The A to Z Guide to Starting Nursing School

Keith Carlson, RN, NC-BC
Updated December 2, 2022
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Applying to nursing school and beginning your education as a nurse can seem complicated. Find out how to start nursing school with this guide.
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Going to nursing school is your first step in becoming a professional nurse. Discover what you need to know about applying and getting into nursing school, how to pay for it, and what to expect in this guide. Find out how to prepare for nursing school, including nursing school application requirements, and selecting a nursing school that’s right for you.

How to Prepare for Nursing School

When applying to nursing school, there are many things to keep in mind. You want to choose the right nursing program so you can receive the education you need to start your career in a positive way. When considering applying to nursing school, ask these questions:

  • question-mark-circleWhat do I know about the nursing profession and the healthcare industry?
  • question-mark-circleWhat nursing degree is best for me?
  • question-mark-circleDo I know if I want to get a higher degree like an MSN or Ph.D.?
  • question-mark-circleCan I get any experience now to be a stronger nursing school candidate?
  • question-mark-circleWhat are the typical nursing school admission requirements?
  • question-mark-circleHow long is nursing school?
  • question-mark-circleWhat support systems do I have in place that will allow me to focus on nursing school?

If you’re currently in high school, good for you for wanting to get a head start on your nursing career! There are some things you can do now, including taking AP classes and taking advantage of dual enrollment if your school offers it. Other options are finding healthcare-related volunteer or internship opportunities and enrolling in courses in basic first aid and life support.Shadowing a nurse or other healthcare professional can help you better understand what a nursing career might be like. You can also get involved in the HOSA-Future Health Professionals to learn leadership skills. You also want to do as well as possible on the SAT. These strategies can help strengthen your nursing school application and resume.

Not everyone starts nursing school straight out of high school. Some college students will first earn a degree in science or another major before realizing that nursing most interests them. Other students will switch to nursing while part way through another program. Still, others may have an entirely different career (or several careers) before applying to nursing school in their 20s-40s and beyond.

How to Prepare for Nursing School

How to Choose a Nursing School

Choosing a nursing school is the first step in becoming a nurse. There are many things to consider, including how long a program lasts, the school’s accreditation, and the type of degree that’s offered. You must also decide whether to attend a technical school or college and the type of nursing role you want to pursue after graduating. After graduating, you need to pass the NCLEX and become licensed.

Knowing whether you want to begin your nursing journey with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) is a major decision.

Since it usually takes two years to complete, an ADN is the fastest path to becoming a professional nurse. Tuition at community colleges can be more affordable than 4-year universities. If you have an ADN, then you can then enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program while working as a nurse and building your career. There are online and in-person programs, and each option has its benefits and challenges.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) offers strong reasons for pursuing a BSN, including the fact that many studies and organizations —including the Institute of Medicine’s Future of Nursing report —recommend that more nurses be prepared with a BSN.

Because of this, many hospitals now only hire nurses with a BSN, and these programs normally take four years to complete. However, if you already have an ADN, then it will take you less time. Depending on the nursing role that interests you, a BSN may be the best avenue to get there.

For those with a bachelor’s degree in another field, an accelerated bachelor’s in nursing (ABSN) usually allows you to transfer many credits towards the program. ABSN programs take anywhere from 11-18 months to complete.

Another factor to consider when choosing a nursing school program is the schools’ accreditation. The accreditation process involves an independent peer review by an organization with the authority to determine if a school meets educational standards.

Financial aid organizations want to know that a program prepares students for success in the field. Accreditation also signals to applicants and employers that the school offers a solid education. The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) accredit nursing programs.

If you don’t attend an accredited school, you may not be able to sit for the NCLEX exam. An education from a non-accredited school may make it difficult or impossible to transfer your license to another state, according to this NCSBN map. Some employers may not hire you if you didn’t go to an accredited school.

How to Select a Nursing School

How to Apply to Nursing School

Once you’ve chosen a nursing school (or several schools) to apply to, it’s time to begin the application process. Nursing school requirements can vary, so be sure to follow the rules. The NursingCAS (Centralized Application Service for Nursing) allows you to apply to multiple schools with one universal application and one set of transcripts.

Volunteer experience (e.g., hospice volunteer or mission trip) and internships can strengthen your application, especially if these activities are related to healthcare. Prior work experience in a related area can also be helpful (e.g., EMT, paramedic, home health aide, certified nurses aide).

Admissions counselors can help you prepare your application. A nursing school application has many moving parts, so make sure you know each school’s requirements well. If you’re returning to school after working in another career, contact the school’s admissions office to find out which credits will transfer.

Common Prerequisites

Find out the timeline for applying to nursing school. Each program will have different deadlines. First, assess what prerequisites are required and make sure to complete them with the best grades possible since your GPA will count. Common prerequisites include:

  • academic-capAnatomy and physiology
  • academic-capBiology
  • academic-capChemistry
  • academic-capEnglish composition
  • academic-capLifespan growth and development
  • academic-capNutrition
  • academic-capPsychology
  • academic-capStatistics

Common Interview Questions

Next, you may need to take a nursing school entrance exam like the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS), Health Education Systems, Inc. (HESI) exam, or National League for Nursing Pre-Admission exam (NLN-PAX). After receiving your application, some schools may require you to sit for a nursing program interview. Common questions might include:

  • question-mark-circleWhy do you want to be a nurse?
  • question-mark-circleHow do you handle stressful situations?
  • question-mark-circleTell us about your work history and what skills may be transferable to nursing.
  • question-mark-circleWhat would you do if your grades began to drop?
  • question-mark-circleWhat would you do if you were faced with a hostile patient?
  • question-mark-circleWhat makes you an ideal candidate for our program, or to be a nurse?

Also be prepared if the schools you’ve chosen require references, a resume, letters of recommendation, or a personal essay.

How to Apply to Nursing School

How to Pay for Nursing School

Getting into the nursing school of your choice is probably the first thing on your mind. But after getting accepted and celebrating, the next big question is how to pay for it.

Starting nursing school is exciting, and there are many options to help you cover the cost of attending, including loans, grants, and scholarship. After all, once you become an RN, you can earn a higher salary, which will help you pay back any nursing school loans.

The cost of nursing school varies widely, depending on whether it’s a public or private university and other factors. Private universities might charge up to $40,000 for an ADN program, whereas a public university ADN education might range from $6,000-$20,000. BSN programs at private universities could cost $80,000 to $100,000, and BSN from a public university might run you $40,000.

There are numerous scholarships and grants for nursing students — the more you apply to, the better. Some scholarships may seem low, but every dollar helps when you’re putting together the resources to afford your nursing education. The AACN offers financial aid resources for nursing students, including links to scholarship search engines.

If you’re wondering if a nursing degree is worth it, consider the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the annual median salary for registered nurses is $77,600. (Note that the BLS does not differentiate between nurses with an ADN or a BSN.)

The BLS projects 9% job growth for RNs from 2020-2030, which is as fast as average. With an ongoing nurse shortage, nursing graduates should continue to find demand in a large job market. If you have your sights on becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) in the future, the BLS projects 45% job growth through 2030, and reports a 2021 average annual salary of $118,040.

Once you’re working as a nurse, you can refinance your loans and save money by consolidating loans, decreasing your monthly payments, and getting a better interest rate.If you’re worried that money may be tight while you’re in school, there are plenty of budgeting calculators and other resources that can help reduce stress around money so you focus your energy on school. Student discounts, cheaper textbooks, healthy spending habits, and other tips can make a big difference if you’re disciplined about your finances.

How to Pay for Nursing School

What to Expect in Nursing School

Once you’re accepted to nursing school and you’ve started your nursing education, you’ll have your hands full. There is plenty to get used to, a lot to learn, and many new experiences to take in, including clinical assignments with real patients.


In your first year of nursing school, you can expect to purchase a number of supplies, including:

  • check-circleA stethoscope, a penlight, and other tools for clinical experiences
  • check-circleScrubs and footwear
  • check-circleTextbooks
  • check-circleA sturdy bag
  • check-circleMasks
  • check-circleHand sanitizer
  • check-circleNotebooks, pens, index cards, and other materials
  • check-circleCompression stockings to decrease pain and swelling from spending long hours on your feet (many nurses swear by them)
  • check-circleA laptop or tablet if you don’t already have one
  • check-circleSupplies, study guides, and other items recommended by fellow students, professors, or clinical instructors

Common Nursing Courses

You can expect clinical experiences to begin during your first or second semester after learning nursing fundamentals and attending “skills labs” that cover clinical hands-on skills. Common nursing courses include, but are not limited to:

  • academic-capPathophysiology
  • academic-capPharmacology
  • academic-capGerontology
  • academic-capHealth assessment
  • academic-capMaternal and child health
  • academic-capNursing fundamentals
  • academic-capMental health nursing
  • academic-capLeadership
  • academic-capNursing ethics
  • academic-capCommunity nursing
  • academic-capNursing theory

Best Practices and Advice

Best practices and advice from former nursing students might include:

  • plusHaving a study buddy or study group
  • plusTaking advantage of the knowledge of professors, clinical preceptors, and instructors
  • plusTaking good care of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health
  • plusBeing curious and open-minded
  • plusPaying attention to how you budget your time
  • plusMaking connections and building your professional network through positive relationships from the moment you begin your nursing education

Some of the challenges of nursing school are the many hours of studying required to learn the enormous body of knowledge that makes up the profession. It can feel overwhelming, but every nursing student learns along the way that you just can’t absorb or know everything.

The first time you put on your scrubs and show up to a clinical assignment or practicum with your shiny new stethoscope, you’ll probably feel very new and awkward. Trying to learn new skills may make you feel like you have ten thumbs. If you don’t have previous experience interacting with patients and their loved ones (e.g., as nurses aides or EMTs) it will take time to find your “voice” and bedside style as a nurse.

As a nursing student, you may see, smell, touch, and hear things that are unfamiliar and unpleasant, and even some things that make you feel queasy. There’s a lot to get used to if you’ve never spent time in a hospital or nursing home before. The reality of what it’s like to be a nurse may be somewhat different than what you imagined (or saw on TV).

Make no mistake that nursing school can be very difficult, and there will be times when you’re frustrated, angry, confused, and exhausted. However, once you find your rhythm, feel more comfortable in your own skin, and gain some confidence in both the classroom and the clinical space, you’ll find that there are just as many rewards as there are challenges, if not more so. Nursing school is a fascinating journey that, when completed successfully, serves as a doorway to a career that can be as varied, interesting, and exciting as you would like it to be. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, nurses are deeply trusted by the American public. Your nursing career can reflect that trust in many ways. Enjoy the process, and look forward to the happy day when you can proudly say that you are indeed a registered nurse.

What to Expect in Nursing School


Page Last Reviewed: September 25, 2022

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