How To Become A Registered Nurse – the Simple Guide

Debra Riley


This article looks at all you need to know about what  a registered nurse does and how to become one in the United States. While almost any empathetic individual can adapt to and embrace the role of a “caregiver”, it undeniably takes far much more to become a legitimate registered nurse.

For a registered nurse, one of the most evident assets that is used to define them, as well as set them apart from the average caregiver, is the compulsory higher education that they have obtained.

Registered nurses generally have 3 main ways of obtaining this prerequisite higher education:

  1. a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN)
  2. an associate degree in nursing (ADN)
  3. a nursing diploma

However, this is not all that is need to obtain the title of “Registered Nurse”. After you have successfully completed any one of these programs, it is necessary to take – and pass – the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This is basically a national license. After all of this, you have to fulfill all of their state specific licensing requirements – and then they are good to go! Easy, right?

To some people this might seem like an overly excessive amount of work and licensing to just get a simple job – that is true, I agree. However, being a registered nurse is not just a job, it is a full blown career that is well worth all of the preliminary requirements that are needed to obtain it.

Don’t let the red tape put you off – it isn’t as complicated as it first seems and every RN has to go through it.

Nurses serve as a “middleman” of sorts between the patients under their personal care and the various healthcare professionals who are responsible for treating these patients. This of course is slightly over simplified as many nurse specialties are actually giving primary care as well – but bare with me!

The following is a concise – yet very beneficial – guide that is meant to be extremely useful to individuals who desire a fulfilling career as a registered nurse. It covers: the job description, specialties available, and much more.

Job Description Of a Registered Nurse (RN)

In the United States alone, there are over 2.6 million registered nurses and that number is growing rapidly with each passing year. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) states that almost 30 percent of these nurses are employed in Surgical and General Medical hospitals.

The remaining registered nurses are employed in a wide variety of industries such as : government organizations, physicians’ agencies, clinics, schools, the military, long term care facilities, and home health care locations.

Regardless of where they work, virtually all registered nurses share some of the same responsibilities, some of these include:

  • aiding physicians
  • directing educational efforts related to public health
  • helping with medicinal procedures
  • managing and caring for patients

If the scenario calls for it, RN ‘s are also expected to operate and effectively utilize treatment equipment and monitoring equipment (based on their prior knowledge). Likewise, they are also expected to dutifully take on the responsibility of administering relevant medications to patients under their care.

Registered nurses may also choose to undertake proposed professional training or work towards obtaining specialized certifications. Some of the various medical specialties that are usually available to registered nurses are: surgical, pediatric, geriatric, emergency care, and neonatal care.

Virtually all registered nurses have work schedules that are based around shifts (either stable or rotating), coupled with erratic emergency periods and volatile overtime. Furthermore, all registered nurses are personally responsible for the maintenance of their relevant licensing and to a comparable extent they are also responsible for their further education.

This may either be in the form of a bachelor’s or master’s degree, with the endgame being an obvious climb up their respective career chain. There are good opportunities for career advancement.

registered nurse rn guide

Specialties Available To Registered Nurses

It is a fact that one of the major factors that makes a career in nursing both valuable and viable is the growing demand for professional nurses. This is even more relevant for nurses who have taken it upon themselves to obtain a specialty in a certain area or areas.

Knowledge is most certainly power – and in any competitive career, knowledge is a quality that absolutely cannot be overlooked.

There are quite literally dozens of diverse nursing specialties that interested professionals can choose from. As a result of this there is virtually always a specific niche specialty for even the pickiest person and you are sure to find something that you would be comfortable doing.

While rn salaries and workloads may vary between specialties, your paycheck is guaranteed to be an improvement over that of a general registered nurse (in the same state, etc.) and you proficiency as a caregiver will obviously be vastly improved.

nursing guide

Here a just a few of the most common nursing specialties that are available to registered nurses:

  • Geriatric Nurse
  • Public Health Nurse
  • Ambulatory Care Nurse
  • Pediatric Nurse
  • Psychiatric Nurse
  • HIV/AIDS Care Nurse
  • Certified Nurse Midwife
  • School Nurse
  • Trauma/Emergency Nurse
  • Military Nurse
  • Transplant Nurse
  • Home Health Care Nurse
  • Plastic Surgery Nurse
  • Domestic Violence Nurse

Pre-Entry To Registered Nurse Programs

What education level do you need to start training as a RN?  

For all registered nurse programs (BSN, ADN, nursing diploma), it is generally expected that any potential applicant be at least 18 years old. In addition to this, they should also have concluded a high school education and obtained a high school diploma as an indication of this (however some states will usually accept equivalent certification).

While not mandatory, it is ideal if prospective applicants have also successfully completed relevant high school coursework in the following areas:

  • English
  • Mathematics
  • Biology
  • Psychology

Successful completion of relevant advanced placement classes, such as; physiology and anatomy, is also extremely valuable for applicants. Be aware that in terms of classes taken there may be some flexibility depending on your chosen program.

Consider subscribing to some popular nursing magazines – they can be a great learning tool and introduce you to what life is like working in nursing.

RN Licensing

You will have to meet certain licensing requirements before you can receive your RN license.  According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing you should have:

  • Graduated from a state accredited program
  • Sat and passed the NCLEX
  • Self-report on all current or previous disabilities, criminal convictions/charges, and drug dependency.

You will need to obtain a RN license to work in any state after successfully completing an accredited program. The application process can be lengthy so candidates are urged to start as soon as possible.

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The tests usually cost around $200 and in most states you will have to undergo a criminal background check before you can sit the test. After you have passed the test you can apply for your license with the State Boards of Nursing.

The State Boards are tasked with evaluating applications and ensuring that candidates meet all the necessary guidelines before issuing a license.

The test is usually administered on a PC and may consist of as many as 205 multiple choice questions to test your knowledge on different subject matter. You are generally given five hours to complete the test.

Preparation and guidance of this process will indeed be covered extensively during your training program – so don’t worry too much about the details at the start, just be aware of the process.

You’ll also learn about Nursing Licensure Compact states – this is a sytem where you can use your licensing in your home state to work in any state in the eNLC program. Unfortunately not all states are signed up at present.


Below is a brief outline of training to be a RN – I have a more detailed Registered Nurse Training Guide you can read here.

There are three main paths you can follow when training to become a RN: a diploma in nursing, an associate degree, a bachelor of science. Cost is one of the most prominent factors affecting which qualification a person chooses to get but the duration of the study is also important.

Like many traditional colleges, several hospitals are now offering nursing diploma programs which you can complete in three years. Like associate degree programs, diploma programs are designed to prepared candidates for the NCLEX-RN.

Associate degree programs can generally be completed in two years and they are offered by many community colleges, regular 4-year colleges, and universities. The major difference between diploma programs and ADNs is that the diploma programs are focused mainly on giving students hands-on experience on how to function in health care facilities.

The associate degree programs are usually divided into clinical hours and theoretical courses such as: anatomy, pharmacology, psychology, human development, patient assessments, microbiology, adult health concepts, patient management and mental health nursing.

The BSN gives candidates an edge over other RNs with lower qualifications. Most employers are welcoming to nurses who have earned a BSN and the Institution of Medicine is now asking that at least 80% of nurses possess a BSN.

The program is offered by many colleges and universities and usually takes four years to be completed. Courses covered in the program include: pathophysiology, nursing care basics, pharmacology, illness management, family nursing care, community nursing, and medical ethics.


Are you kidding – that’s what this site is all about! Check out the main Nurse Salary by State page for a breakdown of states, areas and industries – find the best places to live and work as a Registered Nurse in terms of earning potential. It does vary quite a bit from state to state. Don’t forget to check out our main page covering Nusing Salaries for different nursing careers.

Job Outlook for RN’s

Job vacancies for registered nurses are expected to increase by 10% by 2022, which is very impressive in comparison to other professions.  Of course this is largely due to the fact that the average human lifespan has been greatly extended and there is a growing need for medical care for elderly people.

More registered nurses are also retiring and are opening up gateways for new nurses to enter the health sector. There has also been an increase in the number of diseases, such as diabetes and obesity, leading to a higher demand for healthcare.

Health and wellbeing – the new Obsessions of the nation! of course the outlook for jobs in nursing is good!

Also covered on this site – LPN / LVN Guide – often used as a stepping stone to becoming a registered nurse. If you are already a qualified RN – the Nurse Practitioner guide or CRNA Guide may be your next step in career progression. I hope you find something to help your journey!

Ever wonder what a nurse symbol is? In have an article all about that – you might find it interesting!