Are you thinking about becoming a registered nurse (RN), but you’re not quite sure about committing to nursing school? It does take plenty of hard work and diligent study to become a licensed registered nurse; however, nurses typically find that their efforts are well worth it. Being a nurse enables individuals to make a meaningful contribution to their community and help others when they need it most.
There is no single answer to the question, “How long is nursing school?” In fact, there are multiple pathways toward becoming an RN, and no one path is right for everyone. In this career guide, you’ll learn about all of the different paths you could take to — and through — nursing school.
How Long Is Nursing School for an Associate Degree?
The quickest route to becoming a licensed RN is to earn an associate degree. An associate degree in nursing typically requires two years of full-time study or up to four years of part-time study.
Do note, however, that the quickest pathway isn’t necessarily the ideal one. It is true that graduates with an associate degree may be able to enter the workforce sooner. However, the preference in the field among employers and standard-setting professional organizations is for nurses who hold at least a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and, ideally, a graduate degree in the field.
According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), when compared to nurses with an associate degree, BSN-prepared nurses demonstrate stronger competencies in 12 out of 16 areas that pertain to healthcare quality and patient safety. Another study has shown that a 10% increase in BSN-prepared nurses in hospital departments is associated with a 10.9% reduction in patient mortality.1
Healthcare employers understand that having more BSN-prepared nurses on their teams is better for their patients and their organization’s reputation. As a result, even if you decide to become a nurse by earning a two-year associate degree, you may eventually have to head back to nursing school to earn a BSN. It’s certainly possible to earn a BSN while already working as a licensed nurse, but earning a BSN right from the start will ultimately save time in the long run.
How Long Does It Take To Become a Nurse With a Bachelor’s Degree?
You may feel that your nursing career would be best served by earning a bachelor’s degree right from the start instead of earning an associate degree first. Typically, bachelor’s degree programs, including nursing programs, take four years to complete. This is assuming that you will be enrolled on a full-time basis.
Compared to an associate degree program, a BSN program will take a deeper dive into nursing competencies. In lecture courses and labs, you will gain a strong understanding of human anatomy and physiology. You’ll explore topics such as:
- Lifespan development
- Applied nutrition
- Behavioral health nursing
A BSN program also affords you the opportunity to tackle clinical rotations. These give you invaluable real-world learning experiences in which you interact directly with patients and family caregivers. Some schools may even offer a preceptorship program that lets you work one-on-one with licensed healthcare providers at partner healthcare organizations.
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How Long Does It Take To Pass the NCLEX-RN?
Of course, “two years” or “four years” aren’t complete answers to the question, “How long does it take to become a nurse?” You will need to complete additional requirements after you have graduated from nursing school. For example, it’s necessary to pass the NCLEX-RN exam.
The NCLEX-RN exam is required of all aspiring RNs, regardless of whether they earned a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree. In most states, nursing school graduates must wait at least 45 days after earning their diploma before they can take the exam. Although there are exceptions, it’s generally advisable not to wait too long after this point to take the test, because the NCLEX-RN is best taken when everything you have learned in nursing classes is still fresh in your memory.
Not everyone passes the exam on their first try. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), a total of 278,815 candidates took the exam in 2021, and 68.85% of them passed (including repeat test-takers). Among first-time test-takers, 86.06% of candidates with bachelor’s degrees passed on the first try, compared to 78.78% of candidates with associate degrees.2
If you do not pass the exam on your first try, you can take it again. However, there is a minimum waiting period of 45 days before candidates are eligible to retake the exam. You can retake the exam as many times as you wish, subject to additional restrictions imposed by various jurisdictions.
Because it’s ideal to pass the NCLEX-RN on the first try, you may not necessarily want to take the test on the first available date after graduation. It’s an individual decision that must be made with respect to your confidence regarding the material. You might prefer to spend a few months in intensive study after nursing school so that you can take the test with greater confidence.
Heading Back to Nursing School for an RN-to-BSN Degree
If you are a licensed RN who earned an associate degree, you may at some point find yourself in need of improving your academic credentials and training. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree can enhance your qualifications and may open the door to new professional opportunities in the field. Fortunately, it’s not necessary for currently practicing RNs to commit to a four-year degree program in order to earn a BSN.
Some nursing schools offer an RN-to-BSN degree program. RN-to-BSN programs are designed specifically for licensed RNs who hold an associate’s degree and would like to upgrade to a bachelor’s degree. Because RN-to-BSN programs can build on your existing skills and knowledge, they do not require the four-year time commitment of a standard BSN program.
The total time commitment varies, depending on the school and your particular circumstances. It may be possible to graduate with a BSN in as few as 12 months, provided you are enrolled on a full-time basis and maintain continuous enrollment. However, in order to graduate this quickly, you must also have a significant number of transfer credits.
For instance, a typical BSN degree might require a total of 120 credits spread out over four years of full-time study. If you bring 90 transferrable credits to the program from your previous studies, you would only need to earn 30 more credits to graduate with a BSN. From this position, it would be possible to graduate in just one year.
How Can Non-Nurses Transition to the Field With an ABSN Degree?
If you are a working professional who holds a non-nursing degree and who works outside the medical field, you might decide that you’re ready for a career transition. However, you might feel that the time it will take to become a licensed nurse would be too much of an investment. Fortunately, there is another option.
Professionals who hold a degree in another field can choose to pursue an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) degree. An ABSN degree builds on knowledge already gained, allowing you to graduate in far less time than if you had enrolled in a standard four-year nursing degree program.
The length of time an ABSN will take varies from one school to the next, and it also depends on your unique situation. Some schools offer the possibility of graduating with an ABSN degree in as few as 16 months, which greatly reduces the time required to become a licensed nurse. This speedy graduation track requires a full-time schedule of classes and labs.
This alternative path through nursing school is generally quicker if you have already completed your first non-nursing degree. If you have not completed your degree, it will take you longer to graduate. Note that some schools may require that students without an earned degree have a certain number of transferrable credits in order to apply for an ABSN degree program instead of a standard BSN degree.
Should Nurses Earn a Graduate Degree?
Regardless of which path you take to achieve licensure as an RN, nursing education doesn’t stop there. As a practicing nurse, you must continually expand your knowledge and clinical skills by taking continuing education courses, reading medical journals and staying on top of the latest trends and research in the field. In addition, you may decide to head back to school to get a graduate degree.
Earning a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in nursing is an excellent choice for professionals who want to sharpen their clinical skills, improve the quality of patient care and strive toward leadership positions. A nurse with a graduate degree may also choose to pursue a career as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). An APRN is a highly educated nurse who is certified for a particular specialization, such as women’s health or pediatrics.
How Long Does It Take To Become an APRN?
An advanced practice registered nurse is a patient-facing clinical professional who is highly educated and specially trained to provide care for a specific patient population and act within a specific role. Before taking a look at the length of time it can take to become an APRN, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of the specific careers within this category. The four main types of APRNs are as follows:
- Certified nurse practitioner (CNP) – Nurse practitioners can work in a range of healthcare settings. They have clinical expertise in diagnostics and treatments, and they tend to emphasize health management and illness prevention. There are various subspecialties available for CNPs, such as family practice, women’s health, pediatrics and geriatrics.
- Clinical nurse specialist (CNS) – A CNS may specialize according to setting (e.g., emergency room or critical care) or the type of care, such as rehabilitation or psychiatric care. A CNS may also specialize according to the type of problem (e.g., pain or wounds), diseases (e.g., diabetes) or population (e.g., pediatrics).
- Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA) – As the title implies, a CRNA is a professional who specializes in preparing patients for surgery, administering anesthesia and monitoring patients in post-op recovery.
- Certified nurse midwife (CNM) – CNMs provide primary healthcare to women with an emphasis on family planning, gynecologic care, preconception planning, prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care and care of the newborn. CNMs may also treat their female clients’ male partners for reproductive health concerns.
RNs who decide that they are ready to pursue the next stage in their career and become APRNs should plan on heading back to nursing school. It’s necessary to earn at least a master’s degree. However, many APRNs hold a doctoral degree in addition to — or in lieu of — a master’s degree.
Not all graduate degrees will lead to an APRN career. For example, a master’s degree in healthcare administration will not enable you, as an RN, to become an APRN. Instead, you must earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) in an APRN specialization area, such as a Master of Science in Nursing: Family Nurse Practitioner (MSN FNP) degree.
You must also accumulate sufficient clinical practice hours and pass a national certification exam in your specialization area. Finally, you must apply for and receive APRN state licensure.
The length of time this process takes will vary from one person to the next. It may take two years or longer to earn an MSN degree, and about three or four years to earn a DNP degree, depending on whether you are enrolled on a full-time or part-time basis. After that, it will take some more time to complete the clinical hours, pass the certifying exam and acquire state licensure.
When you’re ready to join the nursing field and make a positive difference in people’s lives, the admissions personnel at Grand Canyon University are here to assist you. Our Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree program allows students to graduate in as few as 16 months and emerge fully prepared to take the NCLEX-RN. Our ABSN students benefit from highly dedicated faculty members, immersive simulation experiences and clinical rotations across practice areas. This is reflected in our NCLEX-RN pass rate. GCU ABSN students scored a 100% first-time pass rate on the NCLEX-RN exam in the first quarter and second quarters of 2022.3
Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to learn more about joining our nursing school as an ABSN learner.
1 American Association of Colleges of Nursing, The Impact of Education on Nursing Practice in June 2022.
2 National Council of State Boards of Nursing, 2021: Number of Candidates Taking NCLEX Examination and Percent Passing, by Type of Candidate in June 2022.
3 Arizona State Board of Nursing, Arizona NCLEX 2022 Q1 and Q2 Pass Rates for Tucson and Sun City Locations in August 2022.
4 Cannot be used in conjunction with other GCU scholarships or awards.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.