How to Become a Registered Nurse

Brandi Glass
5 min read
How to Become a Registered Nurse

Being a registered nurse is a fulfilling and varied job in which you can make a real difference in people’s lives. Whether you’re teaching someone how to manage their sugar levels after a diabetes diagnosis or helping cancer patients through chemo, as a registered nurse you’ll provide vital support and medical care.

That’s not the only reason to become a registered nurse, either. There are also plenty of options for career growth, and the pay can be attractive. Depending on where you work, there’s the chance of a good work-life balance.

The process of becoming a registered nurse is fairly straightforward, too, and you might be surprised by how quickly you can become licensed. Let’s break down what you need to do, how long it will take and how much you can earn in this career.

How to Become a Registered Nurse: Step by Step

There are two routes to becoming a registered nurse, depending on your priorities. The big difference is which degree you study. Your choice will determine how long it takes you to qualify and begin working.

Regardless of the degree you opt for, here’s what you need to do:

1. Achieve the Prerequisite Qualifications for College

Each college has different prerequisites, but they typically include a cumulative high school GPA as well as several specific courses, such as Anatomy, Physics and Statistics. Once you meet the prerequisite requirements, you’re ready to enroll in your nursing degree.

2. Study an ADN or BSN

To become a registered nurse, you need either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN). Both will equip you with the clinical skills you need to care for patients and achieve your nursing license.

There are some key differences, however. The ADN is quicker and, for this reason, often cheaper. The BSN, on the other hand, often contains more clinical practice as well as teaching leadership, management, and research skills. For this reason, a BSN is often — but not always — preferred by employers and can help you negotiate a higher salary.

If a BSN isn’t a practical option for you right now, you can also take the ADN and later enroll in an ADN-to-BSN program.

3. Pass the NCLEX-RN

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is a computerized, adaptive test used across the US, as well as in Canada and Australia. There are two versions: one to become a registered nurse (RN) and one to become a practical nurse (PN).

Pass rates for the NCLEX-RN are generally high among first-time, US-educated candidates. However, it’s worth taking sample exams beforehand. If you fail, not only will you have to resit after a minimum of 45 days, but you’ll also need to pay the fees again.

Bear in mind that although the NCLEX-RN is a national exam, different states have varying NCLEX-RN fees and requirements. As such, you need to specify where you want to be licensed before you sit the exam. Make sure you select the state where you will be working, as opposed to the one where you did your ADN or BSN.

4. Apply for Your State License

The application process for your license depends on the state. The good news, however, is that this part is just paperwork and verification. There’s no need to sit another exam.

In the last step, we mentioned that you need to specify the state before taking the NCLEX-RN. If you selected the wrong state or have since decided to relocate, you should obtain your license in the original state and then apply for something called licensure by endorsement. That means your new state will issue you a license on the basis of your existing one, and you won’t need to redo the NCLEX-RN (although you will need to pay for a second license).

5. Begin Work as a Registered Nurse

Congratulations! After all those studies and exams, you are a registered nurse and can treat patients. It’s now time to polish your resume, practice common interview questions, and start applying for jobs.

6. Renew Your License as Required

You’ll need to periodically renew your license, typically after one to two years. Different states have different requirements for renewal, but they typically include a certain number of courses (often called continuing education units or CEUs) and practice hours. Check what you need to do in plenty of time so you’re not struggling to find a course at the last minute, and make sure to set up a reminder — you don’t want your license to expire just because you forgot to file the paperwork!

How Long Does It Take to Become a Registered Nurse?

If you’ve already got the prerequisite qualifications to study your ADN or BSN, it should take you slightly more than two to four years to become a registered nurse.

Most of this time will be spent studying for your degree. An ADN is typically a two-year program, while a BSN normally takes four. (An ADN–to–BSN program also tends to take around two years.)

You then need to account for sitting the NCLEX-RN and waiting for the state to process your license application. It usually takes six weeks to get the results of your NCLEX-RN, and of course, you can’t apply for your license until you have those.

How Much Does a Registered Nurse Make?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median pay for registered nurses in 2020 was $75,330 per year or $36.22 per hour.

There is a lot of variation in registered nurses’ wages, however. In 2020, the wages of the lowest-earning 10% were under $52,410. On the other end of the scale, some nurses earned more than $116,230.

Nurses working in educational services and residential care facilities usually earned less: $64,630 and $68,450 on average. Meanwhile, nurses employed by the federal government or hospitals had above-average earnings.

There are also other factors that can affect your wages. Having a BSN rather than an ADN degree typically leads to a higher salary.

If you enjoy variety and like visiting new places, you may also find you’re well-suited to being a travel nurse. This means you’ll provide short-term staffing cover in different states or even internationally. Travel nurses typically earn higher wages, but the job’s not for everybody: the frequent relocations can be isolating and stressful. If you’re interested in this role, you may also want to look into the multi-state nursing license Nurse Licensure Compact (NLC), which is accepted across most of the US.

Apply for Registered Nurse Roles with a Professional Resume

A professional resume will help you impress recruiters, get more interviews and negotiate a higher salary. Here at Rocket Resume, we’ve got over a dozen registered nurse resume templates that can help you build your resume in minutes.

All our templates are ATS-readable and easy to customize, so you can highlight your best features while adapting your resume for the health center in question.

Start building your registered nurse resume.