How to Become a Registered Nurse


Updated July 25, 2023

Discover the path to becoming a registered nurse (RN) and joining millions of others in one of the most rewarding and valued healthcare positions available.
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To become a licensed RN, you need an associate in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor's in nursing (BSN). Many employers prefer a BSN degree. You must also meet the clinical nursing requirements and pass the NCLEX-RN to earn licensure in your state.

RNs provide round-the-clock care to patients in hospitals, physician's offices, outpatient care centers, and residential care facilities. They assess patients, administer medication, and communicate with a healthcare team. RNs can specialize in oncology, acute and critical care, gerontology, neonatal, or pediatrics.

After earning a graduate nursing degree, RNs can advance to become clinical nurse specialists, nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, or nurse anesthetists.

How Long to Become
2-4 years

Job Outlook
6% growth from 2021-2031

Degree Required

Source: BLS

Steps to Becoming a Registered Nurse

While RNs follow similar steps to get their license, the specific requirements vary by state. Certain states, such as New York, require RNs to hold 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 in-depth education 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. An accelerated BSN program lets those with a bachelor's degree in a non-nursing field graduate in as little as one year.

3. Pass the NCLEX Exam

Students can apply for licensure six weeks before graduating 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.

4. Find Employment

No matter your education path, be proactive in your career search. That means contacting your college network and gathering 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 higher salaries) 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.

Popular Online Nursing Programs

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

Registered Nurse Schooling

Expect to spend 2-4 years completing the required education to become a registered nurse. The exact timeline varies depending on if you choose a two-year ADN or a four-year BSN. Having college credits prior can speed up your completion time. Discover the differences between an ADN vs. a BSN degree:

ADN Degree

An ADN degree provides a quicker path to becoming a registered nurse. However, some healthcare employers require or prefer a BSN degree. RNs also need a BSN to become advanced practice nurses, such as clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists, or nurse practitioners.

  • 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 include personal essays, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts.

  • Program Curriculum

    ADN 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 your prior college credits. Students with no other general education credits take about two years to graduate.

  • Skills Learned

    ADN courses provide the nursing 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.

BSN Degree

While a BSN takes longer, 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, integrating 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 students gain fundamental nursing skills and tools in leadership, research, and public health. Students can also develop specialized knowledge in areas like maternity nursing, pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, and acute care nursing.

ABSN Degree

Those with 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 registered nurses. 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

After completing your nursing education, you must pass the NCLEX-RN to become a registered nurse. Only nurses who meet the educational, clinical, and exam qualifications can get licensed. 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 is 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. RNs must typically renew their license every 1-4 years. Individuals must complete training courses and continuing education hours to renew their RN license.


Nursing does not require certifications, but getting these optional credentials provides greater opportunities for professional development. Having a credential validates a registered nurse's skills in a specialized area.

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. The AACN offers certifications in acute care, cardiac medicine, and progressive care.

Where do Registered Nurses work?

Nursing students find positions through their schools, hospitals, medical offices, or popular job boards. The American Nurses Association also offers career centers where members can find open positions.

RN salaries vary depending on their degree, specialization, and workplace. According to theBureau of Labor Statistics, RNs earn an average salary of $82,750. Many RNs work in hospitals, physician offices, nursing facilities, and outpatient care centers. RNs in outpatient centers earn an average salary of $93,070, which is higher than the national average.

  • Hospitals (State, Local, and Private)

    In hospitals, RNs work in the operating room, intensive care unit, and neonatal units. They administer medication, complete patient 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.

  • Outpatient Care Centers

    RNs in outpatient services collaborate with doctors and nurses. They collect healthcare data for patients, administer medication, and monitor patients.

Becoming a Registered Nurse: FAQs

Can you become an RN in 2 years?

Yes, you can become an RN in two years if you complete a two-year ADN program. Those with a degree in another field can complete an accelerated BSN program, which takes 1-2 years, depending on the number of credits you can transfer. Both programs allow you to sit for the NCLEX-RN and get your nursing license.

What is accreditation and why is it important?

Accreditation is a peer-reviewed process that lets students, financial aid institutions, and employers know that nursing programs meet quality educational standards and prepare future nurses for practice.

Accreditation is important because federal student aid only pays for accredited programs. Also, employers usually require nurses to graduate from an accredited program.

Where do I start to become an RN?

To become an RN, you’ll need to meet the admission requirements of the ADN or BSN program you want to complete. These requirements may include a GPA of at least 3.0 and at least a C in prerequisites such as microbiology, anatomy and physiology, psychology, and statistics.

What advancement opportunities are available after becoming a registered nurse?

RNs can advance their career by getting an advanced degree, completing continuing education, or gaining nurse manager experience. An MSN degree allows registered nurses to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRN). Nurses wanting certification in their specialty must complete continuing education to renew their certification.

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