How to Become an RN

If you are looking for a career that will guarantee employment just about anywhere in the country for the rest of your working life, nursing might be the job for you. Do you like helping people in need? Do you have an interest in science? Do you like working hard and feeling good about making a difference? Do you look good in scrubs and a lab coat? Nursing isn’t just about drawing blood and checking bandages; as a Registered Nurse (RN) you can go on to specialize in various areas of medicine, or further your education and become a Nurse Practitioner, or even a medical doctor. This job isn’t for everyone; besides the numerous bodily fluids and needles, you will be dealing with people who are having the worst days of their life. Death is a regular thing around hospitals, but so, too, are the cries of a newborn baby.

Years of Education

2-4 years, post-high school, are required

Degrees & Licenses

  • Associate degrees, 2 years
  • Diploma programs, 3 years
  • Bachelor of Science, 4 years
  • Advanced practice, additional 2 or more years
  • National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)

Job Availability

Good to Excellent









  • Satisfaction in helping people.
  • Job security.
  • Scrubs make nice pajamas.
  • Exam glove balloon animals.

1. Decide if nursing is for you.

Group of Registered Nurses, Black and White photoPreparation for becoming a nurse can start in high school. Although nursing is a service industry job, many aspects of it are very technical; it is important to have a good educational foundation before heading off to nursing school. Be sure to study the sciences, biology and chemistry especially. An understanding of basic mathematical and computer-usage concepts is also important, along with excellent communication and comprehension skills. Your grades matter when applying to colleges, so don’t screw around. Many students who have an interest in nursing also find it advantageous to get a job as a Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA) at a nursing home, or train to be an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) as a way to get your feet wet while still in high school.

2. Choose a nursing program.

There are several routes that one can take to become a registered nurse. The length of time varies for some of these options, but they all end with the NCLEX-RN test. Depending on your geographic location and what schools are available to you, the colleges might arrange things differently. Generally speaking, the programs build upon each other, starting with basic nursing skills and the two years of schooling which will get you to the level of a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). This is often a prerequisite for entering an Associates degree, or Bachelors program, to become an RN. There are also some hospital-based diploma programs. However, they are less common than the Associates degree (AS) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) options.

3. Nursing school can be difficult.

Persevere, get the best grades you can, and learn your trade well. Besides all of the things you would expect to cover in nursing school, like anatomy and pharmacology, you will also be studying things like public speaking, psychology, and medical ethics. It is important that you learn more than the names of body parts and drug names; you need to have a conceptual understanding of the processes involved in the treatment of human diseases. People’s lives depend on it, and you will be required to answer some conceptual and process-based questions on the NCLEX-RN. Your education should be the focus of your life during this time. Many programs have a minimum GPA, and you don’t want to waste time and money retaking a class at this point.

4. Complete an internship or clinical experience.

An important part of your education will involve practical application and working with patients. Obviously, a big part of learning how to be nurse will be hands-on training with the supervision of a teacher. Clinical experience is incorporated into the coursework for a nursing program. During this time you will have to dress appropriately, behave professionally, maintain asepsis, and do as you’re told. Learning how to interact with coworkers and how to function within the hierarchy of a hospital is as important as learning how to interact with your patients. Many hours of supervised clinical experience are required for more advanced degrees in nursing. It’s a way to ensure that you are qualified to do the job, and for you to see what life is like in the profession.

5. Take the NCLEX-RN test.

This is the test administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Once you have been approved to take the test, it’s time to get prepared. The tests are designed to test your knowledge of medical problems, processes, techniques, and skills needed to practice nursing safely and effectively. Critical thinking and analysis is emphasized more so than memorization; however, the recall of medical knowledge is required as well. Some questions will require you to identify body parts and some will require you to calculate medication dosages. It’s a hard test, as it should be; it costs $200 and can take up to six hours to complete. Your school will have study materials and maybe even study groups. There are also NCLEX-RN study guides available in most bookstores.

6. Find a nursing job.

Nurse on the PhoneLucky for you, the world is in drastic need of qualified nurses. Due to the post-WWII baby boom, the American population is rapidly growing older. The need for nurses will continually rise as those baby boomers enter their 70s, retire from their careers, and start having more health problems. At the same time, more and more young people are experiencing health problems thanks to a Western diet rife with unhealthy eating and a sedentary lifestyle. New strains of influenza and resistant bacteria keep making appearances leading to hospitalization. All the while, people keep having new babies that start the whole cycle over again. If you have a passion for nursing, your talents are needed. Your school should have a job placement service with whom you should speak for more details.

Specialization and Advancement

Where do you go from here? Most entry-level registered nurses will start out working in a hospital or clinical setting. You might want to spend your career doing that kind of work or saving lives in a hospital emergency room, but a lot of RNs choose to continue their education and specialize in one particular scope of practice. There are literally dozens of specialities, and that is something to explore when you go back to school to complete your graduate or doctoral level education. As an Advanced Practice Nurse (APRN) or Nurse Practitioner (NP), you can be certified in family health, pediatrics, oncology, neonatology, gerontology, women’s health, psychiatry and mental health, acute care, adult health, emergency, and occupational health. Your job might take you outside the realm of the hospital and into the community, in schools or prisons. You might even end up working at a college, teaching new students how to become nurses. There are so many things you can do once you’ve completed your nursing degree. There are a lot of people in the world who need your help. Go forth and make them well.

Further Reading for Aspiring RNs

How to Survive and Maybe Even Love Nursing School: A Guide for Students by Students (Kelli S. Dunham, RN, BSN). This book is a from-the-trenches view of the process of choosing and attending a nursing school. It contains advice on managing course loads, handling stress, and preparing for the NCLEX test, from someone who has gone through it recently.

Kaplan NCLEX-RN: Strategies, Practice, and Review (Barbara J. Irwin and Judith A. Burckhardt). If you are nervous about getting through the NCLEX, there is only one thing you can do, and that is prepare yourself. The Kaplan review guide is popular along with the Lippincott version. Both are useful tools that will help you do your best on the registered nursing test.

Notes on Nursing: What It Is, and What It Is Not (Florence Nightingale). Take look into the nursing of yesteryear in this book from one of the most famous nurses of all time. Florence Nightingale lived through the turn of the last century and is most famous for her work during the Crimean War. It’s interesting to note how things have changed and how many things are very much the same.