How to Become a Nurse

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
A nurse records notes on a patient's chart. Tetra Images / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images

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 should also 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 also 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.

These courses can be found among the requirements for various LPN programs:

  • Practical Nursing Arts and Skills
  • Basic Health Assessment for the Practical Nurse
  • Pharmacology Practical Nursing
  • Pharmacology Calculations
  • Lifespan Development
  • Transition to Practice
  • Anatomy and Physiology
  • Medical Terminology

RNs train for between two and four years, earning a Bachelor's 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 RN to Bachelor's Degree or RN to Master's degree programs for students who have Associate Degrees or Diplomas in Nursing.

Here is a sampling of courses that are listed among the requirements of various registered nurse education programs:

  • Informatics in Healthcare
  • Introduction to Professional Nursing Practice
  • Community Health Nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Gerontological Nursing
  • Nutrition
  • Leadership and Management in Nursing
  • Foundations of Organic Chemistry
  • Introduction to Psychology
  • Introduction to Sociology

Regardless of the type of program you plan to attend make sure it is one that is, at least, approved by the state in which you want to practice. If it is not, you won't be able to get licensed. You should also 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 United States 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 have to move. The CCNE accredits only bachelor's degree and more advanced degree programs. Shorter programs including associate degree, diploma and LPN programs, therefore, can only be accredited by the ACEN (Source: Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) Accreditation. allNursing Schools).

Getting Into a Nursing Program

Admission requirements and procedures differ by school and by type of program. Please check with the institutions in which 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 and physical exam and at least one professional reference.

Generally, when applying for admission to an associate or bachelor's degree RN program  you usually have to follow the regular admissions protocol for the institution. That means they will likely ask for your high school transcript and scores from college entrance exams, for example the SAT or ACT. Some nursing schools require applicants to take the National League for Nurses Pre-Entrance Exam. If you are applying to an associate degree in nursing or a diploma in nursing program you may also 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 may also have to take an entrance exam for admission to a practical nursing program. In addition, there may be prerequisites, for example high school chemistry.

What You Must Do After You Graduate From Nursing School

After completing an RN or LPN program you will have to apply for a license in the state in which 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 their 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.

Getting Your First Nursing Job

What qualities are employers of nurses looking for in job candidates? These job specifications come directly from job announcements found in a variety of sources.

Excerpts from Job Announcements for RNs

  • "Ability to maintain interpersonal relationships."
  • "Work effectively to solve problems."
  • "Excellent communication skills to effectively educate and assist patients."
  • "Knowledge of and functional in computer patient medical record systems."

Excerpts from Job Announcements for LPNs

  • "Ability to multitask."
  • "Excellent verbal/written communication and interpersonal skills."
  • "Must be able to lift 50 lbs and exert 100 lbs of force."
  • "Must be able to relate positively and favorably to individuals and families and work cooperatively with other associates."