How to Become a Practical Nurse

Practical nursing is a hands-on, patient-centric career in the healthcare industry. Learn how you can become a practical nurse.

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by Ellery Weil

Published August 12, 2022

Reviewed by Brandy Gleason, MSN, MHA, BC-NC

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How to Become a Practical Nurse
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When it comes to healthcare, practical nurses are on the front lines of patient interaction and patient care. Practical nurses administer medication, monitor heart rate and blood pressure, and assess patient symptoms. If you're passionate about healthcare and consider yourself a "people person," a practical nursing career may be worth pursuing.

If you're interested in becoming a practical nurse, you must complete a non-degree training program. You must also pass a certification exam before finding a job in a clinic, hospital, or another healthcare setting. Keep reading to learn more about how to become a practical nurse.

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Ready to start your journey?

What Does a Practical Nurse Do?

If you're looking to transition into a nursing career by becoming a practical nurse, you've picked a good starting point for a broader career in health and nursing. Practical nurses are at the forefront of basic patient care but may often choose to specialize further, especially with more education.

Practical nursing may also be a good first step to a nursing career that requires more qualifications. For example, a registered nurse (RN) requires a bachelor's degree. A nurse practitioner (NP) needs a master's degree.

Practical Nurse Responsibilities

  • Monitor and record patient symptoms as they progress.
  • Administer medications and monitor and record the progress of patients undergoing treatment.
  • Educate patients and their families about best health practices, including self-care, nutrition, and exercise.
  • Collaborate with physicians, registered nurses, and other health professionals to ensure best practices for patient care and comfort.

Practical Nurse Not For You? Check Out These Related Careers.

What Are the Steps to Become a Practical Nurse?

Becoming a practical nurse does not require an undergraduate degree. But it does require specialized training and passing a licensing exam known as the NCLEX. For high school graduates (or GED diploma holders), it can take anywhere from 1-2 years on average to complete practical nursing training and exams before applying for jobs.

Step 1: Earn a Diploma or GED Certificate

Before beginning practical nurse training, students need a high school diploma or a GED diploma. Depending on your circumstances, this may require you to take the GED exam, which you can study and prepare for using various resources.

A high school education or GED diploma ensures you have the basic math, literacy, and scientific and biology skills needed to succeed in your practical nursing training program.

Step 2: Complete LPN Training Program

To become a licensed practical nurse, or LPN, you must complete an LPN training program. This is not a degree program but a professional certification program. There are many ways you can take an LPN training course, including through your local community college or through a private institution.

To take an LPN training course, you must apply and gain acceptance into a program and pay any fees. The price of LPN training and the length of the course can vary widely depending on if it's through a state or private institution. Studying full or part time can also impact price and completion times.

Step 3: Pass the NCLEX-PN Exam

After completing LPN training, you need to pass your licensing exam. In the U.S. and Canada, the licensing exam for practical nurses is called the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-PN. You must pass the NCLEX-PN before you can work as a practical nurse.

The NCLEX-PN exam is a five-hour exam offered at specialized testing centers year-round. You must pay a $200 testing fee. You can study and prepare for the NCLEX-PN using materials from your training course, as well as NCLEX-specific resources available online and in traditional paper form.

Step 4: Get a Job as a Practical Nurse

Once you've passed your NCLEX, you can now look for your first job as a practical nurse. Jobs for practical nurses can be found in clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare settings.

You may find that you would like to specialize in practical nursing and focus on a specific field. For example, you could focus on jobs in a pediatric hospital or a facility for the elderly.

Step 5: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

Once you've begun working as a practical nurse, you may want to consider further specialized education. While this is not necessary, it can be an important step to advance in your nursing career.

Further education for a practical nurse can include pursuing specialized courses and certifications. Or, you may continue your nursing education by earning a degree. With a bachelor's in nursing, you could become a registered nurse.

What to Know Before Becoming a Practical Nurse

Before you begin your practical nursing training, you should know the financial and time requirements involved. It may also help to research the career outlook as a practical nurse. This research can help you make an informed decision about your nursing education.

Accreditation

When choosing a practical nursing training program, it is important to ensure that you're enrolling in an accredited institution. College accreditation means that the provided education meets certain rigor standards and that your qualifications will be recognized as legitimate by your future employers.

Cost

The cost of a program to become a practical nurse can vary significantly. In addition to the $200 fee for your NCLEX-PN exam, you will need to pay for your training course. This cost differs depending on whether your institution is public or private and if you're studying full or part time. In-person versus online training can also impact costs.

You must also calculate the cost of books and other materials, plus living expenses if you plan to study on campus full time. In addition, you should determine if you can work during your program, which can help offset the cost.

Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average salary for a licensed practical nurse was $48,070 per year in May 2021. For those who work per hour, this equaled an average of $23.11 per hour.

Location can also impact salary. As per the BLS, LPNs made the highest average salaries in California, Alaska, Washington state, Massachusetts, and Nevada in May 2021. LPNs in California made an average annual salary of $65,140.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Practical Nurse

What qualifications do you need to become a practical nurse?

To become a practical nurse, you need a high school or GED diploma. You must also pass a practical nurse training course and the NCLEX-PN licensing exam. Once you have completed these steps, you can apply for jobs as a practical nurse at healthcare facilities.

Later on in your practical nurse career, you may want to consider further education. This may include earning specialized certifications or going back to school full or part time to complete a bachelor's degree in nursing. These credentials may lead to a higher-level nursing job.

What is the difference between a registered nurse and a practical nurse?

People often use the term "nurse" to refer to a registered nurse rather than a practical nurse. An RN designation is a higher-level nursing qualification than an LPN credential. Plus, becoming a registered nurse requires a degree from an accredited nursing program and involves higher-level responsibilities on the job.

In addition, registered nurses must also complete more supervised hours of clinical practice before they receive their license. An LPN may become an RN if they decide to complete a nursing degree and get licensed.

What can an RN do that an LPN cannot?

An RN is qualified to do more advanced patient care than a practical nurse. A registered nurse does not necessarily work under the direct supervision of a doctor or nurse the way an LPN does. An RN can also be directly involved in designing a course of treatment for patients.

Many RNs are also qualified to perform more advanced patient treatments, such as the treating of serious wounds. The actual differences between RN and LPN duties can vary depending on state health regulations and an institution's practices.

Can I become a practical nurse with an online degree?

There are a variety of online programs available to become a practical nurse. Students can take these programs on a full- or part-time basis. The programs are often a convenient and appealing option for working students or those who have children or other family responsibilities.

If you're considering enrolling in an online course in practical nursing, it's important to do your research. Make sure the program is accredited, and compare costs, graduation rates, and other important data before choosing a particular program.

How much money can I make as a practical nurse?

Practical nurse salaries vary widely by state and industry. As per the BLS, LPNs who work for the government made the highest median annual salaries of $52,210 in May 2021. Those who worked in nursing and residential care facilities earned a median annual salary of $49,620 in May 2021. The median annual salary of $48,070 for LPNs in May 2021 slightly exceeds the median annual wage of $45,760 for all U.S. jobs.

With more education and specialization, LPNs with certain technical skills or more experience may be able to command higher salaries later in their careers.

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