Reviewed by: Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, RN, CNE, COI
Are you considering a nursing career or wondering how to apply to nursing school? Now is a great time to get started. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of registered nurse (RN) jobs is projected to grow by 12% from 2018-28. That means the industry could add over 370,000 RN positions.
Individuals can also enter the field through programs for nursing assistants, practical or vocational nurses, and two-year associate degrees. Some learners may choose to attend nursing school online, which offers the same education as traditional, on-campus programs.
Read on to learn how to apply to nursing school and choose a program that suits your professional interests.
Before Applying to Nursing School
Before applying to nursing schools, carefully examine each institution’s academic prerequisites. Prospective undergraduates should obtain their high school transcripts, while MSN applicants should contact their previous schools for their official undergraduate transcripts.
You should also take the appropriate entrance exam. These may include the ACT, SAT, and GRE, depending on the program. Many programs will require a specific nursing entrance exam, such as the HESI, ATI, TEAS, NLN Pre-Admission Exam (PAX), Nursing Entrance Test (NET), or Kaplan Admissions Test. In addition, you will likely need to submit one or more letters of recommendation with your nursing application.
“Nurse” is a catch-all term that actually encapsulates several different roles: certified nursing assistant (CNA), licensed practical or vocational nurse (LPN/LVN), registered nurse (RN), or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).
Consider each type of job and decide your professional ambitions before heading to nursing school. Your educational requirements depend on which career path you want to pursue. Many nurses — especially APRNs — choose to pursue a specialty area or serve a particular patient demographic. You can read about more different nursing speciality options here.
As the next section demonstrates, educational requirements vary greatly according to position. Entry-level nurses do not necessarily need a full bachelors degree to earn certification or licensure. APRNs, however, must complete additional education before pursuing a master’s degree and a nursing license.
Choose a Nursing Degree Type
Defining your career goals can help you determine which degree you should pursue. While prospective CNAs and LPN/LVNs can enroll in educational programs specifically for those positions, aspiring RNs can either pursue an associate or bachelor’s degree. A graduate degree prepares candidates to become nurse practitioners or other nursing specialties such as nurse executive, informatics specialist, nurse educator, or public health.
Certified Nursing Assistant Certificate or Diploma
There are many reasons individuals pursue CNA positions. CNAs aid patients with basic tasks, like bathing and mobility, under the supervision of an LPN/LVN or RN. While they may help nurses with responsibilities, such as monitoring vital signs or dressing wounds, they generally cannot offer medical care without supervision.
Due to these limitations, CNA training programs are shorter than other nursing diploma or degree programs. Most last about 4-12 weeks. Students can enroll in CNA programs at community or technical colleges, hospitals, Red Cross centers, or even high schools.
Licensed Practical Nursing Certificate or Diploma
LPN/LVN training programs equip graduates with a certificate or diploma. These programs generally require about a year of study, but may last anywhere from 7-24 months. Graduates must pass the NCLEX-PN to legally work in their state.
LPN/LVNs provide patients with routine care, like inserting catheters or checking vital signs. You can read about the five best-paying LPN/LVN jobs here, or check out this page to explore five different career paths for these professionals.
Associate Degree in Nursing
Earning an associate degree in nursing (ADN) remains the fastest way to become an RN. Offering foundational nursing knowledge and skills, an ADN requires about two years of full-time study. Graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN before working with the public.
For many employers, a BSN has become the minimum requirement for entry-level RNs.
A bachelor’s degree in the field traditionally takes four years to complete. Graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN to obtain licensure.
A BSN curriculum addresses more advanced didactic theory about nursing and patient care than ADN coursework. Most bachelor’s degree-seekers also take general education courses during their first two years. According to the AACN, this type of curriculum equips BSN-holders to carry out more complex responsibilities than ADN-holders.
Master of Science in Nursing
An MSN degree prepares students for advanced practice nursing roles, such as nurse practitioners (NPs), certified nurse midwives, and nurse anesthetists. These professionals carry more responsibilities than RNs. In many states, they can even diagnose patients and prescribe medication. An MSN can also lead to administrative roles.
A master’s degree usually takes two years to complete, although some programs offer accelerated tracks that allow students to graduate sooner. RN-to-MSN programs may consider ADN-holders who do not possess a BSN. These programs typically last three years.
Doctoral Degree in Nursing
A doctoral degree in nursing is the highest educational level a nurse can pursue. Lasting up to six years, doctoral programs allow degree-seekers to perform original research and explore specialized topics and nursing subfields.
Doctoral candidates can pursue a doctor of nursing science (DNS), doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), doctor of nursing practice (DNP), or doctor of education in nursing (Ed.D.). DNP programs are a popular option for nursing professionals interested in high-level clinical, administrative, or research roles.
Nursing School Admission Requirements
Requirements for applying to nursing school vary by program, and every institution maintains different admission guidelines. Be sure to double check your prospective school’s requirements before applying.
The list below includes some common requirements to get into nursing school:
Previous academic degree (a high school diploma for undergraduate programs, and bachelor’s degree for graduate school)
Minimum GPA that meets your prospective program’s requirements
Personal essay or statement of purpose
Letters of recommendation
Volunteer experience documentation
Entrance exam scores
Nursing Volunteer Work
Some programs include anywhere from 100 hours to several hundred volunteer hours among their nursing school requirements. Volunteer work can also help your nursing application stand out from others.
Search for volunteer opportunities at hospitals or senior care facilities in your community. You might find other volunteer positions with the Red Cross, at homeless shelters, or in community health organizations. If you feel a bit more adventurous and can dedicate the time, you might even consider spending your summer volunteering for an overseas healthcare organization.
Nursing School Interview Process
Some nursing schools require interviews with one or more faculty members as part of their admissions process. While applicants must sometimes travel to campus for this requirement, some programs conduct virtual interviews.
While an interview may seem intimidating, plenty of preparation can help you keep nerves at bay. Although it is impossible to know exactly what questions the interview will include, you can likely expect to answer questions like: “Why did you choose nursing?” or “How would you face a certain challenge?” You may also be asked to describe yourself and your professional goals.
There are other ways to ensure you are prepared for your interview. Arrive early, for example, and dress professionally. Do enough research to demonstrate that you are knowledgeable about your prospective program and current trends in the nursing industry.
Nursing School Entrance Exams
Most colleges and universities expect all undergraduate applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. While master’s and doctoral program applicants are generally required to provide GRE scores, some nursing program requirements allow prospective graduate students to apply without submitting test results.
Nursing schools may also require specialized entrance exams that measure abilities like communication, critical thinking, and core healthcare related subjects. These exams include the National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Exam (NLN PAX) or the Nursing Entrance Test (NET), which focus on math and science. Some CNA and LPN/LVN programs require the Test of Academic Skills (TEAS), which evaluates students’ foundational knowledge in science, math, and reading.
Fortunately, test preparation materials are available to help you study for these exams. Educational companies provide books and online materials, including practice exams, so students can feel confident on test day. Remember to give yourself plenty of time to study.
Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing School
What can I do to increase my chances of getting into nursing school?
Improve your chances of getting into nursing school by taking math and science courses — especially biology and human anatomy — and maintaining a high GPA. You can establish foundational skills in the field by first becoming a CNA or an LPN. You can also volunteer at a hospital to gain knowledge about nursing and the healthcare industry.
When should you apply for nursing school?
While deadlines differ by school, the earlier you apply, the better. If you are considering a program with a fall start date, try applying for nursing school the winter before. If the school requires recommendation letters, give your references at least one month’s notice before you plan to submit your nursing application.
Is nursing school hard to get into?
This depends on the school and your own perspective. Generally, CNA and LPN/LVN programs feature the least stringent admission requirements. Some nursing schools expect applicants to provide higher GPAs and entrance exam scores than others.
What should I know before applying to nursing school?
Writing essays, tracking down recommendations, and studying for entrance exams all demand a considerable amount of time and effort. In addition, nursing school costs can add up quickly. Check with your prospective school to see if financial aid is available.
Can you get a nursing degree online?
Yes. Many schools offer web-based nursing programs, which allow students to complete coursework online. However, distance learners must usually complete a supervised clinical component on location. Most schools let online students perform their clinical work at a healthcare facility in their own town or locality.
Paying for Nursing School
Paying for nursing school can be challenging for many candidates. While tuition costs remain relatively low for CNA and LPN/LVN students, tuition for undergraduate and graduate degree-seekers can cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Fortunately, there are different opportunities to help learners pay for nursing school. Look for scholarships from your school, professional associations, nonprofit foundations, special interest groups, and other organizations. While you can find scholarship information all over the internet, it may be helpful to start your search right here.
You might also apply for federal grants, or explore work-study options. In addition, many students take out loans from the government, which they must pay back after graduation. Get more information about your federal financial aid opportunities by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Debra Sullivan, Ph.D., MSN, RN, CNE, COI
Dr. Debra Sullivan is a nurse educator. She graduated from the University of Nevada with a PhD. She is currently a university nursing educator. Dr. Sullivan’s expertise includes cardiology, psoriasis/dermatology, pediatrics, and alternative medicine. She enjoys daily walks, reading, family, and cooking.
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