The Complete Guide to Getting into Nursing School
By: Kathleen Gaines, MSN, BA, RN, CBC
Getting into nursing school is a dream come true for most prospective nurses but the process can be daunting. Nurse.org has broken down the process to help you secure a spot into your first-choice nursing program.
Steps to Getting Into Nursing School
- Graduate high school or earn your GED
- Get your prerequisites
- Research nursing programs
- Make a plan for paying for nursing school
- Complete the application
- Apply early
- Nail the admissions interview
- Wait for the acceptance letters
1. Graduate High School or Earn Your GED
To get into a nursing degree program, you must be a high school graduate or have earned your GED. Regardless of which type of nursing program you plan on applying to (BSN or ADN) this first step is required.
2. Make Sure You Have the Right Prerequisites
Whether you apply for an ADN or BSN nursing program, all schools require specific prerequisite courses. These are classes generally taken in high school and are used as the foundation that is built upon in advanced, college-level classes.
Nursing School Prerequisites
- One year of high school biology with a C or better
- One year of high school chemistry with a C or better
- Two years of college-preparatory math with a C or better
- GPA of 2.75 or higher for ADN program or GPA of 3.0 or higher for BSN program
- SATs or TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills)
Specific prerequisites will vary based on the program, so it is very important to check with an admissions counselor prior to applying. Typically, BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) programs will require more perquisites than an ADN (Associate Degree in Nursing) program.
Some universities will require a minimum high school GPA of 3.2. The GPA required to get into an Ivy League school nursing program, such as the University of Pennsylvania, may be different than the GPA needed to get into the University of Florida’s nursing program.
3. Research Nursing Programs
It’s important to decide what kind of nursing program you are interested in. Ask yourself the following questions as you compare accredited institutions:
- Are you interested in a large public university in a major city or a small private college in a rural setting?
- Do you have the ability to live on campus or do you have to commute?
- Are you planning on going to an ADN or BSN nursing program?
- How will you pay for school?
- Do you want to move away from home?
- Do you already have an LPN or LVN license?
One of the biggest decisions is choosing between an ADN program and a BSN program. With the increase in BSN programs and the ongoing push for all new graduates to have a bachelor’s degree, associate degree nursing programs are becoming less and less popular.
In 2010, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health report. This report made a strong recommendation that 80% of Registered Nurses should have their bachelor’s degree by 2020.
The nursing field didn’t meet this goal, but it made a lot of progress. About 60% of registered nurses have baccalaureate degrees, and the number continues to rise.
The report also informed the need for change in nursing education in order to meet the changes in healthcare. This recommendation was made for a few key reasons including the increasing complexity of care and hospital magnet status.
Differences Between ADN and BSN Nursing Programs
Advantages of an Associate Degree in Nursing
Disadvantages of an Associate Degree in Nursing
4. Determine How You are Going to Pay for Nursing School
College isn’t cheap. Nursing programs are not cheap. Most students require financial assistance and that is why it is important to speak to a financial aid representative at the university or community college to understand your options.
Not everyone will qualify for all the different types of aid that are available but scholarships, grants, and federal loans help make the cost of nursing school more manageable for many students.
Here’s a more in-depth breakdown of the different types of monetary aid that is available. Remember, research the different types of aid you may be eligible for and apply early.
A scholarship is an award of financial aid to a student to further their education. This money does not have to be repaid. There are a variety of different types of scholarships. These include:
- Student-specific (gender, race, religion, family, and/or medical history)
Most scholarships will require letters of recommendation, academic transcripts, and personal essays. Monetary amounts can be as little as $100 to as much as the cost of your education. You can apply to multiple scholarships as long as the school is on the approved list.
Grants are awarded based on financial need. They can be used to cover the cost of tuition, books, clinical uniforms and supplies, housing and educational supplies. When applying for grants they will inform how they are to be applied towards your education. The amount of money you are eligible to receive depends strictly on your financial situation.
Typically grants do not have to be repaid as long as you graduate nursing school and earn licensure in the allotted amount of time. If you were to drop out there can be incurred costs.
Unlike scholarships and grants, loans must be repaid. Loans incur interest, so you will ultimately repay more than the initial amount of the loan. The exact terms of the loan will depend on the lender and other factors. There are several types of student loans.
The most common loans are Federal Student Loans. Federal student loans are a great option for most students for the following reasons:
- They don’t have to be paid back while you’re in school.
- They charge lower interest than loans from private lenders.
- If you’re having trouble paying back your loan, there are programs you can qualify for to assist you.
- You don’t need any credit history to get a federal student loan.
Two other fairly common loans are direct subsidized loans and direct unsubsidized loans more commonly referred to as Stafford Loans.
Direct Subsidized Loans
- U.S. Department of Education loan
- Must meet certain income requirements
- Demonstrate financial need
- Government pays interest rate on loan while in schools
- Pay back once graduated
Direct Unsubsidized Loans
- U.S. Department of Education loan
- Don’t have to meet income requirements
- Student is responsible for accrued interest
- Pay back once graduated
Federal Perkins Loans
- Very low-income students
- Lender is the education institution
- Meet income requirements
- School must have funds available, limited monetary amounts
Private Student Loans
- From banks and credit unions
- Very high interest rates
- Payments required while in school
Some student loans (not private loans) could be forgiven if you work in public health or in other targeted areas of the nursing field.
5. Complete the Application
Each nursing program will have its own admission packets and information that must be submitted. Universities across the country accept the Common Application or Universal College Application. Check with an admissions counselor as utilizing these forms can save an applicant time and money.
- Official transcript from high school and other college-level coursework
- Standardized test scores
- Admission application
- Personal essay or statement letter
- Letters of recommendation
- Volunteer experience (preferably in healthcare; ideally with duties connected to patient care)
- Application fee (fee can be waived if application is submitted during tour of campus)
- Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) if applicable
We recommend applying to multiple nursing programs as these programs are highly competitive. If accepted to several programs, you can then decide which school of nursing is the best fit academically and financially.
7. Apply Early
Applying early reinforces the applicant's commitment, as well as his or her eagerness to enter the program. Furthermore, early application gives admission counselors time to contact you if there is a need for supplemental information. Some major universities offer early acceptance to the nursing program and others offer rolling admission.
8. Nail Your Admission Interview
The interview is a chance for the applicant to sell themselves. Nursing program committee members want to know why a student would make a good nurse and be a positive representative of the program.
Get used to this kind of pressure because you’ll face it again after you’ve earned your RN license if you apply for nurse practitioner programs or other advanced degree programs.
Important things to remember during the interview process
- Be up to date on current health stories
- Prepare by practicing mock interviews
- Know key facts about the nursing program and the university
- Don’t lie, evade, or embellish during the interview
While the type of questions asked at nursing school interviews is expansive and differs for every program, most nursing school interview questions fall into one of the following categories:
- Traditional, open-ended
- Personality and involvement
- Situational or ethical dilemma
- Current affair
9. Wait for the Acceptance Letters to Roll In
This is the hardest part of the application process. You’ve researched, applied, and now all you do is wait. Some nursing programs will have rolling admissions and others will send out acceptance or rejection letters at specific times.
3 Ways to Make Your Application Stand Out From the Competition
The competition for nursing schools is tough but there are ways to increase your chances and make yourself stand out amongst the other applications. Here are 3 ways to set yourself apart and set yourself up for success.
Not all universities require volunteer work, however it is encouraged by college admission counselors. Ideal prospective students should volunteer at a community clinic or hospital.
Volunteering not only gives an applicant experience and a view into the nursing profession, but it also looks good on an application. It allows students to know if nursing is the right career path, with ample time to change their plans if need be.
It’s important to show nursing programs that you are invested in the healthcare industry and have the initiative to expand your knowledge even prior to nursing school. This will make your application for enrollment more competitive amongst hundreds of other applications.
Students who wish to expand their volunteer resume can also join an organization such as the American Red Cross. While the majority of volunteers are needed internationally, the Red Cross does have local chapters with numerous volunteer opportunities.
One benefit of volunteering with the Red Cross is that they allow volunteers to tailor their experience towards their nursing career goals. For example, if a volunteer is interested in child health, there are opportunities to work in daycare and school settings. According to the American Red Cross website, additional opportunities for nursing students include teaching first aid, assisting with local blood drives, and providing disaster response.
2. Become a Certified Nursing Assistant
Becoming a CNA can add valuable work experience to a prospective nursing students’ resume. CNA education requirements take only several months to complete but can provide a great insight into the healthcare field. Additionally, it also can help pay for nursing school. A lot of people start their nursing practice as CNAs.
3. Know Why You Want to Be a Nurse
This may sound basic, but it’s extremely important. Most nurses can describe the moment they realized they wanted to be a nurse and specifically why. It’s important to know, fundamentally, why nursing is your passion or at least why you think it is.
During the interview process, application committees will want to know why you are interested in the nursing profession. Have a clear and concise answer.
Knowing why you want to become a nurse will also help motivate you when you’re bogged down in microbiology, human anatomy, and general education coursework that seems to go on forever.
The nursing school application process can be competitive and stressful, but stay positive! If you know nursing is what you want to do with your life, you’ll make it happen.