How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Wondering how to become a licensed registered nurse but don't know where to start? Keep reading to find out how to become a registered nurse.

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by Staff Writers

Updated July 27, 2022

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

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How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)
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Becoming a registered nurse involves completing nursing education requirements, passing the NCLEX-RN examination, and seeking licensure in the state in which they plan to practice. Once licensed and employed, these professionals work closely with physicians and nurses to provide effective healthcare services. Whether administering medications or coordinating patient care, registered nurses play critical roles in healthcare.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses earned median annual wages of $77,600 as of 2021. Those who thrive as RNs typically enjoy working with different types of people, helping others feel their best, and solving complex problems. Keep reading to learn what it takes to pursue a nursing career.

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Ready to start your journey?


What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Registered Nurse Responsibilities

  • Conduct patient assessments, analyze symptoms, and help determine an appropriate plan of care.
  • Consult with nurse practitioners, physicians, and other healthcare providers to provide patient-centered care.
  • Ensure patients receive their medications and treatments as needed.
  • Educate patients and their families on how to manage illnesses and injuries.

While career responsibilities for registered nurses remain consistent, but pursuing an advanced degree or specialization can substantially change job descriptions. Individuals may start as registered nurses before pursuing an MSN and becoming a nurse practitioner or other advanced practice RN. Others may decide to leave the clinic to teach and mentor others and become nurse educators. Students should always watch for the signs they're ready for a career change and start planning their next steps.

6 Steps to Become a Registered Nurse RN

Nurses must go through several steps to meet educational, clinical, and licensure requirements. To help individuals wondering how to become a registered nurse, we review each requirement in the following section and provide info on how to achieve them.

Step 1: Earn an ADN or BSN Degree

Becoming a registered nurse requires candidates to complete at least an associate degree in nursing (ADN). However, many employers now look for applicants with a bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN). Students should think carefully about their major, as state boards of nursing set specific prerequisites for awarding a nursing license.

While an ADN does provide the training required to become a registered nurse, the field is moving towards the BSN as the standard requirement. In both programs, students learn how to provide medical services to patients under the supervision of nurse practitioners and physicians. They also learn how to do rounds, complete charts, and dispense medications, among other tasks. The cost of these programs can vary significantly, though ADNs tend to cost less since they can be completed at community colleges.

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX Exam

Recent ADN or BSN graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN exam, consisting of 74-145 questions. The exam uses a pass/fail system and provides test-takers with five hours to complete all sections — including breaks.

Categories covered on the exam include creating a safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. Some colleges provide NCLEX-RN prep classes to help students ready themselves. Learners can also take advantage of workbooks, online courses, or tutoring.

Step 3: Obtain State Board Certification

Any individual looking to work as a registered nurse must hold licensure in their state. Individual states' boards of nursing set licensure and renewal requirements, making it important that learners review local mandates. Becoming licensed typically involves completing an approved degree program and clinical hours, passing the NCLEX-RN, and applying for nursing licensure.

Step 4: Gain Practical Experience in the Field

Clinical nursing experience plays a critical role in becoming an RN, and most degree programs include clinical rotations and practicums as part of graduation requirements. That said, these do not count towards practical experience in most cases. When employers ask about practical experience, they assume each candidate has completed clinicals.

Practical experience typically comes after gaining licensure when graduates begin working as registered nurses. Professionals thinking about returning to school to seek an MSN and become a nurse practitioner or other advanced nurse may be required to possess a certain amount of experience before being accepted.

Step 5: Establish Specialty Certification

Registered nurses who want to earn a specialty board certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) must complete a set number of clinical hours after graduating. For instance, those seeking the Nursing Professional Development Certification must possess at least two years of full-time experience as a registered nurse and at least 2,000 hours of clinical practice in nursing professional development over the previous three years. These requirements vary based on the type of certification.

Because the ANCC manages the board certification process, requirements remain the same from state to state. Candidates must also pass an examination. Becoming board certified signals to employers a commitment to the discipline and can help increase salaries.

Step 6: Consider Continuing Education or Specialization

After becoming a registered nurse and working in the field, some professionals may decide to return to school to see a master's and/or doctorate in nursing. Admission requirements typically include an ADN or BSN, experience and an active license. They may also set minimum GPA requirements.Individuals who want to work as nurse practitioners, nurse leaders, nurse educators, or in similar senior roles need a master of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP). Students can choose from several concentrations based on their areas of interest and availability at the school they select.



How Much Does it Cost to Become a Registered Nurse?

The expenses of a bachelor's degree in nursing can vary substantially, making it important that students understand true program costs and consider hidden program costs. Learners should also compare costs between campus-based and online programs to find the best deal. The NCLEX-RN registration fee costs $200 in the U.S.

Registed Nurse (RN) Salary

According to the BLS, registered nurses earned median annual salaries of $77,600 in 2021. California-based RNs earned the most, with a mean annual wage of $124,000 each year. RNs who pursue a master's degree and become nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, or nurse midwives earned median pay of $123,780 in 2021.

RN Accreditations

Licensed nurses from a compact state can practice in other member states more easily. RNs from non-compact states may need to apply for state endorsement to move their license to another location without having to obtain another single-state license.

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

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Registered Nurse

How long does it take to become a registered nurse?

The amount of time it takes to become a registered nurse depends on several factors. First, students must decide whether they want to pursue an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor's degree in nursing. Those who follow the bachelor's degree route will spend approximately four years of full-time study completing all course requirements alongside clinical rotations.

From there, learners must also study for and pass the NCLEX-RN. How long they spend on this step is up to them, but most students take at least a month or two to prepare. Lastly, they must seek licensure from their state. Wait times vary, but most states process applications within two weeks.

What is the fastest way to become a registered nurse?

For individuals looking to enter the profession as quickly as possible, earning an associate degree in nursing typically makes the most sense. When enrolled full-time, most students meet all course and clinical requirements within two years. Part-time students may need three years to graduate.

From there, learners follow the same trajectory as outlined in the previous section for students with a bachelor's in nursing. There are also accelerated bachelor's programs where students can earn their BSN in two years.

What kinds of nurses get paid the most?

While registered nurses earn salaries well above the national average for all occupations, individuals with a master's or doctorate in nursing typically earn substantially more. Nurse midwives earned median annual salaries of $112,830 in May 2021, while nurse practitioners received median pay of $120,680.

Nurse anesthetists, who need an MSN or DNP, earned median salaries of $195,610 in 2021. When considering whether or not to upgrade undergraduate credentials, students can consider these figures to make an informed decision.

Can I become a registered nurse with an online degree?

Due to the clinical rotation requirement, no fully online associate or bachelor's in nursing degrees exist. Several schools provide hybrid pathways, meaning students can complete coursework online but must complete clinical practicums in person at an approved nursing facility.

Students who want to attend a hybrid nursing degree can look for options near where they live. Finding a community college or public university in their state allows learners to take advantage of in-state tuition, which is typically lower than out-of-state or private university tuition.

How much money can I make as a registered nurse?

Registered nurses earned median annual wages of $77,600 as of 2021, though education level, amount of experience, employer, and location can all influence payment. Registered nurses in the top 10% of earners took home more than $120,250 in 2021, while those in the bottom 10% received salaries lower than $59,450 during the same year.

As mentioned, location can also influence earnings. RNs working in South Dakota received mean annual wages of $60,540 last year due to the lower cost of living in the state. Meanwhile, RNs in California took home annual mean pay of $124,000 during the same year.

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