How to Become a Registered Nurse: The Osmosis Ultimate Guide

Osmosis Team
Published on Apr 12, 2021. Updated on Jul 29, 2021.

So you’re thinking about becoming an RN. That’s great! This is a rewarding, lucrative career where every day is different and filled with opportunities for professional and personal growth. But how do you get started? In this guide, we’ll outline each step on how to become a Registered Nurse, from prerequisites to nursing programs, to advancing in your career.

The employment outlook for Registered Nurses is bright. Factors like government efforts to provide quality healthcare as well as the expansion of medical services to the aging population make nursing a lucrative career.

By becoming a Registered Nurse, you will be able to work in medical offices, hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, schools, and many other places as nursing is a continually evolving profession!


Before we get started, here are some important definitions: 

  • Registered Nurse (RN): a person who has graduated from an accredited nursing program and passed the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN)
  • National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX®-RN): nationwide exam taken by nursing students in order to receive a license to practice nursing
  • Licensure: process in which boards of nursing grant permission to a person to practice nursing
  • Accredited: nationally or officially recognized or authorized
  • Certified nurse: a registered nurse who has met criteria established by the American Nurses’ Association for certification in one or more specialized areas of nursing practice

What is a Registered Nurse (RN)?

RNs provide and coordinate patient care while also educating patients, families, and the public about various preventative, acute, and chronic health care. Depending on where an RN works the duties can vary, though most RN job duties are based in providing care and education.

RN salary and job growth expectations

The salary of a registered nurse can vary greatly depending on their qualifications, years of experience, place of employment, and if they work within a specialty. Usually, nursing jobs that require more experience and responsibility come with better pay. 

According to the U.S Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median salary of a registered nurse is $77,460 per year, though annual earnings can vary between $52,080 and $111,220 depending on multiple factors.

Employment possibilities as an RN

While annual pay can vary, in 2019, research by the same Bureau stated that the employability of registered nurses was projected to grow by 7% from 2021 to 2029. This is faster growth compared to the average of all other occupations.

Prerequisites for accredited nursing programs

Standard prerequisites

To be accepted into an accredited nursing program, whether it be a Bachelor’s degree or Associate’s degree program, you will need to meet some standard requirements. These standard requirements, which can be completed in high school or college include:

  • A GPA between 2.0 and 3.25
  • Minimum scores on the SAT or ACT
  • Three years of science subjects, including biology and chemistry
  • Three years of math subjects, including geometry and algebra II
  • Four years of English
  • Two years in any language other than English
Standard prerequisites for Nursing Programs in the US.

Types of accredited nursing programs

After completing the prerequisites required to apply to a nursing program, it’s time to consider what type of nursing program would suit you best. Various programs exist, including diploma, Associate’s, and Bachelor’s programs.

Diploma programs are the oldest and most traditional nursing programs. Typically they take one to three years to complete, with most of your learning occurring in a medical setting. Diploma graduates can take the same NCLEX-RN exam as those graduating from other nursing programs.

Associate’s degree programs take approximately eighteen months to two years to complete. Similar to diploma programs, Associate’s program learning mostly occurs in a medical setting, though there is more classroom education compared to diploma programs.

Finally, Bachelor’s degree programs take four years to complete and are based heavily in the classroom and medical setting. Bachelor degree programs are quickly becoming the entry-level degree for many medical institutions. Some institutions will provide their RNs with financial incentives to obtain their Bachelor’s degree.

Though nursing programs differ, most can be taken in part-time formats, which ultimately increases the time that it takes to graduate but does allow individuals to set a slower pace.

Regardless of the nursing program you choose, you will prepare to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) in order to obtain licensure.

Nursing course requirements

Now that you have all your prerequisites and have chosen an accredited nursing program it’s time to ensure that you understand all the nursing course requirements you will encounter in your program.

Nursing subjects will vary based on your nursing program. However, there are a few courses that are common to all nursing programs. They include:

Osmosis ilustration of nursing course requirements

You may also have the opportunity to take specialized courses that will make it easy for you to improve your understanding of nursing as a general field.

The nursing program experience

Your student journey begins the moment you have been accepted into a nursing program.

You’ve probably heard that getting through a nursing program is one of the toughest things that you will do. While there are many elements of truth to this, your nursing program will offer you many resources, tools, and opportunities to become a great nurse!

How hard you work to use, apply, and understand these resources is up to you, but you will have no shortage of RNs supporting your journey!

This is the typical journey you will take as a nursing student:

Study habits

If you were one to peruse through textbooks or even revise when exams are around the corner, the nursing program will certainly change your study habits.

You will be expected to read and understand a lot of material. Ultimately, this means that you will need to have your books close by. It may be challenging during the first semester but you will learn to embrace everyday studying as you go.

Beyond textbooks

Nursing programs are not all about theory. While learning material will be provided via lectures, notes, textbooks, and other coursework content, getting out of the classroom will help you have a better understanding of what you need.

For instance, volunteering in nearby clinics is something that a majority of nursing students do in order to gain bedside experience. Volunteering can also prepare you for your formal clinicals.

Class structure

Different nursing programs come with their own curriculum. For the most part, programs will start you in the classroom to learn the basics. Then you will be placed in a medical setting for hands-on clinical experience.

Therefore, expect to spend most of your time in the classroom, simulation lab, and medical settings throughout your program.

The first semester classroom experience typically comes with three major courses that include:

  • Fundamentals of nursing: basic physiology and pathophysiology surrounding patients you may encounter
  • Health assessments: how to take vitals, listen to heart and lung sounds, and more
  • Pharmacology: purpose and action of medications and how to administer them

In addition to these didactic courses, you will be in a simulation lab where you will learn how to perform the skills that you were taught in a practical manner.

Nursing exams

From time to time, you will be challenged with exams. However, it is important to note that nursing is not black and white. For this reason, exams can be challenging. In nursing, sometimes there are many “right” things to do simultaneously. Many nursing exams ask you questions about which actions are “best” or “most appropriate.”

Take time to understand what you are asked and you will know the right answers to give. Exams are not created to set you up for failure, but rather, to help you think out of the box so you are prepared for the real world of nursing. This thinking will translate into your nursing practice.

Nursing clinicals

While there are nursing programs that prefer to expose their students to the medical environment earlier than other programs, you will eventually gain hands-on experience in various clinical rotations.Typically, you will shadow an RN, helping to assess and provide care to a team of patients.

What to buy

Apart from your textbooks, a stethoscope and your program’s approved scrubs, you may also need to purchase other nursing items required by your program.

These could include charting programs that will be used in documenting or smartphones that will help you study using apps.

This is what will encompass your journey through nursing school. It may be challenging to keep up with everything at first, but with a little time and dedication, you will get used to your program and learning environment.

Pathway to nursing licensure

After completing your nursing program, it’s time to get licensed. There are four different types of programs that require state-issued licenses. These include:

There are different types of licenses and different licensing rules across all states. As a Registered Nurse, here are the steps that will help you plan your path to nursing licensure:

Step #1: Complete an accredited, state-approved nursing program

Without accreditation, you will not be able to take the exams that you need for licensure. Usually, nursing programs are accredited by the American Association of College of Nursing and Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. These agencies ensure nursing programs are at the highest standard.

Step #2: Apply for a license with your state’s licensing board

Once you have completed your accredited nursing program, you are ready to apply for your nursing license. Most states have single nursing boards for Registered Nurses and require proof of education through transcripts, an application form, and application fees.

Step #3: Register for the NCLEX-RN exam

After you apply for your license, you need to sign up to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX); a standardized test that will determine whether you are ready to become an entry-level nurse. Without passing this exam, you will not be granted a nursing license or be able to practice nursing.

Step #4: Take and pass the test

Expect as many as 265 questions in a time period of six hours but no less than 75 questions. You will receive your official results within about six weeks after taking the exam. If you fail, (it’s okay! It happens!) you must wait 45 days before re-taking the exam. You can take the exam up to 8 times per year, with the 45 day waiting period between tests.

Many students attend an NCLEX review course outside of their nursing program prior to taking the NCLEX.

The questions that are covered on the test include the detection and prevention of diseases, patient care scenarios, patient comfort, coping and adaptation, as well as pharmacological therapies.

To learn more about the NCLEX, check out these articles on Osmosis!

Step #5: Complete additional state requirements

Before you are fully licensed, you will need to complete additional requirements depending on your state. These are but not limited to:

  • A background check
  • Proof of English proficiency
  • References from supervisors and lecturers

Some states grant “temporary licenses” while you are waiting for your full license to be approved. These allow you to work as a nursing assistant, allowing you to experience the medical setting but not practice your RN skills just yet.

Registered nursing certifications

Your nursing certification ensures that you have the right experience, skills, and requisite education to provide specialized knowledge on specific patient populations. Certifications will help you prepare for leadership and equally help you advance in your nursing career. Nursing certifications are not necessary, but they do contribute to improved knowledge and patient care. Certifications include Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN), Oncology Certified Nurse (OCN), and many more.

How do I get certified as an RN?

The exact steps that nursing students follow to attain their certifications in the United States vary greatly by state. But in most jurisdictions, you will need to earn at least an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited institution, pass the NCLEX exam, and receive licensure.

Nursing certification state requirements and fees

Here is a comprehensive list of every state in the United States and its requirements for nursing licensing and certification.

Other factors that vary by state include; the certification fees, the length of application and review process, clinical hours served, and Continued Education Units (CEU). The fees that are associated with your nursing certification are added to the educational expenses that you may incur. The fees range from under $100 to nearly $1,000, and renewal periods range from one to five years.

Nursing certification organizations

There are multiple organizations that can grant nursing certifications. They are all part of the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Both the nursing requirements as well as the fees vary by the organization as well as the type of nursing that you pursue. For RNs, you can seek your certification from these bodies:

You will need to renew your certification according to the changing needs of the healthcare industry and certifying board.

When you complete professional activities like continuing education, teaching, and volunteering, then they will be added to your certification to give you even more qualification.

Osmosis ilustration of nursing certifications.

Landing your first job as a Registered Nurse

Getting your RN license is a great achievement. Now, you are no longer a student; it’s time to enjoy the nursing profession. Granted, getting started may be overwhelming, especially because the hiring market remains competitive. But worry not! These 4 helpful tips will help you land your first job:

Nursing program partnership

Once you become a nurse, you are not really looking to go back to school right away, but did you know that by partnering with your school, you may be able to get a job? This is because a majority of local hospitals reach out to nursing programs whenever they are looking for new graduates to hire. Having a good relationship with your instructors may help you get an interview!

Consult nursing job boards

There are many nurse job boards like and that target registered nurses and invite them to job openings. Make a habit of going through these boards throughout the day and if there is a particular hospital that you are interested in, do not hesitate to send an application.

Follow up with prospective employers

Once you send your application, you may have to wait to hear back about whether you will be offered an interview or not However, if you do not hear anything back after one to two weeks, it’s time to start following up with a courteous email.

Hiring managers are busy individuals and a friendly reminder may just work in your favor and show that you are serious about the job. However, after two unresponsive follow-ups, it is safe to cross the job off your list and move on to other prospects.

Market yourself

While sending applications is a great way to get your name out there, you should not solely rely on this method to land your first job. By networking with friends, family, and alumni school connections, you may find someone willing to recommend you for a job.

Just like looking for any other job, you will need unwavering determination to land your first job as a registered nurse.

How to land your first job as an RN.

Advancing your career

Nursing is an exciting career that will provide you with plenty of advancement opportunities. Here are a few ways to advance your career after getting your license:

Volunteer for leadership roles

If your boss is seeking someone to take on more responsibility, then volunteering for this work will help you gain much-needed experience. This is the best way to enhance your resume and show that you are already conversant with advanced nursing roles.

Continuing education

Passing your NCLEX exam or gaining your nursing license is not the end of your education. If anything, continuing with your education will be helpful in the pursuit of leadership positions. This may be anything from obtaining a certification or going back to school to pursue different aspects of the nursing profession.

Join professional organizations

Professional organizations not only look good on your resume but can also help you build the right connections. Generalized nursing organizations such as the American Nursing Association are open to all RNs.

Enjoying your career

As a Registered Nurse, you will be a highly respected and valued member of the healthcare team. You will have a unique scope of practice and will have many opportunities to collaborate with others or even work independently. Enjoying and exploring your career will help you grow with your career.


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NCLEX-RN® and NCLEX-PN® are registered trademarks of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc (NCSBN®). Osmosis is not affiliated with NCSBN.