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

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Nurses play a critical role in providing health care to patients. Learn what you need to get into a school that prepares you for this in-demand career.

[Featured Image]:  A Nurse in a purple uniform and wearing a face covering. She is looking at the chart as she is taking care of a patient.

Nursing is an in-demand profession that offers a higher than average entry-level salary and a rewarding career path centered around helping others. During the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and other health care professionals were critical front-line workers who paired empathy with knowledge and professional care to save lives. 

Yet, a March 2022 study conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) indicates that 28-percent of nursing facilities reported at least one staffing shortage [1]. This staffing shortage highlights the growing need for nurses, which is reflected in their above-average salaries: the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median pay for registered nurses (RN) was $77,600 in 2021 [2].

In this article, you’ll learn how to start out on this exciting career path with a step-by-step guide designed to help you get into nursing school. Here, you’ll learn about entry requirements, different nursing programs, applying for school, and find a breakdown of different ways to pay for all of it. As with any new career,  knowledge is everything. 

How to get into nursing school: a step-by-step guide

The first step to starting a  career in nursing is applying to a nursing school. The step-by-step guide below will walk you through everything from the entry-level requirements for nursing school applicants to the application process itself. 

1. Meet the nursing school requirements.

The first step to applying to nursing school is to make sure that you have the prerequisites for attending it. While the specific requirements will vary from one program to another, there are some general requirements that you’ll need to fulfill for almost all programs. These include: 

  • Have a high school diploma or GED

  • Taken the SAT or Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS)

  • Passed prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, and math with a C or higher at the high school level

  • Obtained a GPA of 3.0 or higher for a BSN program; 2.0 to 2.75 or higher for an ADN program

2. Find the right program for you.

There are several different levels of nurses and numerous paths to becoming them. The kind of nurse you want to become will depend largely on your personal goals and available resources. Here are four of the most common paths to becoming a nurse or nursing assistant in the United States:

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certificate or diploma 

Certified nursing assistants (CNA)  assist individuals in living facilities, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and those requiring in-home care with day-to-day health care needs, such as recording vital signs and administering medication.

To become a CNA, you must complete a state-approved training program, typically taking four to 12 weeks of study and requiring a certain amount of supervised clinical hours. Once you have completed your training course, you are qualified to take the CNA exam, which varies from state to state and must be passed for you to practice professionally. The most common CNA exam, however, is the NNAP exam. 

Licensed practical nurse (LPN) certificate or diploma 

Licensed practical nurses (LPN) assist doctors and registered nurses in hospitals, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities. To become an LPN, you must complete a state-approved training course, typically requiring 12 months of study, a set number of clinical hours, and a course load covering such topics as nursing, biology, and pharmacology. 

LPNs must take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-PN) to earn their license and practice professionally. In the states of California and Texas, LPNs are referred to as licensed vocational nurses (LVN). The requirements for LPNs and LVNs are the same.  

Associate degree in nursing (ADN)

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) is the fastest path to becoming a registered nurse, requiring just two years of full-time study through an accredited university or community college. 

RNs work in a wide variety of medical environments, from hospitals to clinics and schools, and are responsible for such health care duties as evaluating patients, prescribing treatments, and operating medical equipment. Upon completion of their degree, ADNs are qualified to take the NCLEX-RN examination, which they must pass to receive their licensure and practice professionally. 

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) is the most common path to becoming an RN, typically taking four years of full-time study to obtain. A BSN curriculum is divided between general education courses, nursing courses, and a set number of clinical rotation hours. Upon completion of their degree program, a BSN holder is qualified to take the NXLEX-RN, which they must pass to become licensed and practice professionally. 

Note that today the BSN is increasingly becoming the standard degree for most RNs. Furthermore, those hoping to become a nurse practitioner (NP) or another kind of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) must usually have a bachelor’s degree to qualify for those programs. 

Read more: Your Guide to Nursing Degrees and Certifications

In-person or online education?

As you are looking for nursing programs, you might notice that some of them are offered only in-person and others are only online. While both of these program types likely cover the same material, they each have their own benefits and drawbacks to consider. 

In-person programs offer a traditional educational experience in which you attend classes with your peers and follow a typical school schedule. These programs can be beneficial for those who work better when surrounded by others, enjoy face-to-face instruction, and have the time required to attend classes in-person. 

Online programs, on the other hand, offer a flexible, educational experience that more easily fits into their personal schedule. This can be especially beneficial for people who have family or work responsibilities that occupy much of their time. Online programs can also be well-suited to those who are comfortable with independent study. 

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3. Prepare your application materials and apply early.

Once you have decided which program type is best for you and explored the programs available, you can prepare your application. Make a note of the deadlines for each program and start working on your application as soon as possible in order to give yourself ample time to complete it. 

There are several components to an application that you should consider completing in a timely manner:

  • Recommendation letters: Many schools ask applicants to submit a letter of recommendation from two former teachers. To ensure that you get the recommendation letter before the deadline, ask your current or former teacher at least three to six weeks before the deadline. The sooner the better. 

  • School transcripts: Your high school or GED transcript will be a required part of your application, so make sure you reach out to your school at least three weeks before the deadline to have the send them to your target program. 

  • Test scores: You will have to send your program or school a copy of your SAT or TEAS. Send the tests at least two weeks before the deadline to ensure it gets to your program in time. 

  • Essays and other written material: Many college programs require a written essay and additional supplemental essays. These are important parts of your application that can be surprisingly time-consuming, so make sure you give yourself ample time to complete them before the deadline. 

  • Prepare for your interview: Occasionally, a program might ask you to interview with them. Rather than just winging it, prepare in advance by formulating responses to common interview questions and practicing with a friend or family member. 

Read more: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation (Template + Tips)

4. Develop a tuition payment strategy.

One of the most important considerations when obtaining a higher education degree is how you will pay for it. There are several ways to pay for school, including private loans, government loans, scholarships or grants, and employer tuition reimbursement.

You can learn more about financial aid in our Financial Resources Guide.

Nursing-specific scholarships

Many institutions award scholarships to eligible applicants in order to assist them financially in their studies. While some scholarships can only be used for specific purposes, many can be used for tuition, books, and living expenses accrued during your time of study. 

Overall, there are a wide variety of scholarships available to nursing students. Here are just a few to consider as you are applying to nursing programs: 

  • The Jane Delano Scholarship is available to both undergraduate and graduate nursing students “who have contributed volunteer service to or are employees of an American Red Cross Unit. 

  • Cherokee Uniform’s A Nurse I Am scholarship offers ten recipients currently enrolled in nursing courses scholarships worth $3,000.

These are just a few of the many scholarships and grants available to nursing students. Whatever your current standing, it can be helpful to research scholarships or grants available to you, whether it be through your school, a professional organization, or another institution. 

5. Pick the best program (for you). 

It can be tempting to think that the best program is the one that is most prestigious, but the truth is that the best one is likely the one that will help you successfully achieve your goals. Some common considerations include:

  • The cost of attendance, particularly after scholarships, grants, and financial aid are included. 

  • The school environment, such as whether it is in-person or online.  

  • The time it takes to complete the program.

  • The flexibility of the program, particularly if you are someone who must work during school. 

  • The professional or extracurricular activities provided by the school itself. 

Whatever factors are most important to you, remember to take time to consider what each school has to offer in order to identify the best fit for you.

6. Start school (with a plan).

Whether you are in a certificate, associate degree, or bachelor’s degree program, starting a new educational endeavor requires intentional planning to ensure you get the most out of your experience.

In effect, it’s wise to start your program with a schedule and personal study plan ready to ensure you have the resources and time you need to meet your professional goals. 

Start your health care journey with Coursera 

Nursing school is all about learning to help others – as a medical professional, not just a caring citizen.

To prepare you for nursing school, you might consider taking a flexible, online health care course through Coursera. The University of Minnesota’s Integrative Nursing Specialization provides both practicing nurses and nursing students the foundation to employ evidence-based integrative therapies in their professional practice. 

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Integrative Nursing

Patient-Centered, Relationship-Based Nursing Care. By the end of this specialization, you will be able to practice a patient-centered, relationship-based approach to nursing that utilizes a variety of integrative healing modalities.

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Article sources

1. KFF. “Nursing Facility Staffing Shortages During the COVID-19 Pandemic, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/nursing-facility-staffing-shortages-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/.” Accessed May 13, 2022. 

2. BLS. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Registered Nurses, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm.” Accessed May 13, 2022.

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.

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