How to Become a Nurse: The Complete Guide (2024)

There are several reasons you might be interested in a career in health care. For example, health care jobs offer job growth and stability. Health care roles are also available for a variety of education and experience levels. The field is fast-paced and exciting and offers you the chance to make a difference in people’s lives.

In a world of uncertainty, health care professionals are needed now more than ever. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in health care occupations is projected to grow 15% from 2019 to 2029, estimating that 2.4 million new jobs will be added over this period time.*

If you’re just beginning to explore a career in nursing, here’s what you need to know about earning a nursing degree and the career paths available to you.

An Associate’s Degree in Nursing: Path to Becoming a Registered Nurse

The Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) is one route toward becoming a registered nurse (RN). Earning your ASN usually takes 2 years and degrees are offered at many universities, community colleges, and career-focused schools.

The Application Process for the ASN

Each nursing program is unique and has different admission requirements. Carefully review program guidelines before applying. Common requirements include a high school GPA of 2.5 (or GED equivalent) and a certain ACT or SAT subscore (18 for the former, 25 for the latter).

Some programs also require applicants to submit a HESI exam or TEAS test score. The Health Education Systems, Inc. (HESI) Admission Assessment Exam is a timed, computerized test. It is used as a baseline entrance criterion by some nursing schools. Likewise, the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS), distributed by Assessment Technologies Institute, is a multiple choice exam that measures entry-level skills and abilities of nursing program applicants. Both of these assessments help to determine your readiness before applying to the ASN program.

Additionally, some programs require applicants to pass a criminal background check and drug screening before admittance.

ASN Classrooms, Clinicals, and Career Paths

In general, first-year nursing students take classes to learn the fundamentals of nursing. This could include introductory courses in human anatomy and physiology, microbiology, sociology, developmental psychology, and pharmacology. Additionally, a first-year nursing student’s coursework usually includes general education courses and at least one humanities elective.

While the first year is meant to create a base of nursing knowledge, the second year is meant to technically prepare and train students to become RNs. As a second-year nursing student, your coursework could include classes on psychiatric nursing, surgical nursing, and maternity and infant nursing.

Throughout your education, you’ll be required to rotate through and complete a series of clinical practice experiences that grant you first-hand, real-life experience in various areas of nursing. Designed to augment what you learn in the classroom, these clinical practice experiences include learning from and working alongside RNs in hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities. This onsite training prepares you to become an RN in a variety of settings, depending on your job choice.


“Earning an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree is an important milestone that marks the start of your nursing career,” says Tonya Holian, academic chair of Purdue Global’s prelicensure nursing programs. Programs such as the ASN offered by Purdue Global to students in Iowa and Maine will provide you with a strong foundation as you prepare to sit for the national licensure exam (NCLEX-RN®) and begin work as a licensed RN.

>> Read More: 10 NCLEX Tips and Tricks to Pass the First Time You Take It

As an RN, you could work in:

  • Emergency nursing
  • Peri-, intra-, and post-operative nursing
  • Family practice
  • Geriatric nursing
  • Adult health nursing
  • Maternal infant nursing
  • Pediatric nursing
  • Mental health nursing
  • Medical surgical nursing

The RN-to-BSN: Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) may be the next step for RNs who are seeking to enhance their skills and pursue more advanced roles. Many people choose to earn their ASN first and then return for their BSN after working for a few years as a licensed RN.

An RN-to-BSN program generally takes 2 years of full-time study and can be completed online or on campus. Accelerated programs, such as Purdue Global’s ExcelTrack® RN-to-BSN online nursing degree, enable you to move quickly past what you already know so that you can focus on what you still need to learn in a personalized, competency-based educational environment.

Career Opportunities

While you may enjoy bedside nursing in the patient care environment as an RN, you might also have other career aspirations. If teaching or advancing into nursing leadership and administration interests you, obtaining your BSN is the next pathway for your career. Nurses with a BSN often explore opportunities in areas such as:

  • Community education and public health
  • Nursing case management
  • Nursing leadership and administration
  • Patient care coordination

The Benefits of Earning a BSN

Completing a BSN can help nurses grow their skill sets. Research from the American Association of the Colleges of Nursing shows that nurses with a BSN or higher-level degree have stronger communication and problem-solving skills and are more likely to make an accurate diagnosis based on evaluation. Furthermore, the AACN reports that nurses with a BSN are more likely to have lower patient mortality rates and lower failure-to-rescue rates. According to Susan Kieffer, academic chair for Purdue Global’s RN-to-BSN program, “The RN-to-BSN program is about opening doors. A registered nurse with a BSN degree will see doors opening to greater opportunities.”

>> Read More: Top 4 Reasons to Earn Your RN-to-BSN Degree

The Outside Motivation for BSN-Prepared Nurses

Many government, nonprofit, and other professional organizations are advocating for an increase in the number of BSN-prepared nurses across clinical settings. For example:

  • Magnet hospitals are recognized by the American Nurses Credentialing Center as entities that meet high quality standards of nursing excellence. To achieve and keep Magnet status, hospitals must employ only those who meet certain educational eligibility criteria. As such, all nurse managers and nurse leaders at Magnet hospitals must hold a BSN or graduate degree in nursing.
  • In 2008, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Institute of Medicine, now known as the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), launched a two-year initiative to assess and transform the nursing profession. In its 2011 report, “The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health,” the committee recommended that the number of the nation’s nurses with baccalaureate degrees be increased to 80% by 2020. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s Fact Sheet: The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice, 56% of RNs in 2019 held a BSN or higher.
  • New York passed its “BSN in 10” law in 2017, which requires all nurses to obtain a BSN within 10 years of receiving their RN license. Rhode Island and New Jersey have proposed “BSN-in-10” mandates as well, but they have not passed yet.
  • The U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, and U.S Space Force all require active duty nurses to hold at least a baccalaureate degree in nursing.
  • To be hired by the Veteran’s Administration, the nation’s largest employer of registered nurses, applicants must hold a BSN or graduate degree in nursing.

A BSN also enables students to move on to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, which is required for advanced nursing roles such as nurse practitioners.

Master’s Degree in Nursing: Preparing to Be a Nurse Educator or Manager, and for Advanced Practice Roles

Building on a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in nursing enables students to develop expertise in a specialized area. While some nurses pursue an MSN from the outset of their education, this pathway can also be for nurses who, after a few years of experience, have identified career goals that match their skills and interest. Nurses who pursue an MSN will often focus on one of these advanced practice areas§:

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP): Diagnose and treat common illnesses and injuries, administer immunizations, order X-rays, offer primary care, etc.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): Administer anesthesia in operating rooms, dental offices, outpatient surgical centers, etc.
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM): Provide pre- and postnatal care, deliver babies, and offer general gynecological services.
  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): Provide specialty care in a range of areas from pediatric to psychiatric nursing.
  • Nurse Executive: Blend business skills with health care expertise; manage a team of nurses while also handling a budget, managing overall finances, etc.
  • Nurse Educator: In classroom and clinical settings, nurse educators lead lectures, develop nursing school curriculums, and teach aspiring nurses how to provide patient care.

MSN Program Requirements and Curriculum

Each MSN program will differ, but most require students to be a licensed RN, have a BSN degree, reach a minimum GPA and/or GRE score, and have a certain amount of clinical experience. Full-time programs generally take 18 to 24 months to complete.

Master’s-level nursing education includes courses in nursing theory, ethics and policy, human resources, information technology, specialized practice, research management, and advanced practice nursing.

The MSN program at Purdue Global offers three nurse practitioner population focus areas:

  • Adult-gerontology acute care
  • Adult-gerontology primary care
  • Family nurse practitioner, primary care

These focus areas prepare advanced practice nurses for careers in a variety of settings. “As an advanced practice provider, you will assess, diagnose, and manage patients with a multitude of health conditions and help to fulfill the needs of the health care crisis in the United States today,” says Michelle McMahon, associate dean of graduate programs.

Purdue Global also offers a nurse educator concentration and an executive leader concentration. The nurse educator concentration will prepare you to lead the way in providing evidence-based education to nurses and aspiring nurses. “As a nurse educator, you are poised to transform health care through knowledge and innovation,” says Angela Owens, MSN nurse educator. The executive leader concentration prepares future nurse executives through the cultivation of business acumen in the health care setting. “Nurse executive leaders are poised to influence health care policies and provide visionary leadership,” Owens says.

As with undergraduate degrees, much of your coursework will be split between classroom and clinical settings.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): The Door to Clinical and Leadership Positions

There are two types of doctoral nursing programs: research-focused programs and practice-focused programs. While the former has a heavy focus on generating new nursing research, the latter emphasizes translation and application of evidence-based protocols and interventions that have been tested through nursing research. Both are designed to produce nursing experts who will be leaders in their areas of expertise.

In many DNP programs, candidates engage in practice experiences with the help of a practice mentor. For example, while taking a course in DNP leadership, this could include working alongside a chief financial officer (CFO) to understand their role in managing workplace finances.

Additionally, some programs require an original, practice-based scholarly project, which includes a presentation of your project and project findings. In these cases, you will earn practice hours when you complete practice experiences that relate to your specialization.

“The Doctor of Nursing Practice program prepares nurses to practice at the highest level of the profession. This terminal degree focuses on continuous quality improvement through evidence-based practice at the systems level,” says Owens.

With a DNP, you’ll be better equipped to bridge the theory-practice gap—an ongoing issue of matching textbook learning with clinical competency. Ultimately, the purpose of a DNP program is to teach nurses how to translate their research into practice, with the end goal of improving patient outcomes.

College Credits

Graduation requirements vary per specialized program and can depend on the amount of practice hours you have completed when you enroll. Full-time MSN-to-DNP programs typically take 1 to 2 years to complete and are available in both online and on-campus settings. Because DNP candidates generally work and study simultaneously, many earn an online DNP degree for maximum flexibility. In some cases, independent study options are available for those who need additional coursework to achieve the required number of postbaccalaureate clinical practice hours.

Career Outcomes

With a DNP degree, nurses can expect to advance in leadership roles as nurse practitioners, nurse executives, expert clinicians, and nursing instructors. Due to an aging population and an increased focus on preventive care, these professions—which include those working as nurse anesthetists and nurse midwives—are projected to grow 45% from 2019 to 2029, according to the BLS.

A Pioneer in the Profession

The DNP is fairly new with relatively few graduates in the workforce. According to a report from the Future of Nursing: Campaign for Action, as of 2019, 40,271 of the nation’s more than 3 million nurses have a DNP in nursing. An additional 6,994 have a PhD in nursing.

Earning the degree can not only set you apart as an expert in your field, but it makes you a pioneer in the nursing profession. DNP-prepared nurses have the potential to revolutionize the current health care system and contribute in a positive way to the evolution of their occupation.

Ready to Launch a Career in Nursing?

Nurses are thought leaders. They’re skilled at leading change through data-driven decision making. They’re patient advocates. They see people in their most vulnerable moments and experience the human condition at its worst—and at its best.

If you’re interested in joining the ranks and becoming a nurse, the Purdue Global School of Nursing encourages you to talk to people in the profession to learn more. Discuss the program requirements with an advisor at your local community college or a university of your choice. Residents of Iowa and Maine may inquire about earning an associate’s degree in nursing at Purdue Global.

To learn more about the online nursing degree programs at Purdue Global, request more information today.

How to Become a Nurse: The Complete Guide (2024)


When you complete the nursing program you will complete a total of how many hours? ›

The number of nursing clinical hours required varies depending on the school, state, and undergraduate or graduate program. For example, a BSN student may need to complete up to 700 clinical hours but an MSN student may need to complete up to 1,300 hours.

How do I become a nurse checklist? ›

Here's what you need to work as a nurse in the United States.
  1. Step One – Meet the Educational Requirements. ...
  2. Step Two – Find and Take a CCNE-Accredited RN Program. ...
  3. Step Three – Take the English Language Proficiency Test. ...
  4. Step Four – Study For, Take, and Pass the NCLEX Examination. ...
  5. Step Five – Get a Work Visa.
Aug 24, 2020

How do I choose the right answer for nursing exam? ›

NCLEX Test-Taking Strategies
  1. Identify Keywords. One of the most effective NCLEX strategies involves focusing on keywords. ...
  2. Identify Repeated Words. ...
  3. Do Not Second Guess Yourself. ...
  4. Look for Opposite Answers. ...
  5. Read the Entire Question Before Answering. ...
  6. Eliminate Distractors. ...
  7. Use Prioritization Techniques. ...
  8. Reviewed By:

How to pass nursing school for dummies? ›

Follow these steps and you'll know how to pass nursing school exams – from the first one to the very last one.
  1. Budget Plenty of Study Time. ...
  2. Find Some Example Nursing Questions. ...
  3. Use A Study Group. ...
  4. Study With Your Learning Style. ...
  5. Put Facts On Repeat. ...
  6. Create Mnemonic Devices. ...
  7. Make the Facts Relatable.
Feb 19, 2019

How long is the shortest nursing program? ›

LPN/LVN programs are the fastest entry-level nursing program for nurses and usually take between one year and 16 months. LPNs and LVNs have the lowest level of authority and professional autonomy among all nurses and also receive the lowest salaries.

How many hours a week do nursing majors study? ›

Nursing school is a considerable time commitment. With clinical sites, lectures, projects, research papers, and exams, a full-time nursing program is 40+ hours per week.

What is the easiest way to be a nurse? ›

The associate degree in Nursing is best for entry-level students looking to achieve their nursing degree fast. In just a couple of years, they can accomplish the fundamental nursing courses and practice needed to be successful in their field.

What should I do first to become a nurse? ›

Steps to becoming a nurse
  1. Decide which type of nurse you want to be. ...
  2. Earn your nursing degree. ...
  3. Pass the NCLEX and get state licensure. ...
  4. Find a nursing job. ...
  5. Keep up with continuing education. ...
  6. Maximize your potential through advanced training.

What is the first thing to know as a nurse? ›

Know the Patient's Diagnosis and Health History

You'll want to know why your patient is in your healthcare facility in the first place. Why are they receiving treatment? In addition, you'll want to know the patient's health history, as this will help you determine specific things to watch for during your shift.

Is the first nursing exam hard? ›

Rather than using memorization skills, logic and critical thinking skills are required to succeed on this exam, making it more comprehensive and challenging. So, if you find yourself asking, "How hard is the NCLEX-RN? - The short answer is, it's very hard.

How many questions are on the RN? ›

How many questions are on the NCLEX? A test-taker will see a minimum of 60 questions and a maximum of 145 questions on the NCLEX-RN and PN. Each of the tests will also include 15 experimental questions that do not count in scoring.

What are the key words for the NCLEX? ›

The NCLEX® does use bold print for certain keywords in the test, such as best, most, essential, first, priority, immediately, highest, initial, next, refute, increased, decreased, and support. However, qualifier words can be easy to miss, and best practice is still to read the full question.

What is the hardest thing to learn in nursing school? ›

Pharmacology, Microbiology, and Anatomy & Physiology each have a well-earned reputation for being difficult to pass. Some students may find Cardiology, Chemistry, or even Mental Health especially trying.

What is the easiest class in nursing school? ›

The Easiest Classes in Nursing School
  • Social Sciences (Intro Psychology, Sociology, etc.)
  • Humanities.
  • Intro to Speech (or Communication)
  • English Composition.
  • History.
  • Using Information Technology.

Why is it so hard to pass nursing school? ›

Challenging Course Material

The main reason people ask, “is nursing school hard?” is because of the course material. Nursing school involves learning complicated concepts and practical skills, then applying that information to diverse patient care scenarios — going well beyond memorizing facts.

How many hours do you need to study for nursing final? ›

Instead of procrastinating until the night before, it is recommended that you study in frequent intervals for no more than three-to-four hours per session. You may hold study sessions two or three times per day for several weeks leading up to the exam, but be sure to keep the sessions limited to only a few hours.

How many hours is one year of nursing? ›

How Many Hours Do Registered Nurses Work?
The number of hours nurses work in a day:8 10 12 16
The number of hours nurses work in a week:36 40
The number of hours nurses work in a year1,872 2,080

What is the total nursing process? ›

The nursing process functions as a systematic guide to client-centered care with 5 sequential steps. These are assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Assessment is the first step and involves critical thinking skills and data collection; subjective and objective.

How many hours is the RN exam? ›

The NCLEX-RN has a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 145, and you have five hours to complete the exam. If the maximum amount of time has elapsed and you have not answered the minimum number of questions, this indicates you failed the NCLEX in 2023.


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