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How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Nursing is one of the most well known of the health care professions. We see nurses in almost every patient care facility, in hospitals, clinics, and doctor’s offices. 

For people interested in working in the medical field, many choose the nursing profession for this reason. It’s a versatile field with many options to find a job and career path that’s rewarding and interesting, and you can help people directly every day. 

If becoming a registered nurse sounds like the career choice meant for you, here’s what you should know about how to become one. 

How to Become a Registered Nurse

Becoming a registered nurse requires several years of schooling plus the resources required to pay for textbooks, tuition, exam fees, and equipment. Here are the steps you’ll need to take to get your registered nurse license. 

1. Research Nursing Programs

There are many things you can do before you enter a nursing program. The first step is to research schools and find nursing programs you’re interested in. The sooner you start doing so, the sooner you can begin working on any prerequisites that you might need for that program.

Look for programs that are nationally accredited by an agency approved by the U.S. Department of Education. This means that any nurse trained at that program will receive the same level of training as a nurse trained at any other program across the country.

Programs themselves will vary from school to school. You can find programs for nursing through many universities, colleges, and technical schools, but not all nursing programs are created equal. If your goal is to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing or become a registered nurse licensed in another state, you’ll want to make sure the program you choose will let you do that.

Many programs you’ll find are Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) programs, meaning that upon graduation, you’ll be awarded an associate’s degree. Some people may have the option of studying in a hospital-based program and getting a diploma instead of a degree. 

Others might choose the option of going through a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN) program before becoming licensed. Or if you have a bachelor’s degree in another field, you might be able to find a program that offers an accelerated program. 

Different states might have other program options for interested people to become nurses. For example, in California, there’s an option for licensed vocational nurses to go through an LVN 30 Unit Option, but that’s one of the options where you might not be able to get a registered nurse license from another state if you move.

2. Prepare to Apply

Through this process, you’ll likely learn that you’ll need to take some prerequisite classes before applying for a program. Exact requirements will vary by institution and program, but you’ll generally need the basics for an associate degree, like English, math, and sciences.

Some courses are recommended to be completed before you enter the program, like human anatomy and physiology. Although programs will generally let you take those courses during or in between program classes, completing the classes before you enter the program means you can put all your focus on learning nursing skills. 

It’s also a great way to see if you’re still interested in learning more about the medical field before you commit more to a full program. 

3. Apply for a Nursing Program

Once you’ve found some nursing programs that interest you and you’ve fulfilled any pre-application requirements and prerequisites, it’s time to start applying. 

Pay close attention to application deadlines. Nursing programs have limited spots for students because they have to make sure they have enough staff, resources, and lab and clinical space for all their students in the program to get the necessary hands-on and in-class experience. Deadlines will generally be in the semester or two before the program starts.

If you have the time and money, you should consider applying for multiple nursing programs at your schools of choice to give yourself the best chance of starting a program when you initially planned. 

4. Graduate from a Nursing Program

Once you’ve been accepted into a nursing program, the real work begins. Nursing programs may take anywhere from 18 months to two years to complete, depending on the program you choose and the degree or diploma you’re aiming for. 

During the program, you’ll go through classroom experiences, simulation labs, and hands-on clinicals in real facilities with real patients to give you the best experience in learning the skills and concepts of nursing. These programs typically culminate in a capstone in the final semester when you’re assigned to work alongside a licensed registered nurse in a real facility for a short period of time. 

Once you successfully graduate from the program, you’ll be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN exam.

5. Take and Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

The NCLEX-RN exam is the national licensing exam that you must take in order to be eligible to become licensed as a registered nurse. The computerized exam is the same process and format for every nursing student in the United States, but due to the adaptive nature of the exam, every student who takes it will get a different set of questions every time they take it. 

6. Begin Working as a Registered Nurse & Consider Next Steps

For many nurses, the journey doesn’t end with passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Depending on what type of education and program you went through, if you haven’t gotten a BSN yet, you might strongly consider it.

Many employers have moved to make a BSN a preferred or required qualification for jobs, especially in hospitals or on specialty units. A BSN can also provide you more job opportunities, and you’ll not only be more competitive for jobs you want, but you’ll be more qualified for higher pay as well.

For nurses who want even more autonomy in their practice, you can also consider going further to get a master’s degree or a doctorate in nursing and become a nurse practitioner. 

There are also many specialization options, where you can join professional organizations for specific nursing specialties or get certification in those specialties to validate your competency in practicing as a nurse specialist. These specialty certifications range from genetics to pediatrics or oncology. 

Registered Nurse Salaries and Job Outlook

On average, registered nurses make around $70,000 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of course, like with any field, your exact salary will vary based on your education level, experience, specialty, and where you live. The lowest average pay for a nurse is less than $50,000, with the highest at more than $100,000.

If you’ve researched the medical field at all, you’ve likely heard that there’s a nursing shortage, and this is definitely true. As the aging population of the United States continues to grow, so does their need for caregivers and medical treatment, meaning more and more health care professionals, especially nurses, will be needed. Registered nursing jobs are expected to increase by 7% over the next decade. 

If you have the time, resources, and interest in becoming a registered nurse, now is as good a time as any to enter this field. It can be a demanding job, both physically and emotionally, but it’s a job with many opportunities and rewarding work that brings you something a little different every day.

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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