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How to become a registered nurse (RN)

At a glance

  • To become a registered nurse (RN), you must have the required education, pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN®) and meet all licensing requirements for the state in which you wish to work. Many nurses  have an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing.
  • University of Phoenix offers a programmatically accredited nursing program that includes an RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) — as well as a competency-based version — that help registered nurses enhance their careers and potentially progress into a graduate degree in the future.

There are plenty of reasons why one would choose to go into nursing. On an emotional level, a nursing career can be very fulfilling. A career spent helping people when they’re at their most vulnerable provides a sense of both purpose and gratification. Not surprisingly, a 2019 survey of nearly 20,000 registered nurses found that a very high number (81%) were satisfied with the career choice.

On a practical level, job openings are typically plentiful within the nursing field. Now more than ever the demand for qualified registered nurses continues to grow — meaning that those who complete the proper training (including education and necessary licenses) will enjoy considerable opportunity when they graduate. In addition, RNs have the potential to enhance their career with a variety of roles after earning advanced degrees, like a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).

There are steps that aspiring registered nurses must take for entry into the field, but if your goal is to open additional nursing career opportunities, you may wish to consider pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Here’s a closer look at how you can accomplish this goal and choose the right nursing program.


Becoming a registered nurse

Generally speaking, becoming a registered nurse involves attending a nursing school, obtaining the required education and passing a national standardized exam, primarily the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX-RN®). In addition, you must meet all licensing requirements for the state in which you choose to work.

These steps are necessary for everyone who wants to become a registered nurse. However, obtaining an RN licensure may only be the start of your career. Nursing brings opportunities for specialization, increased responsibility and continued education.

Complete nursing education requirements

The first step in any medical career is to choose the appropriate education. Individuals who want to become an RN need to select a nursing school. Those that are considering becoming a registered nurse have several options to choose the educational path that fits their time frame and career goals.

The minimum education required for an RN is a diploma in nursing. However, it is common for nurses to have an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Typically, a diploma in nursing or an associate degree to achieve an RN license takes at least two years to complete. Upon graduation,  the next step in becoming a registered nurse is typically taking and passing the NCLEX-RN examination.  

Although a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) typically takes four years to complete, it is often preferred by employers in the healthcare industry, and it is helpful for career enhancement.

Some bachelor’s nursing programs provide an opportunity for RNs who already have an associate degree in nursing and wish to enhance their professional education by pursuing a BSN to transfer credits and save time and money on their degree.

Regardless of your degree choice, you should ensure that your chosen nursing school and program are accredited. The U.S. Department of Education approves two independent organizations to oversee accreditation — the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN®) and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) (655 K St., NW, Suite 750, Washington, D.C. 20001, 202-887-6791). You should only choose a program accredited by one or both of these bodies.


Pass the national nursing exam

After successfully graduating  from  nursing school, you are qualified to take the NCLEX-RN. The exam is computerized, and a passing score is “0 logits,” which you achieve by answering a specific number of questions correctly. This is an adaptive test in which questions are weighted according to their level of difficulty. You need to answer between 75 and 145 questions, depending on your performance. The test automatically stops when you achieve a passing or failing score.

Unfortunately, if you fail, you cannot retake it for 45 days. Because of this and the test’s difficulty, it is essential to properly prepare for the NCLEX. You need to make time to study at home and use effective test prep methods to give yourself the best chance for success.

It might also help to design a multi-week course of study, take practice exams and review the material with your peers. With a well-planned approach, you will feel confident when you head into the testing center.

Obtain local certifications and licenses

According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), there are three steps, in general, for obtaining a nursing license in the state you plan to work in:

  • Provide proof of your education from an accredited nursing program
  • Show documentation of a passing score on the NCLEX-RN
  • Pass a background check (in most states) 

In most states, you can start the process by filling out an application online.

Depending on your area of specialization and employer, you may need to obtain additional certifications. Some employers may require specific certifications, but these can also help nurses become better educated in patient care and demonstrate an expertise in their field. Some examples of certifications include:

  • Critical Care Registered Nurse 
  • Certified Emergency Nurse
  • Certified Pediatric Nurse
  • Certified Ambulatory Care Nurse (proves that you can provide specialized healthcare in a variety of clinical and community settings)

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Consider a nursing specialty

Once you obtain licensure as a registered nurse, you can then progress into a nursing specialty based on your interests, career plans and opportunities.

Here are examples of nursing specialties you can consider:

  • A pediatric nurse specializes in providing care to patients 18 and under.
  • A dermatology nurse works with patients who have skin conditions or undergo cosmetic procedures.
  • A case management nurse works with patients who require ongoing care because of an illness or a condition.
  • A neonatal nurse works with infants in the first few weeks after birth.
  • An oncology nurse cares for cancer patients.
  • An orthopedic nurse works with patients with bone and joint injuries and conditions.
  • A hospice nurse provides care for patients with terminal illnesses. 

Career enhancement opportunities for RNs

Because of the high demand for qualified specialists, it is relatively easy for RNs to continue their education. Many registered nurses return to school to earn a higher degree, such as a bachelors degree after working professionally.

You can also undertake a nursing bridge program to move from another healthcare area directly into a nursing degree program.

Even if you already have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or BSN, enhancing your career and gaining a nursing specialty often requires obtaining an MSN with a concentration in administration. An MSN can provide specific skills for a chosen area. For example, if you want to work in administration, you may wish to consider obtaining a Master of Nursing degree with a concentration in Administration program. 


Nursing compared to entry-level health careers

In comparison to other healthcare positions, registered nurses are qualified to provide direct patient care in a variety of settings. Entry-level workers in healthcare, on the other hand, typically focus on one service, provide non-medical care or support nursing staff.

Here are some examples of entry-level positions:

  • A nurse's aide performs basic, non-medical tasks in support of the nursing staff.
  • A home health aide assists patients with daily non-medical tasks such as bathing, dressing, cleaning and meal prep.
  • A lab technician collects and organizes specimens in a lab.
  • A patient service representative communicates with patients and helps them plan or schedule treatments or appointments.

If you like the idea of helping others or having a career that directly affects people’s lives, becoming a registered nurse could be a good career choice. For those who may be uncertain about their career path, note that the demand for registered nurses continues to increase.

After you become an RN and want to enhance your career, University of Phoenix (UOPX) can help. We offer an RN to BSN program that helps registered nurses enhance their patient care skills and knowledge and be equipped to apply for growth opportunities like charge nurse and director of nursing. The RN to BSN program requires 120 total credits and 14 months to complete.

UOPX also offers a competency-based version of the RN to BSN degree. The competency-based (CB) RN to BSN is designed for licensed RNs with an Associate Degree in Nursing and at least a year of experience. The CB program is self-governed with credits tied to competencies performed on the job, and since RNs often possess these skills already, they could quickly demonstrate what they know and earn skills for learning something new. It can be completed in less than one year and for under $10,000 when transferring credits from an Associate Degree in Nursing to the RN to BSN CB program.  

If you’re interested in learning more about nursing degree offerings at University of Phoenix, visit


Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!


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