6 Steps to become a nurse

a nurse student is studying to become a nurse
a nurse student is studying to become a nurse

If you’re looking for an in-demand career that offers personal fulfillment, job stability, and options for advancement, it makes sense to consider becoming a nurse.

With 5.2 million registered nurses nationwide, nurses make up the largest share of the medical profession. They can be found in nearly every healthcare setting and every healthcare specialty.

Despite the many millions of nurses practicing in the US, the pathway to becoming a nurse can feel daunting. It’s natural to have questions about licensure exams, educational requirements, the time investment, and how it all works. For the many aspiring nurses who enter the field as a second career from another profession, it can look a bit confusing.

Completing the steps to become a nurse requires commitment and patience. But once you have a handle on how it works, the process itself is not that complicated.

Why nursing?

You may have heard that the United States is in the midst of a severe nursing shortage. This shortage is acutely felt in specific regions and specialties, including labor and delivery and critical care.

The median age in the United States is skewing older. As of the latest census data, the average American is now nearly 40 years old. The aging population is impacting the nursing field in multiple ways. For one thing, people are living longer lives. Breakthroughs in medical treatment have allowed people with chronic illnesses to manage their symptoms better and for longer. A side effect of this is that more people are alive who need medical care than at any previous point in history.

As the average American is getting older, so is the average nurse. Nurses are currently retiring at a higher rate than new nurses are entering the field to replace them, and more than a quarter of nurses say they plan to retire within the next five years. According to estimates from the American Nursing Association, there are currently more registered nurse jobs available than in any other profession.

The salary for an entry-level nurse will be impacted by the cost of living where they are licensed as well as the type of nursing they plan to practice. Registered nurses make an average of $77,600 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nurses with advanced degrees or additional credentials are often paid more than that. Nurses who have a bachelor of science degree in nursing (BSN) are often tapped for leadership, teaching, or management positions, which come with a salary boost.

Doctor is talking a nurse - become a nurs

Steps to become a nurse

The process of becoming a nurse can vary state by state. For the most up-to-date information about what your state asks for, you should check your state’s Board of Nursing licensing requirements.

Nurses who are looking to enter a specialty field, such as intensive care nursing or forensic nursing, may also find that their path includes an extra step of gaining field experience before applying for jobs.

With that being said, here’s an outline of the basic steps required to enter the nursing field.

1. Research nursing programs that fit your career goals

Nurses can choose from several educational pathways. They can decide to become registered nurses (RNs), or licensed practical nurses (LPNs). Aspiring nurses should weigh the pros and cons of these pathways and become familiar with the possible benefits of each.

Keep in mind that most nurses entering the field now have, at minimum, a Bachelor in nursing (BSN) degree. Also note that while a traditional BSN is typically a four-year undergraduate degree, there is an alternative that can get you into the field faster: the ABSN.

People who have already earned a Bachelor’s degree in a different field can enroll in an accelerated BSN program (ABSN) that gives credit for core classes already completed. However, you may need to complete several prerequisite courses and meet other criteria to begin this type of program.

Note that some students will find their “perfect fit” program that meets their needs and choose to apply to just that school. Students applying to competitive nursing school programs may choose to submit applications to more than one.

2. Submit your application.

Once you have chosen an accredited nursing school program, you’ll need to gather materials to submit to the admissions committee, which will consider your application. Some programs have multiple start dates throughout the year, while others only have one start date, typically in the fall. Wilkes University offers two different start dates.

Nursing schools can vary what they ask applicants to submit. You should plan to have letters of recommendation as well as a personal statement, also known as a statement of professional goals, prepared well before your application due dates. Students who wish to enter nursing after earning a Bachelor’s degree in a different field will typically need to submit a transcript with their previous GPA.

Application materials required for Wilkes University’s ABSN program include:

  • A completed Bachelor’s degree in another field of study
  • A college transcript demonstrating a 3.0 GPA
  • Proof of completion for six prerequisite courses
  • 2 letters of recommendation
  • Statement of professional goals

3. Complete your nursing education and clinical rotations.

Nursing school is made up of two main components: classroom instruction and clinical rotations.

Classroom instruction involves tests and exams, as well as group projects, giving presentations, and writing papers to demonstrate your understanding of the material. If you attend an online program, this part of nursing school can take place remotely. Most ABSN programs, including Wilkes’, require one or two brief residencies (skill-based in person learning sessions) that take place on their campus.

Clinical rotations are part of nursing school, where you gain hands-on experience in the field. Students are paired with an experienced nurse who leads them through the process of basic nursing tasks, such as completing patient assessments,inserting IVs and assessing vitals.

Nursing students are required to complete a certain number of clinical hours as part of their education. Students aren’t paid to complete clinical hours, but the hours count towards their degree. Some programs, including Wilkes, make this process easier by offering placement assistance for your clinical rotations.

Students enrolled in a full-time ABSN program can complete the educational requirements for nursing school in 12 to 18 months, depending on the program.

4. Pass the NCLEX-RN exam.

Toward the end of nursing school, you will apply to receive a document called an “Authorization To Test” letter. This document means you are eligible to sign up to take the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX-RN is a national certification test. It is a timed and proctored up to a five-hour test, and nurses must pass it to obtain an RN nursing license.

The exam tests your critical thinking skills as well as your knowledge of nursing best practices. You may be asked to analyze charts and tables and answer multiple-choice questions based on hypothetical patient scenarios. The test is designed to take a comprehensive look at all you have learned throughout nursing school.

5. Apply for licensure in your state.

Once you have your transcript from nursing school as well as your passing NCLEX-RN results, you can register with your state to be licensed as a nurse.

Keep in mind that your state may have requirements for continuing education. For example, the state of Pennsylvania requires nurses to complete a three-hour course on recognizing and reporting child abuse as part of their initial licensure criteria. You should be aware of these requirements before you apply to get licensed.

You will also need to look up the specific licensing fees for your state.

Once you receive your license, it is valid for typically 2 years unless it is revoked. You must renew the license according to state guidelines before its expiration. It isn’t legal to practice nursing when your license has expired. In the state of Pennsylvania, nurses renew their licenses every other year.

It can take several weeks for your official license to come in the mail. Potential employers will be aware of this and will often accept the temporary license the state provides and licenses can be verified online at the State Board of Nursing Websites

6. Apply for nursing jobs.

Once you have your nursing license, it’s time to apply for entry-level nursing jobs in the field.

The job description and responsibilities of nurses can vary widely according to your care specialty and the type of healthcare environment you will be working in. Like jobs in other fields, nursing jobs require a background check and at least one interview before hiring someone new.

What to do next

Wilkes University Online offers one of the shortest and most convenient accredited ABSN programs for students switching to a nursing career. Students who complete the degree are qualified to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam in as little as 15 months.

If you’re ready to take the next step toward becoming a nurse, download the ABSN program guide or speak to one of our admissions specialists today. Learn more about the Wilkes University ABSN program here.