How to Become a Registered Nurse
Registered nurses hold a valuable role in the healthcare field. Learn how to become a registered nurse in this guide.
Becoming a registered nurse (RN) presents an opportunity to join a growing workforce of more than three million, make a direct impact on patient outcomes, and earn a respectable salary.
In 2-4 years, students can graduate from a nursing program and take the NCLEX-RN. While an associate degree serves as the minimum requirement, some employers and states only hire nurses with a bachelor's degree.
What is a Registered Nurse?
A licensed RN has completed the educational requirements—either an associate in nursing degree or a bachelor's in nursing degree—clinical nursing requirements, and has passed the NCLEX-RN to earn licensure in their state.
RNs provide round-the-clock direct care to patients in hospitals, physicians' offices, outpatient care centers, and residential care facilities. Their job consists of recognizing abnormalities, assessing patients, and administering medication while maintaining communication with a team of healthcare professionals. They can gain specialized training in oncology, acute and critical care, gerontology, or pediatrics.
After earning a graduate nursing degree, RNs can advance to become clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, or nurse anesthetists. Learn more general information about what RNs do and where they work in our registered nurse career overview.
Steps to Becoming a Registered Nurse
While every RN follows similar steps to earn licensure, the specific requirements vary by state. Certain states, such as New York, require RNs to hold at least a bachelor's in nursing degree. The following list covers the process necessary to become a registered nurse.
1. Complete Prerequisites for an ADN or a BSN.
Whether nursing students choose an ADN or BSN degree, they must complete liberal arts, math, and science prerequisites. Common prerequisites for nursing school include basic anatomy, physiology, biology, psychology, and anatomy. Nursing schools often require that incoming students earn a minimum "C" grade in these courses.
2. Earn a BSN or an ADN Degree.
A four-year BSN degree offers an in-depth education in multiple disciplines and training in leadership, interpersonal communication, and clinical nursing. A two-year ADN degree covers nursing fundamentals and offers the fastest track to becoming a registered nurse, aside from an accelerated BSN program which lets those who hold a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field graduate in as little as one year.
3. Pass the NCLEX Exam.
About six weeks before graduating, students can apply for licensure and then register for the NCLEX-RN. This computerized test requires test-takers to complete a minimum of 75 questions. They have up to six hours to finish the exam. See this guide to find more information about the NCLEX-RN.
4. Find Employment.
No matter your education path, be proactive in your career search. That means activating your college network and job resources before graduating. While the nursing field continues to grow, graduates must make an impression during clinical rotations with potential healthcare employers.
5. Earn Board Certification.
RNs who want greater recognition in their careers (and more money) become board certified. To qualify, RNs usually need about two or more years of clinical experience in a specialty focus and must pass an exam.
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Registered Nurse Schooling
Expect to spend 2-4 years completing the required education to become a registered nurse. The exact timeline depends on if you choose a two-year associate degree or four-year bachelor's degree. Having prior nursing experience can speed up completion time, whereas programs with more clinical hour requirements and less online options can take longer to complete. For the specifics on an ADN vs. a BSN degree, keep reading.
An ADN degree provides a quick path to becoming a registered nurse. However, the degree can limit career prospects since some healthcare employers require or prefer a BSN degree. RNs also need a BSN if they want to eventually work in an advanced practice nurse role, such as a clinical nurse specialist, certified registered nurse anesthetist, or nurse practitioner.
- Admission Requirements: It takes a high school diploma or GED certificate to enroll in an ADN program. Schools may require a minimum 2.0-3.0 GPA. Required application materials may also include personal essays, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts.
- Program Curriculum: Students leave an ADN program prepared to deliver safe and quality patient care in many settings. Courses cover pharmacology, nutrition, health system concepts, growth, development, and aging. Programs also require clinical hours.
- Time to Complete: How long it takes to complete an ADN program depends on a student's prior college credits. Students with no other general education credits take about two years to graduate.
- Skills Learned: ADN courses provide the nursing theory and practical skills to work in a clinical setting. ADN graduates learn how to deliver nursing care across diverse populations and settings through classes in multidimensional care, nursing care of older adults, and maternal and child nursing.
The route to becoming a registered nurse takes longer when you earn a BSN. However, the program provides a broader education in leadership, critical thinking, coordinating patient care with doctors and other healthcare professionals, and specialized knowledge of medical conditions.
- Admission Requirements: Students enter a BSN program straight from high school or after completing an ADN. BSN admissions requirements often include SAT or ACT scores, a minimum 3.0 GPA, and three letters of recommendation.
- Program Curriculum: A BSN degree teaches students leadership and management in nursing, cultural awareness, how to integrate evidence into nursing practice, and contemporary issues in healthcare.
- Time to Complete: Degree-seekers on average complete a BSN degree in four years or less with prior college credit. Nursing students who hold an ADN or transferable college credits can graduate within 2-3 years.
- Skills Learned: BSN degree seekers not only gain fundamental nursing skills, but also tools in leadership, research, and public health. Students also develop specialized knowledge in areas, such as maternity nursing, pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, and acute care nursing.
Individuals who hold a bachelor's degree in another field can earn an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing degree (ABSN) and graduate in 12-18 months. This route appeals to those who want to switch careers quickly and become a registered nurse. However, the program's rapid pace can be challenging, and the admissions process can be rigorous.
- Admission Requirements: Eligible applicants need a bachelor's degree from an accredited school and a 3.0 GPA. Prospective students must also complete all prerequisites with a minimum "C" grade. Online applications typically must include personal essays, letters of recommendation, and resumes.
- Program Curriculum: ABSN degrees cover research methods, assessments and interventions, and healthcare ethics, and leadership and management. Labs and clinical rotations allow students to apply nursing theories and gain experience in areas, such as pediatrics, mental and behavioral health, and acute and critical care.
- Time to Complete: On average, it takes about 12-15 months to earn an ABSN degree when students study full time. Students can graduate faster when they possess transferable credits or have earned an associate degree in nursing.
- Skills Learned: ABSN graduates have mastered nursing competencies enough to take the NCLEX-RN. The curriculum covers how to deliver quality patient care, use healthcare information technologies, incorporate evidence into your practice, and improve patient outcomes.
Registered Nurse Credentials
Only licensed RNs can practice in healthcare settings. RNs who meet the educational, clinical, and exam qualifications can get licensed to work. Certifications—while not required for employment—acknowledge a registered nurse's expertise in specialized areas, such as pediatric acute critical care or cardiac medicine. It can also boost a registered nurse's career in terms of pay and responsibility.
Earning licensure serves as the last step to becoming a registered nurse. Prospective nurses can get licensed by their state board of nursing after they complete their degree, clinical hours, and pass the NCLEX-RN. Each state board sets different standards and may require additional training courses to qualify for a license. Some states allow unlicensed RNs to practice if they get a permit. RNs must typically renew their license every 1-4 years. To renew their RN license, individuals must complete training courses and/or continuing education hours.
Nursing does not require certifications, but getting these optional credentials provides greater opportunities for professional development. The American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) offers certifications for RNs. Qualifying RNs must complete a specific number of clinical hours and pass an exam. Having the credential validates a registered nurse's skills in a specialized area. The AACN offers certifications in acute care, cardiac medicine, and progressive care.
Working as a Registered Nurse
Nursing students find positions through their schools or other popular job boards. Nursing organizations, such as the American Nurses Association also offer career centers where members can find open positions. RNs earn a mean annual wage of $80,010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many earn more when they find jobs in the top nursing industries, such as business support services, the federal government, and pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing. These fields pay RNs an annual mean wage of $92,110-$106,670. See the top paying careers for RNs on this page.
Hospitals (State, Local, and Private)
In hospitals, RNs work in the operating room, intensive care unit, and neonatal units. They administer medication, do assessments, establish patient care priorities, and intervene in emergencies to save lives.
Nursing and Residential Care Facilities
In nursing and residential care facilities, RNs work day and night shifts to advise patients and their families, implement infection-control policies, administer medication and treatments, coordinate care plans, and monitor residents.
Ambulatory Healthcare Services
RNs in ambulatory healthcare services collaborate with doctors and nurses. They collect healthcare data for patients, provide emergency care, and organize patient care.
Becoming a Registered Nurse: FAQs
Can you become an RN in 2 years?
Yes. You could earn an ADN or an ABSN degree and graduate in 1-2 years. The specific length of time depends on your previous college work. Prospective nursing students must also factor in required clinical hours. Studying for the NCLEX-RN also requires additional time.
What is accreditation and why is it important?
Accreditation means an independent body, such as the Commission on the Collegiate Nursing Education or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, has determined a nursing program meets industry standards. This matters because employers often only hire graduates from accredited nursing programs.
Where do I start to become an RN?
The first step to becoming an RN happens in the classroom. Find a program that suits your interests and career aspirations, whether it be an ADN, BSN, or ABSN degree. Identify a program that can prepare you to take the NCLEX-RN and enter a specific healthcare area that interests you.
What advancement opportunities are available after becoming a registered nurse?
Becoming a registered nurse offers the chance to advance in healthcare. To do so, RNs must continue their education. If they want to become an advanced practice nurse, they must earn a master's or a doctorate in nursing. Earning credentials in specialized areas of nursing also requires continued education credits.
Learn More About Registered Nurses
Anna-Lise Krippaehne is a board-certified family nurse practitioner at Oregon Health & Science University’s Family Practice Department in Portland, where she practices with a distinct interest in preventative care and health promotion. She earned her BSN and DNP from the University of Portland.
Krippaehne is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.
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