So you want to become a nurse? Congratulations on considering this fulfilling and meaningful career path. Nurses play a vital role in healthcare and make a real difference in patient’s lives every day. However, the road to becoming a nurse can seem daunting. Don’t worry – this complete guide breaks down every step of the nursing education and career trajectory in an easy-to-follow format. By the end, you’ll feel empowered to pursue your nursing degree and licensure.

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN)

The first step to becoming a nurse is earning your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. Here are some key points about BSN programs:

  • Length: BSN programs typically take 4 years to complete when attending full-time. Some accelerated BSN programs for students who already have a bachelor’s degree in another field can be completed in as little as 12-18 months.
  • Prerequisites: Most BSN programs require prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, microbiology, psychology, and statistics. Make sure to check the specific prerequisites for any program you are considering.
  • Curriculum: BSN coursework covers a range of topics including foundations of nursing practice, medical-surgical nursing, pediatrics, obstetrics, mental health nursing, community health nursing, nursing research, and nursing leadership. Labs and clinical rotations are also required.
  • Degree Options: BSN degrees can be earned through traditional 4-year university programs, accelerated programs, or RN-to-BSN programs if you are already an RN with an associate degree. Online RN-to-BSN programs offer flexibility.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

After earning your BSN degree, you must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to receive your nursing license. Here’s a quick NCLEX-RN overview:

  • Purpose: The NCLEX-RN examines your competency in providing safe, effective nursing care as an entry-level nurse. Passing this exam is required for licensure.
  • Format: The computerized exam features both multiple-choice and alternate-format questions.
  • Content: Focuses on the nursing knowledge needed for critical thinking in patient care scenarios. Covers areas like nursing procedures, pharmacology, medical-surgical nursing, maternal-child nursing, and more.
  • Study Tips: Give yourself several weeks to study using NCLEX review books, online question banks, flashcards, and practice tests. Identify weak areas to focus your study time efficiently. Get plenty of rest before test day.
  • Passing Score: The exam uses computerized adaptive testing to determine your competency. You can receive between 75-265 questions. Generally, passing after 75 questions means you did very well while reaching 265 questions means you were borderline.

Step 3: Apply for Nursing Licensure

Upon passing the NCLEX-RN, you can apply for your nursing license through your state’s Board of Nursing. Typical documentation needed includes:

  • Transcripts from your BSN program
  • NCLEX-RN exam results
  • Completed application form
  • Fingerprints for a background check
  • Photo for state ID
  • Application fee payment

The timeline for approval varies by state but often takes just a few weeks. Once approved, you will receive your registered nursing (RN) license! Display it proudly as you begin applying for nursing jobs.

Step 4: Land Your First Nursing Job

Newly licensed nurses have various options for that all-important first job. Here are some top options to consider:

Hospital Nursing

Hospital nursing is where most new RNs get their start. Different units you could work in include medical-surgical, telemetry, ICU, emergency department, labor and delivery, pediatric, oncology, and more. The fast-paced hospital environment allows you to gain experience in many facets of nursing.

Nursing Home/Skilled Nursing Facility

Nursing homes and skilled nursing facilities offer opportunities to care for older adults in long-term residential settings. You’ll gain expertise in geriatric nursing, medications, chronic disease management, and rehab.

Public Health Department

Work in community health clinics, schools, or home health through your local public health department. You’ll focus on health education, preventive care, and supporting underserved populations.

Doctor’s Office/Clinic

Many doctor’s offices and outpatient clinics hire RNs in roles focused on patient intake, triage, procedures, and coordination of care. Clinic nursing allows set daytime hours and lower nurse-patient ratios.

Step 5: Consider Specialty Certifications

After getting experience as an RN, you may want to pursue specialty certifications such as:

  • Critical care (CCRN)
  • Emergency nursing (CEN)
  • Medical-surgical nursing (CMSRN)
  • Oncology certified nurse (OCN)
  • Pediatric Nursing (CPN)

Earning a certification shows your dedication to a specialty and can open doors to new job opportunities.

Step 6: Advance Your Nursing Career

As you advance in your career, consider these paths:

  • Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN): Requires a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) to become a nurse practitioner, certified nurse midwife, clinical nurse specialist, or certified registered nurse anesthetist. APRNs can prescribe medication in most states.
  • Nursing administration: Move into leadership roles as a charge nurse, nurse manager, supervisor, or executive after gaining experience. Often requires an MSN.
  • Nursing educator: Teach at a nursing school or hospital after earning a Masters or Doctoral degree. Mix your passion for nursing and education.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Nurse

What is the fastest way to become a nurse?

The quickest path is an accelerated BSN program, allowing you to gain your BSN degree in 12-18 months if you already have a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field.

Can I become an RN with an associate’s degree?

Yes, you can become a registered nurse through an ADN program at a community college. However, earning a BSN is recommended for the best job prospects.

What is the hardest part of nursing school?

Balancing the heavy course load with challenging clinical rotations and long study hours. Time management and perseverance are essential.

What GPA do I need to get into nursing school?

Most nursing programs require at least a 3.0 GPA. The higher your grades, the better, as nursing programs are very competitive.

How much do nurses make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average RN salary is $77,600 annually. Salary increases with experience and specialties.


We hope this complete guide provided an informative overview of the step-by-step journey to becoming a nurse. It’s a demanding yet fulfilling career path that makes a huge impact. With passion, dedication, and proper preparation, you will be well on your way to success in this growing and meaningful nursing profession. The demand for nurses is high, so your skills and compassion are needed now more than ever. Believe in your ability to help others through nursing, and you’ll be able to achieve this worthwhile goal. Best of luck on your nursing school and career journey – you’ve got this!