October 25, 2023

How to Become a Registered Nurse: 9 Steps to Your Nursing Career

Nursing students sit in class and take notes while listening to an instructor.

There are many reasons to become a nurse, including embarking on a meaningful career journey that helps others. Registered nurses (RNs) play a vital role in the healthcare system, providing compassionate care and making a positive impact on the lives of patients. If you have a passion for helping others, a strong work ethic, and a desire to pursue a rewarding profession, this guide will walk you through the steps to become a registered nurse.

Table of contents:

High school students raise their hands in a classroom.

Step 1: Educational preparation

Before beginning the journey to nursing school, you can lay a solid educational foundation by focusing on specific subjects and fundamental skills. A strong emphasis should be placed on excelling in high school or obtaining a GED, particularly in courses such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, and mathematics. Understanding and mastering these subjects will provide a solid base of knowledge for your future nursing studies. 

Effective study habits, critical thinking skills, and time management techniques will also prove helpful in managing the rigorous coursework and demands of nursing school. Engaging in extracurricular activities related to healthcare or volunteering in healthcare settings can offer practical exposure to the field and give you experiences to reference in college applications.

Key takeaways:

  • Earn your high school diploma or GED
  • Focus on subjects like biology, chemistry, and mathematics
  • Start creating effective study habits and time management skills

A student holds a pen to her chin and looks at a laptop in thought.

Step 2: Choose an accredited nursing program

Selecting the right nursing program is a critical step for aspiring nurses. To make an informed choice, you should conduct thorough research. Start by assessing your personal career goals and preferences, considering factors such as the program's location, duration, and flexibility. 

Check the program's accreditation status from reputable organizations like the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Review the curriculum, faculty qualifications, clinical opportunities, and available resources. Seek input from current students, alumni, and healthcare professionals to gain insights into the program's reputation and quality of education. 

Considering factors like graduation rates, NCLEX pass rates, and post-graduation employment rates can further guide your decision-making process. Ultimately, choose a program that offers a comprehensive education that aligns with your nursing career goals.

Key takeaways:

  • Research accredited nursing programs that meet your needs
  • Review the curriculum and resources available to you as a student
  • Take into account graduation rate, NCLEX pass rates, and post-grad employment rates

A nursing student in graduation robes holds up her degree and takes a selfie with a huge smile.

Step 3: Earn your ADN or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Although you can become a registered nurse with an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN), a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is generally preferred by employers and can open up more career opportunities. 

As an aspiring registered nurse completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, you can expect a comprehensive education that prepares you for a diverse and fulfilling nursing career. The BSN curriculum provides a deeper understanding of nursing theories, critical thinking skills, and hands-on clinical experiences. Expect to delve into advanced topics such as healthcare policies, research methodologies, leadership, and community health. 

Completing a BSN sets the stage for a successful and impactful nursing career, with the potential to make meaningful contributions to patient care and the healthcare system as a whole.

Key takeaways:

  • An ADN or BSN is required to become a licensed RN in the United States
  • Earning a BSN will generally take four years to complete
  • BSN programs cover a wide range of nursing topics to prepare students for their careers

Adults sit at separated desks taking a nursing exam.

Step 4: Pass the NCLEX-RN exam

After graduating with your nursing degree, the next step is to take the NCLEX-RN exam. Passing the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses) is a requirement for state licensure in the United States.

The NCLEX-RN is a computerized adaptive exam designed to assess your nursing knowledge and abilities. Expect the exam to consist of multiple-choice questions, as well as alternate format questions like select-all-that-apply and ordered response. The questions will cover a wide range of nursing topics, from pharmacology to client care management. 

Passing the NCLEX-RN requires thorough preparation, including a comprehensive review of nursing concepts, practice tests, and familiarity with the exam format. Aspiring nurses usually spend between two and twelve weeks preparing for the NCLEX-RN. Exam results provide a way for states to independently verify your nursing knowledge. 

Key takeaways:

  • You must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to be eligible for RN licensure in the United States
  • The NCLEX-RN exam is computerized and consists of various question formats
  • You should plan on taking 2-12 weeks to prepare for the NCLEX-RN
  • Learn more about how to study and pass the NCLEX-RN in our blog

A nurse fills out an application for licensure in her state.

Step 5: Apply for state licensure & meet state requirements

Upon completing your BSN program, the next step is to obtain licensure to practice as a registered nurse. In the United States, nursing licenses are regulated at the state level. To apply for licensure in your state, you'll need to submit an application, which often involves providing comprehensive educational and personal background information. This may include transcripts from your nursing program, background checks, and other relevant documentation. 

Additionally, you'll need to meet specific state requirements, which can vary slightly from state to state. These requirements may involve fingerprinting, additional exams, or proof of supervised practice hours. Be prepared to pay application fees and wait for the processing of your application, which can take some time. 

Some states accept compact licenses, which are multi-state licenses that allow a nurse to work across more than one state. If you want to work in a nurse compact state, you can apply for a multi-state license. Overall, approaching the application with thoroughness, attention to detail, and adherence to state regulations will help smooth the path to obtaining your registered nurse license.

Key takeaways:

  • RNs in the United States are required to be licensed in the state they are working
  • Requirements for licensure may vary from state to state
  • Compact licenses allow nurses to work in multiple states (see list of nurse compact states)

A nurse holding flowers smiles and holds up a certificate in the other hand.

Step 6: Complete additional certifications (optional)

As a registered nurse, you have the option to pursue a specialization in a particular area of nursing. This can be done through additional certifications or advanced degrees. Specializations can range from med-surg nursing, labor and delivery, critical care, pediatric, PACU nursing, and various other specialized fields. Specializing in one area of nursing can open career opportunities and help you become more qualified for certain nursing roles.

Nurses can pursue certification in their chosen specialty through organizations like the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or specialty-specific boards. Certification typically involves meeting specific education, experience, and examination requirements. Specializing allows nurses to deepen their expertise, potentially increase their earning potential, and focus on areas they are passionate about, providing specialized care to patients and contributing to advancements within their chosen field.

Key takeaways:

  • Additional nursing certifications are optional but may help you focus on a passion area and open up career opportunities
  • The ANCC and other specialty-specific boards can provide certification in a range of nursing specialties

A nurse speaks to a hiring manager at a career fair.

Step 7: Find your first nursing job

Once you are licensed in the state you wish to work in, you can begin looking for nursing jobs. Today there are numerous options for nurses in how they wish to work - from full-time to seasonal nursing jobs, to per diem nursing, PRN nursing, and even travel nursing. For licensed nurses seeking first-time employment, it's essential to showcase your education, clinical experiences, and passion for patient care in a compelling manner. 

Begin by crafting a well-structured resume that highlights your nursing education, any relevant clinical rotations, and any certifications you may have obtained. Tailor your resume and cover letter to the specific job and healthcare facility you're applying to, emphasizing your dedication to delivering high-quality care and your ability to work well in a team environment. Be prepared to discuss any relevant skills, such as strong communication, critical thinking, and adaptability, during interviews. Additionally, consider networking within the healthcare community, attending job fairs, and reaching out to alumni or mentors for potential job opportunities and guidance.

Once you secure an interview, approach it with confidence and enthusiasm. Research the healthcare facility and familiarize yourself with its mission, values, and the specific unit or department you're applying to. Highlight any certifications or professional development opportunities you've pursued. Showcase your eagerness to learn and grow as a nurse, and demonstrate your commitment to providing excellent patient care and being an integral part of the healthcare team.

Key takeaways:

  • There are various types of work and jobs available to registered nurses
  • When looking for your first nursing job, highlight the educational and clinical experience you’ve gained
  • Research the facilities you interview with and show your eagerness to learn and grow as a new nurse

Back view of nurses sitting in CEU classes to maintain RN licensure.

Step 8: Maintain licensure

Maintaining licensure as a registered nurse in the United States is crucial for continued practice and professional growth. To ensure licensure remains active, registered nurses must fulfill ongoing requirements set by their respective state boards of nursing. This typically involves completing continuing education courses to stay updated on advancements and best practices in the field. 

Additionally, adhering to the state's regulations, renewing the license within specified timeframes, and meeting any specific practice or competency requirements are essential. Nurses should also maintain a clean professional record by following ethical guidelines, being aware of legal implications in practice, and promptly addressing any issues related to misconduct or malpractice. 

Commitment to professional development, adherence to regulations, and continuous education are key to maintaining licensure, upholding high standards of care, and ensuring the safety and well-being of patients.

Key takeaways:

  • To maintain licensure, nurses in the US must fulfill ongoing requirements set by their state board of nursing
  • This typically includes completing continuing education courses
  • Nurses must renew their licenses within specified timeframes and maintain a clean professional record

A nurse comforts a cancer patient as she sits in a chair and receives treatment.

Step 9: Provide professional and compassionate care

Once you have completed your education, passed the NCLEX-RN exam, obtained your license, and landed your first nursing job, you have earned the privilege to work as a registered nurse. With that privilege comes a profound responsibility to provide professional and compassionate care to all patients. 

Beyond administering treatments and managing ailments, nurses are entrusted with the holistic care of individuals during vulnerable moments in their lives. This includes not only addressing physical needs but also offering emotional support, empathetic listening, and comfort. 

The privilege lies in the ability to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others, promoting healing and enhancing overall well-being. The responsibility encompasses upholding ethical standards, advocating for patients' rights, promoting a culture of safety, and continuously advancing your knowledge and skills to provide the best care possible. 

Balancing professionalism with compassion creates an environment of trust and respect, fostering a strong nurse-patient relationship that positively impacts the healing journey and overall healthcare experience.

Key takeaways:

  • Nurses have a profound responsibility to provide professional and compassionate care
  • This includes not only physical care but emotional support
  • Professionalism and compassion in the nursing field contribute to positive healthcare experiences for patients

How long does it take to become a registered nurse?

Now that you’re familiar with the steps it takes to become an RN, how long can you expect it to take? 

The path to becoming a registered nurse can look different depending on the individual. The same goes for how long it takes to work through all the steps. There are two common paths that can help give you an idea of what to expect:

  1. Earning an Associate Degree in Nursing + NCLEX-RN + Licensure : 2-3 years
  2. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing + NCLEX-RN + Licensure : 4-5 years

Whichever educational path you choose, you can expect the journey to becoming a registered nurse to be a multi-year commitment. Keep in mind, it will take time to apply to a nursing program, prepare for the NCLEX-RN, and secure your nursing license. This is all in addition to the time it takes to complete your nursing degree. 

Key takeaways:

  • It can take 2-5 years to complete your nursing degree and become a registered nurse
  • This timeframe can vary depending on the individual path you take to become an RN

Are you ready to become an RN?

Becoming a registered nurse is a rewarding and fulfilling career path that allows you to make a positive impact on the lives of others. The journey to becoming an RN requires dedication, lifelong learning, and a genuine desire to provide excellent care. If you have a passion for helping others and are committed to making a difference in healthcare, the path to becoming a registered nurse may be the perfect fit for you.

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