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How to Become a Registered Nurse

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated October 4, 2023
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Learn how to become a registered nurse, whether you are straight out of high school or have taken some college courses.
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Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Nurse and doctor wearing masks and looking at a computer monitor in a hospitalCredit: Morsa Images / Digital Vision / Getty Images

Do you want to make a real difference in people’s lives in a stable career? Do you want to do exciting work in a specialty of your choice with opportunities for advancement?

If you answered yes to even some of these questions, you’ll want to learn how to become a registered nurse. In this guide, discover the steps you need to take to become a registered nurse (RN), including education and licensure requirements.

Steps to Becoming a Registered Nurse

All RNs follow similar steps to get their licenses, but the specific requirements vary by state. Certain states, such as New York, require RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). The following list covers the steps to become a registered nurse.

  1. 1

    Complete Prerequisites for an ADN or a BSN

    Whether you choose an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a BSN degree, you 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. 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.

    If you start your nursing career with an ADN, you can earn a BSN later in your career with a RN-to-BSN program. If you have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field, an accelerated BSN program lets you graduate in as little as one year.

  3. 3

    Pass the NCLEX Exam

    You can apply for licensure six weeks before graduating and then register for the NCLEX-RN. This computerized test includes a minimum of 75 questions. You have up to six hours to finish the exam.

  4. 4

    Find Employment

    No matter your degree path, be proactive in your nursing career search. That could mean contacting your college network and gathering job resources before graduating. It’s also important to make a good impression during clinical rotations with potential healthcare employers.

  5. 5

    Become Certified in Your Specialty

    If you want greater recognition, more career opportunities, and higher salary potential, consider becoming certified in your nursing specialty. To qualify, you usually need two or more years of full-time clinical RN experience in a specialty focus and pass an exam.

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 prior college credits can speed up your completion time. Discover the differences between an ADN and BSN degree.

ADN Degree

An ADN degree provides a quicker path to becoming a registered nurse. However, some 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.

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    Admission Requirements

    You’ll need a high school diploma or GED certificate to enroll in an ADN program. Schools may require a minimum GPA of between 2.0 and 3.0. Required application materials may include personal essays, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts.
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    Program Curriculum

    ADN courses include nursing fundamentals, pharmacology, nutrition, health system concepts, growth, development, and aging. Programs also require clinical hours.
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    Time to Complete

    The length of an ADN program varies depending on whether you attend full-time or part-time and how many college credits you transfer to the program. Most students complete an ADN program in 2-4 years.
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    Skills Learned

    ADN courses provide you with the nursing skills to work in a clinical setting. ADN graduates learn how to deliver nursing care across diverse populations and settings, such as older adults, children, and infants.

ADN-to-BSN Degree

An ADN-to-BSN degree allows RNs with ADN degrees to complete a BSN in roughly half the time or less than a traditional program. Many schools offer this bridge program completely online. Students are required to complete clinical hours, which they can arrange in their local area.

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    Admission Requirements

    You’ll need an ADN degree from an accredited program, an unencumbered and active RN license, and the required application materials, which may include a personal essay and an official transcript. Most programs require a minimum GPA of 2.3 to 3.0.
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    Program Curriculum

    Students who have not completed general education courses will be required to complete those before beginning the program. Nursing courses include leadership, informatics, working with vulnerable populations, evidence-based practice, and a capstone experience.
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    Time to Complete

    Full-time students can complete an ADN-to-BSN program in nine months. Part-time students may take up to two years to complete the coursework.
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    Skills Learned

    You’ll learn leadership and management skills and problem-solving to lead change. You will also sharpen your professional, clinical reasoning, analytical, and critical thinking skills.

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.

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    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.
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    Program Curriculum

    A BSN degree teaches students leadership and management in nursing, cultural awareness, evidence-based nursing practice, and contemporary issues in healthcare.
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    Time to Complete

    Traditionally, a BSN degree takes four years to complete. However, if you have general education credits to transfer, you can complete it in three years. It may take up to six years to graduate if you attend part-time.
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    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 psychiatric nursing and community health 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 may appeal to those who want to switch careers quickly to become registered nurses. However, the program’s rapid pace can be challenging, and the admissions process can be rigorous.

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    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.
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    Program Curriculum

    ABSN degrees cover research methods, assessments and interventions, 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.
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    Time to Complete

    The programs are typically challenging and can be completed online or in person in 1-2 years. These programs are fast-paced, and it may be challenging to work full-time while in school.
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    Skills Learned

    You’ll learn nursing skills, such as assessment, medication, treatment, and counseling. You’ll also learn cultural competency, communication, critical thinking, clinical reasoning, and problem-solving skills.

Registered Nurse Credentials

After completing your nursing education, you must pass the NCLEX-RN to become a registered nurse. Nurses who meet the educational, clinical, and exam qualifications can get licensed in their state.

While not required for employment, certifications acknowledge an RN’s expertise in specialized areas, such as pediatric acute critical care or cardiac medicine. It can also boost an RN’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 earn their degree, complete 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 two years. Individuals must complete training courses and continuing education hours to renew their RN license.


Registered nursing does not require certifications, but getting these optional credentials can provide greater opportunities for professional development. Having a credential demonstrates your skills in a specialized area to potential employers.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and other nursing organizations offer certifications for RNs. Qualifying RNs must complete a specific number of clinical hours and pass an exam. Nurses can become certified in specialties such as emergency care, pediatrics, and intensive 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 the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs earn an average salary of $89,010.

Many RNs work in hospitals, physician offices, nursing facilities, and outpatient care centers. RNs in outpatient centers earn an average salary of $97,200, which is higher than the average salaries for nurses in hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.

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    Hospitals (State, Local, and Private)

    RNs work in every hospital unit. Depending on their interests, registered nurses might work in the operating room, intensive care unit, or neonatal units, for example. They administer medication, complete patient assessments, establish patient care priorities, and intervene in emergencies to save lives.

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    Nursing and Residential Care Facilities

    In nursing and residential care facilities, RNs work day and night shifts. They advise patients and their families, implement infection-control policies, administer medication and treatments, coordinate care plans, and monitor residents.

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    Outpatient Care Centers

    Sometimes called ambulatory care nursing, RNs work mostly the day shift where they assess a patient’s overall health, monitor vital signs, administer medications, educate patients and their families, and help manage pain.

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. If you have a degree in another field, you can complete an accelerated BSN program in 1-2 years, depending on the number of transfer credits. Both programs allow you to sit for the NCLEX-RN and get your nursing license.

Is it hard being a registered nurse?

Nursing is a challenging profession that requires you to be diligent, detail-oriented, and clinically aware for long periods of time, typically 10-12 shifts. Working night shifts and having less flexibility when it comes to your schedule (e.g., having to work weekends and holidays) might also be a hard adjustment for some. While the profession is physically taxing and emotionally charged, becoming an RN offers job stability, and it can be vastly rewarding to help others. How hard it is to be an RN depends on how well you can develop a work-life balance.

What are the steps of being an RN?

You first need to complete your prerequisite college courses for an ADN or BSN nursing program. After admission and completion of an accredited program, you must pass the NCLEX exam to obtain your license and find employment. For more career opportunities, consider becoming certified in your specialty.

Is becoming an RN hard?

The answer to this question varies for each student. Nursing programs are challenging, require dedication, and are not for everyone. During school, you’ll learn time-management skills, study a lot, and be challenged in class and during your clinical hours. However, after graduating, you can develop a rewarding and flexible career with job stability and options to advance.

Page last reviewed on September 6, 2023

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