How to Become a Nurse: 5 Steps

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Written by Marie Hasty, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Young African-American nurse in blue scrubs

Do you enjoy helping others? Interested in learning about the human body, medical treatments, and disease? If you answered yes to these questions, and you’re looking for a career with endless opportunities for growth and development, you might want to learn how to become a nurse.

When you think about the top qualities of nurses, you might imagine compassion, empathy, and patience. Being a great nurse certainly requires these attributes, but you’ll also need technical nursing skills, critical thinking, and a license to practice backed by education. But if you’re willing to invest time and effort into entering this field, you could work in a variety of roles and settings.

Here’s what you should know about the role of a nurse, how to become a nurse in five steps, and the types of nurses there are.

What Is a Nurse?

A nurse is a licensed healthcare professional who is trained to assess, educate, and care for patients. Nurses can work in a variety of settings, with different patient populations. There are a few different types of nursing licenses, and each works within their own scope of practice. If you’re new to medicine, here’s how to become a nurse with the following credentials:

Licensed Practical/Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN): These licensed nurses provide basic nursing care under the supervision of RNs or physicians. To become an LPN, you’ll need to complete a state-approved training program, which usually takes about a year. Then you’ll need to pass the NCLEX-PN to begin practicing. Learn about LPNs vs. RNs.

Registered Nurse (RN): These clinicians provide and coordinate care, educating patients and their families, and advocating for patient well-being in various settings. This license has a more broad scope of practice than an LPN, and therefore it requires more education to learn how to become a registered nurse. You’ll either need to complete an associate degree in nursing (ADN), or a bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN), and then pass the NCLEX-RN exam.

Nurse Practitioner (NPs/Advanced Practice Providers): These advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) prescribe, monitor, educate, and plan care. In some states, NPs practice independently. Becoming an NP is just one of the ways nurses advance their practice, and it requires completing a masters degree. Direct-entry master of science in nursing (MSN) programs allow you to earn your BSN while working toward your advanced practice degree.

If you’re considering nursing careers, investigating these options is the best way to get started. You might jump straight to becoming an RN with a bachelor’s degree, or begin as an LPN and take a bridge program to become an RN. Or, if you want to practice independently, consider an MSN program.

One of the benefits of becoming an RN is the career options down the road: You might advance your knowledge by becoming a nurse educator, or dig into the technological side of medicine through nursing informatics. You could scale the ladder into nursing leadership or advance care through clinical research. Nursing gives you the options to make this career your own.

What Does a Nurse Do?

Tasks you do daily as a nurse will largely depend on where you work and the types of patients you serve. Many new nurses get started in acute care inpatient settings because they offer a chance to build clinical skills with patients. Here are some of the skills you might use daily:

  • Head-to-toe assessments
  • Taking a patient’s medical history
  • Monitoring vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure
  • Administering medication through various routes
  • Collaborating with a multidisciplinary team
  • Operating bedside medical equipment, such as bladder scanners
  • Notifying the medical team of changes in a patient’s condition
  • Performing sterile procedures, such as catheter insertion
  • Placing and maintaining IVs and gastric tubes
  • Collecting labs and analyzing results
  • Caring for and dressing wounds
  • Assisting doctors with bedside procedures
  • Documenting assessments, interventions, and patient progress in the EMR

When you’re learning how to become a nurse, you’ll find that your duties also include completing administrative work related to patient care, and assisting doctors by being the first line of information about patients. For more information, check out our comprehensive article on what nurses do. If you’re interested in these job duties, you’re probably wondering, What are the steps to becoming a nurse?

How to Become a Nurse: 5 Steps

Step 1: Understand Your Options to Make a Plan

If you want to learn your options for how to become a nurse, you’re in the right place to get started. Knowing what credentials are out there, and which nursing path suits your needs, will help you make a plan. Consider these questions as you’re deciding what route to pursue:

  • Are you looking to enter the field quickly, but want to give nursing-specific care? Going the LPN route may be for you.
  • Looking for a full RN scope of practice, but you’re less interested in leadership or non-clinical roles? Getting an ADN might be the best choice.
  • Want to invest in a 4-year degree that opens you up to more opportunities in the long term? Sounds like you want to get a BSN.
  • Interested in working with patients independently, and are willing to invest several years in your education? If you have a previous degree, consider a direct-entry MSN program.

Once you’ve decided on the type of program you want to pursue, you’ll need to do some research to know your specific options. For example:

  • Online nursing programs offer remote learners more opportunities to go to class from home.
  • Direct-entry programs are great for BSN-seekers who already have a previous non-nursing degree.
  • Accelerated programs are great for go-getters who want to hit the ground running in their nursing education, and part-time ones are better if you plan to work during school.

As you’re evaluating a program, don’t pick one just because it looks like you can get in. Do some research first. Find out:

  • Is the program accredited?
  • Do their students tend to pass the NCLEX?
  • Do student reviews reflect positive experiences?

Nursing school is tough, but being in a good program will help you lay a strong foundation as you learn how to become a nurse.

Step 2: Complete Requirements and Apply

What are the requirements to become a nurse? Once you’ve decided on the type of nursing program you want to pursue, familiarize yourself with the specific admission requirements of the programs you’re interested in.

If you’re pursuing an ADN or BSN, here are some of the pre-degree requirements you’ll likely need to meet:

  • Prerequisite courses
  • GPA requirements (many schools require a minimum 3.0)
  • CPR certification
  • Previous transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Personal statements or essays
  • A standardized test, such as the TEAS, HESI, or NLN-PAX

Step 3: Complete a Nursing Program

Once you’re admitted, you’ll begin the challenging yet rewarding journey of nursing school. Many nurses recall this part of their career as demanding — you’ll be juggling intensive classes and exams, as well as lab time, clinicals, and study. Some of the courses you’ll take in an ADN, BSN, or direct-entry MSN program include:

  • Community Health Nursing
  • Health Assessment
  • Med-Surg or Fundamentals
  • Mental Health Nursing
  • Pathophysiology
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Women’s Health and Obstetrics

Clinical placements help you learn how to become a nurse from hands-on learning experiences. You’ll apply classroom knowledge to real patients, under the supervision of an instructor. During school, you’ll rotate to different areas, like hospitals, clinics, long-term care facilities, newborn wards, and more. For your first few semesters, you’ll be with a group of your peers, but in later rotations, you’ll be assigned a preceptor nurse as you begin working more independently.

Many nursing students find jobs before they graduate. You’ll likely start applying to roles in nursing residency programs during your last semesters, and interviewing for them in your last few months of school. These roles are contingent upon you completing school and gaining licensure.

In your final weeks of school, you’ll also complete your state nursing board’s requirements to register for the licensure exam. Requirements may include a background check, fingerprints, and application fees. If you live in a nursing compact state, you may also be eligible to work in other states by obtaining a multi-state license.

Step 4: Get Licensed

Once you’ve graduated from nursing school, you deserve to celebrate! It’s a significant accomplishment — you learned how to become a nurse! — but you’ve got one more big task to check off before you can begin practicing: passing the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX). This allows entry-level nurses to begin practicing, and MSN students in direct-entry programs will also take it to become RNs.

Your desired credential requires the following exam:

  • LPNs take the NCLEX-PN
  • RNs take the NCLEX-RN
  • NPs must have an RN license and take board certification exams that align with their specialty

The NCLEX takes up to five hours, and you’ll receive between 85 and 150 questions. Preparing well in advance for this test will give you the best chance of passing on the first try. Taking practice exams, reviewing materials from school, and studying with friends will help you do well.

Step 5: Maintain Your License

Once you pass the NCLEX, you can apply for licensure with your state board of nursing. It’s your duty to maintain the renewal requirements in your state.

License renewals are due every two years, but each state has a different schedule for submitting renewal requirements. Typically, these include a certain number of continuing education hours, working hours, or some combination of the two.

Nursing Careers: FAQ

Now that you know how to become a nurse, let’s take a look at some common questions surrounding the profession.

Where can nurses work?

Nursing careers offer a variety of work environments; some nurses don’t work at the bedside with patients, and some nurses work from home. Here are some typical workplaces that employ nurses:

What education is needed to become a registered nurse?

If you want to become an RN, you have two degree options: an ADN or BSN. If you’re looking to enter the professional nursing world more quickly, an associate degree might be the better option.

On the other hand, if you’re seeking a degree with more advancement opportunities down the line, investing in a BSN is likely the best option. If you choose an ADN program and then decide you want to further your education, you can always enroll in an ADN-to-BSN bridge program.

How long does it take to become a nurse?

It depends on the degree you pursue, and how much time you can devote to school. Here are the average schooling lengths for different nursing credentials:

  • LPNs: 12 months to 2 years
  • RNs: 18 months to 4 years
  • APRNs: 15 months to become an RN, several years to complete a master’s

How much does it cost to attend nursing school?

While education isn’t cheap, the cost of nursing school varies greatly—from a few thousand dollars to upwards of six figures, depending on what degree you pursue and where and how you pursue it. For example, if you attend a community college, it’ll cost you much less than if you attend a private four-year college.

If you’re not sure how to pay for nursing school, there are several financial aid resources at your disposal. Some employers and states also offer tuition forgiveness or reimbursement. For example, if you’re an LPN working towards an RN license, your workplace may help fund your education. Check out these resources to help you pay for nursing school:

How much do nurses in the U.S. make?

On average, registered nurses make $94,480 per year. Nursing salaries depend on a lot of factors — specialty area, certifications, education, and location. To learn more, read our comprehensive article on nurses’ salaries.

What are the best places for nurses?

Nurses are in demand all over the country, but some places employ more RNs than others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the following metropolitan areas have some of the highest levels of employment for nurses in the country:

If a high salary is your goal, you’ll be interested in the top paying states for registered nurses. Check out the following:

For more salary insight, take a look at all the RN jobs and LPN jobs in your area to get a better idea of your earning potential.

What specialties are available for nurses?

Check out our guide to the types of nursing specialties to help you find a good match for your interestes and career goals. This list of nurse occupations is just the beginning. Don’t worry if you can’t decide on a specialty yet. Your nursing program will give you hands-on experience as you learn how to become a nurse, and your experiences in clinicals will help you understand some of your options.

Make Nursing Fit Your Lifestyle

Would you like to know more about how to become a nurse who enjoys a fulfilling career? Find out how IntelyCare can match you with the latest nurse job opportunities in your specialty and location.