Graduate Application Guide for Nurses

Earning a master's in nursing can help propel your career forward. Yet applying to graduate school is no easy task, often requiring months of work and planning. Prospective students must complete a nursing graduate school application resume, gather recommendation letters, write essays, and obtain transcripts. Potential graduate students must also study for standardized tests, although this can sometimes be avoided.

Graduate school requirements vary depending on the student's experience and the program's requirements. Students without a bachelor's degree in nursing will have a completely different experience than those who hold a degree. Students with several years of work experience or those with a high GPA may be able to bypass the GRE and MAT testing requirement. Foreign students must take an English proficiency exam.

Follow these steps when applying to graduate school: Do your research, be prepared, and start early.

This guide will help you accomplish these three steps.

Nursing Graduate Program Prerequisites

Do I Need a Bachelor's Degree in Nursing to Earn a Nursing Graduate Degree?

Many master's programs in nursing require students to have a bachelor's degree in nursing before they apply. However, those without a BSN may also apply. One option involves enrolling in a BSN-to-MSN accelerated program, although this can last two or three years longer than a normal master's program. Other schools offer RN-to-MSN programs, targeting registered nurses with associate degrees. These allow students to essentially skip earning a bachelor's degree and go straight to master's programs.

Students may also apply to an entry into nursing master's program, which specifically enrolls students who studied another discipline during their undergraduate education, or those pursuing a career change. These programs may require students to complete supplemental courses before or during the MSN program. Typically taught during the first year, coursework often includes biology, anatomy, and physiology, along with basic nursing competency. The courses allow students without bachelor's degrees in nursing to catch up to the master's level. Requirements vary by program. Schools commonly list requirements online, but students with additional questions can contact a program administrator.

Oftentimes these programs are rigorous, so students cannot work while enrolled in courses. Prospective students should plan their finances accordingly. Regardless of discipline, a students' undergraduate degree should come from accredited program.

Is Work Experience a Prerequisite to a Nursing Graduate Program?

The amount of work experience required depends on the program. Some nursing graduate programs do not require nursing work experience. These tend to operate as entry into nursing master's programs, in which students enroll to shift their career paths. However, many graduate programs require students to have three to five years of work experience in nursing before they can apply.

Advanced programs may expect work experience because they want their students to understand nursing before enrolling. In addition, master's in nursing programs sometimes require students to choose a specialization, such as anesthesiology or gerontology. Often, students cannot identify their nursing passions unless they have worked a few years in the field.

Do I Have to Take the GRE or the MAT to Apply to Nursing School?

Both the MAT and the GRE function as standardized tests for graduate school admissions. MAT stands for Miller Analogies Test, and it tests a person's ability to solve problems through analogies. Put simply, the MAT tests how people think. The GRE, on the other hand, stands for Graduate Record Examinations, and it tests students' educational skills. The GRE consists of three parts: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Students solve math equations, write an essay, and answer reading comprehension and vocabulary questions.

The GRE costs $205. The MAT typically costs $100, but prices vary. Students should verify the price with their local testing center. Some schools prefer one over the other. You may not have to take a test at all, as some schools allow standardized testing waivers.

MAT/GRE Waiver

Students with test anxiety may find ways to bypass taking the MAT or GRE exam, as many schools offer waivers for these exams. These waivers generally come with stipulations. For example, programs might require a minimum GPA or several years of nursing experience. Students should check with the admissions departments at their prospective schools to see if they qualify for a waiver.

Other schools do not require students to submit test scores at all. These schools subscribe to the theory that standardized tests do not adequately show how well a student performs in the classroom or in clinical laboratory settings. Instead, these programs focus on grades, clinical experience, essays, interviews, or recommendations.

Breakdown of MAT Scores

The MAT operates as a mental ability test, asking test takers to solve analogy problems. MAT scores range from 200 to 600, with the average score sitting about 400. These scaled MAT scores come from the raw MAT score, or the number of the 120 questions the test taker answered correctly. Not all questions count toward a test taker's score; a few are experimental questions. However, the exam does not identify which questions count and which are experimental. The percentile rank depends on how a test taker performs compared to the pool of people who finished the exam from 2012 to 2015. Test takers may receive a percentile rank of 1 to 99. After people finish their MAT exams, they may view their preliminary score report. Exam officials must verify the test results before they can be considered official. Test takers receive their official scores in the mail in 10-15 days.

Admissions criteria varies depending on the program. The official score reports include a figure called percentile for intended major. This percentile shows how test takers compare to their peers. Because MAT scores are scaled, test takers almost never receive a score above 500. In fact, those who receive scores above 450 land in the 99th percentile. Because of this bell curve scoring, schools typically like to see scores around 400.

MAT Scores and Percentiles

Score Percentile
400-404 50th percentile
405-409 60th percentile
410-415 70th percentile
416-420 80th percentile
421-425 90th percentile
430-440 95th percentile
450-600 99th percentile

Source: Pearson Assessments

Breakdown of GRE Scores

Like the MAT, GRE exam scores differ from the number of correct answers on the exam. The GRE tests three different categories: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Test takers receive a score for each section. The GRE provides the same scale for the exam's quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning sections, which range from 130 to 170. Analytical writing scores span from zero to six, rising in half-point increments.

Test takers typically complete the GRE online in a testing center. They can view their verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning scores as soon as they finish the exam. Since the exam's analytical writing portion involves writing an essay, test takers must wait 10 to 15 days until their essays are scored. Test takers who take the GRE on paper must wait about a month to see their scores online.

Scores considered good or bad vary depending on the nursing program. The mean score for verbal reasoning is 149.97; 152.57 for quantitative reasoning; and 3.48 for analytical writing. Graduate nursing programs view a score above the mean favorably, but typically don't require applicants to meet a minimum score either. Even if you score below the mean but have a strong undergraduate or professional record, nursing programs will usually consider your application.

GRE Score Percentiles for 2017 – 2018

Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Percentile Rank Quantitative Reasoning Percentile Rank
170 99 97
160 85 76
150 47 39
140 11 8
130 -- --

Source: ETS

Nursing School Application Requirements


As part of applying to nursing grad school, graduate programs require prospective students to submit transcripts from their undergraduate colleges. Those making admissions decisions want to know applicants' courses and grades. Graduate schools expect students to have a decent GPA, usually above a 2.0. They watch for whether prospective students challenged themselves by enrolling in difficult nursing classes and clinicals during their undergraduate years. This helps professors or admissions representatives understand whether students seem ready to handle graduate-level courses.

Undergraduate colleges typically require alumni and past students to pay a fee when requesting transcripts. If you attended more than one college to attain your undergraduate degree, you should submit transcripts from each school. Applicants should request their transcripts early in the process, as some undergraduate schools may take several weeks to fulfill transcript requests.

Test Scores

Before enrolling in graduate school, students must take either the MAT or GRE exam. When prospective graduate students register for the MAT, the registration fee covers sending MAT scores to three different higher education institutions. If students take the GRE, the registration fee includes sending GRE scores to four different schools. Students must pay extra fees if they want to apply to more than the allotted number of schools for each exam. Students may send their scores immediately after taking the exams, or they may wait until they retake the exams and improve their scores.


Graduate schools ask prospective students to submit resumes as well. Resumes should include the breadth of a person's work within the nursing field, including educational background, previous jobs, skills learned, and any teaching or research gigs. Detail every job, telling the reader exactly what skills you learned.

To strengthen your resume, add information that doesn't strictly fall under the nursing umbrella. If you needed to take a year off from work to help your aging grandparents, for example, then you were learning how to care for the elderly. You also may have gained administrative or childcare skills in your volunteer work. If you are drawing a blank, ask your friends and family for advice.

Essays and Personal Statements

When completing your nursing graduate school application, you will notice differing requirements for essays and purpose statements. Some schools require students to submit one or the other; others require students to write both. Students are sometimes require to turn in multiple essays. In some cases, schools may leave the option of essay writing open to applicants. In this case, learners should submit an essay as it shows they are willing to go the extra step.

A statement of purpose typically follows a standard prompt that is similar to writing about your decision to apply to nursing graduate school. Some prompts will ask why do you want to pursue a master's degree in nursing? What goals do you hope to accomplish with your degree?

Prompts for admissions essays vary. This includes describing a difficult situation and how you overcame it. Another might ask what groups of people would you like to help treat, and why?

Applicants should not be afraid to get deep when writing their responses on their nursing graduate school application. Think about how you can differentiate yourself while being honest. Brainstorm topics with friends and family. Offer anecdotes that show how much you enjoy the nursing profession and caring for others. Always remember to proofread. A few typos can ruin your entire essay. You can find a good example of a nursing school essay for inspiration here.

Letters of Recommendation

As part of a nursing graduate school application, students often must submit letters of recommendation. Someone who knows the applicant and their work ethic well should write a letter of recommendation. This should also be someone who can write from a position of authority. Professors from undergraduate school, former or current bosses, or those who have supervised the applicant in clinicals or volunteer work can provide recommendation letters.

Graduate schools typically want to know the applicant's work ethic and their potential to succeed at the master's in nursing program. Make sure the person writing the recommendation knows this. Some programs may also require the recommendation letter to include specific points. Check the admissions instructions and notify the person recommending you about this requirement. Ask for a recommendation at least four weeks before your deadline, if not earlier. Remember to remind this person about the deadline so they do not forget.

English Proficiency Tests

International students must take an English proficiency test. Graduate schools want to ensure that students can keep up with coursework. Schools may require students to take the TOEFL, the most common English proficiency exam, or the IELTS or TOEIC. These exams test students on their ability to read, listen, speak, and write in English, although each exam varies in format. Applicants should check with admissions departments at their prospective schools to check which the nursing programs prefer.

Background Check and Drug Screening

Nurses work with many prescription drugs, and nursing students are no exception. Clinical labs put nursing students in practical situations, where students must handle medications. Instructors must be confident that nursing students do not abuse access to these prescription drugs. As a result, some schools may require students to submit a background check or undergo drug screenings before they can enroll in clinical labs and work with medications. Check with the admissions representative to learn whether your school requires background checks or drug screenings.

How Do You Apply to Nursing Graduate School?

When applying to graduate school, prospective students should follow the most important rule: meet the deadline. Nursing schools do not offer one common application as undergraduate colleges do, nor do they follow the same timetable. Applicants must organize their applications and plan ahead. If you wait until the night of the application deadline to submit your materials and your computer crashes, you are out of luck.

Most schools boast an online portal or system where you can submit your application along with recommendation letters, essays, and other supporting documents. Schools require candidates to pay fees along with their applications, although the fees vary. One university might ask prospective students to pay $35, while another requires $100. In some cases, schools may waive application fees based on financial need.

Rolling Admissions

Graduate school programs that offer rolling admissions allow potential students to apply year round. These schools consider applications as they come in, rather than waiting until all applications are submitted. In addition, schools with rolling admissions may accept candidates until they have filled all slots in an incoming class. For applicants, this means the school does not impose a deadline. However, some schools enforce a priority application deadline.

Even though programs with rolling admissions do not require candidates to apply by a certain date, students should still aim to apply earlier rather than later. If an incoming class fills up, then a procrastinating student may miss out. Rolling admissions serve as good options for students who want to wrap up the admissions process as soon as possible, as admissions decisions come soon after students apply.

Rounds Admissions

Although not as common as rolling admissions, some schools allow students to apply through rounds admissions. These schools allow students to apply during separate timeframes. Typically, schools offer three different application rounds: fall, winter, and spring. Some schools may offer two, four, or five deadlines. The programs accept a certain number of students during the first round. Then they fill up the rest of the class slots during the remaining rounds.

For most students, the first round offers the most advantageous opportunities for acceptance. Schools offer the greatest number of open spaces during the first round, so candidates face less competition. Put simply, students' chances of acceptance start high in the first round, and then diminish as the rounds go on. However, if an applicant thinks they can improve their GRE or MAT score by re-taking the exam, or if they believe they can strengthen their application in some other way, waiting for later rounds may be the best option.

Waiting for Acceptance Letters

Once applicants have written their essays, sent their GRE or MAT scores, dispatched their transcripts, submitted their recommendation letters, and checked every other box on their application checklist, they must face the most difficult part of the process—waiting for a decision. Prospective students may feel anxiety, dread rejection, or fear that they have relinquished control of their application.

Once candidates submit everything to the school, they can follow up with the admissions department and send thank-you notes to professors. Yet, for the most part, applicants must remain patient.

Schools vary in how soon they notify students of admissions decisions. With rolling applications, the nursing program may inform students of their acceptance or rejection within a few weeks. With other applications, students may have to wait a couple of months. Schools sometimes offer online portals where prospective students can check their application status.

When schools accept applicants, they typically give students a deadline to accept or reject the offer. Potential students should weigh several factors before making a decision: did the school offer financial aid? And how much? Have they heard back from other schools? If yes, how do the financial aid packages compare? Of course, students always run the risk of rejection, too. If a school has denied you, do not lose hope. Keep researching, and keep applying.