Do you love the idea of being a nurse? Some people dream of a nursing career from when they’re children. While it’s not an easy job by any means, nursing is one of the world's most essential and meaningful jobs. Starting your journey all begins with getting into nursing school.
All nurses need two things: a college degree and a nursing license.
You can earn your degree at a state college, university, or community college. Some trade schools even offer associate’s degree programs for aspiring registered nurses.
This guide will cover everything you need to know about becoming a nurse and getting into nursing school in the US. We’ll start by looking at your education options, then move on to the application process and some tips for success.
Understanding nursing degrees
You can pursue two types of nursing degrees: an associate’s in nursing (ADN) or a bachelor’s in nursing (BSN).
A nursing associate’s degree is two years long, and they teach you the fundamentals of nursing that every RN needs to succeed in their field. Opting for an associate’s degree means you can complete your education faster and get licensed sooner.
A BSN takes four years to complete, giving you additional training in nursing skills, nursing theory, and management. Many employers prefer candidates with BSNs because they’ve spent more time studying nursing and working with patients as part of their training.
One of the biggest questions aspiring nursing school students have is, “Is a BSN better than an ADN?”
While RNs can hold an ADN and be great nurses, a BSN is a step up in terms of education. BSN nurses get a more well-rounded education. They study more advanced topics, like pharmacology and ethics, clinical nursing skills, anatomy, and physiology.
The right degree for you will depend on your career goals. If you want to become an RN quickly and continue working as one for years to come, then an ADN could be a great start. You can always earn a BSN later through an RN to BSN program.
On the other hand, if you want to pursue a nursing specialty or become a nurse manager someday, a BSN is a better option.
It’s important to note that having a BSN can open the door for more job opportunities as a new nurse grad.
Preparing for nursing school
Before you apply for schools, you have to do a lot of research. There are so many differences between programs, even though they’re all legally required to cover the same core concepts.
You’ll quickly find that no two schools are identical, but the best schools all have some things in common.
For one, any nursing program you choose has to be accredited. Nursing school accreditation means that a program has been approved by an organization that regulates nursing education. This ensures that nurses are all trained according to the same standards, which helps keep patients safe.
The two nursing accreditation bodies are the CCNE and ACEN. Either accreditation is fine, but recognition from one of these organizations is required to become a nurse in the United States.
What to look for in nursing schools
We know that accreditation is the absolute must-have for any nursing school. But there are so many other elements to consider, like instructors, flexibility, technology, tuition, and pass rates for the NCLEX (more on that in a bit).
The faculty at your school will play the biggest role in your education. What types of nurses does the school employ? What is the average class-to-teacher ratio?
Smaller classes are better for nursing students because they give you the most personal education. You get to build a relationship with your instructor and fellow students; they can offer more personalized feedback and help you become the best nurse you can be.
You must also consider flexibility through online programs, night classes, and weekend hours. Only some nursing students can commit to studying a traditional schedule. Online nursing degrees allow you to complete your coursework online, then perform your clinicals in person at an approved healthcare facility.
In terms of tuition, you’ll have to consider the cost of your classes, materials, textbooks, and living expenses. You should also explore what financial aid options the school offers.
As for pass rates for the NCLEX, you’ll want to look for a school with the majority of graduates passing the exam on their first try. You can google “schools with highest NCLEX pass rates” and get a list of universities and colleges with great scores.
Community and environment
Also, make sure to choose a school that makes you excited for your future as a nurse. Nursing school is hard, and it can be difficult to stay motivated when you’re struggling.
The best school will have a strong community of instructors and classmates that support you and encourage you always to work hard and persevere. Your dream nursing school should have all the resources you need to learn, grow, and develop your skills as a future RN.
Questions to ask yourself
These questions can help you narrow your search and find a nursing school program that’s right for you.
Am I okay with moving to a new state to study? Can I afford to relocate?
Do I want to live on or off campus?
Would I rather study in a big city or a more rural setting?
Do I want to study online, in person, or both?
What do you need to get into nursing school in the US?
Nursing school applicants who are US citizens must have:
A high school diploma or GED
SAT, ACT, or TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills)
An application letter
Non-US citizens must have proof of high school education, proof of English proficiency, an application letter, and any other requirements from their school for international students.
Every school has its own requirements for applying, so make sure you review each one carefully. You’ll likely have to pay an application fee for each school. This fee usually costs between $50 to $150 and is non-refundable.
Before you apply to nursing school, take time to consider why you want to be a nurse. It isn’t an easy career, and many nursing students realize just how difficult the field is after they’ve been accepted. Knowing your “why’ will make it a lot easier to write a great application letter, and it will help you stay motivated during tough periods throughout your degree.
Learn about nursing before you apply to schools
Consider getting some hands-on experience in healthcare settings before applying to a nursing school. You could volunteer at a hospital or nursing home to see first-hand what nurses do daily.
If you’re still in high school, you can sign up for a nursing camp and get real experience working in healthcare for a short period. This can give you an idea of what your life might look like if you decide to go to nursing school.
During your time in nursing camp, you also get to talk with real nurses about their jobs. They can answer your questions and help you learn what it takes to work as an RN.
You can also head online and ask nurses about their work before you commit to a degree. Read blogs written by nurses, watch videos of nurses on YouTube, and study nursing material beforehand. You can even buy a book about nursing school to explore the subject material without any pressure.
The more you prepare ahead of time, the more confident you can be as a student when you apply.
Is nursing school worth it?
Nursing is a challenging career; not everyone interested in healthcare will love being a nurse. It takes a dedicated person with an unwavering passion to perform this job. And for students, the initial training period is one of the hardest.
You’ll be pushed to your limits many times as a nursing school student, but you can learn from these experiences and become a much stronger person (and better nurse) because of them.
Nursing school is the only way to realize your dream if you're committed to being a nurse. You’ll have to complete a degree if you want to sit for the national licensing exam, the NCLEX. Let’s look at this exam more closely since everything in your nursing school degree leads to it.
What is the NCLEX, anyway?
The NCLEX-RN is the only certifying exam for registered nurses in the United States. If you want to get an RN license, you have to pass the NCLEX. There’s no way around it. It seems like a lot of pressure, but don’t worry. If you’ve gone through nursing school, you have all the skills and knowledge necessary to pass (with some additional studying, of course).
The NCLEX is an adaptive exam. Adaptive exams change questions to each test taker’s abilities. Using an AI, the NCLEX will test you on topics like patient care, physiology, psychosocial health, and best nursing practices.
There are plenty of NCLEX study guides and even practice exams online. So don’t sweat it just yet. Just know that during your time in school, everything you learn goes toward helping you pass this exam, so you can move on to becoming a fully registered nurse.
What to study before you start nursing school
Nursing programs are heavily rooted in science and math. If these are your weakest subjects, it’s a good idea to start working on them now. Namely, biology and algebra. By completing your degree, you’ll need to know anatomy, medical terminology, and pharmacology in-depth.
In nursing school, you’ll be expected to memorize vast quantities of information quickly. The more you advance, the less forgiving instructors are. They don’t do this to be mean; they hold you to a high standard because that makes you the quality nurse patients need and deserve.
Studying these subjects before nursing school can help you become much more confident in the classroom and make your courses a lot easier:
Introduction to pharmacology
Fluids and electrolyte balance
The pulmonary system
The endocrine system
You won’t have to master all of these topics before starting nursing school, but learning about them before classes start will set you up for success. Self-study can also help you learn more about the nursing profession as a whole.
Learn more about nursing at the ShiftMed blog!