Graduate Application Guide for Nurses icon

Graduate Application Guide for Nurses

| NurseJournal Staff

Earning a master’s degree can help nurses advance their careers, but prospective students should have a plan of action before applying to graduate school. Nurses should research schools, decide between online and on-campus classes, and consider their ultimate career goals. When comparing schools, prospective students should consider degree completion time, scheduling flexibility, program requirements, and total cost. After finding a suitable program, prospective students can begin the application process. Each school has unique admissions requirements, but several features are common to most nursing graduate school applications. Applicants must typically provide letters of recommendation, a resume, an essay, transcripts, and GRE scores. Some schools require graduate applicants to have post-BSN nursing experience. Some programs are designed for registered nurses and do not require applicants to hold a BSN. Applying to nursing grad school can take a significant amount of time; some students take the GRE up to one year before applying to graduate school. Prospective students should research application requirements and allow adequate time to complete them.

Nursing Graduate Program Prerequisites

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. These RN-to-MSN programs are ideal for nurses who have plenty of work experience and who want to become a nurse practitioner or manager without first devoting time and resources to earning a BSN. Nursing graduate students must typically complete certain prerequisites to prepare for graduate-level coursework. Prerequisites may include courses in statistics, nutrition, psychology, literature, and communication. 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. In such as case, some institutions may accept the student into the university but not the MSN program, which allows the student to complete prerequisites through the institution without worrying about transferring credits. Because application deadlines are usually about one year before enrollment, many applicants have not completed all necessary prerequisites before the application deadline. Some universities allow these students to apply, as long as they are enrolled in the remaining courses.

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 typically 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 a high enough undergraduate GPA, a specified number of years of experience or a 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
400-404 50th percentile
405-409 60th percentile
410-415 70th percentile
416-420 80th percentile
421-425 90th percentile
430-440 95th percentile
450-600 99th percentile

Source: Pearson Assessments

Breakdown of GRE Scores

Students who take the GRE digitally receive unofficial scores immediately after completing the exam and official scores five to 10 days later. Those who take the paper-based test do not receive unofficial scores and may wait up to five weeks for official results. The ETS, the nonprofit organization that administers the GRE, provides test takers with scaled scores and percentile rankings. Test takers receive separate scaled scores for each of the three sections: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. The analytical writing portion is scored from zero to six at half-point intervals, and the verbal and quantitative sections are scored from 130 to 170. The ETS provides separate scores to accommodate programs that place more value on certain sections. Furthermore, test takers can select scores from different exam attempts. For example, a student may send the verbal reasoning and analytical writing scores from their first test and the quantitative reasoning score from their second attempt. The percentile shows a student’s ranking among fellow test takers. For example, an individual who scores in the 99th percentile performed better than almost all test takers. Admissions requirements vary widely; some institutions required a combined score about 300, and others have no minimum requirements, instead including GRE scores in a holistic evaluation of each applicant’s qualifications.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017 2018

Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Percentile Rank Quantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank
170 99 97
160 85 76
150 47 39
140 11 8

Source: ETS

Nursing School Application Requirements


Almost all nursing master’s programs require applicants to submit undergraduate transcripts, which must be official and unopened. Typically, 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 ASN 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.

Test Scores

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. The registration code is typically available on the school’s website. 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, resume strength is important, especially if the program requires professional experience. Applicants should submit resumes that highlight their strengths and medical 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. For example, a customer service position may provide skills needed to deal with frustrated individuals. 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.

Essays and Personal Statements

Applicants may need to submit a personal statement, an essay, or both. Requirements vary by school, but personal statements are typically shorter and focus on the applicant’s future. 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. For example, this sample essay illustrates how the student’s grandmother was an inspiration. The writer also details previous obstacles. Great essays avoid words such as “hope” and “may” when describing the applicant’s future ambitions. While the reader may understand the candidate’s plans are not concrete, a solid plan is appealing. Perhaps most importantly, the essay should be authentic and reflect the applicant’s true feelings about the nursing profession; this sample essay does this artfully by describing nursing as a relationship.

Letters of Recommendation

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.

English Proficiency Tests

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.

Background Check and Drug Screening

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. NursingCAS provides a simple application process for students applying to participating schools. This system 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

Nursing schools typically use rounds admissions to 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, nursing graduate schools typically 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 submitting applications, students can become anxious. Waiting for a decision from dream schools can be difficult. After all, the student’s professional plans are on the line. While this waiting period is uncomfortable, the anxiety is natural and not a reflection of the student’s chances of success. After applying, students should receive a confirmation that the university received the application. Since most candidates submit online, this confirmation often comes in the form of an email, which often contains 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 or 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. 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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