Registered Nurse (RN)

Dreaming of a career in nursing? Learn how to become a Registered Nurse, from the first steps in high school to successfully passing the NCLEX-RN exam.
Registered Nurse
It is often said that the practice of registered nursing is equal parts science and heart. It is a science in the sense that it is grounded in evidence-based research and current clinical knowledge, and it is the heart that helps make the practice uniquely human. If you’re passionate about helping people and you’re looking for a career that can provide you with meaningful work and growth opportunities, then becoming a registered nurse might be the perfect fit for you.

What Is a Registered Nurse?

A registered nurse (RN) is a nurse who has earned either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited program, has successfully passed the NCLEX-RN exam administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCBSN), and has met all of the requirements to become a nurse outlined by their state’s licensing body (state board of nursing).

Registered nurses play a vital role in today’s healthcare industry. They are on the frontline of the medical workforce, responsible for delivering hands-on patient care in various settings, including hospitals and doctor’s offices, nursing care facilities, assisted living facilities, and outpatient health centers. Working as a healthcare team member, the RN provides a wide range of patient services, including preventative and primary care, educating patients about disease prevention, operating medical equipment, and administering medications.

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

The roles and responsibilities of a registered nurse can vary depending on factors such as their location, workplace, and educational background. While the primary duty of most RNs is to deliver direct patient care, the specific tasks and daily routines can differ. These variations are influenced by the requirements of the healthcare team, the specific needs of the patients they serve, and the demographics of those patients.

Registered Nurse Job Description

  • Perform physical examinations to evaluate the patient’s health and identify any needs or issues.
  • Implement physicians’ orders, perform treatments, start IVs, administer medications, and interpret special tests.
  • Administer direct care to injured, disabled, ill, or convalescent patients
  • Review patient medical histories and maintain medical records
  • Implement and develop nursing care plans
  • Counsel patients and family members on disease prevention and health maintenance
  • Order and evaluate diagnostic tests to assess patients’ conditions and needs
  • Supervise the work of licensed practical nurses, nursing aides, and assistants
  • Educate patients about their medical conditions and treatment plans
  • Maintain a safe, hygienic working environment
  • Prepare rooms and medical equipment and decontaminate instruments
  • Provide emotional and psychological support

Skills You Need to Be Hired as an RN

As a registered nurse, your role includes assessing and caring for patients with various health issues. You’ll administer nursing care to those who are ill, disabled, convalescing, or injured. This entails maintaining medical records, implementing care plans, and offering guidance on health maintenance and preventive services, like screenings and medications.

Therefore, strong technical nursing skills are vital for excelling in these roles. This is why the requirements for becoming an RN are so rigorous. Patient lives depend on the care provided, making clinical nursing skills essential. Employers typically expect RNs to have the following skills:

  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
  • Treatment planning
  • Case management
  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)
  • Critical care nursing
  • Hospital experience
  • Acute care
  • Life support
  • Telemetry
  • Patient/family education

Summary of Steps

How to Become a Registered Nurse

To be successful as a registered nurse you must build a strong clinical and non-clinical foundation. Registered nurses must have technical nursing skills to administer nursing care, medical knowledge of drug properties and interactions, critical thinking skills to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, organizational skills to implement and coordinate patient care plans, and communication skills to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team.


Take College Prep Courses in High School

Start by building a strong foundation with college prep courses, especially in science and math.


Choose a Nursing Degree Program

Explore nursing programs and pick the one that aligns with your career goals.


Select a Nursing School and Apply for Admission

Investigate and apply to nursing schools, ensuring they offer an accredited RN program


Complete Supervised Clinical Training

Gain practical experience with other nurses through clinical rotations, honing your nursing skills.


Apply for Your RN License

Begin the licensing process by applying for your nursing license.


Pass the National Council Licensure Examination

Successfully pass the NCLEX-RN to earn your nursing license, opening doors to a rewarding nursing career.

Steps in Detail

1. Take College Prep Courses in High School

Many students begin preparing for a future registered nursing career in high school, often without realizing it. The knowledge and skills acquired during high school lay the groundwork for college education and later careers. For instance, nurses use algebra for medication dosage calculations and apply chemistry knowledge to understand processes like glucose metabolism.

High schools frequently offer college preparatory classes, providing students with a head start on the prerequisites necessary for a nursing degree after they receive their high school diploma. Key courses for high school students include English (Language Arts), Science (Biology, Chemistry, Anatomy, Physiology, Nutrition), Math (Algebra, Geometry), Foreign Language, and Social Studies.

2. Choose a Nursing Degree Program

There are three types of pre-licensure degree programs for individuals who wish to become registered nurses. Deciding on the type of nursing program you want to attend is an important decision that will impact you financially and professionally. Future nursing students should be aware of the differences between each program type, the length of time needed to complete each program, the number of credits required to graduate, and each choice’s impact on their future scope of practice.

Associate Degree in Nursing (Two-Year Program)

An associate degree in nursing (ADN) typically spans 18 to 24 months and is available at community colleges, technical, and vocational schools nationwide. Its curriculum and requirements are tailored to prepare you for the NCLEX, allowing you to become a licensed registered nurse swiftly and cost-effectively. Opting for an ADN degree offers a faster track to becoming a nurse, gaining invaluable experience, and helping you generate income sooner.

However, there are certain drawbacks to obtaining an associate degree in nursing, as opposed to pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). Registered nurses with a BSN often enjoy more promising prospects for entry-level nursing positions, including higher initial salaries than ADN graduates. They face reduced competition for coveted roles and may encounter enhanced opportunities for professional advancement. Additionally, depending on the state, formal role distinctions may exist between graduates of different education programs like ADN and BSN.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

BSN degree is recognized for providing students with comprehensive nursing education, resulting in a deeper understanding of disease prevention and health promotion, which can be applied to RN roles, advanced practice nursing, administration, and leadership. Both ADN and BSN programs offer a core nursing curriculum, clinical practice opportunities, and hands-on learning that prepares students to be competent nurses. However, a bachelor of science in nursing program will include some courses that aren’t offered by a standard ADN program. 

3. Select a Nursing School and Apply for Admission

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there are approximately 996 baccalaureate nursing programs and nearly 1,100 associate degree programs in the United States, making the process of selecting an accredited program potentially daunting. With this challenge in mind, it’s crucial to thoroughly research which programs align with your career objectives and personal and academic needs.

When evaluating a nursing program, several key questions should guide your decision-making: Do you prefer a school close to home? Does the institution have a strong reputation for affiliations with hospitals and clinics? How engaged is the faculty in fostering student development? And, importantly, does the program’s curriculum support your desired areas of specialization? These considerations will help you weigh your options and make an informed choice.

4. Complete Supervised Clinical Training Requirements

Clinical rotations are a fundamental aspect of your nursing education and are often seen as a ‘rite of passage’ for aspiring nursing students. These diverse experiences are designed to equip you with the skills to provide safe patient care and offer firsthand insights into hospital protocols and the realities of working as part of a medical team.

The location and duration of your clinical rotations may vary, but the majority occur in hospitals or nursing care facilities where you will engage in real-world bedside care under the guidance of a preceptor and other advanced practice registered nurses, further enhancing your understanding of nursing practices.

5. Apply for RN Licensure

To work as a registered nurse in any U.S. state, you must obtain state licensure from the respective state’s nursing board. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing has set forth uniform licensure requirements, which include verifying your graduation from an approved nursing program, passing a criminal background check, and successfully completing the National Certification Licensing Examination (NCLEX) to provide registered nursing care.

6. Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam

The National Council Licensure Examination exam is a comprehensive national test designed to gauge a nurse’s understanding of the fundamental concepts of nursing. The test covers a range of potential medical challenges that nurses typically encounter on the job, including disease prevention, disease treatment, infection control, safety, pharmacology, and management of care, injuries, and illnesses. The test also measures a nurse’s problem-solving and critical-thinking skills.
193 k+
Job Openings Per Year
$ 89010
Mean Annual Wage
6 %
Job Growth

Registered Nurse Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean annual wage for a registered nurse was $89,010 in May 2022, equivalent to $42.80 per hour. Registered nurses in the lowest 10 percent earned an annual median wage of $61,250 or less while those in the 90th percentile earned a median annual salary of more than $129,400.

Highest-Paying States for RNs

Registered nurse salaries vary depending on location, level of training, industry, area of specialization, and experience level. Generally, registered nurses’ salaries reflect the local cost of living. So, registered nurses working in areas with above-average living costs typically earn higher salaries.
StateHourly Mean WageAnnual Mean WageAnnual 90th Percentile Wage
District of Columbia$47.38$98,540$129,670
New York$44.86$93,320$127,080
New Jersey$43.12$89,690$117,990

Registered Nurse Job Outlook

Employment opportunities for registered nurses have seen continuous growth, exceeding most occupations for many years, and this trend is projected to continue, with an estimated annual growth rate of 6 percent through 2032. Over the next decade, this equates to around 193,100 job openings annually.

The strong surge in job openings is attributed to several factors. A significant proportion of these opportunities arises from hospitals needing to replace personnel who retire or pursue new careers. The aging population, especially the baby boomer generation, contributes to the escalating demand for healthcare services, given that older individuals generally require more medical attention than their younger counterparts.

Furthermore, nursing specialties specializing in older patient care are expected to experience substantial growth in the next decade. Nursing homes, physicians’ offices, ambulatory care facilities, residential care facilities, and home healthcare services will be among the settings where demand is projected to outpace the average.

Registered Nurse Jobs

The nursing profession offers an array of captivating career opportunities for registered nurses. Registered nurses work in diverse settings, pursue numerous credentials and specializations, engage with unique patient populations, and face daily challenges in an ever-evolving environment. Here are some popular career paths for registered nurses:

ER Nurse

Emergency room nurses work as part of a team to provide care for patients with various forms of illness, trauma, and life-threatening conditions that require immediate, emergency attention. They work with physicians, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to administer medicine, perform medical operations, clean and bandage wounds, manage life support needs, and provide basic bedside care.

ICU Nurse

An ICU Nurse is a registered nurse who performs a range of tasks in delivering care to injured or seriously ill patients in intensive care units (patients who have suffered heart attacks, strokes, or undergone invasive surgery). As specialized critical care nurses, their duties included providing constant support during a patient’s recovery, including administering treatment, and diagnostic tests, identifying subtle or sudden changes in a patient’s medical condition, and responding to medical emergencies.

Medical-Surgical Nurse

Medical-surgical nurses typically oversee 5-7 patients, offering care to adults who are ill, injured, or in recovery. Their responsibilities vary by the healthcare setting. A med-surg nurse administers medication, monitors vital signs, changes dressings, performs wound care, implements nursing care plans, and provides patient education and support. When handling multiple patients, they may delegate basic tasks to certified nurse assistants and LPNs on the staff.

Pediatric Nurse

A pediatric nurse provides medical care for patients from birth through adolescence, including infants, children, and individuals ages 10-19. They perform duties similar to those provided for adult patients but with the added challenge of administering care to children who cannot clearly communicate their problems. Pediatric nurses must also offer emotional support, education, and counseling to children and their parents.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) Roles

An advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) is a healthcare professional with advanced clinical expertise in a specialized area of nursing practice, typically holding a master’s degree or doctoral-level degree. APRNs diagnose and treat illnesses, manage chronic health conditions, and educate the public on health matters and preventive care. They often serve as primary care providers, assuming advanced roles in diverse healthcare settings.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist

certified registered nurse anesthetist cares for patients at all acuity and age levels by administering anesthesia, making adjustments to anesthesia, monitoring vital signs, and providing care before, during, and after procedures. They work autonomously and in collaboration with physicians, nurses, and other members of an interprofessional team. The CRNA works in various settings, including surgical, diagnostic, obstetrical, therapeutic, and pain management.

Certified Nurse-Midwife

A certified nurse midwife (CNM) assists women, focusing on pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum health care. They practice within the healthcare system, working under the indirect supervision of gynecologists and obstetricians to diagnose, and treat reproductive health issues, perform screenings, and consult families through their attempts to conceive. Their duties also include preparing women for labor and delivery, assisting with the birthing process, and care for the newborn.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) delivers specialized care for patients with multiple or complex health needs, alongside their standard nursing duties. Their practice encompasses assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients with distinctive conditions, utilizing advanced clinical skills. Clinical nurse specialists often specialize in areas such as cardiology, pediatrics, diabetes, and respiratory.

Nurse Practitioner

nurse practitioner can function as a primary healthcare provider, delivering comprehensive care in both inpatient and outpatient settings. Their role encompasses diagnosis, assessment, and treatment for individuals and families. Nurse practitioners collaborate within healthcare teams but can also practice independently in outpatient clinics, offering general consultations and vital patient education on treatments, wellness strategies, and preventive care for chronic illnesses. Furthermore, they have the authority to order lab tests and prescribe medications for both children and adults.

Additional Resources for Registered Nurses

Registered Nurse FAQ

How many years does it take to become a registered nurse?

The minimum amount of time to become a registered nurse depends on the type of education you pursue. Associate degrees typically take 2-3 years to complete, followed by passing the NCLEX-RN. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) takes 3-4 years of coursework, followed by passing the NCLEX-RN.

Can you become an RN in 2 years?

There are two ways to become a registered nurse in approximately two years or less. Associate degree programs in nursing generally take between 21 and 24 months to complete. Accelerated BSN programs allow people who have earned a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field to complete their bachelor of science in nursing within 12 to 19 months. Both programs prepare students with the core knowledge and clinical skills required to become licensed as an RN.

What is the easiest way to become an RN?

If you are determined to become a registered nurse in the fastest and most direct route possible, then acquiring an ADN remains the quickest option. By pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing, you could begin your registered nursing career in under two years.

What is the difference between an RN and BSN?

The most obvious difference between an RN and BSN is the required amount of classroom and clinical hours. Earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing is a more intensive process that typically results in greater responsibility and higher-paying jobs.

Is there a pay difference between RN and BSN?

Registered nurses with a BSN degree are generally met with better job prospects and higher starting salaries. Studies show that better patient outcomes are linked to higher levels of education, so there is increased demand for BSN-educated nurses.

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