The Fastest Paths to Becoming a Nurse

Gayle Morris, MSN
Updated March 26, 2024
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    Want to begin a nursing career as quickly as possible? Find out how long it takes to become a nurse and how fast you can start your nursing career.
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    A female Hispanic nurse sitting at her desk in a clinical office. She is facing towards the camera and smiling. Her laptop and case files are on the desk behind her.Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / DigitalVision / Getty Images

    How long does it take to become a nurse? The quickest pathways typically take 1-2 years. But the answer varies depending on your educational choices, the type of nurse you want to be, and your career goals.

    Nurses are in demand, and the field offers many opportunities for career advancement, high pay, and job security. Explore how to advance your career, and learn about the programs offering the fastest paths to becoming a nurse.

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    LVN/LPN Programs

    Program Length: One year

    One of the primary advantages of beginning your nursing career as a licensed vocational nurse (LVN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN) is the speed at which you can enter the field. An LPN/LVN program is the fastest entry-level nursing program. After graduation, you are responsible for various clinical, patient care, and administrative duties.

    LPNs and LVNs monitor patient vital signs, change bandages, insert catheters, provide basic care and assist with tests. LPN and LVN positions are very similar, with one key difference.

    Both positions perform the same tasks, must be supervised by nurses with more advanced education, such as an RN, and pass rigorous license requirements. The difference is that the California and Texas state licensing boards call this position an LVN, while the remaining states call it an LPN.

    Once you are working, you may advance your education and become an RN, offering more autonomy in practice. An LPN-to-RN program may offer a cost-effective way to obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree, pass the NCLEX, and attain your RN license.

    Nurse Diploma Program

    Program Length: 1-3 years

    Nurse diploma programs are typically completed directly in a healthcare setting. They prepare individuals for entry-level positions. Students receive a nursing diploma rather than a nursing degree.

    In 2023, fewer than 50 registered nursing diplomas remain open because many of the hospitals that offered them now partner with community colleges to provide simulation labs, clinical sites, and preceptors for degree programs.

    Graduates are also eligible to earn their registered nurse (RN) license by passing the NCLEX. Yet, fewer than 2,500 NCLEX-RN test-takers in 2023 completed a nursing diploma program compared to more than 83,000 associate degrees in nursing (ADN) graduates and more than 99,000 bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) graduates.

    While the national NCLEX pass rate for nurse diploma programs is 89% in 2023, some pass rates for individual diploma programs are barely over 50%.

    ADN Programs

    Program Length: 2-3 years

    Traditional ADN programs can take 2-3 years depending on whether individuals enroll full or part time. This program is suitable for prospective nurses who do not have the time or money to complete a BSN or prefer to enter the workforce quickly.

    ADN programs are offered online and in-person, allowing students to attend work and school. Consequently, an ADN is the most popular degree for initial licensure for nurses ages 35-64, according to the HRSA Nursing Workforce Dashboard.

    The typical curriculum in an ADN program includes courses in nursing principles, immunology, behavioral health, pharmacology, pediatrics, and geriatrics. Students must also complete an average of 700 clinical hours. Graduates are eligible to take the NCLEX and become registered nurses.

    ADN graduates can work in hospitals, physicians’ offices, or other healthcare facilities. Options also include working as a travel nurse, home health nurse, or community health nurse.

    When ADN-prepared nurses want more responsibility and earning potential, they can enroll in a shortened RN-to-BSN program for additional training to increase their clinical skills and learn about nursing informatics, leadership, and research.

    Accelerated BSN Programs

    Program Length: 18-48 months

    Accelerated BSN (ABSN) programs are pre-licensure programs that allow students to earn their BSN in less time than a traditional program.

    ABSN programs are for individuals with a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field but looking to earn a second degree and transition into nursing.This option is one of the fastest for students with a non-nursing degree.

    Students can expect to take rigorous courses, labs, and clinicals that train them to become RNs. Due to the program’s intensity, it is often not possible for students to work full time while enrolled.

    However, accelerated BSN programs offered online can provide students with some flexibility. These programs allow you to complete your lectures and coursework online and often when convenient. But you still have to attend in-person clinicals and lab classes.

    Nursing Bridge Programs Help Current LPNs and RNs to earn their BSN Faster

    Enrolling in a nursing bridge program as a licensed LPN or RN is another way to shorten how long it takes to become a nurse. Bridge programs build on your past education and experience to advance your education, often at an accelerated pace. These registered nurse programs are typically designed for working professionals.

    LPN-BSN Bridge Program

    Program Length: 2-3 years

    LPN-to-BSN programs provide LPNs with the opportunity to tackle more responsibilities and more autonomy as they provide direct care to patients. Programs are offered online, in-person, and in a hybrid format, allowing students to continue to work as LPNs as they earn their BSN.

    Becoming an RN by earning a BSN qualifies nurses to work in clinical settings administer medications, provide treatment, and educate patients. Some RNs can also fulfill nonclinical roles for research labs, pharmaceutical companies, and government agencies.

    Unlike a traditional BSN program, a bridge program allows nurses to earn their degrees faster because of their previous nursing education and experience. They can forgo certain general education requirements in traditional RN programs and focus on classes like biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, ethics, and statistics.

    RN-to-BSN or ADN-to-BSN Bridge Program

    Program Length: 1-2 years

    ADN-to-BSN bridge programs provide the opportunity for RNs to advance their education and pursue career opportunities with greater autonomy. Most programs use flexible learning paths that enable students to complete the degree online, in-person, or using a hybrid structure.

    Graduates of an ADN-to-BSN program can qualify for positions in management, community health, research and informatics. They also have a shorter path to obtaining a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree and working as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

    A traditional BSN registered nurse program typically requires four years of education. ADN prepared nurses who enroll in a bridge program can earn a BSN in half the time.

    These registered nurse programs teach you more in depth information on pharmacology, ethics, leadership, and management. The higher-level classes give students the skills and knowledge to handle more complex responsibilities.

    ADN-prepared nurses can enroll in an RN-to-BSN program to complete a bachelor’s degree, often lasting 12-24 months. Many of these programs are designed for working students, and most offer part-time options.

    Many employers offer RNs tuition reimbursement or remission to help pay for their nursing degrees if they work for that employer for a certain amount of time.

    Find the Right Program For You

    Various nursing programs provide opportunities to those with different educational and professional backgrounds.

    Choosing the right program depends on several factors, like length, cost, instruction method, and career goals. The need to continue working during the program can also determine which works best.

    Nurses with more advanced degrees can benefit from a higher earning potential and increased employment opportunities with more responsibilities.

    Prospective nurses must consider what they can afford, how much time they can commit, and what they want to do in their nursing career.

    How Long Will it Take to Become a Nurse after Graduation?

    How long it takes to become a nurse depends on several factors, including your state’s licensing requirements. Nursing students may choose to begin studying for the NCLEX exam before graduation. While this can shorten the time to become a nurse, it may also be ineffective while studying for finals.

    Before registering for the NCLEX, you must submit an application to your state board of nursing with the necessary documentation. Approval can take 7-90 days. Once the state approves your application, you’ll receive an Authorization to Test (ATT), which you use to register for the NCLEX.

    The ATT has an expiration date, so you must take the NCLEX within the time limit. The expiration date doesn’t change, and the board of nursing won’t issue an extension. Depending on the time of year, the test slots fill quickly.

    The state board of nursing sends your official results within six weeks of your test date, but you can see the unofficial results in your Pearson VUE account. Since you completed your application for licensure to take the NCLEX, most states issue your license without taking any further steps once you pass the NCLEX.

    Your final step is finding a job as a new nurse. The time it takes to start work depends on your specialty, work setting, and geographic location. Approach your job search with the same diligence you approached taking the NCLEX. Research your job opportunities and prepare for your interviews.

    Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Nurse

    What is the fastest path to becoming an RN?

    A two-year ADN program is the fastest path to becoming an RN. RN nursing diploma programs used to be the fastest way to become an RN, but most of the hospitals that offered them now partner with community colleges to provide ADN programs.

    An ADN may only provide some of the job opportunities or salary potential of a BSN, but it does prepare you for the NCLEX-RN and qualify you for your RN license.

    What is the difference between an ADN and a BSN?

    ADN programs can be completed in 2-3 years, while traditional BSN programs take at least four years. After graduation, nurses with a BSN often have more employment opportunities and a higher earning potential due to additional training and education.

    What is the best path to become an RN?

    The best path to becoming an RN depends on the person. While most employers prefer to hire RNs with BSNs, the cost and length of the program can impact your choice. Those with limited time and money may find it necessary to choose an ADN program and become an RN quicker. They may return to school and get a BSN with a shortened RN-to-BSN program.

    What is the most common degree for new nurses?

    The most common initial degree for registered nurses is an ADN, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Of the 3.957 million licenses granted, 49% chose an ADN as their initial degree, 40% chose a bachelor’s, 1% chose a master’s or doctorate, and 9% chose another program, like a registered nursing diploma.

    Page last reviewed on November 19, 2023

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