How to Become a Nurse – A Guide All About Nursing

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how to become a nurse

This online nursing degree and career guide will assist you as you research nursing degree programs, schools, and career options. Expert contributors to this guide are professional nurses and nursing faculty from some of the nation’s top nursing schools.

We recommend you use this guide to help determine which nursing degree program is right for you. Please note that most, if not all, of the various undergraduate nursing degree options, will require you complete some level of on-campus lab or clinical hours.

You will also need to sit for and pass national licensing and certification tests, depending on the nursing degree and career you are seeking.

“If you have a mind for science and a caring heart, nursing is such a rewarding field… As a nurse, I teach, care, and learn constantly!”

Carolyn Mallon, ASN, BSN, RN

What Are My Nursing Degree and Certification Options?

Certification/License Length of
Median Salary
(2016 stats)
Hourly Wage *Projected
Job Growth (2016-2026)
CNA – certificate 6-12 Weeks $26,590/year $12.78/hour 11% (faster than average)
LPN – certificate 12-18 months $44,090/year $21.20/hour 12% (faster than average)
RN: Degree, licensing vary

2 yrs
2-5 yrs
6 yrs
7-8 yrs
8 yrs

$68,450/year +


$32.91/hour +


15% (much faster than average)

31% (much faster than average)

Length of education = time required beyond a typical high school diploma.

Nursing Career and Education Requirements

CNA – Certified Nursing Assistant

A Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) works under the direction and supervision of a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Registered Nurse (RN), or physician.

CNAs offer basic assistance to patients with healthcare needs, primarily in hospitals and facility-level care centers. Other variations of this certification include PCA (Patient Care Assistant), STNA (State Tested Nurse Aid), or simply NA (Nursing Assistant).

  • Education Requirements: can be done in high school. Must complete an approved training program and CNA competency test.
  • Degree Program and Training: training is 6-12 weeks on average. Available through a combination of online educational programs, and hands-on experience with additional on-the-job training; flexible hours.
  • Licensing Requirements: must be licensed in the state in which you practice through the State Board of Nursing by passing the CNA certification test.
  • Average Cost of Degree Program: $300 to $1,500.

Learn more about CNAs:

LPN – Licensed Practical Nurse

A Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) works under the direction and supervision of RNs and physicians. They provide basic nursing care in a variety of settings, including long-term care facilities, hospitals, physicians’ offices, private homes, and schools.

Other variations of this title include Licensed vocational nurse (LVN). LPN licensure will set you up to earn an LPN-to-RN or LPN-to-BSN bridge program if desired.

  • Education Requirements: post-secondary, non-degree award.
  • Degree Program and Training: must complete a state-approved educational program. Typically requires 1 year commitment to complete. Available through a combination of online educational programs, and hands-on experience offered in a hospital or nursing home-type setting.
  • Licensing Requirements: must be licensed in the State in which you practice, through the State Board of Nursing by passing the National Council Licensure Examination or NCLEX-PN.
  • Average Cost of Degree Program: average $10,000 to $15,000 nationally. Prices can range from as low as $4,000 to upwards of $30,000

Learn more about LPNs:

RN – Registered Nurse

A Registered Nurse (RN) works primarily under the direction of physicians and in coordination with other health care providers.

RNs offer direct patient care and education with regards to various health conditions, while also providing emotional support to patients and their family support systems.

  • Education Requirements: a diploma from a state-approved NCLEX nursing program, Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN/ADN), or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).
  • Degree Program and Training: varies based upon the chosen nursing program, typically ranges from as little as 2 to 4 years. Nursing degree options that will allow you to sit for the NCLEX-RN are offered through state board of nursing approved online, traditional and distance-learning nursing programs. The amount of class, lab and clinical attendance varies depending on which level of nursing degree you are trying to earn and which nursing program you choose.
  • Licensing Requirements: all RNs must sit for and pass the NCLEX-RN licensing examination prior to practicing; the NCLEX-RN is administered by each state’s State Board of Nursing.
  • Average Cost of Degree Program: associate degree RN’s cost approximately $3,000 per year if taken in a community college setting. Traditional nursing bachelor’s degrees are approximately $20,000 to $30,000 per year. Nursing programs available at community colleges most often offer to reduce tuition costs compared to larger university and private nursing school environments. Transitional programs like an LPN-to-RN program can average $6,000 to $10,000 per year.

Learn more about RNs:

Nursing Bridge Programs

  • LPN-to-Associate or LPN-to-RN: designed for LPN or LVNs who want to earn a degree that will allow them to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam. Referred to as the LPN-to-RN as it bridges the gap between the LPN and RN designation. Majority of LPN-to-RN programs are simply LPN-to-Associate degree programs.
  • Paramedic-to-RN: created to enable LPNs or paramedics to earn their RN license. Typically a one-year program leading to an associate degree and allows students to sit for the NCLEX-RN exam.
  • LPN-to-BSN: designed to enable LPNs or LVNs to earn their BSN degree. This program is also incorporated into some LPN-to-RN programs that allow students to earn their BSN in preparation for RN licensure.
  • RN-to-BSN: designed for RNs who have earned an associate degree or NCLEX-approved diploma in nursing and want to complete a BSN. Approximately 30% of BSN graduates come from RN-to-BSN programs.

Advancing Beyond a Basic RN

Advancing beyond a basic RN to an MSN/APRN, NP, DNP, DNSc or PhD will require that you earn a degree equal to or beyond a master’s degree.

Earning an advanced nursing degree will give you the chance to teach and instruct at a college level, participate in more advanced research, progress into nursing administration positions, and hopefully allow for increased in nursing salary.

Some nursing careers may require additional certification or specialization to be considered for employment.

Master’s Degree Level

  • RN-to-MSN: designed for RNs who have earned an associate degree in nursing (ADN or ASN) and want to earn a BSN and MSN in conjunction with one another. It allows a nurse with an associate degree to complete their BSN and MSN in less time than if they earned the two degrees separately.
  • Master of Arts (MA) in Nursing: allows students to specialize in areas of nursing, such as pediatric care, psychiatric, or neonatal.
  • Master of Science (MS) in Nursing: is more geared to the academic, research, and teaching careers in nursing. It typically requires a student to complete a thesis and may possibly require you learn a foreign language.
  • MSN: is geared for practicing nurses and nursing management careers; it is highly focused on nursing practices.
  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN or APN): Nurses who have earned an a master’s degree or higher can deliver health care services and treatments that were previously delivered only by medical doctors. APRNs specialize in one of the following areas: Nurse Practitioners (NP), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Certified-Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA), or Certified Nurse-Midwife (CNM).
Master of Science (MS) in Nursing vs. MSN Degree

Most schools offer either the Master of Science (MS) in Nursing or an MSN degree. However, if you evaluate the requirements of the two masters-level nursing degrees, there is little difference.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs understand that applicants may have either master’s degree and typically do not require one over the other. If a thesis is not part of your nursing master’s program, however, you may have to do something similar to demonstrate your research proficiency before you can be admitted to a doctoral program.

DNP degree programs used to be less prominent, but have gained popularity with new additional education and training requirements for upper-level nursing positions. Such programs have increased in availability through the advancements in distance and online nursing degree programs.

Non-nursing master’s degrees, like an MS in hospital administration or MS in healthcare operations management, or an MS in nursing education, may also help in the pursuit of advanced professional nursing positions.

Joint Degree MSN Programs
  • MSN/MPH: combines a master’s level education in nursing with a master’s in public health
  • MSN/MHA: combines a master’s level education in nursing with a master’s degree in health administration
  • MSN/MBA: combines a master’s degree in nursing with a master’s degree in business administration

Doctorate (DNP, DNSc and PhD) Level

  • Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): more and more advanced practice nurses will soon be required to have a DNP. These doctorate degrees are for practicing professionals who will continue to work in clinical practice roles verses research or academic roles.
  • Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc): This program is being phased out by most nursing schools, in favor of the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), because of their similarities. DNSc’s are trained as nurse scientists with the clinical, leadership, and investigative skills of a researcher for the purposes of improving the healthcare system and patient care. A clinical defense and dissertation are typically required.
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD): considered nursing scientists. Requires extensive coursework in research, statics, and nursing theory. Includes a lengthy dissertation or academic paper that shows a depth of understanding of a particular facet of nursing science. View a more in-depth look at the PhD vs. DNP.

“Nursing is a wonderful profession. It is a lot of hard work, but it is worth the effort. Don’t stop with your pre-licensure degree. We need nurses with higher degrees and who always seek to learn more and question where we are and where we are going in the profession.

Get your BSN as your level-of-entry, not an ADN. Be a part of the most trusted profession for 14 years running according to Gallop Polls.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

To see a visual representation of the pathways of nursing degrees and careers, visit this infographic created by Nursing License Map.

What To Consider When Choosing Your Degree

With the advancements in nursing and in nursing education, a growing number of nursing degree options are available to prospective nursing students.

Before we get into nursing program specifics, take time to consider and think about your responses to the following questions. They will help you to understand your nursing goals and what type of nursing degree program will best fit you.

  • Financial status: What can I afford and what am I willing to pay for my education? Do I need to continue working while I am going to nursing school? If I take out a loan, how quickly will I be able to pay it back? What income range am I comfortable making once I finish my degree(s)?
  • Time: How much time do I want to spend in nursing school? How quickly do I want to be working in my nursing career of choice? How flexible is my time?
  • Long-term Goals: Is there a specific nursing career I see myself working in? What are my long-term nursing goals? Does the nursing school that I am interested in offer the degree program I need to meet my career goals?
  • Motivation: How motivated am I to earn my nursing degree? How motivated am I to be a nurse and complete my nursing education? Am I self-driven and directed enough to structure my time to meet deadlines? Will I realistically set and follow through with deadlines if I opt to do an online nursing degree program?
  • Learning Style: Do I see myself learning the required nursing curriculum through online class content and little monitoring by online professors, or do I feel I would do better in a traditional school setting with hands-on learning and more involved instruction? If I do an online or distance learning program can I be disciplined enough to make time for completing assignments and to actively learn and participate in online classes through videos, PowerPoint slides, and online group discussions?
  • Technology: How comfortable am I using a computer and the internet? Do I have access to a computer or laptop and the internet?
  • Previous Academic Performance and Enjoyment: How are my high school or college grades? If I’ve taken health, chemistry, anatomy, physiology, or other nursing-related classes, did I do well and did I enjoy them?
  • Nursing Requirements: Do I understand the rigor of the academic and training requirements necessary for me to be accepted to an online nursing degree program, to complete a nursing degree, and to become a licensed, practicing nurse? How can I meet or exceed those requirements?

Benefits of an Online Nursing Degree Program

“One of the major benefits of online learning is flexibility; the ability to have education fit into one’s personal life rather than vice versa.

Online learning provides that flexibility, and typically, traditional work hours and family needs/obligations do not have to be altered. Having access to the course 24/7 and the ability to have questions answered within 24 hours provides constant learning and the ability to complete assignments at one’s own pace.”

Dr. Marlene Beck, DNP, RN, CNE – Sacred Heart University

The benefit of studying and completing an online nursing degree include the following:

  • Diverse learning exposure: nationwide classes, professors, and peer access from anywhere in the U.S. You will most likely have a diverse set of peers and professors because you are not limited to specific geo-location.
  • Flexibility: if you have competing priorities and commitments of a full-time or part-time job, family obligations, or travel plans, you can take your classes with you. All you need is a computer and internet access.
  • Set your own pace: depending on the degree program, if you have the drive and motivation, you may be able to earn your degree in less time than normal. Which means you can start working as a paid professional quicker than a traditional program.
  • Comfortable learning: you can learn from a setting of your choice and even frequently change your learning environment, e.g. home, coffee shop, or library. Additionally, if you have been away from the school-scene for a while and the idea of a typical classroom setting makes you concerned, online learning can remove that obstacle.
  • No travel or traffic: doing an online nursing degree program means a major reduction, if not total removal, of commutes and traffic to and from campus.
  • Cost: depending on the program and if you have to travel for parts of your program, you can sometimes get your nursing degree cheaper online or with a distance learning program than you can with a traditional campus program.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Enrolling in an Online Nursing Degree Program

If the benefits of an online nursing degree mentioned above appeal to you, be sure to also ask yourself these questions.

The more you are prepared for the online learning environment, the more successful and happier you will be during and after your program.

  • Am I familiar and comfortable with computers and the internet?
    You don’t have to be a computer genius to take online courses, but you may need to brush up on how to use Microsoft Word tools and the internet, and you will need to be trained on how to use your school’s online learning portal to access class lectures, assignments, class discussions, quizzes and tests.
  • Do I have a good computer and internet access?
    Online course assignments, quizzes, class discussions, and tests are usually submitted through the school’s online learning portal, which means you need reliable internet access and a good computer.
  • Will I be able to do school full-time or will I need to be a part-time student?
    Be sure to do some planning so that you are not surprised when you get into the demands of a nursing program. Understand that the nursing school workload is always heavy and maybe even more rigorous online. Some online nursing degree programs are designed so that you can continue to work full-time but some are not.

“I know some students who worked full time and were successful in nursing school. I was a single parent but did not work, and I was able to manage it, but I don’t know many who could work full time and parent well and be a full-time nursing student.”

Carolyn Mallon, ASN, BSN, RN

  • Am I ok with a decreased amount of professor and peer face-to-face interaction?
    Face-to-face interactions with professors and peers are not as consistent or prevalent in an online nursing degree program as they are with a traditional nursing program. They are also often done through online voice or video conferencing.
  • What is my learning style? Am I self-directed and self-disciplined? Can I be organized and plan independently?
    Will I learn better and be happier in an online environment where I don’t report to class on a weekly basis and I have little progress monitoring by my online professors, or would I do better in a traditional nursing school setting where I am required to attend class and am regulated by my professor? If you lack the self-direction and self-discipline required to pace yourself and ensure you complete your class work, then an online nursing degree program may not be for you. Although online programs can offer a faster transition between levels of nursing degrees, they may also be more challenging and stressful if you are unable to be self-directed. Also, be sure that you are willing to participate in online class discussions and group assignments.

“Learning in the online environment takes place primarily through engagement and participation. At Sacred Heart University, our students are actively engaged in the online classroom.

In order to complete the course successfully, the student needs to complete the readings, participate in discussions, engage in group work etc. I have had students say to me, ‘I’ve learned so much more taking an online course that I would have in a classroom.’ You’re more diligent about completing the work because you need the knowledge to participate.”

Dr. Marlene Beck, DNP, RN, CNE – Sacred Heart University

“At the right school, like Kaplan University, online education provides a greater interaction with faculty and is more student-centered….

Most nursing students can do well online because of the nature of nursing and the type of person who is a nurse. The ability to read closely, think critically, and apply what one reads to the class posts and assignments is important. A good command of the English language and the ability to use Office programs will make for success.

Self-motivation is probably the most important of all, though. With no set times to be in class and due dates often a week out, it is easy to think one will do “that” tomorrow and, suddenly, it’s the due date and the work isn’t done. Procrastination is the big thing to avoid.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

Which Degrees Are Available Online and What is their Time Commitment?

The amount of time required for studying to obtain an online nursing degree varies based on the nursing program you choose and which degree level you are working to earn.

There is a trend in nursing – the more education you have in the field, the more emphasis is placed on soft skills and leadership roles. This is why graduate and some bachelor degrees are readily available in an online-only format, but diplomas and associate programs, where hands-on experience is gained and required, are typically only offered through hybrid or on-campus programs.

Higher degrees will prepare you for consulting, teaching, administrative, research, and leadership positions, while entry-level degrees will get you into hands-on, entry-level nursing jobs. Online programs exist for RN to BSN, LPN to RN, BSN to Master’s level and online doctorate in nursing (both DNP and PhD) programs.

Refer back to table called “What Are My Nursing Degree and Certification Options?” to review the average total time commitment of each type of degree. Note that the table represents an average time commitment post-high school graduation which may vary depending on the nursing school. The table does not reflect the time commitment required when attending an accelerated nursing program, which is typically more intense.

Most online schools indicate that they offer online nursing degree programs. However, because of the nature of most nursing degree programs, many schools only offer the academic part of the program online. They then require the clinical aspects of the degree to be completed at a local facility with an individual “preceptor” overseeing practice clinicals.

The amount of time that it takes to graduate from one of these programs depends entirely on whether you attend full or part-time and how long the school makes each online course available to you, once you start.

Some colleges offer 4-week courses, while others offer 7-8 week courses. Refer to each individual nursing schools’ requirements and talk with counselors and alumni to get a better idea of weekly course and homework time commitments.

“I spent an average of six hours a week studying notes, two half days a week in lecture, two days a week in clinicals, and another few hours a week on duties related to the Student Nurses’ Association and various other committees. And of course, I had two small children. But I did it and so can you!”

Carolyn Mallon, ASN, BSN, RN

Accelerated Online Nursing Degrees

Each online nursing program differs in how accelerated it can be, based on the curriculum that must be covered and the availability of clinics to fulfill any required clinical hours.

The U.S. Department of Labor estimates a continued need for registered nurses. Because of this high demand, many reputable schools have already implemented and more are adding, accelerated online nursing degree programs to offer to professionals.

In the US alone, there are 235 accelerated nursing programs. These types of programs are available for every level of degree in nursing.

Accelerated programs for RN-to-BSN exist to allow a quicker than normal transition from having an ASN/ADN-RN to a BSN. Some schools offer accelerated Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) programs. Additionally, there is a growing trend of schools offering accelerated Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs.

Some nursing schools also offer bridge programs from LPN through all the levels of nursing up to an MSN degree.

Will I be looked at differently by employers if I attended an online nursing program versus a trade or a traditional nursing program?

Online degrees have gained ground in becoming more credible. In fact, A 2009 survey done by Excelsior College/Zogby International found that about 83% of executives nationwide feel that a degree earned from an online school is just as credible and valid as one from a traditional campus-based school.

Many of the surveyed employers considered online degrees more valuable because many online learners typically maintain full-time jobs and have family obligations while in school, which means these students are good at juggling and prioritizing multiple responsibilities.

Online learners also have Internet and technology skills due to their online experience which makes them even more qualified for some positions.

This all said, If you choose your nursing school wisely, whether it’s an online nursing program, trade school, or traditional nursing school, and verify that the nursing program is accredited by the state in which you want to practice, you will receive the necessary training and education required to be licensed and employed.

“As long as the program and school it is housed in are accredited, the standards set by the school and program will meet the national best practices for nursing education and you will get an equivalent education in nursing at any school.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

“At Sacred Heart University, we have both on-ground and online nursing programs. Standards are consistent with all programs and are accredited by the same accrediting body.

The perception of online programs has improved as we see that several online programs have been in existence for many years and very reputable schools are offering online programs these days.”

Dr. Marlene Beck, DNP, RN, CNE – Sacred Heart University

How to Prepare for an Online Nursing Degree Program

  • Job shadow nurse(s) and/or physician(s): as a nursing student, you will be required to gain textbook and lab experience on necessary subjects like anatomy and physiology, nutrition, chemistry, etc. However, gaining the hands-on experience that will allow you to feel comfortable in a hospital setting where there are emergencies and where you are on your own doing patient care, will come from being familiar with the hospital environment and watching other nurses or physicians.
  • Certification program/Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): consider taking the certificate course to become a CNA. If you want to earn a higher level of nursing degree, you can do that while working in a healthcare environment as a CNA. The more personal experience you have with patients and health care providers, the more comfortable you will be as you transition into advanced nursing degrees and certifications.
  • Pay attention in biology, science, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology classes and brush up on them before you start your nursing program: the less you have to focus on the basics of your nursing courses once your nursing classes are in session, the better you will fare and the less stress you will experience.
  • Volunteer: find different ways to volunteer. Not only does it look good on your college application or your resume when you are applying for a professional nursing position, it also helps you to gain skills that you can integrate into your learning and future profession. Volunteering also helps you to find your likes and dislikes when it comes to various nursing careers.
  • If you can, try to find a job in an entry-level nursing-related job: if you have the time, we recommend working part-time in a nursing-related position as you go through school. It can help fund your education, give you hands-on experience to apply as you’re learning in your nursing classes, and will help give you a leg-up on getting hired because you have practical experience.

“I wish I could have worked at least part-time as an LNA through school… to avoid some of the student debt and to get experience that would have helped me get hired right away. It took me a couple months [after graduation] to get a job, even as our school’s top graduate because I had no experience.”

Carolyn Mallon, ASN, BSN, RN

What is the Best Way to Interact with Professors, Peers, and Counselors in an Online Nursing Degree Program?

  • Learn how to use netiquette: Be professional when speaking with professors, peers, and counselors; use professional netiquette.

“Online nursing students have to know what we call professional netiquette in order to interact appropriately in class.

Netiquette is being respectful of others including respecting other’s opinions even if you don’t agree. This is important because there is a great deal of “discussions” that exist in online learning. It is easy to think you can say anything communicating online but netiquette teaches us that this style of speaking is no different than talking face to face.

You shouldn’t write something that you wouldn’t say face to face! Professional netiquette is clear, respectful, courteous and professional.”

Dr. Marlene Beck, DNP, RN, CNE – Sacred Heart University

“Netiquette is very important online. All the reader knows about you is how you express yourself in words and first impressions matter here, too. Using text abbreviations, shouting (i.e., using all capital letters), and poor grammar should be avoided.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

  • Ask questions: If you don’t know, don’t be ashamed or wait to find out. Be ambitious and do your own research or ask questions to your professors or peers.

“Ask! If you don’t know, don’t assume or wait for someone else to ask. It can be hard to get across concepts and directions with only the written word and no visual cues to help one understand. Asking for help, feedback, and more explanations are germane to your success online.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

  • Be open to helpful criticism and feedback: In most cases, professors and peers are not meaning to personally attack you. If you can take criticism and feedback in such a way that allows you to learn from others instead of feeling threatened by them, you will always come out smarter, happier, and more excited to engage and learn.
  • Spend time memorizing and contemplating: Try your best to memorize and assimilate what you learn during your classes, labs and clinicals. Class material will be more likely to stay with you so that when you are writing class posts and papers or taking tests, you will be able to easily recall information and write original thoughts and ideas.
  • Take clinicals seriously: Pay close attention in clinicals and believe that your instructors want to help and are there to see you succeed.

“There is an unfortunate reputation among clinical instructors in particular that they can be impossible to please. Don’t go in with that attitude. Let their high standards challenge you to be prepared and do your best. They are not out to get you; they only want to keep the patients safe and teach you.”

Carolyn Mallon, ASN, BSN, RN

How to Choose a Reputable Online Nursing School

  • Verify whether or not the online nursing degree program is nationally accredited: The two main accreditation bodies to watch for when determining if a nursing program is accredited are The Commission on Collegiate Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Other accreditation bodies do exist but these two are the main ones. These entities monitor and regulate nursing programs to ensure the curriculum and content taught and tested on in the program, meet national nursing standards.
  • Verify that the program is regionally accredited: In addition to proving academic credibility, regional accreditation also makes transferring previously earned credits easier if you change schools before graduating or attend a different school for a higher degree.
  • Determine the perceived reputation of the online nursing program: You can do this by reading reviews online, asking nursing faculty or administration, checking the school’s graduate hire rate, and talk with alumni. Typically, the better the school’s reputation, the better the quality of education and sometimes the more you will be sought after for hiring post-graduation. Unfortunately, unless it is a state school, high prestige also typically means higher tuition costs per credit hour.
  • Determine how much the program will cost: Check tuition prices at various colleges and compare costs and financial aid availability.
  • Don’t forget to explore financial aid options offered by the school: Most online nursing degree programs will accept financial aid or student loans, or even offer scholarships to outstanding students or those students with financial needs.
  • Traditional colleges have online and distance nursing programs too: Remember that nonprofit schools that have campuses that may also offer online or distance learning nursing degrees. Check your local colleges and universities for reputable online nursing degree programs.
  • What is most important to you? As you gather information on schools, be sure to consider which selection criteria are most important to you personally, and then evaluate nursing programs with that in mind.
  • National and regional ranking lists: Reference national top nursing school ranking lists that are published yearly and rank nursing programs based on tuition costs, education quality, number of graduates, and more.

“Students should make sure that the school has a philosophy and mission that they feel comfortable with…

Look at the school’s NCLEX pass rates. Ask if they have high-stakes testing where they give an assessment test at the end (e.g., HESI or ATI) and you have to hit a certain score or you don’t graduate no matter what your GPA is.

For grad students… look at who is on the faculty and what his or her specialty is to see if it is in line with yours. Look at numbers of grads to see completion rates, too.

Be sure the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and that the school is accredited by one of the seven regional accrediting bodies.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

“The most important step [for prospective nursing students] to do [is their] homework on all of the programs they are researching. Is the school accredited? What are graduation and retention rates? School rankings? Employment rates? These are all critical questions to ask when making a selection and answers to these questions can easily be found.”

Dr. Marlene Beck, DNP, RN, CNE – Sacred Heart University

How to Stand Out When Applying for an Online Nursing School

Focus your efforts on being honest and professional when applying for an online nursing degree program. If the program requires that applicants submit an essay about a given topic or a question that is personal and unique to you, think about this question, brainstorm, and freely write down ideas before you formulate your essay or thesis.

Set aside enough time to write your essay and proofread it. Nothing stands out worse than a student applying for a graduate-level nursing degree program, only to have the admissions committee find misspelled words and poor grammar.

If applicable, be sure to mention any opportunities and experiences you have had in volunteering locally or participating in community-based projects.

Ask around or do research online to find alumni or current students that were previously accepted into your ideal nursing program(s); they may be able to help you know what the specific nursing school considers to be an exceptional applicant.

If I Choose to Do an Online Nursing Degree, How do I Get Involved In My Local Healthcare Facilities?

Seek out opportunities to volunteer at local health clinics or hospitals. Consider taking a course and becoming certified as a nursing assistant which will allow you to apply your coursework as you increase your comfort level working with patients and families and gain practical nursing skills.

Becoming licensed and working as a CNA will give you a definite advantage over other progressing nursing students who haven’t been able to put their knowledge into practice. Working with other healthcare facilities whether long-term care facilities or hospitals provides opportunities for you to learn from other nurses in your work environment, ask questions, and gain confidence in your basic communication skills in the healthcare field.

Working while you earn your degree may also provide you with networking and “inside” opportunities for getting hired by that facility, once you have obtained your nursing degree.

How Do I Get The Best Return (ROI) On My Online Nursing Degree?

As with a lot of things in life, a large majority of what you learn in nursing school is up to you. Learning is just one of those things in life that is almost completely under your control; some have to work harder at it than others, but ultimately, you can learn most anything with time and effort.

If you acknowledge your part in your nursing education and choose to push yourself when it comes to coursework, lectures, tests, labs, and clinicals, you will never be unsatisfied during your program and especially after you graduate.

Once you have become certified in any level of a nursing degree, it is best to quickly put into practice what you have learned; you can do this by getting into a nursing job before you continue on with your education or as you continue with your education.

Taking that first leap from an educational environment into the “real world” as a professional nurse can be scary and it will possibly make you anxious. Remember that all entry-level nurses have had to find a nursing position that will give them their first real experience.

Focus on what you do know, observe and ask questions to the experienced nurses around you and do not be afraid to ask questions and seek answers from reputable educational resources. The greater the challenges you face and overcome in your first couple of years as a nurse, the more confidence and the better prepared you will be as you continue on in your nursing career.

What Can I Do To Meet Employer Expectations Before, During and After I Graduate With My Nursing Degree?

“Before earning your degree, find out what positions are available in that specialty in your area and what potential employers want in the way of skills, experience, and qualifications.

During your time in school, reach out to nurses in your area who work in the specialty you want to work in. Discuss what they do in their roles. Share what you are learning in school about that specialty and ask what else they feel you need to know.

After earning your degree, reach out to those nurses you networked with during school and ask about openings or potential openings in your area and specialty. Apply for any that come open even if you aren’t 100% sure you qualify. Many times a potential employee who has impressed a recruiter may be considered because of some spark he or she has or other candidates aren’t well qualified. You are also making yourself known to the recruiter who may spot a position for you in the future.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

“Continue your education. Employers seem to really want to see more BSN and even MSN prepared nurses these days. Getting certifications helps, too.”

Carolyn Mallon, ASN, BSN, RN

Financial Aid for Online Nursing Degrees

Work-study programs

Work-study programs through the federal government make part-time work available for students while they are enrolled in a nursing program; those jobs can be on or off campus and the income can assist the student with covering educational expenses. Work-study programs are not available at all schools so check with the nursing department at your school(s) of interest.

Federal government grants

Federal government grants are available to some based on a substantiated need and do not require the student to repay the amount borrowed. Federal Pell Grants are offered based on financial need, the total cost of education, enrollment status (full or part-time), and the number of anticipated years for graduation.

Understand your Federal Pell Grant options:

Federal student loans

Federal student loans are available for nursing degree programs, based upon federal requirements. These student loans are typically paid back over a period of 10 years, beginning 6 months post-graduation from an accredited nursing degree program.

If you are approved for a student loan, you do not have to take the money, but if you find that you need it, it will be available if you are approved.

Learn more about federal student loans:

Private loans

Private institution loans may be available from banks, local or state agencies, or credit unions. Many banks offer education loans at lower interest rates. We recommend you apply for federal grants, scholarships, and other financial aid programs that do not have to be paid back before you apply for a federal or private loan.

Private loans offered by:


Various scholarship programs may be offered for undergraduate nursing degrees and certificates. However, higher nursing degree scholarship options are rarely offered. If you have any differentiating traits, look for scholarship opportunities specific to you, e.g. minorities, females, and military.

Scholarship sites for nursing degrees:

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Johnson and Johnson Corporation both offer scholarships to students and some of those are minority related. There are federal scholarships also. Some nursing organizations (e.g., STTI and local state and district nurses associations) offer small scholarships, too. Some geographical areas will offer tuition reimbursement if their area is in need of nurses, such as the inner city and rural areas needing NPs. Additionally, Kaplan University lists the institution’s scholarships and grants in the course catalog.”

Deborah Adelman, PhD, RN, NE-BC – Kaplan University

History of the Online Nursing Degree Program

To fully understand your options, you should first understand how online nursing degree programs came about and what their future looks like. Doing this may help you determine whether or not online education is right for you.

The first reported online, accredited baccalaureate degree in the U.S. was approved and offered in July of 2009 in California at Western Governors University (WGU).

At that time, there was a forecasted nationwide shortage of nurses and the shortage was not anticipated to be resolved better without a viable solution. The online nursing degree program was created in hopes of being that solution by making nursing programs more accessible to individuals and thereby increasing the number of nursing professionals.

Not only was the online nursing program developed due to a need for practicing nursing professionals, but there was also a global shortage of nursing faculty to train the much-needed practicing professionals.

In 2012, U.S. statistics indicated there to be one registered nurse professional for every 100 people, with an estimated 300 million population in the U.S. overall. Nursing student increase also equaled a faculty shortage to train the additional nurses. In addition to the already existing nursing faculty shortage, nursing faculty members were leaving the university setting for many reasons.

Because of this faculty shortage, it made it necessary for the number of nursing students being admitted into nursing programs to decrease; a solution was needed.

One solution proposed by the Tri-Council for Nursing was to streamline the progression from LPN-BSN-APN-DNP. Another solution proposed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation was to redesign nursing education. Both solutions were adopted.

Despite the efforts being made, nursing shortages, as well as faculty shortages continue today. In order to produce more professional nurses, online nursing programs continue to grow and new opportunities are being created for nursing students to pursue various higher education degrees via online classes, in conjunction with on-campus or on-site learning for clinical or lab experience when necessary.

The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) was founded in 1998 to monitor the quality and integrity of bachelor and graduate level programs and to ensure that nursing residency programs meet specific standards.

Additional Nursing Resources

Meet the Experts

  • Kelli Hanensen - Advocate Nurse - Nursing Mentor
    Kelli Hansen

    BSN, RN, CMCN, LNC, CSA – Business Owner & CNO of Advocate Nurses, LLC and Business Development Coordinator of A Voice 4 U, LLC.

  • Dr. Marlene Beck - Sacred Heart University - Nursing Mentor
    Dr. Marlene Beck

    BSN, MSN, DNP – Over 25 yrs experience in academia. Sacred Heart University’s MSN Program Director. Sloan-C Online Learning Consortium certification and Certified Nurse Educator (CNE).

  • Deborah Adelman - Kaplan University - Nursing Mentor
    Dr. Deborah Adelman

    PhD, RN, NE-BC – Professor of Nursing at Kaplan University since 2010. Mentor for Capella University and a Nursing Subject Matter Expert for Cengage Learning.

  • Carolyn Mallon Online Nursing Guide Q&A Mentor
    Carolyn Mallon

    ASN, BSN, RN – Operation room RN. Recently completed RN to BSN completion program. National Student Nurses’ Association chapter President.

  • rachel beckstead - writer and editor
    Rachel Beckstead

    BA Communications – Writer and editor for College Atlas. Passion is creating useful and relevant content and resources that empower people.

Q&A Sessions With Nurses

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