How to Become a Nurse: Education, Licenses, and Other Qualifications

Education, Licenses and Other Qualifications

Registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), also called licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), provide physical and emotional support to people who are ill, disabled, injured, or recovering from surgery. There are significant differences in how one prepares for each of these occupations. 

Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Nurse?

A nurse in a hospital hallway
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While formal training provides nurses with the technical skills needed to perform their jobs, there are qualities, called soft skills, that play a huge role in their success. Before deciding whether to pursue this occupation, it is a good idea to evaluate whether you have these personal characteristics. Both RNs and LPNs need what is called a service orientation, meaning they are willing to actively look for ways to help people. They also should be socially perceptive or aware of others' reactions. Nurses must have good listening and speaking skills, be detail-oriented, and have good organizational and critical thinking skills. They should be patient and emotionally stable.

Required Education

The educational requirements for registered and licensed practical nurses differ from each other greatly. To become an LPN, one must complete a training program that lasts one year and combines classroom study with supervised clinical practice. Some technical and vocational schools, community colleges, high schools, and hospitals offer these programs. Often, credits earned in an LPN program can be transferred to an RN program.

RNs train between two and four years, earning a bachelor of science degree in nursing (four years), an associate degree in nursing (two years), or a diploma in nursing (three years). Students receive classroom instruction and supervised practical training in hospital departments. Some schools offer bachelor's or master's degree programs for students who have associate degrees or diplomas in nursing.

Regardless of the type of program you plan to attend, make sure it is approved by the state in which you want to practice. If it is not, you won't be able to get licensed. You also should consider looking for a school that is nationally accredited by either the Accreditation Commission For Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). Accreditation from one of these U.S. Department of Education-approved agencies indicates that a nursing program has met certain standards. Since these agencies keep up with state requirements, you will be able to get licensed in another state should you move. The CCNE accredits only bachelor's degrees and more advanced degree programs. Shorter programs including associate's degrees, diplomas, and LPN programs can be accredited only by the ACEN.

Getting Into a Nursing Program

Admission requirements and procedures differ by school and by type of program. Check with the institutions where you are interested to learn about their policies. In general, most institutions require a high school diploma or GED, a criminal background check, medical history, physical exam, and at least one professional reference.

Generally, when applying for admission to an associate's or bachelor's degree RN program, you usually have to follow the regular admissions protocol for the institution. That means they likely will ask for your high school transcript and scores from college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. Some nursing schools require applicants to take the National League for Nurses Pre-Entrance Exam. If you are applying for an associate degree in nursing or a diploma in nursing program, you also may be required to have taken prerequisite coursework, including chemistry, anatomy, physiology, English, and math. You may be allowed to take some of these courses while you are enrolled in nursing school, but you will have to take others before you begin.

You also may have to take an entrance exam for admission to a practical nursing program. In addition, there may be prerequisites such as high school chemistry.

Procedures After You Graduate From Nursing School

After completing an RN or LPN program you will have to apply for a license in the state where you want to work. State boards of nursing are responsible for issuing licenses and should be consulted for specific requirements. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing has a directory of all their member boards on its website. A core component of licensure includes taking the National Council Licensing Examination (NCLEX). There are separate exams for RNs (the NCLEX-RN) and LPNs(the NCLEX-PN).