Becoming a Registered Nurse: The Steps You’ll Take and Requirements You’ll Need
The process of becoming a registered nurse may look simple on a piece of paper — or web browser.
You go to and graduate from nursing school.
You pass the NCLEX.
You find your first nursing job.
Bing boom bang you’re a nurse. The scariest step in many careers would be that finding-a-nursing-job part, but given the increasing demand for nurses, securing work can be almost effortless for many graduates. It’s the steps before that point which will prove to be the most challenging. If you want to enter the field of nursing, you need to know the whole story. These eight steps outline the requirements you need and the process to follow for becoming a registered nurse.
1. Hearing the calling
Nursing isn’t an easy career. Difficult patients, 12-hour shifts, and work that demands every bit of your mental, emotional, and physical focus requires a special — and resilient — kind of person. The schedule and responsibilities of nursing school can be even more difficult. It can’t be a career choice you make on a whim. Most feel a calling to become a nurse.
For some nurses, their careers seemed inevitable: From a young age, they knew they wanted to don scrubs and save lives. Others watched a nurse care for one of their family members and thought, I could do that. Sometimes the calling is quieter, a sense that you need more fulfillment in your work, that you need to be challenged, that you need a career that puts all of your gifts and talents to use.
Nursing attracts many different people many ways. However you hear your calling, be sure you do, because you’ll need to hold on to that ambition as the stress and challenges mount.
2. Deciding your educational route
There are almost as many paths to become a nurse as there are callings. You know by now you need to graduate from a nursing program, but that universal requirement can mean many different things. As the demand for nurses has risen, more nursing schools have emerged to educate and prepare a new generation of students for the future of nursing. Before you apply to nursing school, you need to decide your educational route.
For new nurses, you have three main choices for nursing school: an ADN program awarding an associate’s degree, a four-year college with a BSN program, and an accelerated BS program. The last of these is a rarer program, designed for students who already earned a bachelor’s degree, worked in a related field, and fulfilled many technical prerequisites. Most nursing students choose between an ADN and BSN program.
As more hospitals prefer to see nurses with a BSN degree, earning your bachelor’s from the start has its benefits. But earning your associate’s degree first allows you to become a nurse much sooner. Some nursing programs, like Ameritech’s in Draper, Utah, allow you to graduate and get to work in less than two years, earning money as a registered nurse and often receiving tuition assistance to complete your BSN later.
There’s no right or wrong choice, but there’s often a better choice for your goals of becoming a nurse.
Related Resource: 7 Questions to Ask When Choosing a Nursing Program
3. Applying to the best nursing school
Whichever educational route you take, you need to apply to the best nursing school for your geographical, financial, and educational needs. If you live in Salt Lake City and need to stay in your home state, narrow your search for nursing schools in Utah — or Nevada, or wherever you are. Look for accredited programs, weigh the costs of tuition and fees with the time it takes to graduate, and pay close attention to figures like NCLEX pass rates and job placement rates.
Those numbers, often more than history or name recognition, signify the quality of a school’s nursing education. You need to graduate prepared to become a nurse right away. The best nursing school will prepare you with great clinical placements and a curriculum that support your mastery of the material.
4. Fulfilling nursing school prerequisites
Though every calling to become a nurse is unique, you need to know there are many other prospective nurses in the same position as you. Every nursing school will be competitive, because the demand for nursing programs outpaces the availability of nursing instructors. It’s common for many schools to put qualified applicants on wait lists, though Ameritech doesn’t.
When you apply, be mindful of this competition. Begin practicing the diligence and excellence you’ll need as a nurse while you fill out your nursing school applications, and prepare for the interviews to make the best impression possible. If you have the calling, and already possess the qualities of a great nurse, make sure both are apparent as you fulfill the requirements and prerequisites of the nursing school you’ve chosen.
Related Resource: Common Mistakes Students Make on Their Nursing School Applications
5. Graduating from your program
This is an obvious, inevitable step, but because it’s one of the hardest in the processing of becoming a registered nurse, it’s worth noting.
When you’re accepted into nursing school, you may feel like the journey is almost complete. That joy and elation is natural, and good, but the reality is that the process has barely begun. Nursing school is hard — often cited as the hardest thing nurses have done in their lives. You will struggle with complex material, a relentless schedule, and some feelings of isolation from your family and friends. Many times you’ll feel like dropping out, but in those moments you need to remember your calling and hold fast to the very attainable goal of graduating and working as a nurse.
As difficult as nursing school will be, it’s also gratifying, and you’ll find yourself laughing as often as you feel overwhelmed. Fellow students in your cohort can become lifelong friends, and every challenging project and rotation will build a strong foundation in your future nursing career. No nursing program is easy, but it’s worth every drop of sweat and moment of exasperation. Once you graduate, you’re nearly done.
Related Resource: 5 Things to Know Before Your First Semester in Nursing School
6. Applying for your RN license
Harken back to the days of applying for your driver’s license: oh, the possibilities and freedom! Well, applying for your RN license is even better. If you’re a brand-new nurse in Utah, for example, you can apply for your nursing license during the last semester of school to ensure it’s in your hot little hands as soon possible. To do so, you’ll need to pay some fees, fill out some light paperwork, and complete the following requirements set forth by the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing:
- Complete a qualifying questionnaire;
- Complete a medical qualifying questionnaire;
- Provide official transcripts documenting completion of a nursing program accredited by the SCEN, CCNE, or COA (to be submitted once you graduate);
- Provide two sets of fingerprints for a background check through the Utah BCI and FBI; and
- Register for the NCLEX. (You must be registered for the NCLEX prior to submitting your application for licensure.)
Once you take and pass the NCLEX, along with completing all other licensure requirements, you can expect to receive your license within a few weeks. This process might vary state to state, and if you’re applying for an out-of-state license, so it’s best to look into the each state’s requirements individually.
7. Passing the NCLEX
The last main hurdle between you and your registered nursing license is the National Council Licensure Examination, the NCLEX. This comprehensive exam will test the knowledge you gained in school to ensure you’re ready to become a nurse. Its scope is expansive, and studying can be arduous, but if you’ve chosen the right nursing program you should graduate prepared and with a study plan to pass with flying colors.
Related Resource: Proven Strategies to Conquer the NCLEX
8. Finding your first nursing job
Technically, once you pass the NCLEX and receive your license, you’re already a registered nurse. The journey is complete, but you still need to find your first nursing job to actually do the work and embody the role. The good news is, nurses are in demand just about anywhere. As more and more older nurses reach retirement age, hospitals, clinics, schools, corporations, and everything in between need to fill those gaps with new nurses.
Talk with instructors, administrators, and the career services team at your nursing school to learn about their partnerships and professional connections. Any school with a high job placement rate has networks to find nursing positions for their graduates. Talk to family and friends who are already nurses, and maintain connections with your supervisors from rotations. In most states, open nursing positions abound, so keep your eye out.
Your first nursing job is rarely your last, but all the same, you want to work in a good healthcare system and with caring, mentoring management. Once you land your first nursing position, you can take your career anywhere.
Related Resource: 5 Things to Emphasize During Your First Nursing Job Interview
If you’re interested in learning more about the requirements and challenges of nursing school, and how we at Ameritech prepare our students for their future careers, we’d love to talk with you!