How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN)

Registered nurses (RNs) care for, educate, and advise patients and their families about healthcare. Nurses hold a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), an associate of nursing (ADN), or they have graduated fwrom an approved nursing school. 

Healthcare has been rapidly expanding in recent years, and its subfield of nursing is no exception. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of RNs is projected to increase by 15% between 2016 and 2026, which is much faster than the average job in the U.S. 

Students who are detail-oriented and enjoy taking care of others should consider becoming an RN. For those who require more flexible schedules, online nursing programs may be an attractive option.

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

A registered nurse is an individual who has graduated from either an ADN or BSN program and passed the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination). RNs work in a variety of settings, and their daily activities vary depending on their work environment. However, some skills and situations are applicable to all RNs, regardless of their specific job.

Where do RNs Work?

Registered nurses work in health facilities and other organizations. Nursing programs provide students with medical knowledge and practical experience relevant to patient care, which can be applied in the following environments:

  • Hospital
  • Physician’s Office
  • Home Healthcare
  • Nursing Care
  • Correctional Facilities
  • Schools
  • Clinics
  • Military
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) /
Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN)
Registered
Nurse (RN)
Advanced Practitioner Registered
Nurse (APRN)
Types
N/A
N/A
Nurse practitioner (NP); Certified nurse midwife (CNM); Nurse anesthetist (CRNA); Clinical nurse specialist (CNS)
Minimum
Educational Requirement
Certificate or diploma from an approved nursing program ADN or diploma from an approved nursing program Master of science in nursing (MSN)
Licensure Requirements
(varies by state)
Completion of an approved nursing program; passing the NCLEX-PN exam; other requirements vary by state Completion of an approved nursing program; passing the NCLEX-RN exam; other requirements vary by state RN license; completion of an accredited graduate-level program; passing a national certification exam; other requirements vary by state and type of APRN
Licensure Agency State Board of
Nursing
State Board of
Nursing
State Board of
Nursing
Scope of Responsibility Work under the direction of RNs and doctors to monitor patients' health, administer basic patient care, and maintain patient records Work on a team alongside physicians and other healthcare professionals to — in addition to LPN/LVN duties &mash; evaluate patients' conditions, administer medicine and treatment, operate medical equipment, and set up treatment plans Work independently or in collaboration with physicians to — in addition to RN duties — order and evaluate test results; assess, diagnose, and treat ailments; refer patients to specialists; and conduct research.
Prescriptive Authority
X
X
Varies by state
Average Annual Salary
$43,000
$63,000
$94,000

What Does It Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

Education

To become a registered nurse, students must earn a BSN, ADN, or nursing school diploma. BSN programs generally take four years to complete while ADN programs take 2-3 years. Diploma programs are typically administered through medical facilities like hospitals. BSN bridge programs, which allow working professionals to complete their degrees at an accelerated rate, are also available for RNs who already possess an ADN or nursing diploma.

All of these educational paths require clinical experience. Most nursing positions accept licensed graduates with any of these three credentials, although some employers may require a bachelor's degree -- especially if a position involves research, consulting, administrative tasks, and/or teaching. BSN students generally complete more extensive coursework and training.

Experience

Most nursing programs feature clinical experience as a part of the curriculum. BSN programs and all accredited ADN programs include supervised clinical experience, which gives students hands-on experience in handling medical equipment, caring for patients, and working collaboratively with others in a healthcare environment.

Registered nurses who have recently graduated and taken the licensing exam complete important clinical hours, and many employers will hire candidates with this level of experience. However, other employers and positions may require even more work experience. For instance, clinical nurse specialists are typically required to have at least one year of work experience as a registered nurse and possess a master's degree in nursing.

Licensure and Certification

In the U.S. and its territories, registered nurses are required to have a nursing license to practice in their state of residence. Licensing requirements include graduating from an approved nursing program and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. Other licensing requirements vary by state but may include undergoing a criminal background check and completing training related to HIV/AIDS. Each state's specific requirements are established by the state's board of nursing. 

In addition to obtaining standard licensure, registered nurses can earn certifications in specialty areas, such as pediatrics, ambulatory care, gerontology, and mental health. These certifications are typically provided by professional associations. While not required at the state level, some employers seek RNs with specific certifications. 

Certifications demonstrate a more advanced understanding of a specialty and can increase an RN's job prospects. Nurses may also need to obtain certification in CPR, cardiac life support, and/or basic life support, as required by their employers.

Skills

Detailed and Organized

When handling numerous patients, knowing the location of your supplies and equipment is crucial. Having an established system of organization in place will help make things like changing an IV quick and easy.

Compassionate

Spiritual and emotional care can be just as critical to a patient's recovery as physical care. Understanding and caring for your patients involves more than just going through the motions; you need to be able to relate to their experiences.

Mentally and Physically Strong

Working long shifts while confronted with traumatic or difficult emergencies can lead nurses to mental and physical breakdowns. A healthy nurse learns to compartmentalize stress.

Patient and Resilient

RNs may be faced with extreme circumstances like treating patients with little chance of survival while the family looks on. In these circumstances, nurses must have the patience to understand that families may act irrationally and the resilience to keep working in the face of little hope.

Composed and Relaxed

More than 70% of nurses claim the effects of stress are among their top-three health and safety concerns. Stress can affect one's mental and physical well-being, and the unpredictable nature of healthcare work can allow stress to run rampant. If a nurse is to be effective, they must be able to relax and manage stress.

Observant

RNs often spend a lot of time with patients, and they may notice small cues a patient gives that can indicate an improvement or decline in their situation. Things as small as a change in a patient's tone of voice, skin color, or sweating can be early signals that something needs to be done.

Analytical and Objective

To handle large patient loads, nurses need to be able to make sound judgments quickly. This skill comes with years of experience, but being able to discern serious ailments from minor ones and identify when a patient needs extra attention are essential to being a successful caregiver.

Responsible

Caring for patients can be volatile and tumultuous, involving quick decisions that can have far-reaching consequences. Nurses must be accountable for their actions and hold themselves responsible for decisions made in the heat of the moment.

Communicative

Effective communication ensures that care is administered properly. For example, when nurses switch shifts, if they do not adequately relay the details of what happened with a patient, such as an allergic reaction or a fall, they risk harming their patient's health.

Registered Nurse Salary and Job Outlook

How Much Do Registered Nurses Make?

$46,390+$59,370+$72,350+$85,320+
Registered Nurse: Annueal Mean Wage by State This map presents average annual salary for the occupation Registered Nurse in each state in the U.S. Annual Mean Wage in HI: $98,080 HI Annual Mean Wage in AK: $77,000 AK Annual Mean Wage in FL: $66,210 FL Annual Mean Wage in NH: $66,210 NH Annual Mean Wage in MI: $71,330 MI Annual Mean Wage in VT: $69,160 VT Annual Mean Wage in ME: $67,610 ME Annual Mean Wage in RI: $78,420 RI Annual Mean Wage in NY: $85,610 NY Annual Mean Wage in PA: $70,390 PA Annual Mean Wage in NJ: $82,750 NJ Annual Mean Wage in DE: $74,800 DE Annual Mean Wage in MD: $76,820 MD Annual Mean Wage in VA: $69,790 VA Annual Mean Wage in WV: $61,780 WV Annual Mean Wage in OH: $66,820 OH Annual Mean Wage in IN: $64,860 IN Annual Mean Wage in IL: $73,890 IL Annual Mean Wage in CT: $81,220 CT Annual Mean Wage in WI: $71,470 WI Annual Mean Wage in NC: $64,850 NC Annual Mean Wage in MA: $92,140 MA Annual Mean Wage in TN: $61,320 TN Annual Mean Wage in AR: $60,780 AR Annual Mean Wage in MO: $65,130 MO Annual Mean Wage in GA: $68,950 GA Annual Mean Wage in SC: $64,940 SC Annual Mean Wage in KY: $63,100 KY Annual Mean Wage in AL: $59,470 AL Annual Mean Wage in LA: $63,970 LA Annual Mean Wage in MS: $58,490 MS Annual Mean Wage in IA: $59,130 IA Annual Mean Wage in MN: $78,920 MN Annual Mean Wage in OK: $63,080 OK Annual Mean Wage in TX: $72,890 TX Annual Mean Wage in NM: $71,730 NM Annual Mean Wage in KS: $61,030 KS Annual Mean Wage in NE: $64,470 NE Annual Mean Wage in SD: $58,340 SD Annual Mean Wage in ND: $65,740 ND Annual Mean Wage in WY: $67,360 WY Annual Mean Wage in MT: $67,450 MT Annual Mean Wage in CO: $74,240 CO Annual Mean Wage in ID: $67,110 ID Annual Mean Wage in UT: $65,670 UT Annual Mean Wage in AZ: $77,000 AZ Annual Mean Wage in NV: $85,620 NV Annual Mean Wage in OR: $91,080 OR Annual Mean Wage in WA: $82,670 WA Annual Mean Wage in CA: $106,950 CA

  • Median Hourly Wage: $34.48
  • Mean Salary: $75,510

Employment of RNs

Industries With the Highest Levels of Employment for RNs

Industry
Employment
Annual Mean Wage
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
1,698,700
$77,730
Offices of Physicians
197,790
$67,790
Home Health Care Services
181,180
$71,850
Nursing Care Facilities
153,120
$67,370
Outpatient Care Centers
141,830
$79,230
Source: BLS, 2018

Industries With the Highest Concentration of Employment for RNs

Industry
Percent of Industry Employment
Annual Mean Wage
General Medical and Surgical Hospitals
30.62
$77,730
Specialty (Except Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals)
24.06
$78,500
Psychiatric and Substance Abuse Hospitals
16.24
$73,590
Outpatient Care Centers
15.38
$79,230
Home Health Care Services
12.50
$71,850
Source: BLS, 2018

Meet a Registered Nurse

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Online Registered Nursing Programs

Below is an alphabetical list of accredited online registered nursing programs for your review. Because you can become a registered nurse with either an ADN or BSN, we have provided online program examples that award both degrees.

Before enrolling, please be sure to double-check that your target program is accredited, offered online during your period of study, and all eligibility and licensing requirements meet your situation.

Online ADN Programs

Allegany College of Maryland Online LPN-RN Bridge Program

The Allegany College of Maryland offers an online LPN-RN bridge program designed to prepare licensed practical nurses to become registered nurses. During the program, students must complete 700 hours of supervised clinical experience in addition to their coursework. This online LPN-RN program is currently recognized or approved by the state boards of nursing in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Approval from other states is still pending. Due to the nontraditional nature of this program, prospective students should consult with the state board of nursing in their state of residence about specific licensure requirements to see if this program is adequate.

Hutchinson Community College Online Paramedic-RN Bridge Program

Hutchinson Community College provides an online paramedic-to-RN bridge program that allows paramedics to receive advanced placement in the school's ADN program. This program is designed to prepare students for the NCLEX-RN licensing exam and is accredited by both the Kansas Board of Nursing and the National League for Nursing Accreditation Commission. Applicants are required to take the Kaplan Nursing School Entrance exam and receive scores at or above program benchmarks.

Hutchinson Community College Online LPN-RN Bridge Program

Hutchinson Community College offers an online LPN-to-RN bridge program that allows licensed practical nurses to receive advanced placement in the school's ADN program. The program is accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Kansas State Board of Nursing Accreditation. To be admitted, students must possess a minimum GPA of 2.75 from an accredited school of practical nursing, hold an LPN license to practice in their state of residence, and meet program benchmarks on the Kaplan Nursing School Entrance exam. 

Northwestern Michigan College Online ADN Program

Northwestern Michigan College provides an online ADN program that gives distance education students access to the same nursing curriculum as traditional on-campus students. While all theory and academic classes are delivered online, students are still required to attend lab and clinical courses in person. These clinicals and labs are typically scheduled in the Traverse City area and meet 2-3 days per week. This program is approved by the Michigan State Board of Nursing and accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.

Pratt Community College Hybrid Paramedic/LPN-RN Bridge Program

Pratt Community College offers a hybrid paramedic/LPN-to-RN bridge program designed to provide paramedics and LPNs with the opportunity to become RNs. Select courses are available online, while others must be taken in person. To be admitted, students must possess a Kansas LPN license or paramedic certificate, pass the ATI TEAS entrance exam, and submit high school and college transcripts. This program is currently on conditional approval by the Kansas State Board of Nursing and is not nationally accredited.

Online BSN Programs

Purdue University Fort Wayne Hybrid Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Purdue University Fort Wayne offers a hybrid bachelor of science in nursing that prepares students to provide quality healthcare and sit for the NCLEX-RN licensure exam. The curriculum requires 122 credits and can be completed in four years. Select courses are available online, while others must be attended in person. This program is accredited by the Indiana State Board of Nursing Health Profession Bureau and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. 

If you are an accredited, nonprofit institution that offers an online ADN or BSN program and that is not listed, please contact us with details about your program, a link to your program page, and proof of accreditation.

Registered Nurse Resources

RN Job Boards

  • ANA Job Board ANA's career center features a job board with recent and relevant job postings for RNs. Results can be filtered by job type, key words, discipline, and location.
  • Nurse.com Job Board This job board provides a database of open nursing positions and the option to search by specialty, location, or employer.
  • Career Vitals CareerVitals job board contains various healthcare postings. Users can post their resumes, set up job alerts, and search by job title or location.
  • All Nurses Job Board The job board hosted by allnurses features nursing postings that can be searched or filtered by specialty, location, or license.

RN Blogs

  • Fresh RN The Fresh RN blog includes articles and resources related to nursing, e.g., "Types of Nursing Jobs and Where to Find Them" and "ACLS Certification."
  • DailyNurse This blog contains articles on health science, including diversity in the nursing field, opioid addiction, and telehealth. It also features a Nurse of the Week spotlight and provides information on nursing licensing and programs.
  • Off the Charts Hosted by the American Journal of Nursing, this blog covers nursing, public health, patients, technology, and ethics. It also features articles on nursing research, nursing history, and nursing careers.
  • NRSNG NRSNG features articles on nursing school, including how to master critical thinking and imposter syndrome while attending school.

NCLEX-RN Resources for Registered Nurses

Massive Open Online Courses for Registered Nurses

  • Coursera Coursera provides open online courses covering topics like infection prevention and nursing informatics leadership. It also offers degrees and certificate programs
  • MOOC List MOOC List allows students to search for free online courses in nursing and filter results by course title, provider, course length, and other variables.

Find Online RN Programs

If you notice any errors in the database below or are a college or university that is not represented here, please contact us. We will get on it immediately!

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