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Graduate Application Guide for Nurses

by NurseJournal Staff
Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

After finding a suitable graduate program, prospective students can begin the application process. Learn how to apply correctly to graduate nursing programs.

A graduate degree in nursing is the key to a career as a nurse practitioner, administrator, or researcher. These roles offer higher salaries, greater professional autonomy, and leadership responsibilities than nursing roles that only require an undergraduate degree. This guide will help you understand typical graduate nursing school requirements, including standardized tests and minimum GPA for nursing schools, and how to apply.

Nursing Graduate Program Prerequisites

While these apply in general to most graduate schools, keep in mind that different schools have different requirements. You can find graduate nursing school requirements on your preferred school's website or talk to the school's graduate admissions' counselors.

Do I Need a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing to Earn a Nursing Graduate Degree?

While some graduate programs require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, other programs are designed for RNs without a bachelor’s degree. Many graduate nursing schools also offer accelerated or bridge programs for those who have a bachelor's degree in a discipline other than nursing.

An RN-to-MSN program offers a pathway for nurses who have an associate degree in nursing rather than a bachelor's degree. Some schools may also offer a direct-entry MSN which is designed for students with a bachelor’s degree in a discipline other than nursing.

Since bridge programs take longer than BSN-to-MSN programs and are only offered by some schools, a BSN is still valuable and can reduce the amount of time spent in graduate school.

What Prerequisite Classes are Required for Graduate Nursing Programs?

Nursing graduate students must complete certain prerequisites to prepare for graduate-level coursework.

Prerequisites typically include:

Undergraduate degree in nursing In some cases, at least one year of recent RN experience Statistics Physiology Microbiology Psychology

Students who have completed these courses at accredited schools can typically transfer the credits into their graduate program. Private, for-profit schools sometimes do not hold accreditation or hold national rather than regional accreditation.

Students who attended an undergraduate school without regional accreditation should research the transfer policy of their prospective graduate school to ensure the institution will accept their degree and credits. If the graduate program does not offer the required prerequisite courses and the student either has not completed the courses previously or cannot transfer them, the learner may be able to complete prerequisites through another accredited college.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to a Nursing Graduate Program?

Nursing is a complicated and ever-changing field of work, and even after years of school and clinicals, graduates sometimes require years to become comfortable in their roles. That's why many programs require applicants to submit a resume with their nursing graduate school application and may require a certain amount of relevant experience.

These programs are designed for nurses who want to specialize in a certain area. Applicants to RN-to-MSN programs, which do not require a bachelor's degree, may need additional experience. Students with professional experience that is closely related to their field of study are often the most competitive applicants. For example, applicants to a nurse anesthetist program may benefit from experience working in the operating room or ICU. Students who plan to pursue graduate education directly after earning their bachelor's degree should look for programs that do not require work experience.

Do I Have to Take the GRE or the MAT to Apply to Nursing School?

Many institutions require applicants to submit GRE or MAT scores. If a school accepts scores from either entrance exam, the applicant should choose the exam that best suits their unique situation, considering the subjects, costs, dates, and locations of each test.

The GRE tests students on analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. The mathematical section is high-school level and below, and all sections require critical-thinking skills. The MAT comprises 100 semantic analogy questions, which assess the test taker's understanding of a variety of topics. The GRE takes four hours to complete, and the MAT only takes one hour. The GRE costs $205, and students may incur additional fees for registering late or sending scores after the test. The cost of the MAT varies by location, with most testing centers charging about $100. Some schools require no entrance exam, while others waive the requirement for certain students.

MAT/GRE Waiver

Some students get nervous at the very thought of taking an entrance exam because they know they do not test well. Working nurses may also not have the time to study for an exam like this. Applicants with these concerns may be able to skip the tests with waivers.

Higher learning institutions may waive the requirement for GRE or MAT scores if a student has:

  1. High enough undergraduate GPA
  2. Specified number of years of experience or
  3. Previous graduate degree in any subject

Many schools make these exceptions because applicants with those qualifications have already proven that they can excel at the graduate level or in nursing. To apply for a waiver, candidates should contact the admissions offices at their chosen schools. Each school has a different process, but they all require waiver candidates to fill out applications and provide proof of their eligibility.

Breakdown of MAT Scores

Pearson, the organization that oversees the MAT, scores each test digitally. Test takers receive unofficial results immediately after completing the exam. Pearson sends official scores to each student's choice of three institutions. Test takers also receive official scores, including scaled scores and percentiles.

To calculate a scaled score, Pearson begins with the student's raw score, which represents the number of questions missed, then uses statistical analysis to account for variations between tests. Each scaled score is between 200 and 600. The percentile illustrates how well the student performed compared to other test takers. Students receive a percentile score between one and 99, which represents the percentage of learners who earned the same score or lower. For example, a student who scores in the 80th percentile did as well as or better than 80% of all MAT test takers.

Nursing graduate schools evaluate exam scores differently. Many programs have a minimum score requirement of about 410. However, some universities have no minimum requirement and use the applicant's MAT score in context with the rest of the application when making admissions decisions. Sometimes a test taker recognizes a poor performance before completing the exam. When that happens, the student can take advantage of Pearson's no score option. The test taker selects "do not process this score" on screen, and although the student does not receive a refund, Pearson will not send the suboptimal score to institutions.

MAT Scores and Percentiles
Score Percentile
450-600 99th percentile
430-440 95th percentile
421-425 90th percentile
416-420 80th percentile
410-415 70th percentile
405-409 60th percentile
400-404 50th percentile
Source: Pearson Assessments

Breakdown of GRE Scores

GREs have three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Scoring is fairly straightforward. The verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning sections are multiple choice and scores range from 130 to 170 with one-point increments.

The analytical writing section is scored from zero to six, with half-point increments. This section consists of two essay questions. Two readers will score your essays and if their responses vary by more than one point, a third reader will also score your results. You receive the average of the scores.

The average/mean scores for each section are:

150.37
Verbal Reasoning

153.66
Quantitative Reasoning

3.6
Analytical Writing

In addition to your raw score, you will also receive a report that indicates your percentile, as described below.

GRE Scores and Percentiles

Percentiles indicate how your scores compare to other test takers' scores. The tables below show how raw scores convert into percentiles. For example, a scaled score of 170 on the verbal reasoning section means that you scored in the 99th percentile. In other words, you scored higher than 99% of all other test takers. A 170 for quantitative reasoning means that you scored higher than 96% of all test takers.

Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Percentile Quantitative Reasoning Percentile
170 99 96
167 98 89
164 94 81
160 85 70
154 63 50
Source: ETS.org
Analytical Writing Score Percentile
6 99
5.5 98
5 91
4.5 80
4 54
Source: ETS.org

Nursing School Application Requirements

Graduate nursing school requirements are designed to ensure that you can succeed in the program and as a nurse. This is why they include measurements of your academic achievements, such as your GPA for nursing school or other undergraduate degree, as well as letters of recommendation and a personal essay or statement. These indicate whether you have the personal characteristics required for nursing.

Almost all nursing master's programs require applicants to submit undergraduate transcripts, which must be official and unopened. In most cases, the undergraduate institution sends these official documents directly to the graduate school.

Admissions boards use transcripts to ensure the applicant holds the required degree, typically an ADN or BSN. Transcripts also reveal whether the applicant has taken prerequisite courses and provides insight into the academic areas in which the applicant excels. Many schools consider each applicant's overall GPA and nursing GPA separately. Some schools have no minimum GPA, except for applicants who wish to waive the GRE or MAT requirement. Most schools that set minimum GPAs require at least a 3.0 GPA, but some selective universities require a minimum 3.5 GPA.

The organizations that administer the GRE and MAT send scores to each test taker's chosen institutions. Students submit each school's registration code before taking the exam. During registration, the test taker enters the code of each school they want to receive their scores. Test takers can send their scores to a certain number of institutions for free, after which they must pay a small fee per school.

When submitting a nursing graduate school application, a strong resume is important, especially if the program requires professional experience.

Resumes should be concise and easy to read. Students should accurately describe each of their previous positions while emphasizing skills that are applicable to advanced nursing practice. Important items to include are:

  1. Education and training
  2. Experience
  3. Skills
  4. Licensure and Certification
  5. Awards and accomplishments
  6. Volunteer work

Applicants who lack experience or who have gaps in their work history can strengthen their resume by adding volunteer or clinical experience. Applicants should be ready to explain any gaps in employment during an interview, if required.

Graduate nursing school applicants may need to submit a personal statement, an essay, or both. For applicants, understanding how to write a personal statement for nursing school can provide you with an important advantage.

Because the essay or personal statement is an opportunity to explain or compensate for gaps or issues in the rest of the application, students should devote significant time and energy to this piece of writing. Applicants should ensure the essay is free of grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. While a few misplaced commas may not result in a rejection, incoherent writing can ruin an application.

Each institution provides different prompts, but most essays focus on the applicant's strengths and future plans to illustrate why the school should accept them. Admissions officials look for essays and statements that offer specific examples that convey the applicant's ambitions and motivations. Perhaps most importantly, the essay should be authentic and reflect the applicant's true feelings about the nursing profession.

While the essay or personal statement allows applicants to explain themselves, letters of recommendation provide the perspective of the candidate's colleagues and mentors. Recommenders should have experience with the applicant in an academic or professional setting. Some schools also ask applicants to provide letters of recommendation that speak to the student's moral character.

Candidates should avoid choosing family members as recommenders and should instead ask current or previous professors and employers. Applicants should approach potential recommenders early and give them plenty of time to write letters, ideally a few months. Near the beginning of the letter, the writer should clearly state their intention to endorse the applicant. The writers should then highlight the applicant's professional or academic prowess, dedication to nursing, and achievements. Like in essays, admissions boards prefer specific examples in letters of recommendation. UC Berkeley provides an example of an effective letter of recommendation.

International applicants from non-English-speaking countries must typically complete an English proficiency exam. These standardized tests demonstrate an applicant's ability to understand English-speaking teachers and succeed in courses taught in English. Many schools will not issue the required visa documentation without English proficiency scores. The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) are both commonly accepted. Students should check with their prospective institution to learn about score requirements and which exams the school accepts. Because graduate nursing programs require students to work in hospitals with patients, nearly all schools require applicants to submit to a background check and a drug screening. These policies protect patients, hospital staff, hospital administrators, and other students. Learners who are concerned about the background check should contact admissions officials before applying.

How Do You Apply to Nursing Graduate School?

Nurses can advance their careers by applying to graduate school, but because the application process can take a year or longer, prospective students should begin researching early. Candidates should apply as soon as the documents are ready and the desired schools are accepting applications. Waiting until a week or two before the application deadline can be stressful, and even a minor setback can ruin the student's chances of acceptance.

The steps for applying to graduate nursing school are:

  1. Complete Required Prerequisites for Nursing School
  2. Collect Necessary Applications Materials
  3. Prepare for and Take the GRE or MAT
  4. Apply to Programs
  5. Prepare for Nursing Program Interviews
  6. Receive acceptance or rejection letters

NursingCAS provides a simple application process for students applying to participating schools. The system is operated by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) and allows students to apply to many schools at once. NursingCAS charges graduate students $70 for the first school and $40 for each additional institution to which they apply; this fee is comparable to individual schools' application fees. Both NursingCAS and individual schools may waive these fees for applicants who demonstrate financial need.

Rolling Admissions

Some graduate schools have a rolling admissions policy, which means that these schools have no firm application deadline. Instead, they accept applications all year. Online schools often provide rolling admissions because of their scheduling flexibility. Prospective students who meet graduate school requirements can apply immediately. The school places applications in line for review as soon as they receive them and immediately notifies the student upon reaching a decision.

Because these schools process applications on a first-come, first-served basis, candidates can benefit from applying during less competitive seasons. The time between acceptance and enrollment depends on the number of available spots. The earlier students apply, the sooner they typically begin classes. The start date also depends on the program format. Students attending traditional universities generally wait for the end of the semester. Accelerated programs may offer classes lasting five to eight weeks and usually offer more start dates per year.

Rounds Admissions

Some nursing programs may provide rounds admissions in order to better accommodate clinical schedules. Schools with this type of admissions policy have application deadlines throughout the year. Most schools offer deadlines in the fall, spring, and summer. Each deadline corresponds with a start date. For example, students who apply by September of 2018 may begin courses in January or August of 2019.

While undergraduate students may benefit from applying for spring and summer start dates, which often have less competition, this is not necessarily true for applicants nursing graduate programs. Because many applicants are current professionals and are not on an academic schedule, some nursing graduate schools may receive applications throughout the year. Instead of waiting for a time with less competition, candidates should apply at a time that fits their schedule.

Waiting for Acceptance Letters

After applying, students should receive a confirmation that the university has received the application. Since most candidates submit online, this confirmation often comes in the form of an email which will contain instructions on how to check the status of the application and how long the applicant should expect to wait for a decision. Long wait times do not indicate acceptance or rejection. After waiting, applicants receive a letter with an acceptance, rejection, or placement on a waitlist.

Students who are admitted to more than one program should carefully evaluate their options before enrolling. Learners should consider cost, time, distance, and available specialties. Those who are placed on a waitlist may be admitted when accepted students choose other schools. Candidates who receive rejection letters can review their applications and talk to admissions specialists. After improving their applications, they may apply again and receive an acceptance.

Frequently Asked Questions About Applying to Graduate Nursing School


What GPA do you need for nursing grad school?

Graduate nursing schools often require GPAs ranging from 2.75 to 3.5, depending on the school and how competitive it is. However, if you don't think you have a high enough GPA for nursing school, other factors, such as excellent test scores, good references from supervisors, or a history of leadership, can offset a GPA that is a few points below the school's usual requirements. If your GPA is slightly below what your dream school lists as a requirement, ask an admissions' counselor how strict the requirement is.

How do I get into nursing grad school?

A BSN is ideal, but many graduate schools have bridge programs if you have a bachelor's degree in another discipline or an ADN. You will need to submit an official transcript (though many graduate schools will let you apply with an unofficial transcript provided that you later submit an official one) and an application. Most schools also require references, proof of fluency in English, and a resume.

Is an MSN program difficult?

MSN programs are demanding and so are nursing graduate school requirements, but given the wide range of graduate programs in nursing and range of schools, you should be able to find a program that matches your strengths. Generally, advanced practice nursing programs are among the most academically demanding, while management programs such as nurse administration require the broadest range of skills.

What are the advantages of attending nursing graduate school?

Nursing graduate school is required to become an advanced practice nurse, such as a nurse practitioner and a growing number of employers require or strongly prefer graduate degree-holders for leadership positions. This not only opens up more career opportunities but better-paid opportunities with more professional autonomy.

Reviewed by

Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC, is a nursing professional with nearly 20 years of varied nursing experience. Gleason currently teaches as an assistant professor of nursing within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches graduate students. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout.

Gleason is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners here.

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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