How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide (2023)



How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Registered nurses are integral health care professional that provide patients with the care they need. Learn the steps you need to take to join this impactful profession.

How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide (1)

Registered nurses (RNs) provide care to patients and assist other health care professionals, such as physicians, to ensure they have the support they need to do the best possible job. Over the coming years, demand for health care workers is growing. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), health care jobs are expected to grow 13 percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in about 1.9 million job opening per year throughout the decade [1]. Among health care workers, registered nurses make up the largest group of employees in the health care system [2].

If you want to enter an impactful health care career with a bright job outlook, then you might consider a career as an RN. In this article, you'll learn what you need to do to become an RN, find out more about the profession, and explore their pay and job outlook. At the end, you'll also find suggested courses that can help you learn job-relevant skills today.

What is a registered nurse (RN)?

Registered nurses provide care for patients and support doctors and other medical professionals in their day-to-day duties. Some common tasks RNs perform include administering prescribed medications, inserting catheters, monitoring vital signs, creating patient care plans, and documenting patient information.

Read More: What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Where do nurses work?

RNs can work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, travel clinics, nursing homes, schools, and even within airplanes. In effect, there are many different types of RN, including psychiatric nurses who specializing in mental health work, flight nurses who work in helicopters and airplanes, and oncology nurses who specifically work with cancer patients.

How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide (2)

Salary and job outlook

RNs make a higher than average salary in the United States and have a positive job outlook over the coming years.

According to the US BLS, the median annual pay for registered nurses was $77,600 a year as of May 2021. As a result, RNs make an annual salary that is comfortably higher than the median for all jobs in the United States, which the US BLS pinned at $45,760 during the same year [3].

Much like other health care professions, registered nurses can expect an increase in job openings over the next decade. According to the US BLS, the number of job openings for RNs is expected to grow by six percent between 2021 and 2031, resulting in approximately 203,200 new job openings each year [3].


A higher than average salary and in-demand skillset are just some of the perks of being a registered nurse. Here are just some of the other benefits you can expect by joining this big-hearted, in-demand career:

  • Work in shifts: Nurses don’t work a typical 9-to-5 workday. Often, RNs work 12-hour shifts three days per week, meaning that your time off can be spent doing other things that you love like being with family or enjoying a hobby.

  • Job security: Hospitals and clinics are always hiring nurses. This need is projected to increase in the coming years.

  • Flexibility: Nurses, like doctors, are needed nearly everywhere. While you may not be licensed or certified in other countries, you do have the option to do so, and working as a travel nurse can be a lucrative career.

  • Active lifestyle: As a nurse, you’ll be on your feet often, rather than sitting at a desk all day. This can be a huge positive for those who prefer to not sit for eight hours a day.

  • Make a difference: Nursing is all about helping people. If you’re a people person, then you might be drawn to this field of work where you'll be able to have meaningful interactions with patients every day.

How to become a registered nurse

RNs are highly-trained health care professionals tasked with helping patients and ensuring they receive the care they need. As a result, the path to becoming a registered nurse is one defined by training, certification, and specialization.

Here's what you can expect to do as you work toward joining this impactful health care career:

1. Complete an accredited nursing program.

To qualify for your nursing certification, you'll need to first enroll in and complete a nursing program. Taking anywhere from two to four years, nursing programs prepare students for a career in the field by covering such important topics as chemistry, psychology, anatomy, physiology, and applied learning courses like how to care for wounds.

In the United States, there are three types of programs that you can take to qualify for the nursing exam. These programs are:

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): An accredited bachelor's degree is the most common degree pursued to becoming a nurse today. Typically offered by colleges and universities, these programs usually take up to four years to complete, but can be completed in less time by those who already possess a prior nursing credential.A BSN is often the most competitive degree for entry-level nursing positions and a requirement to becoming a more advanced nurse.

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): Many technical and community colleges offer an associate degree in nursing, which typically takes about two to three years to complete.

  • Diploma program: ​​Diploma programs are the traditional way that many in the past joined the nursing profession. Though they are less common than BSNs and ADNs today, some hospitals do still offer nursing diploma programs, which typically take two to three years to complete.

Read more: How to Get Into Nursing School: Your Guide to a Degree

2. Take (and pass) the nurse licensing exam.

Once you’ve completed your coursework, you can register for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), the NCLEX is the exam used by state regulatory boards to determine whether candidates are ready to obtain a nursing license [4].

Many nurses-to-be take the NCLEX-RN one month after graduation. In order to take the exam, applicants must meet all the eligibility requirements and apply through their local nurse regulatory body. Afterwards, candidates register on the Pearson VUE website or by phone, which generates an authorization email that provides test dates and information.

The NCLEX-RN costs $200 for the licensure registration fee in the US, but fees are charged for changing the type of exam, nursing regulatory body, or exam language. Administered on the computer, the exam requires test takers to complete a minimum of 75 (out of 205) questions and can take up to six hours to finish. Topics covered on the test include safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity.

To prepare for this important exam, applicants may want to take a practice exam, available on the NCSBN website. If you don’t pass the NCLEX-RN exam the first time, you must wait 45 days until you can take it again.

3. Get licensed where you want to practice.

After passing the NCLEX-RN exam, you will need to obtain a nursing license from the state in which you would like to practice. The exact requirements for obtaining licensure will vary from one state to another, so make sure to check with your state's regulatory board to ensure that you meet all of them. If you hope to work in multiple states (or countries), you’ll need to be licensed in each state.

Explore multi-state licensure

In 2018, the Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC) was implemented. This legislation allows RNs to have one multi-state license, so that nurses can practice in person or through telehealth in up to 38 (and counting) states in the US [5].

Multi-state licensure is particularly helpful for travel nurses. On average, travel nurses can make $3,000 per week plus stipends [6].

How to Become a Registered Nurse (RN): A Step-by-Step Guide (3)

4. Grow in your practice with a specialization or an advanced degree.

After you become a registered nurse, you may want to specialize in a specific area or pursue an advanced degree.There are several ways you gain the required training and qualifications you'll need to advance your career:

Board certification: To qualify for board certification, RNs usually need two or more years of clinical experience in a specialty focus and to pass an exam. Popular specializations include oncology, pediatrics, neonatal, gerontology, cardiac nursing, and more. Earning certifications can give you a salary boost and make you a more marketable nurse.

Advanced degree: To become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), such as a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse leader, you’ll likely need to earn a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or a doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). Advancing and investing further in your education can lead to a substantial increase in your paycheck, while you might also achieve more fulfillment by advancing in your nursing career.

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

Explore health care with Coursera

Get started on a fulfilling and in-demand career as a registered nurse with courses from top universities. In the University of Pennsylvania's Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us, you'll explore the anatomy and physiology underlying the vital signs so that you will develop a systematic, integrated understanding of how the body functions.

In the University of Minnesota's Integrative Nursing Specialization, meanwhile, you'll identify ways to implement integrative nursing at work in alignment with research-based evidence and safety and quality considerations.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.


What steps should I take to become a nurse? ›

Steps to Become a California Registered Nurse
  1. Take college prep classes in high school.
  2. Choose the type of nursing school you want to attend.
  3. Select a college and apply for admission.
  4. Apply for financial aid.
  5. Obtain an RN license.

How to become a registered nurse for dummies? ›

Steps for Becoming a Nurse
  1. Choose your path to an initial nursing license (LPN or RN). ...
  2. Choose a nursing degree program. ...
  3. Obtain your nursing degree. ...
  4. Submit your application for state licensure. ...
  5. Complete a background check. ...
  6. Pass the NCLEX-PN or NCLEX-RN exam. ...
  7. Pursue employment as a nurse.

What are the three stages of a RN? ›

In general, nurses fall into three categories: non-degree, degree, and advanced degree. Non-degree nurses include certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), who complete nursing education programs that don't culminate in a degree.

What is the easiest way to be a nurse? ›

The way to become an RN with the lowest level of education is to go through an associate's degree in nursing or ADN program. Most ADN programs are two years long and are held at community colleges. There are numerous options to choose from, including part-time and full-time programs.

What are the requirements to study nursing in USA? ›

Required documents
  • A graduated Bachelor's degree.
  • Official transcript of records (grade list)
  • GPA scores.
  • A resume with relevant experience in the field of Nursing.
  • Letters of recommendation from past teachers or employers.
  • Recommender's contact information.
  • A letter of motivation or personal essay.

What kind of person do you need to be to be a nurse? ›

Kindness, fairness, caring, trustworthiness, emotional stability, empathy, and compassion are aspects of your personality that serve you well as a nurse. You exhibit strong communication skills. You communicate well with patients and colleagues — sometimes at their worst life moments.

What is the first level of nursing? ›

Level 1 - Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Certified nursing assistants (CNAs) are also known as nursing assistants or nursing aides. They typically work in home care and long-term care facilities and are the primary point of contact between patients and the medical staff.

Is the Nclex hard? ›

The National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, is a critical exam that every nursing student must take to become a licensed nurse. Passing the NCLEX is essential to begin your nursing career, but it is also one of the most challenging exams you will ever take.

What does a beginner nurse do? ›

As an entry-level nurse, you should be making rounds, administering medication as needed. If you are working in a clinic, you could be responsible for providing first aid and immunizations. You might also be responsible for inserting catheters and feeding tubes.

What are the 7 steps of nursing? ›

  • Assessment. Assessment is the first step and involves critical thinking skills and data collection; subjective and objective. ...
  • Diagnosis. ...
  • Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
  • Planning. ...
  • Implementation. ...
  • Evaluation.
Apr 10, 2023

How many levels of RN are there? ›

There are five levels of nursing: Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Registered Nurse (RN), Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN), and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Each level has different requirements, educational qualifications, and salary rates.

What are the 5 levels of nurses? ›

Benner (1984) also detailed the acquisition of nursing expertise and proposed five possible expertise levels: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. Nurses at the novice stage are still in nursing school.

What is the shortest nursing course? ›

One of the shortest certification programs is the certified nursing assistant (CNA) training program. Some CNA programs last as little as 12 to 18 weeks. Others may offer up to one year of training. The requirements of your state and the program you attend can affect the specific length of attendance.

What is the quickest nursing certification? ›

Of all the nursing certifications, LPN or LVN programs are the quickest and most convenient options. Because training can be completed at a hospital, vocational technical school, community college and even online, LPN/LVN programs are ideal for students who work or have other obligations.

What nurse has the easiest job? ›

What is the easiest job for an RN? Working as an office nurse is one of the most relaxed options for RNs. Office nurses work in clinics with set hours, and provide basic, non-emergency medical care.

What GPA is required for nursing in USA? ›

GPA requirements depend on the type of nursing program you want to apply for, but most programs require at least a 3.0 GPA or higher. However, due to the competitive nature of nursing programs, most schools prefer a 3.7 to 4.0 GPA.

How much GPA is required to study nursing in USA? ›

To study the RN-BSN program at US Universities, students must have earned a nursing diploma with a minimum GPA OF 2.0.

How much does nursing school cost in the US? ›

Tuition rates for nursing school vary considerably depending on your desired degree level and the school you choose. Looking at ADN, BSN, MSN and DNP programs, nursing school can range in cost from around $3,000 to over $100,000.

What are the 6 C's of nursing? ›

The 6 Cs – care, compassion, courage, communication, commitment, competence - are a central part of 'Compassion in Practice', which was first established by NHS England Chief Nursing Officer, Jane Cummings, in December 2017.

What are some weaknesses of a nurse? ›

Examples of common nursing weaknesses our experts say they hear include:
  • Paying too much attention to detail.
  • Wanting to do everything at once.
  • Spending too long on paperwork.
  • Having a lack of clinical experience (for new grads)

What are the 7 characteristics of a good nurse? ›

What Makes Someone a Good Nurse?
  • Caring. ...
  • Communication Skills. ...
  • Empathy. ...
  • Attention to Detail. ...
  • Problem Solving Skills. ...
  • Stamina. ...
  • Sense of Humor. ...
  • Commitment to Patient Advocacy.
Feb 25, 2020

What is the hardest level in nursing? ›

Hardest Nursing School Classes
  • Pathophysiology. In this course, students learn how different anatomical systems work and how diseases or injuries affect these systems. ...
  • Pharmacology. ...
  • Medical Surgical 1 (also known as Adult Health 1) ...
  • Evidence-Based Practice.

What are first year nurses called? ›

Associate in Nursing (ASN)

RNs are the first line of care in many healthcare settings, and they are in increasingly high demand as healthcare organizations strive to accommodate a growing patient population.

Is nursing 1 hard? ›

Nursing requires more dedication than many other careers. However, it's one of the most rewarding jobs you can have. Nursing school is notoriously difficult—and it's not for everyone. Graduate school is challenging as well.

Is there a lot of math on the NCLEX? ›

Math on the NCLEX

While math certainly isn't a main focus on the NCLEX, you will likely have to do a few calculations while taking the exam. Don't be too worried about it, though. Your coursework and study time will prepare you well for the exam.

How many times can I fail my NCLEX? ›

Though the vast majority of candidates pass the exam the first time, those who fail are permitted to retake it after 45 days from their original test date. Candidates may retest as many as 8 times in a year.

How many fail the NCLEX? ›

What Are Your Chances Of Failing NCLEX-RN On The First Attempt? The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) reports 13.43% of NCLEX-RN candidates fail the exam on their first attempt.

What is the daily routine of a nurse? ›

Nurses work with multidisciplinary teams, including surgeons, physicians, specialists, assistants, technicians and many other health care providers. Their daily duties may include: Taking patient vital signs, measurements and medical histories. Asking about the patient's symptoms.

What are the 4 core of nursing? ›

A core competency of nursing is “the ability to practice nursing that meets the needs of clients cared for using logical thinking and accurate nursing skills.” The nursing competency structure consists of four abilities: the ability to understand needs, the ability to provide care, the ability to collaborate and the ...

What are the 4 nursing techniques? ›

The four basic methods or techniques that are used for physical assessment are inspection, palpation, percussion and auscultation.

What are the 4 parts of nursing? ›

Fawcett has named person, health, environment and nursing as the four main concepts of nursing that need to be comprehensively defined. The Human Caring Theory is significant because of its focus on the spiritual dimension of human beings.

What type of RN makes the most? ›

What is the highest-paid nurse? Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists! Earning $195,610 annually, CRNAs earn significantly more than any other type of nurse or nursing specialty.

How I became an RN? ›

After you've decided that you would like to pursue a career in nursing, the steps to becoming a registered nurse are fairly straightforward. First, you must earn the appropriate degree. Then, you must pass the NCLEX Exam. And finally, you must obtain a license in the state that you wish to practice in.

What is the highest RN title? ›

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)-Prepared Practitioner

The Doctor of Nursing Practice is a terminal nursing degree, meaning that it is the highest possible practice-based degree in nursing.

What is the difference between RN 1 and 2? ›

The Clinical Nurse I is distinguished from the Clinical Nurse II in that the latter is expected to have more professional experience in a healthcare setting including Public Health and Mental Health.

Is BSN higher than RN? ›

A registered nurse is able to practice within their field with only an associates degree, but a BSN is the preferred level of education for many nurse specialties throughout the medical career landscape.

What is the difference between a certified nurse and a registered nurse? ›

A certified nurse (CN) provides general patient care and works under registered nurses, while a registered nurse (RN) provides a higher level of patient care and coordination and works under a doctor.

How do I know if I want to be a nurse? ›

If you want to make a difference in your community, and you have the patience required to work with people, then this might be the tell-tale sign that you are meant to become a nurse. If you want a job that is exciting and brings a new challenge every day, then you will find happiness in nursing.

How do you know if nursing is not for you? ›

So, ask yourself how caring are you of other individuals and their needs. In order to be a good nurse, you have to deeply care about people. If you are one of those types of people who just worry about themselves and do not really concentrate on how to help others, then nursing really is not for you.

How do I become an RN in NY? ›

To be licensed and registered as an RN in New York State, you must:
  1. be of good moral character;
  2. be at least eighteen years of age;
  3. graduate from a nursing education program acceptable to NYSED;
  4. complete New York State required infection control coursework and child abuse reporting coursework;

What is the difference between a BSN and a RN? ›

Any registered nurse with or without a BSN has passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) exam and obtained nursing licensure. The distinguishing difference between a BSN nurse and an RN is that BSNs hold a bachelor's degree in nursing while RNs have an associate degree.

What age do most nurses start? ›

This stipulation dictates that most aspiring nurses become licensed nursing professionals at the earliest ages of 20 and 22, depending on whether they have attended a two-year nursing program for an associate's degree or a four-year nursing program for a bachelor's degree.

What is the first thing to know as a nurse? ›

Know the Patient's Diagnosis and Health History

You'll want to know why your patient is in your healthcare facility in the first place. Why are they receiving treatment? In addition, you'll want to know the patient's health history, as this will help you determine specific things to watch for during your shift.

Can I be a nurse if I'm shy? ›

In conclusion, you can absolutely be a successful nurse and still be shy. Over time, your shyness will melt away and you will feel much more comfortable. It will be similar to how you feel now in high school (minus public speaking projects).

What mistake should a nurse never make? ›

Here are a few of the most common nursing mistakes: Forgetting to turn on the bed alarm for a patient at high risk for falls. Incorrectly programming an IV pump resulting in underdosing or overdosing. Failing to report a change in a patient's condition.

What was the hardest class in nursing school? ›

Pharmacology, Microbiology, and Anatomy & Physiology each have a well-earned reputation for being difficult to pass. Some students may find Cardiology, Chemistry, or even Mental Health especially trying.

Is nursing School Free in New York? ›

To combat the region's nursing shortage, the University of Rochester Medical Center and School of Nursing today announced an innovative program to provide a tuition-free nursing education for 33 students per year, with the first cohort expected to enroll in Fall 2023.

How long is RN school in New York? ›

Graduates are eligible to take the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. This rigorous, accredited two-year program prepares students to practice as registered nurses.

How much an RN makes an hour in NY? ›

Salaries by years of experience in New York, NY
Years of experiencePer hour
1 to 2 years$65.73
3 to 5 years$68.99
6 to 9 years$71.48
More than 10 years$79.92
1 more row

Should I do RN or BSN first? ›

Nurses in clinical practice tend to list their licensure first followed by degrees and then certifications. For example: RN, BSN, CCRN. Nurses who are academic educators list their academic degrees first followed by licensure and then certifications. For example: DNP, RN, CNE.

What is the highest nursing degree? ›

What is the highest level of nursing? The highest level of nursing education is the doctoral level. Positions that require doctoral nursing degrees include certain types of advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), as well as leadership positions such as chief nursing officer or director of nursing.


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