthcare organization websites are places to start your search. Job fairs, agency recruiters, professional organizations, and networking sites like LinkedIn are valuable resources to identify opportunities.

    Like RNs, the primary focus for licensed NPs is patient care. However, NPs possess added responsibilities such as diagnosing patients, performing surgical procedures, ordering tests, and prescribing medications.

Nurse Practitioner Education

The amount of time a candidate spends becoming a nurse practitioner depends on many factors, such as education level, work experience, specialization, and career goals.

Explore the typical length, requirements, and curriculum for BSN, MSN, and DNP degrees below.

BSN Degree

Individuals with ADNs and BSNs qualify for the NCLEX-RN exam and obtain RN licensure. However, most NP schools offering MSN or DNP programs require BSNs for admission.

  • 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. Typical courses include anatomy, nursing informatics, pathophysiology, pharmacology, research, and statistics. Clinical experiences involve shadowing RNs and applying nursing skills in healthcare settings.
  • Time to Complete: BSN programs often take four years to complete, but transferable credits can shorten this timeline. RNs with ADNs and students with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees may qualify for bridge and/or accelerated programs.

  • Skills Learned: BSN curricula foster hard and soft skills, including empathy, case management, critical thinking, decision-making, and leadership.

MSN Degree

An NP must hold a graduate-level nursing degree, typically an MSN at minimum. Earning an MSN instead of a DNP has advantages, including a shorter graduation timeline and a lower overall financial burden.

  • Admission Requirements: Most MSN programs require a BSN, an RN license, transcripts with a 2.5-3.5 GPA or higher, personal essays, and recommendation letters. Some NP schools request GRE scores and admission interviews.
  • Program Curriculum: MSN programs include 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: Accelerated MSN programs can take as little as a year to complete, but 1-2 years is the typical length for full-time programs. The exact time frame varies with concentration area, educational history, and enrollment status.

  • Skills Learned: MSN programs emphasize advanced clinical skills, ethical decision-making, collaboration, and leadership. Students develop their organization, healthcare technologies, disease prevention, and health promotion abilities, as well.

Doctor of Nursing Practice

Earning a DNP can deliver enhanced professional marketability, expertise, and salary potential.

  • Admission Requirements: DNP schools often admit MSN degree holders who have completed nursing research and statistics prerequisites. Applicants must submit transcripts demonstrating a minimum 3.0 GPA, a valid RN license, resumes, and GRE scores. DNP bridge programs combine MSN and DNP coursework for candidates with BSNs.
  • Program Curriculum: DNP programs comprise clinical, lab, and classroom experience. Common courses include advanced health assessment, pharmacology, healthcare economics and finance, and a capstone project.
  • Time to Complete: While full-time learners can complete DNPs in 3-4 years, many students continue working while attending school part time. Most schools allow part-time completion within 6-7 years.

  • Skills Learned: Professionals with DNPs often take on leadership roles in large healthcare organizations or academia. These positions demand strong attention to detail, critical thinking, communication, and resourcefulness.

Popular Nurse Practitioner Courses

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

These courses cover key concepts in focus areas like adult-gerontology, family care, pediatrics, and psychiatric/mental health. Common courses include:

  • minus

    Advanced Pharmacology

    This course provides information on the physiological effects that medications have on the body, and how to administer and monitor drug therapy.

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    Advanced Pathophysiology

    Students learn advanced anatomy and physiology, how body systems function to maintain homeostasis, and pathophysiology — the changes that occur due to disease.

  • minus

    Nursing Ethics

    This course covers ethical issues in nursing practice and leadership, including questions NPs face and the application of professional codes of ethics.

  • minus

    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 anatomic and physiological variations across the lifespan.

  • minus

    Primary Care Nursing

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

  • minus

    Clinical Decision-Making

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

  • minus

    Healthcare Policies and Issues in Practice

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

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 you can complete as quickly as possible, tuition costs and accreditation are key factors for many students.

  • Competitiveness: The best nursing programs are selective. 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, you can research high-quality programs at lesser-known schools.
  • Program Length: MSN programs take an average of 2-3 years to complete, but your circumstances can alter the time frame. If you need to continue working while earning your graduate nursing degree, you may be looking at 1-2 more years of schooling.
  • Cost/Financial Aid: A program’s tuition and other expenses concern many nursing students. Research financial aid availability, online tuition and fees, and if the program aligns with your professional goals.
  • Accreditation: Regardless of which program you select, ensure that it holds accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. Accreditation confirms that the curriculum meets national standards for nurse practitioner education. Employers require graduation from an accredited program, and government financial aid applies only to accredited schools. Furthermore, to sit for certification exams and become licensed in any state as an NP, you must attend an accredited program.

NP Admissions Requirements By Degree Type

Associate Degree in Nursing

Associate-level nurses can pursue RN-to-NP bridge programs, also called ADN-to-NP bridge programs. Applicants must hold RN licensure for admission. While other requirements depend on the school, candidates often need GPAs of 3.0 or higher.

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

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Many colleges and universities offer BSN-to-NP programs, which require candidates to hold RN licensure and bachelor’s-level nursing degrees. While admission requirements vary among institutions, applicants can expect some similarities.

A prospective BSN student should provide a completed application, pay the required fee, and submit official high school transcripts. Most schools expect candidates to meet a minimum GPA requirement, often in the 2.5-3.0 range. Many programs require degree-seekers to demonstrate at least one year of prior nursing experience.

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

Non-Nursing Bachelor’s Degree

If you hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree and want to make a career change, consider a direct-entry NP program. The fast-paced curriculum in these degrees combines undergraduate and graduate-level nursing studies.

Prerequisites include anatomy and basic science classes, as well as a minimum 3.0 GPA. Other admission requirements may include official transcripts, a statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, and a Test of Essential Academic Skills score of 66 or higher.

Master of Science in Nursing

An DNP-NP program offers the highest level of education in nursing and can lead to the top-ranking nurse leadership positions. Admission materials differ by institution, but most require MSNs from accredited nursing schools. Some schools offer DNP-bridge or dual degree programs and accept applicants with BSNs.

Added admission materials may include a valid unencumbered RN license, 1-2 years of nursing experience, official transcripts, a minimum 3.0 GPA, a resume, and GRE scores.

How Much Will an NP Degree Cost?

Tuition at nurse practitioner schools varies significantly depending on

  • Degree level (MSN, DNP, or postgraduate certificate)
  • Type of college (public or private)
  • Residency status (in-state or out-of-state)
  • Program length
  • School prestige
  • Program format (online or in person)
  • Credit requirements

Nurse practitioner candidates may pay around $20,260-$166,500 in tuition to earn their degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Attending a public university and paying in-state tuition is typically more affordable than enrolling in a private institution or paying out-of-state tuition.

Prospective students must consider other costs they may incur during their studies, including housing, travel, books, and technology. Nursing students can pay for their degrees with scholarships, fellowships, grants, loans, and employer assistance.

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

Nurse Practitioner Credentials

NPs must earn and maintain two credentials: state licensure and national board certification. Candidates seeking board certification take an exam that tests their competency in their specialty area. Nurses’ certification and graduate education specialties must match. All but two state nursing boards require national certification for NP licensure.


Certification requires each aspiring NP to earn an advanced nursing degree, complete 500-800 practicum hours within their NP program, and pass a certification exam in their specialty area.

Recertification requirements vary by certification body, but NPs usually must complete 1,000 clinical practice hours, take advanced continuing education courses, or recertify by examination. Salary information is from the AANP’s 2020 National Nurse Practitioner Sample Survey.

  • Family Nurse Practitioner from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP):

    FNPs provide primary care to patients of all ages, from infancy to older adults. These professionals assess, screen, diagnose, and treat patients with preventive and disease management care.

    Median Total Salary: $115,000

  • Primary Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner from the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board:

    The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board and the ANCC offer a certification for PNPs in primary care. These NPs provide primary care to patients from birth to young adults. CPNP-PCs assess, screen, diagnose, and treat this population.

    Median Total Salary: $119,000

  • Acute Care Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner from the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board:

    The acute care certified pediatric nurse practitioner (CPNP-AC) provides comprehensive care to patients from birth to young adults who present with critical and life-threatening illnesses.

    Median Total Salary: $135,000

  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner from the ANCC or AANP:

    An adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP) provides an integrated primary care approach to the older adult population.

    Median Total Salary: $116,000

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) :

    Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AGACNPs) care for adults, older adults, and elderly patients with complex acute, critical, and chronic illnesses.

    Median Total Salary: $117,000

  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner from the ANCC or AANP:

    Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) duties include assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients with mental health conditions. A PMHNP can prescribe medications and deliver psychotherapy.

    Median Total Salary: $136,000

  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner from the National Certification Corporation:

    A women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP) provides health care services to cisgender and transgender women from adolescence through pregnancy and beyond menopause. WHNPs specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.

    Median Total Salary: $112,000

  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner from the National Certification Corporation:

    Neonatal nurse practitioners care for high-risk newborns and infants in delivery rooms, emergency rooms, and neonatal intensive care units.

    Median Total Salary: $132,500


An NP must hold a current RN license and APRN license. State licensure boards impose specific licensing criteria, but they typically require at least an MSN or a DNP from an accredited graduate nursing program, along with a passing score on the specialty certification exam.

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

Working as a Nurse Practitioner

Recent graduates can use their program’s career counseling services to find jobs or tap into the contacts made during practicums. NPs earn an average annual salary of over $100,000 and work in many different settings.

  • Private Group Practices: Depending on the state, NPs can own private practices or collaborate with physician-led teams. Both settings allow autonomy and authority to evaluate, diagnose, order tests, prescribe medication, and treat patients in outpatient settings.
  • Hospitals: Like physicians, NPs in hospitals can diagnose, prescribe meds, intubate patients, and place patients on ventilators.
  • Community Health Centers: NPs working in community health centers assess, screen, diagnose, and treat patients in underserved communities. These clinics have general practitioners and NPs collaborating to offer quality, integrated care to a local population.
  • Public Health Departments: NPs in public health focus on studying the patterns of diseases, their effects on the population, and prevention.
  • Nursing Homes: NPs in nursing homes treat patients with preventative care as well as when they are sick. They strive to keep patients out of the hospital.
  • Schools and Colleges: School health NPs manage students’ psychological and physical health conditions while offering counseling, support, and education.
  • Home Health Care: Home health NPs provide care to home-based patients to help them recover and prevent re-hospitalization. They also provide referrals for necessary services.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

NPs can spend 8-11 years earning their undergraduate and graduate degrees and gaining work experience in a clinical setting. A BSN takes 3-4 years, followed by a 2-3 year MSN. Starting in 2025, candidates will need DNPs to become nurse practitioners, which take 3-4 more years. Accelerated pathways, along with RN-to-BSN and RN-to-MSN bridge programs, can shorten the timeline to an NP career. Certain specializations and part-time study can extend a candidate’s timeline.

Page last reviewed on May 14, 2024