How to choose a nursing program

When choosing a nursing program, first consider factors such as your desired job setting and salary. Then, think about how much you’re willing to spend—both time and money—on your degree. 

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Once you get the letters RN behind your name, thousands of doors will open to you in hundreds of different industries. With an aging population increasingly reliant on medical expertise, nurses are assured of many rewarding opportunities. 

But the first step toward donning scrubs and strapping that stethoscope around your neck is choosing the right nursing program. And by “right” we mean the one that logistically works for your life and will get you the job you want. If your goal is to work in research at an academic medical institution your pathway into nursing might be different than someone aiming for a job on a medical/surgical floor in a community hospital.

How long will a nursing degree take?

The shortest option to get your RN is an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) unless you already have a degree, then an accelerated bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) may be the quickest.

Associate’s degree nursing (ADN): Most are 2 years.

Bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN): Traditional BSN programs are 4 years. For people who already hold a college degree, there are 12-18 months accelerated BSN options. Note: Prerequisite coursework requirements will lengthen total duration of study.

Entry-into-practice Master’s (MS/MSN): These are similar in length to accelerated BSN programs.

Are you interested in a vocational program instead? Check out Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) programs.  

Is nursing school expensive?

The higher the degree achieved usually the more expensive the degree. In-state and in-county public school tuition will be the least expensive option.

ADN programs: $3,000 to over $20,000* 

BSN programs: $40,000-100,000+* 

MS/MSN: $35,000-60,000+*

*Prerequisite coursework means additional cost. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has financial aid resources here

Does the type of degree matter for my future salary?

Median salary for all RNs is $73,300. A Medscape survey of average nurse annual salaries showed BSN-prepared RNs earn $5,000 more than ADN-prepared RNs. It did not record data for entry-into-practice MS/MSN.

What do I need before I apply?

ADN and 4-year BSNs require a high school diploma or GED. The first 2-4 semesters will include college general education, science and math coursework. Accelerated BSN and MS/MSN programs generally require a completed degree in another area of study. Prerequisite courses like biology, nutrition, statistics, anatomy & physiology and others are still needed. 

Many second-degree RN programs require a basic academic skills exam for admission. Two common options are the National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Examination (NLN-PAX) or the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) exam. Both include questions on reading, science, math and English language. Prepare for the exam by obtaining a practice book or looking online for free test resources. 

But which degree program will get me the job I want?

With any of the above degrees, you will have the same scope of practice as all registered nurses. But a AACN 2019 survey on RN job placement found that BSN/MS/MSN prepared RNs may have better initial job placement than ADNs. 53.2 percent of “all RNs” had jobs at graduation versus 75 percent of BSNs and 75 percent of MS/MSNs. 

Why? One reason may be that the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released a report in 2010 recommending by 2020, 80 percent of RNs should have their BSN. These recommendations have crept into hospital hiring processes partially due to their pursuit of Magnet status. Magnet recognized hospitals have been shown to have better patient outcomes. Hospitals want to increase their percentage of BSN-prepared nurses to help them become Magnet. If you are hired as an ADN, many hospitals require you to earn  your BSN within a fixed number of years. Some hospitals may not hire ADNs for critical care units. It depends on the culture in your region. 

Generally speaking, ADN programs tend to focus on skills while BSN and MS/MSN programs add to this an emphasis on research and leadership. 

I’ve chosen which type of degree I want. Now what?

Check for accreditation: 

No matter what program you choose, make sure they’re accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) and offer plenty of in-person clinical experience. State Boards of Nursing set the licensure requirements. Check your state’s nursing board website to ensure your program meets accreditation requirements. 

Evaluate program design:

Ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Do you want a part-time or a full-time program?
  2. Are you interested in online or in-person instruction?

Some programs are designed for flexibility, while others have rigid schedules. Evaluate your life to determine what type of program will be a good fit. Part-time programs let you move through the coursework at your own pace, but they take longer. Online programs are ideal for self-motivated learners who need maximum flexibility. Although, some still have mandatory class attendance times. And even if your instruction is online, you must have in-person clinical experience. Clinical sites may be scattered in multiple directions from the school itself or your home. Find out how these are assigned by asking the institution. 

Check admission rates and requirements: 

RN programs are becoming more competitive due to faculty shortages and class size constraints. Check out the published admission rates to get a sense of how competitive your program is. Programs with higher admission rates may be more expensive on average. Some programs with lower admission rates have active waiting lists and extensive application requirements. 

Check each program’s minimum and median GPA and test scores. Some schools want GPAs >3.8 while less competitive ones may be less stringent. You will need copies of transcripts and test scores.  Many also want references or letters of recommendation. You may need to get basic life support (BLS) CPR certification from the American Heart Association (AHA) before applying. The more competitive RN programs may require personal statement essays or an in-person meeting with an admission counsellor akin to a job interview. 

With qualified candidates being turned away from nursing schools, stand out in the applicant pool by considering your work experience and extracurricular activities. Highlight relevant volunteer and community involvement. 

Take a look at job placement rates:

Ask an admission representative about the percentage of program graduates who have found jobs quickly after achieving their degree. If you have a hospital or other institution you would like to work for specifically, check out which programs have clinicals or a relationship there. 

Ask about NCLEX pass rates:

After you finish your degree, you will be taking the NCLEX to achieve your RN license. The good news is that in 2019, 73.71 percent of NCLEX test takers passed the exam. Programs with higher pass rates may do a better job preparing you for the exam and practice. A recent study by GWU showed that for-profit nursing schools have markedly lower pass rates on the NCLEX than traditional colleges and universities. 

Take a peek at the rankings:

The more illustrious the program ranking, often the more intense the requirements for admission. But no matter the ranking, as long as you attend a reputable school, you will achieve your nursing license. Better ranked schools may have better faculty, high-tech simulation equipment, clinical experience sites or smaller class sizes. If you’re looking to achieve a higher degree in the future, ranking may be more important. 

Bottom line

Choosing an RN program may feel overwhelming, but as long as you choose a reputable program, there’s no wrong answer. Once you decide which degree you want, pick which program is the best fit for your life. You have everything you need to get started.