Nursing School Requirements by Degree Level

Read about undergraduate and graduate nursing school degree programs. Learn about degree levels and courses, in addition to career choices, salary trends, nurse licensing and continuing education for nursing specialty certifications.

Essential Information

There are several degree options in the field of nursing, depending on previous education and nursing interests. Students may begin a registered nursing career by earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Nurses who wish to continue their education and become nurse practitioners or specialists may consider a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Master's programs offer a variety of concentrations, including gerontology, emergency care and obstetrics. At each degree level, nursing programs usually have specific admissions and curriculum requirements. All levels include clinical practicums and labs, as well as lecture-based courses.

Associate Degree in Nursing

An ADN program typically takes two years to complete. ADN programs are designed to prepare students to take the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nurses (NCLEX-RN), which is required to become a registered nurse (RN). Clinical components of a course help students prepare for the demands of a career as a RN. Students also gain a solid foundation in science to assist them with their clinical studies. Upon completing a program, students are ready to enter the workforce where they'll assist healthcare providers with the care of patients in a variety of healthcare settings.

Educational Prerequisites

For any ADN program, students must have a high school diploma or equivalent. Some schools may also consider high school grade point averages and grades in science classes as part of the admissions process. In some situations, schools may prefer that students complete general education courses before being admitted into the nursing program. This allows the school to see the student's grades in college-level work. For most programs, students need to be vaccinated for Hepatitis B or pass other health screening requirements.

Course Topics

To prepare to become a RN, an ADN program teaches students through classroom study and clinical work. In the classroom, students get a foundation in nursing skills and science courses. Clinical courses allow students to work in the field, learning practical skills in nursing. Topics covered include these:

  • Pharmacology
  • Mental health nursing
  • Human development
  • Psychology
  • Anatomy
  • Patient assessments
  • Adult health concepts
  • Microbiology
  • Patient management

Employment Outlook and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered nurses represented the largest occupation in healthcare in 2008 with about 2.6 million jobs ( About 60% of those jobs were found in hospitals. The BLS projected a job growth of 22% from 2008-2018.

The mean annual wage as of May 2010 for registered nurses was $67,720. The 10th-90th percentile range wages were $44,190-$95,130. The median annual wage was $64,690, reported the BLSs.

Continuing Education Information

All states require nurses to be licensed, which involves meeting state-specific requirements and passing the NCLEX-RN. Nurses who've completed ADN programs and wish to pursue advanced nursing positions may continue their education through a bachelor's degree or graduate degree in nursing.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A BSN program prepares students to take the NCLEX-RN and become a registered nurse. Some schools may offer different options for completing a BSN program, including a traditional 4-year program, an accelerated program and an RN-to-BSN program for students who are already a registered nurse.

Education Prerequisites

To enter a BSN program, students will probably need to meet minimum grade point average (GPA) requirements. Most schools will also require students to maintain a minimum GPA throughout the program to stay enrolled. Some schools may require students to complete lower-level or foundational coursework before being allowed to enroll in a BSN program.

Course Topics

Courses in a BSN program include general education and nursing specific courses, along with clinical work. Students usually complete the general education course work first. Then they move into the nursing courses and end with the clinical work. Nursing topics covered in a BSN program may include the following:

  • Pathophysiology
  • Nursing care basics
  • Pharmacology
  • Illness management
  • Family nursing care
  • Community nursing
  • Medical ethics

Popular Career Options

After completing a BSN program and obtaining a nursing license, nurses may work in a variety of settings and specialty areas. Nursing care is needed in hospitals, healthcare centers, clinics, nursing homes and hospice organizations. In addition, nurses may work in several specialty fields, including these:

  • Home health
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Public health
  • Mental health
  • Emergency care

Continuing Education Information

RNs may wish to seek certification through a professional organization, such as the American Nurses Association. Professional certification can help an RN prove his or her competency in a specialty area.

Nurses may also wish to complete master's or doctoral degrees in nursing in order to qualify for advanced practice nursing positions, work in research or to start a career in nursing education.

Master of Science in Nursing

An MSN program prepares students to enter advanced practice nursing. A master's degree program is designed for students who are already registered nurses and have worked as a nurse. Programs generally take two years to complete, and students study in the area of advanced practice they wish to enter.

Education Prerequisites

Entry into a master's degree program usually requires an active nursing license, a bachelor's degree in nursing and letters of reference. Some schools may require students to pass a drug screening and criminal background check.

Course Topics

Many MSN programs are designed to allow students to specialize in a specific nursing career track, such as adult nurse practitioner, neonatal nurse practitioner or health educator. Due to this, the curriculum can vary greatly with different course requirements and clinical practicums. General topics covered in a program may include these:

  • Pharmacology
  • Nursing informatics
  • Nursing research
  • Complex healthcare concepts
  • Patient care management

Popular Career Options

Graduates of a master's degree program in nursing are prepared to enter advanced practice nursing specialty areas. Graduates may qualify for positions such as these:

  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Nurse practitioner
  • Nurse midwife
  • Nurse anesthetist

Continuing Education Information

Advanced practice nurses must meet additional requirements set by each state, such as additional licensing or certification. Students who wish to go into research or education positions may consider furthering their education in a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

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