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How to Become an RN (Registered Nurse)

Nursing students must graduate from state approved nursing programs to qualify for a license as a registered nurse, complete a state licensing application process and a background check and pass a national exam. Once they are licensed they can legally work as RNs in health care facilities such as hospitals, clinics, doctor's offices and as emergency rescue personnel. Licensed RNs have the option of furthering their knowledge and skills by participating in a hospital residency program.


Start your education in high school and get a jump-start on building your skills and knowledge. Local community colleges may offer a pre-nursing program for students who want to attend a nursing program upon high school graduation. Speak to your guidance counselor about taking pre-nursing courses starting in your junior year of high school.

Choose an educational path. Registered nurses have options for education: a two-year associate degree program or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, known as a BSN. Four-year degrees could qualify you for management level nursing positions in the future. Some states also include RN level clinical experience and training obtained as a military corpsman.

Apply for admission to a nursing school program. Check with the school's admissions office to find out which entrance exams are required. Entrance exam choices may include the SAT, the ACT or the National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Exam. Apply at more than one school to make sure you get admitted to at least one.

Complete your nursing program. You must graduate from a nursing program and be able to provide a transcript proving your graduation before becoming a registered nurse. A partial education will not allow you to become an RN.

Licensing Process

Contact your state's board of nursing to discover how to become licensed. Every RN is licensed through a state's board of nursing. Requirements include proof of education, a fingerprint background check, a licensing fee and passing the Registered Nurse exam created by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. The exam is referred to as the NCLEX.

Complete the registered nurse application for examination obtained through your state's board of nursing. It is important to complete the state's application fully. Background checks may require a separate fee from the licensing fee. Transcripts must be sent directly from your school to the board of nursing. Some application items may require notarization.

Register to take the NCLEX through Pearson Vue. Pearson Vue is a third-party testing service used by the NCSBN to manage the testing process. After submitting your state application, you must register with Pearson Vue. Registration for the NCLEX requires a $200 testing fee that is a separate expense from the licensing and background fees paid.

Receive your notice of Approval to Test from Pearson Vue and your eligibility letter from the state board of nursing. Two to four weeks after submitting your completed application, you will receive a letter of eligibility from the board. Approximately four weeks after you register with Pearson Vue, you will receive the Approval to Test. At that point, schedule your exam date through the Pearson Vue website.

Prepare for and take the NCLEX. Study programs for the NCLEX are available from third-party sources. Pearson Vue provides a tutorial on its website to assist you in understanding how the test is taken and what the test screen looks like during testing. The NCSBN does not endorse any particular study program.

Receive your test results and RN license from your state board of nursing. Pearson provides an option called the “Quick Results Service” to state nursing boards that allows you to learn your test results within 48 hours for a fee of $7.95. If your state does not provide the “Quick Results Service,” you will need to wait up to a month to receive your results and your license from your state board of nursing.

Apply for a residency programs and develop specialty skills. Although not part of the licensing process, specialty skills training can lead to better pay. Requirements will vary but many hospitals prefer residency applicants to have a year or less of work experience. Areas covered include surgery, oncology, emergency and critical care nursing.


Some states may ask applicants to verify their English language skills by taking a competency test as part of their RN licensing application.


Alex Burke holds a degree in environmental design and a Master of Arts in information management. She's worked as a licensed interior designer, artist, database administrator and nightclub manager. A perpetual student, Burke writes Web content on a variety of topics, including art, interior design, database design, culture, health and business.