How to Become a Nurse: Your Guide

April 10, 2024


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 10/10/23

There are many paths you can take to start your nursing career. Read on to learn more about becoming a nurse!

Are you thinking about pursuing a career in nursing? Unlike becoming a doctor, nursing does not require medical school or residency, making it a much shorter path. Here’s our guide to the nursing school timeline. Whether you’re looking for key nursing dates or want to learn how to become a registered nurse, we’ve got you covered. 

Picture of a nurse smiling with her arms crossed

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Steps to Becoming a Nurse

In this step-by-step guide, we’ll break down how to become a nurse. Note that these are general steps, as different types of nurses require varying levels of education. 

1. Decide What Kind of Nurse You Want to Become

Generally speaking, you can choose to become a CNA, APN, RN, or APRN, each of which requires different levels of education.

How long it takes to become a nurse depends on your educational path; before starting your journey, it’s vital to understand the type of nurse you want to become. This table breaks down key points you should know about each type of nurse:

Type of Nurse Education Salary and Job Outlook
CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) 4-12 week program
CNA certification exam
Earn a state license
$30,290 annually
$14.56 per hour
Job outlook: 8% growth
LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) 1-year program
NCLEX-PN licensing exam
Earn a state license
$48,070 annually
$23.11 per hour
Job outlook: 9% growth
RN (Registered Nurse) Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
2-3 year program
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
4-year program
$77,600 annually
$37.31 per hour
Job outlook: 9%
APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse) Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
2-3 year post-graduate program
APRNs must complete clinical hours and earn certification in their specialty
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
3-4 year post-graduate program
Requires capstone DNP project
Annual salaries range from $104,107 to $195,610, depending on the position


CNA: A Certified Nursing Assistant provides care for patients under the supervision of an LPN or RN. Their duties include helping with patient transfers, bathing/grooming patients, delivering patient meals, answering calls, and more. 

You can become a CNA by attending a 4-12 week program, passing the CNA certification exam, and earning a state license.

LPN: A Licensed Practitioner Nurse manages basic patient care with similar responsibilities to a CNA. They check blood pressure and vitals and help patients eat and get dressed. The main differences between a CNA and an LPN are the education needed, salary, and the scope of responsibilities. 

You can become an LPN by attending a year-long program, passing the NCLEX-PN exam, and earning state licensure.

RN: Registered Nurses have more responsibilities than CNAs and LPNs, and must obtain a two-year APN or four-year BSN degree. RNs provide direct care for patients in a clinic, hospital, care facility, or residence. They administer medication, schedule procedures, and provide physicians with up-to-date information on a patient's condition. 

The last requirement to be a registered nurse includes passing the NCLEX-RN exam and obtaining state licensure.

APRN: An Advanced Practice Registered Nurse is an RN who has completed a further education program. APRNs can diagnose and treat some illnesses, order and interpret tests, prescribe medications, and perform medical procedures. 

In addition to their RN education, APRNs must achieve at least a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and may be required to obtain a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). There are several other types of nurses that fall within these categories. 

2. Ensure You Are Eligible for Nursing School

To ensure you’re eligible for nursing school, check your target school’s application requirements. Most U.S. nursing schools require a high school diploma, English proficiency, and the following prerequisite courses and tests:

  • High school biology (C or better)
  • High school chemistry (C or better)
  • College-preparatory math (C or better)
  • GPA of 2.75 or higher for ADN programs or a GPA of 3.0 or higher for BSN programs.
  • SATs or TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills)

Prerequisite courses aren’t always necessary to achieve a CNA or LPN certificate, but they’re highly recommended. English proficiency is almost always required for any U.S. nursing position.

If you're an international student aiming to study nursing in the US, consider getting your nursing credentials evaluated.

3. Earn a Nursing Degree 

Once you’ve decided what type of nurse you want to become, you can continue with your education. 

Simply put, a state-certified diploma allows you to become a CNA or LPN. An RN requires a two-year Associate Nursing Degree or a four-year Bachelor of Nursing Degree. If you continue with a two-year Master of Science in Nursing, you can become an APRN.

Although a four-year degree isn’t required for every nursing career, it’s highly recommended. The more education you obtain, the better job opportunities you’ll have. Remember, you can always continue your education later if you decide you want a different nursing position.  

4. Obtain a Nursing License

Once you’ve graduated from an approved prelicensure nursing education program, you can obtain your license. A license permits you to practice nursing in the U.S. and demonstrates to future employers you have the necessary skills to care for patients.

To become a licensed nurse in the U.S., you’ll have to complete an NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN exam and, in some cases, provide a criminal background check. 

If you graduated from a nursing program outside of the U.S., you might also be required to take a Foreign Educated Nurses (FEN) exam.

The Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools (CGFNS) will review your credentials to ensure you’re qualified to practice nursing. Once you’ve completed your evaluation and exam, you can begin your nursing career!

What Are the Skills Needed to Be a Nurse? 

Excellent nurses are compassionate, confident, and have excellent communication skills. As a nurse, you’ll also be serving a diverse population so it’s important to continuously educate yourself on best practices for bedside manner, and have a natural knack for communication.

If you’re wondering if nursing is right for you, consider what you would look for in a nurse if you were ill. You would likely want someone knowledgeable, friendly, and ultimately comforting. Your social skills are a major component to your success as a nurse moving forward.

Of course, there are also technical requirements to become a nurse. On top of having excellent social skills, you should achieve an above average GPA and demonstrate a keen interest in biology, chemistry, math, and social science. 

How Can I Prepare For a Career in Nursing?

Even if you’re uncertain about what kind of nurse you want to become, there are steps you can take to improve your knowledge (and resume) before deciding. Let’s review some steps you can take in the years before you begin your career in nursing. 

What To Do Two Years Before You Apply

Whether you’re in high school, college, or the workforce, you should begin thinking about your prerequisite courses two years before applying for nursing. In this period, you can also take the SAT or TEAS.

The main focus in the two years before applying should be building up your academics and resume. Getting involved through extracurriculars, volunteering, or working in a healthcare setting are excellent ways to demonstrate your passion for nursing and gain experience. 

You should also start networking with teachers, professors, and healthcare professionals who know you and can serve as references.

What To Do One Year Before Applying

The year before applying should be focused on the application process. By now, you should have completed (or will complete) all the necessary prerequisites, so you can focus on interview prep, writing your personal statement, and acquiring letters of recommendation. 

If you’re interested in a CNA or LPN program, take this time to order relevant textbooks online, take practice tests, and study for your specific program. For future nursing school students, focus on your application materials, GPA, and acquiring financial aid if necessary.

Salary & Job Outlook for Nurses

Nurses make an average salary of $81,220 (RN) according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. That said, the different paths to becoming a nurse and the location of your employment can have a major impact on your salary.

Depending on your level of education, years of experience, and specialty - you can make anywhere from around $30,000 to over $190,000 as a nurse, with CNAs and LPNs on the lower end of the payscale and RNs/APRNs on the upper end. 

Job satisfaction for nurses has gone down since the Covid-19 pandemic, with most nurses reportedly hoping to leave their positions due to concerns around health and safety. This also means many areas are underserved and there is a major demand for nurses across the US.

Should I Become a Nurse? Factors to Consider

Before diving into the steps to becoming a nurse, let’s talk about the big decision. Is nursing right for you? There are a few factors that can help you decide. Let’s break down what it means to pursue a nursing career.

Nursing requires a high level of compassion and patience. You’ll be caring for people at their most vulnerable, which isn’t an easy task. Despite high levels of stress, job satisfaction for nurses is generally quite high. Nurses often report their emotional career journey as rewarding and have no regrets about their choice. 

If you’re passionate about healthcare and fare well in high-pressure environments, nursing may be the perfect career for you. It also takes much less time to become a nurse than a doctor, making it ideal for older candidates or people entering the field on a non-traditional path. 

Close up photo of a nursing holding a senior's hand

FAQs: How to Become a Nurse 

Here are the answers to some FAQs concerning the nursing school timeline and how becoming an RN differs from other nurses. 

1. How Long Does It Take To Get a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)?

A Master of Science in Nursing takes one to two years to complete. 

2. What Is a Nurse Bridge Program and How Long Are They?

A bridging program is a degree pathway for nurses to move up to the next level in their careers (for example, an LPN could become an RN through a bridging program.) Most nurse bridge programs take three to four years to complete. The length varies depending on the position you’re starting from.

3. How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse?

It can take two to four years to become an RN, depending on the type of degree you choose; a two-year APN degree or a four-year BSN degree. You can become an LPN in as little as one year. 

4. How Can I Prepare for Nursing School?

The best way to prepare for nursing school is to ensure you have:

  • Taken the necessary prerequisite courses
  • Strengthened your CV by volunteering or working in a healthcare facility
  • Decided which type of nurse you want to become and set up your educational timeline accordingly
  • Taken the SAT or TEAS test to assess your knowledge of science, English, and math.

Meeting these requirements helps set you up for success!

5. What’s The Difference Between a CNA and an LPN?

The main difference between a CNA and an LPN is the educational path. LPNs rank higher than CNAs as they have more education. As a result, LPNs can take on a broader scope of responsibilities.

6. What’s The Difference Between an RN and an APRN?

An APRN is an RN who has a master’s degree or higher. APRNs have more authority than RNs and can prescribe some medications and treat illnesses. 

7. What Type of Nurse Gets Paid Most? 

Certified registered nurse anesthetists are the highest-paid nurses, earning a median salary of $195,610 annually. 

8. How Much Do Nurses Make? 

The annual median salary for RNs is $81,220

9. What Type of Nurses are There?

There are technically four types of nurses; CNA, LPN, RN, and APRN. These categories vary greatly in educational requirements and responsibilities. 

10. What is the Education Needed to be a Nurse?

The education needed to be a nurse depends on the type of nurse you want to become. For example, becoming a CNA only requires a short program while becoming an RN requires a four year nursing degree.

11. How Long Does it Take to Become a RN in NY?

If you take a Diploma RN program, you can become an RN in just two years in New York. 

Final Thoughts 

If you’re considering a career in nursing, first decide what type of nurse you want to become. Once you’ve decided, you can plan your educational timeline. Regardless of what path you choose, you should take the necessary prerequisite courses and tests, earn a high school diploma, and volunteer or work in a healthcare setting.

In nursing, you’ll always have career advancement opportunities by furthering your education, so it’s a good idea to cover your bases before getting started. Good luck!

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