How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

A registered nurse (RN) is a licensed healthcare professional who provides patient care, offers advice and emotional support to patients and their family members and even educates patients and the public about healthcare issues.

In the traditional role as a care provider, RNs must manage a patient’s general plan of care. They must communicate with physicians, arrange medical procedures with other specialized healthcare workers and supervise teams of supporting staff including licensed practical nurses (LPNs), medical technicians and nurse assistants. However, the professional role of RNs has become more diverse and they are no longer limited only to direct patient care.

Education requirements

There are 3 main educational paths that lead to an RN career. However, the focus and length of time that you will need to complete each type of degree varies. Before you enroll in any of these programs, you should first consider your long-term career goals as well as your available time and financial resources.

Each of the following 3 types of undergraduate degrees will qualify you to sit for the NCLEX test and earn your RN license:

Nursing diploma

The nursing diploma was once the most common type of RN training program in the U.S. However, in recent years nursing diploma programs have become less common as the healthcare field has grown more specialized. These 2-year programs are practice-oriented and are usually offered by hospital-based schools that work together with local community colleges.
There are many Internet-based schools that advertise RN training online at the diploma level. However, most of these programs do not actually offer a nursing diploma and will instead direct you to an associates or bachelors program.

The majority of the nursing diploma schools that still exist do not offer an online RN program. Most of these schools require you to complete a few prerequisite courses through a nearby partner college or technical school before you enroll. Although there are few accredited online RN programs, you may be able to take some of your prerequisites online if they are offered in this format by your program’s partner school.

Associates in nursing

An associates in nursing is sometimes referred to as an ADN or ASN and similar to a nursing diploma is also practice-oriented. You can complete your ADN in about 2 to 3 years. The 3 main differences between a nursing diploma and an associates have to do with their location, the coursework required and their availability in an online format.

Unlike nursing diplomas, most ADN programs are located in community colleges and technical schools. Additionally, associates programs often require students to fulfill more general prerequisite courses than nursing diplomas.

Finally, ADN programs are commonly available through RN online schools as well as brick-and-mortar colleges that offer online classes for distance learners. Thanks to the growing popularity of Internet-based learning, you can often find a top online RN degree at the associates level through your local community college.

Bachelors in nursing

A bachelors in nursing (BSN) takes about twice as long to complete as a nursing diploma or ADN. This is because BSN programs require you to complete much more coursework in a broader variety of fields. In addition to advanced courses in research and theory, bachelors programs also require additional classes in science, clinical leadership, communication and critical thinking.

Although you can usually take your prerequisite courses at community colleges or accredited RN schools online, bachelors in nursing are only awarded by universities. Therefore all of your upper-division classes must be taken through the university that will grant your degree.

Although all 3 types of undergraduate degrees will prepare you to take the NCLEX and earn your license, many healthcare employers today view BSNs as the entry-level degree of choice. Your BSN will also make you eligible for some research, teaching, consulting and managerial positions. Finally, your BSN program will provide you with the credentials and educational foundation that you need to enroll in a graduate-level program.

Licensing and certification requirements

All U.S. states require registered nurses to earn their RN license. Although some specific procedures and requirements vary from state to state, every RN must take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam in order to earn their license.

After you complete your undergraduate program, you must usually apply with the state board of nursing for permission to take the NCLEX exam. Most states require you to submit official transcripts of your undergraduate coursework. You must also allow state and federal authorities to run a background check and take a sample of your fingerprints.

After you submit this application along with a $50 to $150 fee, you usually have to wait several weeks or even months for the state board to process your request. If your application is approved, you will receive an e-mail or letter that states that you are eligible to register for the NCLEX-RN.

Before you can take the NCLEX-RN, you must also register with the company Pearson VUE which administers the test. There is a $200 exam fee and you can register and pay online through their website while you choose a date for your exam and find a nearby testing center.

After you receive your passing NCLEX results, you must file an application for your RN license through your state board of health or nursing. This typically requires you to give Pearson VUE permission to release your test results to the board of nursing. You must also submit a current photograph of yourself that will appear on your license and pay an additional licensing fee that ranges from $100 to several hundred dollars.

Earning your RN training online

Registered nurse training online is available at every undergraduate level. However, online bachelors and associates degrees are far more common than online nursing diplomas. The best RN degree online will be approved by your state board of nursing or health and will require students to complete the same clinical and coursework requirements as a traditional program.

One of the most important differences between RN programs online is whether the program is offered by a traditional college or by an online school. With brick-and-mortar colleges, you can be sure that their online degree has the same accreditations as their classroom-based program.

For any RN degree you will have to complete on-site clinical practice hours. Traditional universities often have partnerships with local healthcare facilities, which makes it easy to find a location and preceptor for your clinical hours. These schools typically make these resources available to their online students as well as their on-campus students.

If you decide to enroll in an Internet-based school, be aware that you may have to make your own arrangements for your clinical practice hours, which can be complicated and time-consuming. Therefore, in addition to checking for accreditation, be sure to ask every online-only school about their clinical practice hours.

Opportunities for advancement

Your opportunities for advancement as an RN depend on which undergraduate degree you hold. If you already have a BSN, your options to advance your career are different from the options that are open to RNs who have an associates degree or nursing diploma.

Career advancement with a nursing diploma or associates in nursing

As an RN with a nursing diploma or associates in nursing, there are generally 2 options for you to advance professionally. The first is to gain advanced specialty certifications in your field. Certifications demonstrate your knowledge and experience in your specialization and make you more valuable to your employers.

However, certifications will not provide you with the same opportunities to diversify your career that you will have with a higher degree. For this reason, many experienced RNs choose to advance their career by returning to school to earn a BSN or MSN.

Numerous schools offer accelerated RN to BSN programs that allow nurses with an ADN or nursing diploma to get their bachelors in about 2 years. Some schools also offer RN to MSN online programs that take you directly from your RN license to a masters in nursing. However, these programs are not nearly as common as RN to BSN programs.

Career advancement with a bachelors in nursing

A BSN is usually required for entry-level management and administrative positions. Therefore, if you already have your BSN, advancement can sometimes be as simple as gaining experience at your workplace and then applying for a higher position.

However, many RNs advance their careers by getting more education. If you already have your bachelors in nursing, then you already have the credentials that you need to enroll in most BSN to MSN programs. A masters qualifies you for a more specialized role within the profession whether it is as an advanced practice nurse (APN) or a masters-level researcher, instructor or administrator.