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

Making the decision to become a nurse is an incredible career move. Whether you are a first-time college student or changing careers to nursing, there are multiple pathways you can take to become a registered nurse (RN).

Registered nurses, commonly known as RNs, are licensed nursing professionals who provide and coordinate patient care. They may work in hospitals, health clinics, schools, home health care, private practices, and other clinical settings. Their job is to treat patients who are sick, injured, and disabled, as well as educate people on proper healthcare.

Registered nurses make up the largest healthcare profession in the U.S., and as the baby boomer population ages, the demand for nursing professionals is expected to surge. Now, more than ever, is the time to become a registered nurse. The question is, “How?”

Keep reading for a step-by-step guide on how to become a registered nurse.

How to Become an RN in 7 Steps

In general, there are seven key steps you must take to become a registered nurse (RN) today:

  1. Choosing an accredited nursing school program.
  2. Applying to your nursing program of choice.
  3. Completing your nursing coursework.
  4. Building experience through clinicals.
  5. Meeting your state’s licensing requirements.
  6. Passing the NCLEX-RN licensing examination.
  7. Starting your job search.

However, this pathway will look a bit differently for everyone. There are different types of nursing degrees you can pursue to qualify for an RN license. Different states also have their own set of requirements. Below, we detail the various pathways for prospective RNs.

1) Choose an accredited nursing program.

All registered nurses must attend a postsecondary nursing program before obtaining licensure. Typically, states and licensing bodies require that this program is accredited and/or state-approved. Accreditation shows that a nursing school or program meets certain standards of excellence regarding the faculty, curriculum, pass rates, and more. For you, it can guarantee a great nursing school.

There are three, core educational pathways you can take to become a registered nurse. Each program level varies in length and depth of the curriculum, though all will qualify you to sit for the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. Below, we outline the three different routes you can take to become a nurse:

  • Diploma in Nursing (24 months)

Some hospitals offer diploma programs for aspiring nurses, in which students take their nursing courses at the hospital and complete their general education courses at a local college. While once very common, hospital-based diploma programs are becoming less available across            the country. This is because, with just a few more courses, students can round off their education and earn an associate degree in Nursing (ADN). An ADN is more highly valued than a diploma, typically.

  • Associate Degree in Nursing (typically 24 months)

An associate degree in Nursing is the standard expectation among RNs today, though again this can vary by state. An associate degree in Nursing usually takes two years to complete, though some nursing schools offer flexible class formats that can be completed in even less time. This is generally the most cost-effective pathway towards becoming an RN.

  • Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (typically 4 years) 

More and more healthcare employers are looking to hire nurses who have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). In fact, almost 80 percent of employers in Connecticut express a strong preference for BSN graduates. This is because bachelor degree programs offer more advanced nursing courses, highlighting topics such as research, physical assessment, community healthcare, critical thinking, and nursing leadership. If you aspire to obtain leadership positions in nursing, consider a BSN.

Your choice does not end there. If you feel a Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN) may be in your future, know that there are also various pathways to obtaining this degree. If you have four years to commit to nursing school now, you can enroll in an entry-level BSN program. Or, like many nurses, you can choose to obtain your associate degree in Nursing first, start working and gaining experience, then go back to school for your BSN degree when the time allows. There are flexible, online RN-to-BSN programs designed for working nurses that can be completed in a matter of 12 months part-time.

There are also accelerated BSN programs designed for aspiring RNs who have a bachelor’s degree in another, non-nursing major. The accelerated BSN (ABSN) is ideal for those who have gone to college but are seeking a career change. This degree path takes roughly 16 months to complete.

In all types of nursing programs, you can expect to take courses in anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, psychology, social sciences, and liberal arts. You can also expect some level of hands-on, supervised clinical training to prepare you for a nursing career.

The right nursing program for you will ultimately depend on your career goals and ability to commit to college. Any of the above programs will make you eligible to sit for the RN licensing examination. However, keep in mind that most employers today expect at least an associate degree from nurses, and a BSN degree can position you for even greater job prospects and growth.

2) Apply to your nursing program of choice.

Once you’ve decided which degree path you would like to pursue, it will be time to apply to nursing school. Each nursing program will have various application and admissions requirements. Typically, these requirements will involve the completion of prerequisite science courses, a pre-admission examination, and submission of prior transcripts. Additionally, you will need to submit an application to the college or university, as well as another application into their nursing school.

If you know the school you would like to apply to, reach out to their admissions team for guidance about their specific admissions requirements. At Goodwin University, for example, nursing students must:

  • Complete the application for admission into Goodwin University.
  • Complete the Nursing program application and submit official college transcripts.
  • Pass the examination being used for pre-admission — typically the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam, which is offered three times per year.
  • Earn a GPA of at least 2.7 or higher in their most recent coursework.
  • Complete various prerequisite courses in math and the sciences.
  • Submit a medical examination report and drug screening.
  • Get the necessary vaccinations to work in a healthcare setting.
  • Become Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) certified.

You can learn more about how to get into nursing school here.

3) Complete your nursing coursework.

Once you have been accepted into nursing school, the fun (and hard work!) begins. Note that in order to get into nursing school, you will have already completed several prerequisite courses. Once those have been completed, you can begin your core nursing classes, where you will learn the fundamentals of the field. Career-oriented nursing classes might include, but are not limited to:

  • Microbiology
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Nursing Skills Development
  • Adults and the Wellness Continuum
  • Families and the Wellness Continuum
  • Health Assessment and Skills Development
  • Pharmacology for Nurses
  • Mental Health Nursing

Of course, the specific nursing coursework will vary by program. You may also elect to complete certain courses depending on your interests.

4) Build experience through clinicals.

In every nursing program, there is a clinical requirement that is designed to prepare aspiring RNs for work in a real healthcare setting. These nursing clinicals are much like internship experiences, in which you will be placed in a healthcare facility and gain hands-on training under licensed RNs. Clinical facilities typically include hospitals, medical centers, nursing homes, schools, and community settings.

In your clinical, you will be shadowing registered nurses and gaining experience with patients. You will learn what the day-to-day role of an RN is like, and how to manage the bustle of a healthcare facility. You will learn how to use medical equipment, perform tests on patients, organize and administer medications, and more. You will also put critical nursing skills to practice, such as:

  • Critical-thinking:

Part of the nursing job description involves thinking on the spot, assessing changes in patients quickly, and determining the best corrective action. That said, critical thinking skills are a must for aspiring nurses.

  • Communication:

Nurses work in part with a larger healthcare team, consisting of doctors, medical assistants, and other medical staff. Thus, they must be able to communicate effectively with their team. More significantly, nurses must be able to communicate with patients, in order to understand their concerns, assess health conditions, explain treatments and care instructions, and answer any questions that may arise.

  • Compassion:

Nurses care for the sick, the injured, the disabled, and people who are generally at a weak point in their lives. Nurses should therefore be caring and empathetic when looking after patients, as well as when speaking to their families.

  • Attention to detail:

From administering the correct treatments to giving medications at the right times of day, nurses must be accountable, organized, and detail oriented in all regards to patient care.

  • Emotional stability:

To be successful in their role, nurses must maintain emotional resilience and the ability to manage their emotions when faced with emergencies, patient suffering, and other emotional stresses.

  • Physical stamina:

Nurses are on their feet for most of their day-to-day, and therefore should be comfortable staying active throughout the facility and performing physical tasks, such as lifting or transporting patients.

Overall, the clinical experience is designed to provide you an opportunity to put all of your learning nursing skills to practice — and to prepare you for a career in health and medicine.

5) Meet your state’s licensing requirements.

As noted above, each state has a different set of licensing requirements for registered nurses. As such, it is important to research how to become an RN in your specific state of practice.

To become an RN in Connecticut, for example, aspiring nurses must complete the following requirements set forth by the state:

Successfully complete a state-approved nursing program that meets the requirements outlined in the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies (RSA)

Submit an official transcript of nursing education, verifying the award of a degree or diploma in nursing

Pass the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Licensing Examination-RN (NCLEX-RN)

You can learn more about the specific RN requirements in Connecticut here.

6) Pass the NCLEX-RN licensing examination.

In all states, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories, you must earn a nursing license in order to become a practicing registered nurse. This is achieved through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Licensing Examination-RN (NCLEX-RN). The NCLEX-RN exam ensures that each applicant can demonstrate strong nursing knowledge as well as safe and effective nursing practice, at the entry-level.

Each nursing regulatory body (NRB) has its own eligibility requirements enabling candidates to take the NCLEX. Applicants in Connecticut need to register for the examination with Pearson Vue. In addition to exam registration, applicants must also complete an application for testing, submit an official transcript from their nursing program, and pay an application fee.

The NCLEX-RN examination itself is a standardized, computer-based test that is used nationally to determine whether a nurse is prepared to enter the field. It will test you on various aspects of nursing, including patient care management, safety and infection control, health promotion and maintenance, and more. It will assess your basic knowledge of nursing, your ability to analyze and apply your knowledge to practice, and your application of rules and processes to identify the best possible care.

We recommend that aspiring RNs review the RN Test Plans made available by the NCLEX website, in order to effectively prepare for the exam contents.

Successful completion of the NCLEX-RN examination will grant you licensure as an RN. Your RN credentials are needed to practice and provide patient care. Once you have earned your RN license, you will be ready to start applying for jobs in the field.

7) Start your job search.

The final step to becoming a registered nurse is as simple as this: apply for nursing jobs! Registered nursing jobs are available in a wide variety of settings, from hospitals and doctors’ offices, to residential care facilities and educational institutions. You can become an emergency room nurse, school nurse, pediatric nurse, trauma nurse, and more. There are various specializations within nursing that are attainable once you have an RN license in hand.

As an RN, you can begin to build on your experience in patient care. Take advantage of the various nursing opportunities that come your way, and grow your skills in a variety of different patient care settings. The more exposure you gain to various sectors of nursing, the more you will understand your passion areas and longer-term professional goals.

Gaining experience as an RN can also benefit you if you decide to go back for a BSN degree down the line. You will have a leg-up in comparison to first-time nurses, and can benefit from more flexible programs like the RN-to-BSN pathway. Some advanced careers require a BSN degree, so if your long-term goal is working in a field like mental health nursing, military nursing, or oncology, for example, an RN-to-BSN program may be your next move after becoming an RN.

If you need assistance looking for a nursing job after graduation, do not hesitate to work with your school’s Career Services team to do so. For example, at Goodwin University, nursing students and graduates can access our Career Services Department at any time. They can help you find and apply for nursing jobs, create an outstanding resume, and prepare for interviews. They can also help connect you with healthcare employers throughout the state of Connecticut, if and when you are ready. We have close partnerships with leading hospitals and healthcare facilities across the state of Connecticut.

Are You Ready to Become a Registered Nurse?

Nursing is an incredibly rewarding career path, both personally and professionally. Today, registered nurses are ranked #12 out of the 100 best jobs in the United States, due to the bright job outlook, high job satisfaction, and upward mobility that comes with this career. If you are hoping to become a registered nurse and start making a difference in the lives of patients, now is the time to step up.

Whether you choose to pursue an associate degree in Nursing, a Bachelor’s in Nursing, or a hospital diploma program, you will be well on your way to becoming an RN. Each path has its pros and cons, and different requirements in terms of commitment and costs. Be sure to do your research. Ultimately, the more advanced the degree, the better chance you will have at securing a successful nursing career.

Today, most aspiring nurses begin their journey to becoming an RN through an associate degree program. After earning their license and gaining experience, many go back to school to complete a faster-paced BSN degree.

At Goodwin University’s nursing school, students can pursue any of the following programs:

  • Associate degree in Nursing
  • RN-to-BSN degree
  • Accelerated BSN degree
  • Master’s in Nursing
  • Family Nurse Practitioner-APRN program (graduate)
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner-APRN program (graduate)

If you would like to learn about our various nursing programs, please do not hesitate to reach out. We can help you reach your career goals and become a successful RN.

Contact us at 800-889-3282 or visit us online to learn about Goodwin’s accredited nursing degree programs in Connecticut and online.