How to Become a Nurse (US)

How to Become a Nurse (US)

For most people, nursing isn’t just a career choice, it’s a calling and passion.

Nurses work directly with patients in a way that many doctors are unable to. They are the primary caregivers in the majority of medical situations and form a core part of many care plans.

If you are considering a career as a nurse, you may be wondering which steps to take and how to take them. In a world of abbreviations, it may be difficult to know what the differences are and what they could mean for you as you progress through your working life.

What Does a Nurse Do?

The responsibilities you might have as a nurse will predominantly depend on the qualifications that you hold.

Nurses will be responsible for actions such as:

  • Administering medication, prescribed by doctors, to patients in hospital
  • Taking and recording vital signs
  • Providing emotional support to patients who are feeling anxious
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Communicating with doctors and other medical professionals regarding patient progress and care plans
  • Communicating with insurance providers on behalf of patients
  • Assisting with physical examinations and procedures

Nurses are often qualified to work in a wide variety of locations and situations, looking after individuals and providing healthcare to people of all ages.

Some of the settings where nurses can work include:

  • Schools
  • Hospitals
  • Doctors' offices
  • Nursing homes and associated care facilities

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse?

The exact length of time it takes to become a nurse will vary depending on the level of nursing qualification you want to achieve.

Understandably, the higher the level of nursing certification you have, the longer it will take to study for it.

What Are the Different Levels of Nursing?

There are four levels of nursing that are recognized in the US:

  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA)
  • Licensed practical nurse (LPN)
  • Registered nurse (RN)
  • Advanced practice registered nurse (APRN)

Each of these contain different levels, predominantly dictated by experience and seniority.

The skills and qualifications needed for each of the levels of nursing vary slightly, and each will have its own areas of expertise and responsibility.

Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Nursing assistants are also commonly known as nursing aides or CNAs.

Technically, a nursing assistant isn’t actually a nurse, but they work alongside doctors and other health professionals to provide care to patients.

Nursing assistants will often provide care such as bathing and feeding patients, and performing daily tasks.

As well as providing practical help to patients, they are trained to measure vital signs and listen to their patients' worries. Depending on the regulations for each state, they may also be able to dispense medications.

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN or LVN)

If you’re looking to become a licensed practical nurse, you will be responsible for providing patient care and administering basic tasks.

You would undertake tasks such as:

  • Inserting cannulas
  • Monitoring vital signs
  • Changing dressings
  • Cleaning wounds
  • Communicating with patients and families

Depending on the regulations for the state, licensed practical nurses may also be able to administer medications.

Registered Nurse (RN)

When most people think of nurses, they are usually thinking about registered nurses.

Amongst other things, registered nurses are responsible for:

  • Reporting patient histories and symptoms
  • Using and monitoring medical equipment
  • Performing procedures, such as inserting cannulas and wound dressing
  • Communicating with other medical professionals, patients and family members
  • Promoting public health and screening programs
  • Providing routine vaccinations

It is also possible for registered nurses to specialize in an area of care to provide treatment to a particular group of patients. Examples of this would be a pediatric registered nurse or an emergency nurse.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

Of the different types of nursing career, the APRN is the highest, most specialized level.

Individuals who are qualified as APRNs work alongside doctors, as well as on their own, to:

  • Provide care to patients
  • Order tests
  • Evaluate results
  • Refer patients to specialists

An APRN is usually specialized to one of four areas:

  • Nurse anaesthetists
  • Certified nurse practitioners
  • Clinical nurse specialists
  • Nurse midwives

People who hold APRN certification also educate future nurses. It is possible to pursue a career that would lead to leadership positions such as director of nursing.

How to Become a Nurse
How to Become a Nurse

Steps to Becoming a Nurse

As previously mentioned, the exact route that you take into nursing will predominantly depend on the type of nurse you are planning to become.

Some levels of nursing will require more qualification than others.

This doesn’t mean that once you have qualified as one type of nurse, you will have to stay in that role for your entire career. Many people choose to progress through their career to different levels as they gain practical experience and knowledge.

How to Become a CNA


Nursing assistants are required to complete an educational program that is approved by the state they are planning on working in.

For most people, an approved program will take less than two months to complete.

Exams and Licensing

Once you have completed the course requirements for your state, you will need to take a test to prove your level of knowledge and understanding. A successful test will lead to certification and the ability to practice in your chosen state.

How to Become an LPN


You will need to check the exact requirements for the state you are planning to work in, but if you’re looking to become a licensed practical nurse, you will need to complete a program of education that is approved by your state.

The programs needed to become an LPN can usually be completed at a community or technical college. The exact length of the course varies from college to college, but it is possible to complete a program within a year.

Exams and Licensing

Once you have completed your chosen course, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination. Successfully passing this will enable you to receive your state license.

How to Become an RN


There is more than one way to become a registered nurse.

You could choose to complete an Associate’s Degree in Nursing or a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing.

The associate’s degree usually takes around 18 months to complete. A bachelor’s degree can also take as little as 18 months, but that will depend on your level of prior education. If you don’t already hold a degree, it will take about three years.

Your choice of educational path will largely depend on what you hope to do during your career. If you would like to work in a hospital setting, the bachelor's degree is usually the better option.

Exams and Licensing

Once you have completed your chosen educational route, you will then need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination. There may also be other requirements for your state, so it is a good idea to check what those are.

Once you have successfully fulfilled the requirements for your state and passed the licensure exam, you will be certified to practice in your chosen state.

How to Become an APRN


If you are considering becoming an APRN, you will need to already hold the qualifications required to be a registered nurse. This will usually be a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing.

Then, you will need to obtain your Master’s of Science in Nursing.

Most people find that it takes around two years to complete a Master’s of Science in Nursing degree.

Exams and Licensing

After completing your educational requirements, you will need to pass a national certification exam tailored to your area of expertise.

The exact requirements for these exams may vary from state to state, so it is a good idea to check what your state expects of you. It is also a good idea to check the renewal requirements for your state.

Which Skills Do Nurses Need?

As well as the core educational requirements needed to gain a nursing license, there are a number of other useful skills.


Sometimes, patients will need you to explain things more than once or you will have to progress through a treatment plan slower than you would like.

This is why it is important to be patient as a nurse. Rushing through procedures or not taking the time to talk things through with patients and families can make them more anxious than necessary.


Whichever level of nursing you choose, communication is a vital skill.

It is likely that you will need to speak to a variety of people every day, from doctors and other medical professionals to patients and concerned family members.

The ability to communicate with people in a clear, concise manner, appropriate for the situation, is essential.


There will be times when your patients may behave unkindly, irrationally or in an unexpected way. This can be for a variety of reasons, including their health problems, fear or negative past experiences.

Being empathetic with your patients can help you to understand why they are acting in a certain way. It can also help you decide which steps you should take to help them.

Critical Thinking

Although, as a nurse, you won’t necessarily be responsible for diagnosing patients, you will be part of the process when it comes to creating and implementing a treatment plan.

You will need to use critical-thinking skills to assess a situation and decide on the steps that should be taken.

You will also need to know which other medical professionals to speak to in a given situation and use problem-solving skills to find solutions.

Ability to Stay Calm Under Pressure

No matter which area of nursing you choose to work within, there will be times when situations occur that are unexpected. These will sometimes be life-and-death situations in which you will need to make decisions quickly and accurately.

It is vital that you can stay calm in these situations. If you let your stress and panic invade your ability to think clearly, mistakes can be made.

Organizational Skills

You will be responsible for completing medical files, administering medication and a vast number of other tasks that require organizational skills. Poor organization can lead to potentially dangerous mistakes.

Final Thoughts

Being a nurse can be extremely rewarding. You will be working directly with patients to help them and provide comfort and reassurance when they need it most.

There are different types of nursing, each requiring its own level of experience, qualification and skills. You can work towards the area that is best suited to you, or change throughout your career.

If you feel you have a calling to become a nurse, take time to research which type of nursing is best for you and the skills and experience needed to make your goal a reality.

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