How to Become an RN: Begin Here

Interested in professional nursing? Each state sets its own rules for licensing registered nurses, but there is more commonality than difference. Prospective RNs must attend a board approved program and then take a national licensing exam. Nurses must also demonstrate good character; in many states, fingerprinting is part of the process.

Approved and Accredited Nursing Programs

State approval is different than national accreditation – and, in the case of nursing, far more fundamental. States only approve the programs located within their own borders, but they generally recognize other states’ approval process. Some state boards have issued warnings of unapproved schools operating within their borders. If a student enrolls in one of these, she will not be eligible. If she attends a program that has the approval of the board in the state where it is located, she’ll generally be fine. Some states note that the program must be substantially equivalent. Some have rules about which online schools are acceptable, or state that programs must include concurrent clinical practice.

Many, but not all, registered nursing programs have program level accreditation through the CCNE and/or NLNAC. National accreditation can be important for a nurse who is considering higher education down the road. However, a nurse can expect to be eligible for licensure with only state approval.

Registered Nurse Program Types

Professional nursing programs are offered at the associate’s and bachelor’s level; they are often referred to as ADN and BSN. Many states also have a few hospital-based diploma programs for RNs. The licensure level is the same. However, the BSN does have more nursing coursework as well as more general academic coursework than the ADN; it can open up more job opportunities. If a nurse is considering pursuing graduate education and becoming an advanced practitioner, the BSN will bring her closer.

Nurses who are already licensed as practical or vocational nurses often have the opportunity to do LPN to RN bridge programs. Candidates who already have a bachelor’s degree, but in another field, sometimes opt for direct entry master’s programs.

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Examination – NCLEX-RN

Whatever professional nursing program she opts for, the prospective nurse will eventually have to pass the same exam: the NCLEX-RN. She will apply to her state board for permission to take the exam. Once authorization has been granted, she can schedule it herself. Some states allow candidates to begin the application process before they graduate. However, candidates won’t actually take the test or be licensed until they have completed degree requirements.

Some, but not all, states allow nursing graduates to work under a temporary permit while they are waiting to take the exam.

If a candidate does not pass the exam on her first attempt, she will need to wait 45 days before retesting. States have different policies about re-examination. There are a lot of NCLEX review courses available for nurses who need extra support.

Other RN Licensing Requirements

A prospective RN can expect to fill out a lengthy application which will include professional fitness questions. If she has a criminal conviction in her past, or is under treatment for an addiction, she will need to furnish supporting documentation.

In many states, the licensing process includes fingerprinting. Generally, detailed information is found in the application packet. A candidate should always make sure she has the current copy of the application – procedures may change.

Nurses are expected to know the rules governing their practice. Some states even require a jurisprudence exam; it may be open book.

Transferring Licenses

Once a nurse has been licensed in one U.S. jurisdiction, it is generally relatively easy to be licensed elsewhere, as long as she remains in good standing with her board(s). A nurse whose primary residence is in a state that belongs to the nurse compact, and who holds a licensure there, can practice in other member states without a new license.

Additional Information

BSN Programs


The Future of the ADN Program

CNA to RN: Building Health Care Experience

Paramedic to RN Bridge Programs

LPN to BSN: From Practical to Professional Nursing

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