How to Become a Registered Nurse

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A registered nurse (RN) is a nurse who has completed an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and has then taken a test that is required to earn RN credentials. In other words, you can earn an ADN or BSN degree to become licensed as an RN.

What Is a Registered Nurse (RN)?

Typically found in hospitals, medical offices, and clinics, a registered nurse assists doctors and other nurses in providing critical care to patients.

As one of the most versatile roles in the nursing industry, registered nurses (RNs) are in high demand. Working as an RN can be incredibly rewarding and impactful, as well as a great stepping stone if you decide you want to advance your career.

Steps To Become a Registered Nurse

The path to becoming a registered nurse takes a little time, but the journey is a rewarding one. It’s a bit like getting a driver’s license in that you study and practice, take the test, and apply to get your license.

Decide if this career is right for you.

man and woman looking at paperwork and smiling

A job as an RN comes with a lot of responsibility. No matter where you work or the type of nursing role you pursue, you’ll likely be working closely with patients. You’ll need to be quick on your feet, approachable, and good with people.

Complete your prerequisites.

woman wearing headphones looking at laptop

You’ll need to have a high school diploma or GED in order to apply for a nursing program. Some schools will accept students with a GPA of 2.5, while others require a 3.0 or higher. As you’d expect, the most in-demand schools require the highest GPAs.

Get your degree.

two graduates in caps and gowns hugging

Registered nurses need to hold either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) to work as an RN. While most employers prefer to hire those with BSNs, earning an ADN can be a good way to get started in the nursing field with an education pathway that is generally quicker and less expensive. Entry-level classes include anatomy, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, and psychology. Working paramedics who want to become RNs have bridge programs available to them as well. If you advance your nursing education, you’ll dive deeper into subjects like emergency care, nursing research, and population-based practice.

Take and pass the NCLEX.

man wearing headphones looking at laptop

Following graduation from an approved program, all U.S.-based RNs must take and pass the NCLEX exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The test is used to determine whether you’re prepared for entry-level nursing and includes a minimum of 75 questions. You’ll answer up to 265 questions if you haven’t reached a passing score after the first round.

Questions on the test cover topics such as basic care and comfort, prevention and detection of disease, coping and adaptation, and pharmacological therapies. You can find sample tests online or in books, you can or take an NCLEX prep course through various schools and companies.

Get your RN license.

three nursing students studying and looking at notepad computer

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX exam, you can apply for RN licensure in the state where you want to work. Each state has its own requirements, fees, and length of time that it takes to obtain a license, so you’ll need to do a little bit of research. Another option to consider is the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC). This initiative allows nurses to get a multi-state license and practice in any state that is a member of the alliance. There are 34 states that have enacted NLC legislation. The NLC is a particularly good option for RNs who think they may want to pursue a career in travel nursing within the U.S.

Start working as an RN.

nurse listening to girl's heart with stethoscope

Once you’ve been working for a while as an RN, you’ll be able to figure out what you love—and what you don’t love—about being an RN. You might decide to try your hand in a doctor’s office or clinic instead of a hospital. Now is your time to explore your options!

Keep up on your continuing education requirements.

female nurse with clipboard instructing four nursing students

RNs are required to take a minimum number of continuing education units (CEUs) each year to maintain their license. Be sure you know what’s required in your state.

How Long Does it Take to Get a Nursing Degree?

The time it takes to earn a nursing degree depends on the program you choose. An ADN will likely take two years to complete, while a BSN typically takes four.

An ADN usually takes two years to complete; a BSN takes about four.

If you already hold an ADN and want to pursue a BSN, you may be able to do so in a shorter time than it would take to earn a typical bachelor’s degree. Similarly, if you are already a licensed practical nurse (LPN), you can use your education and experience as a starting point to a higher paying job with more responsibility.

What Types of Jobs are Available for RNs?

There are many roles registered nurses can fill, from pediatric nurses who see children for routine wellness exams to operating room nurses who help prep patients for surgery and assist the operating team during procedures.

There are ways for working paramedics to become RNs, too.

Where Can RNs Work?

Most RNs work in hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, home healthcare services, and outpatient clinics. But you can also find them in a number of other locations as well, such as schools, churches, government offices, community centers, day spas, and more.

How Much Money Do RNs Make?

The salary of an RN can vary greatly depending on their specialty, level of education and experience, additional certification, and workplace location.

Salaries are also dependent on where in the U.S. you live. Top-paying locations include California, Hawaii, Washington D.C., Alaska, and Oregon.

sheila cain

Written and reported by:

Sheila Cain

ASD Writer/Editor