How to get into nursing school: ultimate guide
If you’re interested in healthcare and working with a medical team, a nursing career can be a great way to bring together those passions. Becoming a nurse isn’t easy, but for those who dream of helping others, it can be incredibly rewarding. Although becoming a nurse may have its challenges, there are steps you can take to make your journey less overwhelming.
In this article, we’ll cover the prerequisites for nursing, how to get into nursing school, including how to apply, and other helpful tips to boost your chances of getting accepted into your dream nursing program.
Prerequisites for nursing
The prerequisites for nursing school typically consist of academic courses, a minimum GPA, and entrance exams. Many schools also require cover letters and letters of recommendation.
There are a variety of specific academic courses you need to complete to become a nurse. Below are common nursing school prerequisites that must be completed before applying:
- Lifespan growth and development
- Anatomy and physiology
- English composition
Many of these courses are taken in high school. Nursing school prerequisites may vary, so it’s always important to check the school’s website for the most accurate information.
Entrance exams for nurses
Nurses are also required to pass entrance exams as a prerequisite. Depending on the nursing school you want to attend, the type of exam may vary.
Kaplan Admissions Test
This test has 91 questions that assess gaps and performance in math, reading, and physiology, and takes around 2 hours and 45 minutes to complete. You don’t need any previous nursing education to take the test. This exam is more generalized and covers high school-level subjects, so many people use ACT and SAT study materials to prepare.
- Cost: $25-$45
- Duration: 2 hours and45 minutes
Nursing Entrance Test (NET)
The NET tests reading speed and math, and also assesses decision-making skills, learning styles, and the ability to handle stressful environments. This exam includes a 1-minute speed reading test and takes 2 to 3 hours total to finish.
- Cost: $25-$45
- Duration: 2 to 3 hours
Psychological Services Bureau (PSB)
There are 2 different types of PSB testing—one for practical nursing and one for RN programs. The exam consists of 360 questions with sections covering academic aptitude, spelling, reading comprehension, vocational adjustment index, and natural sciences. The PSB takes a maximum of 1 hour and 45 minutes to complete.
- Cost: $25-$45
- Duration: 1 hour and 45 minutes
ATI Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS)
The TEAS exam is used to measure a student’s competency across 4 disciplines: English and language usage, reading, science, and math. This test has 170 questions and takes about 3.5 hours to complete. It’s recommended to prepare at least 6 weeks in advance for this exam.
- Cost: $35-$70
- Duration: 3 hours and 30 minutes
Health Education Systems, Inc. Exam (HESI)
This test consists of 350 questions and 9 sections and takes about 4 hours to complete. It covers more science-based knowledge, including biology and chemistry, as well as questions about learning styles and personality.
- Cost: $40-$65
- Duration: 4 hours
The National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Exam (NLN PAX)
The PAX consists of 160 questions in 3 categories: math, science, and reading comprehension and word knowledge. This exam takes a maximum of 2 hours to complete and is one of the hardest exams to prepare for due to the more complex and challenging topics that are included.
- Cost: $60-$100
- Duration: 2 hours
Taking practice tests can help boost your chances of getting the best score.
GPA requirements depend on the type of nursing program you want to apply for, but most programs require at least a 3.0 GPA or higher. However, due to the competitive nature of nursing programs, most schools prefer a 3.7 to 4.0 GPA. According to Donna Schisler, RN, BSN, and clinical manager at Advantis Medical Staffing, “Impressing [the admissions committee] with high grades on pre-nursing courses will have a large impact on your chances of getting into nursing school.”
Aiming for a high GPA can increase your chances of getting accepted and will help you stand out from the crowd.
Can I transfer nursing prerequisites?
Many colleges will accept credits that are transferred from similar schools. However, since a growing number of 4-year programs and community colleges have made it simpler to transfer credits, some nursing schools have become more selective about what type of prerequisites they accept from other schools.
Other potential nursing school requirements
Along with prerequisites, there are some other requirements you may need to provide in an application depending on the nursing school or program. This includes letters of recommendation and cover letters.
Letters of recommendation
Most nursing schools require applicants to have a letter of recommendation or healthcare employer reference that attests to their work, academic, and volunteer experience. Below are some tips on how to get a letter of recommendation:
- Ask in person: Asking for a letter of recommendation in person is preferable to email since it shows you are personable and proactive. It can also ensure a more timely response.
- Be specific about your request: Inform your reference why you need a letter and what they should include in it.
- Stay concise: The letter doesn’t have to be lengthy — aim for 1 page.
Be sure your reference includes the following in their letter of recommendation:
- brief explanation of the context within which they know you
- description of your skills and qualifications
- specific examples that attest to your skills
Nursing school cover letters
It’s important to write a polished cover letter to help your chances of getting into nursing school. A cover letter is essentially a personal essay that draws attention to your expertise and how it’s relevant to the college or healthcare role you’re applying for. Some elements that you should include in your cover letter are:
- professional greeting
- opening paragraph
- description paragraph highlighting your background/education in healthcare
- follow-up paragraph of other achievements and skills
As you write your letter, be sure to do extra research about the college or job you’re applying for, make sure the skills you include are relevant, add soft skills, and review your letter for any errors before sending it.
Getting into nursing school in 5 steps: how to start your journey to become a nurse
The road to becoming a nurse takes hard work and patience. With over 2,000 schools available to nurses in the U.S., knowing exactly where to start your journey may be overwhelming. For a less stressful process, follow the 5 steps below to learn how to get into nursing school.
1. Obtain a high school diploma (or GED) and take the necessary courses
To become a nurse, you’ll need to obtain your high school diploma or general education development certificate (GED). This is required to apply to any nursing school, across the board.
Before applying to a nursing school, make sure you have taken the necessary college prep classes in high school, like the ones listed in the prerequisites section above.
According to Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, a nurse, educator, and writer who has earned a BSN, M.S., and Ph.D. in nursing education, “Focus on getting A’s in the science course requisites (chemistry, biology, anatomy/physiology) because admissions teams look specifically at how well applicants do in those courses…this shows admissions teams that you are serious about a career in nursing and gives you a leg up academically.”
2. Decide on the type of nursing degree
Next, you’ll need to begin exploring the type of career in nursing you want and the type of degree that’s required. There are many paths that you can take in the field of nursing, so it’s important to do some research on the various degrees offered. Explore some options below:
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
In 4 to 12 weeks, you can earn a diploma or certificate to be a certified nursing assistant. These are usually offered at community colleges or vocational schools.
Median salary: $30,850
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
In 12 to 18 months, you can earn a certificate or diploma to become an LPN (also called a licensed vocational nurse, or LVN, in some states). This is offered at many community colleges and sometimes hospitals, where you would work under the supervision of a registered nurse (RN).
Median salary: $48,820
Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
An ADN takes 2 years to complete and is the minimum requirement for becoming an RN. These programs are found at community colleges and 4-year universities.
Median salary: $77,600
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
This 4-year degree also allows you to become an RN and is a prerequisite for the NCLEX-RN licensing exam.
Median salary: $77,600
Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
The MSN is a 2-year post-grad program for nurses who want to work in a specialized area of nursing like anesthesiology or midwifery. If you don’t already have a BSN, the MSN may take 3 years.
Median salary: $111,680
Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)
A DNP is also a 2-year post-grad degree that helps nurses either conduct research or teach at the university level. Some programs require you to obtain your MSN before becoming a DNP.
Median salary: $104,00
3. Research college and program options
Looking to get your BSN and RN, or maybe an eventual MSN, or DNP? If so, you’ll want to consider different paths to get there:
- 2 years at community college (ADN) and transferring to a 2-year university program (BSN) can be a great path if you want to:
- Build on your expertise
- Save money on tuition
- Qualify for a broader range of nursing opportunities
- Take more time finding the right university program for you
- 4 years at university (BSN) can be a great path if you:
- Haven’t already graduated from another post-graduate program
- You see yourself advancing beyond the registered nurse position
- Already have your mind set on a 4-year university
- Have a larger budget for tuition
There is no right or wrong path, but doing some extra research beforehand can help ensure you’re finding the best college or program for you. As stated above, you’ll need to obtain your BSN and RN before going after an MSN or DNP.
When researching the different programs, you’ll want to consider some of the following (which should all be visible on the program website):
- tuition and available nursing scholarships
- specialties offered
- partnerships with hospitals and if clinical time is offered
- career placement programs or post-graduation mentorships
- location and whether or not it’s remote
4. Choose programs and prepare for nursing applications
After you’ve checked out possible nursing degrees, you should do some research on the different program options available. Choosing the best fit for you can lead to decision fatigue, but luckily there are steps you can take to mitigate this.
For example, ask yourself (or a school representative) these questions as you’re selecting specific nursing programs to apply to, to help you find the best college:
- Are you willing to relocate?
- Do you have the ability to live on campus or will you have to commute?
- Do you want to attend in person or online?
- Can you afford the tuition?
- Program fit:
- Is a large public university or a small private college a better fit?
- What is the graduation rate from the program?
- Do they offer the right degree for the career you want?
- Is the program you’re interested in accredited?
- Are there specialty courses in this program that interest you?
- Student support:
- How much clinical rotation time will you get?
- Do they offer career placement programs?
- Is there a mentorship program?
- How accessible are student health services (mental and physical)?
After considering the questions above, you’ll need to choose a nursing college and prepare to apply. Try keeping track of each program’s application requirements as you narrow down your program selection.
Tip: Plan to apply at least 6 to 8 months before you want to begin the nursing program.
- Make sure you meet all the requirements and prerequisites that are listed on the college’s application or website.
- Consider applying to more than one program since many nursing schools have limited space.
- Be prepared for application fees — many programs require a $40 application fee and a non-refundable admissions deposit of around $100-$150. Most applications are filled out online. Also, consider getting financial help and getting fees waived.
- Request your letters of recommendation from someone who would make a good reference, such as a teacher or counselor. Request these no less than 2 weeks in advance and make sure to let them know what date you’ll need the finished letter by (ideally 4 weeks before you plan to apply).
- Prepare for extra application needs. For instance, many applications require a face-to-face nursing school interview as part of the process.
5. Apply to your selected programs
As stated above, make sure you meet all requirements before applying. Important information and documents you’ll need as you complete your application include:
- official transcripts from high school or any other coursework you did at the college level
- admissions application
- letters of recommendation
- test of English as a Foreign Language (if applicable)
- application fee (many times this is waived if you apply while touring the campus)
- cover letter
- standardized test scores
- volunteer experience information
There are some application tips to keep in mind that may boost your chances of getting accepted:
- Apply early: Although you have at least 2 weeks before the application deadline to apply, it’s best to aim for the 5 or 6-week mark so that you’re well prepared.
- Get a second look: Have those around you, such as teachers, counselors, or guardians review your application. A second set of eyes can help detect any typos or other elements that could be improved.
- Keep your list manageable: Don’t overwhelm yourself by sending out too many applications at once. Keep your list down to around 5 to 8 schools. If you do plan on applying to more, make sure to pace yourself to avoid feelings of stress and burnout.
Application notification timeline
The specific time it will take for your desired college or program to review your application will vary, but you’ll usually have an answer 30 to 60 days after the application deadline has passed.
If your application was successful, congrats! If you’ve applied to multiple programs, make sure you wait until the decisions come in before committing — a program may offer a scholarship to sweeten the offer. Just make sure you keep track of the decision deadlines so you can let each program know in advance of that date.
If your application was unsuccessful, don’t give up. Review why you weren’t accepted, consider requesting feedback from the program and take the steps to improve by doing things like retaking exams or revising your cover letter and trying again.
Additional tips to help you get accepted
Along with the courses you have to take and the required prerequisites, there are a few additional things you can do to help increase your chances of getting into nursing school. These include volunteering, community service, and getting healthcare-related work experience. Keep reading for tips on how to get into nursing school.
Consider community service or volunteering
Nursing can be a difficult field to break into, but there are some steps you can take to increase your chances, like community service and volunteering.
According to Kathleen Gaines, MSN, RN, B.A., CBC, it’s important to remember to make your application stand out. “This can be done by volunteering, after-school activities, and a strong personal essay. Volunteer at a local nursing home, join a science club, and remember why you want to become a nurse (beyond wanting to help others).”
Volunteering and serving your community go a long way when applying for nursing school and will help diversify your resume. Many hospitals offer volunteer opportunities, from assisting with child care to working in the emergency department.
Visit your potential future college
Talk to students, advisers, and professors to help you get a better gauge of what’s needed to get in and how competitive the college is. You can also get better insights into the environment and if you would be happy living in that location (if you plan to attend the college in person). This also provides a great opportunity for networking.
Many colleges also offer informational tours around campus — be sure to check the school’s website to see if this is an option.
Take advantage of student loan forgiveness programs
A nursing career isn’t cheap, but there are many resources and programs available for nurses when it comes to student loan forgiveness. Student loan forgiveness is when nurses opt to have their student debt from by state-based programs or the federal government. Below are some popular types of student loan forgiveness programs for nurses:
- Perkins Loan Cancellation
- State-Level Loan Forgiveness
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF)
- Nurse Corps Loan Repayment Program (NCLRP)
Additionally, federal initiatives can grant students up to thousands of dollars. For example, nurses can also fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to help them get funding for their nursing education.
Be sure to consider looking for other financial aid opportunities to help pay for your program.
Gain experience through other jobs in healthcare first
Consider starting out as a CNA or in another healthcare job to add additional relevant experience to your resume. Shisler also says that finding a job in healthcare can show your interest in the field, which can really shine through on your application. Some entry-level healthcare jobs include:
- emergency medical technician (EMT)
- licensed vocational nurse (LVN)
- healthcare administrator
- home health aide
With these tips and guidance, you can be well on your way and feel more prepared to obtain your RN license. As you get started on your nursing journey, be sure to check out our rankings of the top programs and degrees available in your area.