How to Study Nursing in the U.S.

When we think of healthcare professionals, typically doctors are the first to come to mind. However, many will agree that the true unsung heroes of medicine are nurses, as they work closely with patients of all ages in a variety of settings. In fact, there’s a saying that doctors diagnose, but nurses heal. 

In the United States, healthcare professionals face rigorous training requirements. As a result, nursing students can access a high-quality, globally recognized education. Nursing studies can open doors to numerous opportunities for both professional and personal development. Since nurses are always in high demand, it’s an attractive and stable career choice. 

Want to learn how to study nursing in the U.S.? In this guide, we’ll explain how the education system and labor market work, the different roles available, and how to receive financial aid for your studies. Keep reading to find out more! 

Why Nursing?

There are numerous reasons to pursue a career in nursing. First and foremost, job opportunities are abundant, and given the global nursing shortage, demand for these professionals is high. Like other careers with short training periods, you can get a job in nursing relatively quickly and easily.
Nursing has various levels of professionalization. You can become a nursing assistant after just a few months of study. Further training deepens your expertise and allows you to take on more complex responsibilities. You can even get a Doctorate in Nursing after a longer, more intensive period of study.
There are also plenty of specialization options, which makes the nursing field especially broad and diverse. Even better, some of these niche specialties pay very well.
Finally, nursing is a very rewarding profession. Interacting with patients at all times and helping them manage their health problems provides a significant sense of purpose and fosters personal growth. If you enjoy helping others, nursing could be a great career for you.

How Does Nursing Work in the U.S.?

The paths to studying nursing in the U.S. vary. Each program requires a different level of preparation. There are shorter programs and more extensive programs that allow students to take on greater responsibilities and more challenging work. 

These are the nursing titles that you can obtain by studying in the U.S.:

  • Certified Nurse’s Assistant (CNA)
  • Licensed Practical Nurse or Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN)
  • Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)
  • Doctorate in Nursing

Only once you receive an ADN can you can apply to become a registered nurse (RN). In other words, having a CNA or LPN/LVN degree isn't enough to obtain a nursing license.

Understanding your professional ambitions will help you decide what degree works best for you. Keep in mind that every degree has different requirements.

The rest of the guide will focus on the steps you’ll need to take to get an Associate degree in nursing (ADN), as it’s the quickest way to become an RN.

Requirements to Study Nursing in the U.S.

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In order to get an ADN, you’ll need to register at a nursing school, of which there are plenty nationwide. Each has different admission requirements, though some are common to all schools. To find detailed admissions information, we recommend checking the school’s website. 

Below are the standard requirements of most nursing schools.

1. Basic knowledge of:

    • Anatomy and physiology
    • Biology
    • Chemistry
    • Human growth and development
    • Nutrition
    • Psychology
    • Statistics
    • Written English

    Keep in mind: These subjects tend to be taught in high school science classes or college. 

    2. A grade of  “C” or higher in the classes mentioned above

    3. A grade point average (GPA) between 2.5 and 2.75

    4. An essay describing your educational and professional goals

    5. Some nursing schools require an entrance exam, like the Nursing Entrance Exam

    6. An English exam (for foreign students). This test may vary; some of the most popular tests are the TOEFL and IELTS. These exams are managed by outside companies that will give you a score and a certificate. Nursing schools require prospective non-native English speakers to achieve a minimum score on these exams to be admitted. 

      How Many Years Do I Have to Study to be a Nurse? 

      To determine how long you’ll need to study to become an RN, consider the following two stages: 

      • Before entering nursing school
      • During nursing school

      The first stage refers to all the prerequisites for admission to nursing school. If you’ve already completed all the prerequisites in high school, you can apply directly to a nursing program. If you haven’t, however, you’ll need to complete some coursework. This could take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years, depending on your starting point.

      Once you get into nursing school, it takes approximately two years to become a registered nurse (RN).

      Steps to Studying Nursing

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      Studying nursing in the U.S. requires planning. There are plenty of factors to consider, such as where to study, how much you’ll have to study, what you need to do to get into school, and more. The more you research and prepare, the better decisions you’ll be able to make for yourself. To start creating your plan, try following these steps below: 

      1. Consider your budget

      Think of your budget and how much your studies will cost. To develop a realistic plan, consider the following costs:

      • Tuition and programs of study: Attending a public university can cost between $6,000 and $20,000 for a degree, while an ADN program can cost over $40,000 
      • General fees
      • Lab fees
      • Room and board (if you live on campus) 
      • Transportation (if you live off campus) 

      Don’t let these costs discourage you! There are plenty of financial aid options available that can help you make your professional dreams a reality. 

      2. Choose a school

      As we mentioned before, there are many nursing schools in the U.S. Consider the following factors when deciding which to attend: 

      • Location 
      • Public vs. private institution
      • Your budget
      • Admission requirements
      • Degrees offered
      • The school’s prestige

      Not all of these aspects carry an equal amount of weight or significance. A few will definitely be more important than others. When it’s time to make a decision, it’s a good idea to keep all of these factors in mind. 

      3. Complete the application process

      Academic institutions require certain general criteria of prospective students. These are part of the application process that you’ll have to fulfill to be admitted. 

      Once you select the school that you want to attend, visit their website for the exact admissions criteria and make sure you meet it before applying. Remember to prepare for any type of exam they might require.

      If your diplomas or certificates of studies were issued outside the U.S. make sure they’re apostilled and officially translated into English if necessary. Once you complete the application process correctly, all you have to do is wait for the school’s decision.

      4. Get your Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

      Once you’re accepted to the school, you can start your ADN program. Normally these programs last between two and three years. During this time you’ll learn the fundamental theories of nursing and develop practical skills to work in a clinical environment. 

      5. NCLEX-RN Exam

      The National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX) is one of the final steps to becoming an RN. It’s a computerized exam that can take up to six hours to complete. To pass, you’ll need to answer at least 75 questions correctly.

      The NCLEX can be taken after graduating nursing school and obtaining your ADN. You also have the option to take it six weeks before finishing your studies. 

      Keep in mind: Passing the NCLEX is one of the most important requirements to becoming an RN anywhere in the United States. 

      6. State license

      Obtaining your license is the final step to becoming an RN. Apply for your license for the state in which you want to practice. 

      Even if you have gotten a degree, completed clinical hours in the nursing program, and passed the NCLEX-RN, each state might have additional requirements before you can receive your license (like taking an extra training course). Once you receive your license, you’ll need to renew it once every one to four years, depending on the state. To do so, you’ll likely have to complete a course to update your skills.

      Main Nursing Specialties in the U.S.

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      To practice a nursing speciality, you’ll need to have an ADN or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), pass the NCLEX-RN exam, and have your RN license. There are over 80 nursing specialties in the U.S. required by different industries. We compiled the main nursing specialties in the U.S. by evaluating those most in-demand and with the highest salaries. Keep in mind that these salaries may vary according to region and level of experience. Below is our list of the country’s primary nursing specialties:  

      Cardiac care nursing

      • Work with patients with all types of heart-related illnesses, including those recovering from bypass surgery.
      • The average annual salary can vary between $46,404 and $106,393.
      • To become specialized in this field, the requirements are: 
        • At least 2,000 hours working as an RN
        • 30 hours of continuing education in cardiovascular nursing
        • Knowledge of Basic Life Support (BLS) and Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
        • Certificate in Cardiovascular Nursing through the American Nurses Credentialing Center

      Emergency room nursing

      • Assist patients in a wide range of situations, from fever and minor lesions to major trauma.
      • The average annual salary can vary between $46,710 and $92,815. 
      • To become specialized in this field, you'll have to: 
        • Work as an RN for two years in emergency nursing
        • Pass the Certified Emergency Nurse exam through the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing

      Home health nursing

      • Assist patients at home and help them with tasks that they can’t do themselves due to illness or injury.
      • The average salary is $75,871.
      • You won’t need any specific certification in order to work in this specialty and can start as soon as you’re a licensed RN.

      End-of-life care 

      • Assist terminally ill patients. 
      • The average salary varies between $48,686 and $81,468. 
      • To become a specialized professional in this field, you'll have to pass the Certified Hospice and Palliative Nurse Certification through the Hospice and Palliative Nurse Association.

      Obstetric and gynecological nursing

      • Take care of people during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and other reproductive health issues. 
      • The average annual salary can vary between $62,327 and $77,548.
      • To become a specialized professional in this field, you'll have to:
        • Work as an RN and acquire 2,000 hours of experience in obstetrics. 
        • Pass the Inpatient Obstetric Nursing Certification exam through the National Certification Corporation. 

      Oncology nursing

      • Your daily responsibilities will vary from clinical care to emotional support. These tasks vary depending on where you work as well as your specialty. This area involves technical and emotional challenges that are unique for you and your patients.  
      • The average annual salary can vary between $45,698 and $89,644.
      • In order to work in this specialty, you'll need to:
        • Work as an RN and acquire 1,000 hours of experience and 10 hours in oncology.
        • Pass the Oncology Certified Nurse exam provided by the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation.

      Telemetry nursing 

      • Focus on monitoring cardiac patients. You’ll have to train in the latest electrocardiogram (EKG/ECG) and telemedicine technology. 
      • The average annual salary can vary between $48,065 and $84,881.
      • In order to work in this specialty, you'll need to:
        • Acquire at least 1,750 hours of experience as an RN in telemetry.
        • Become a Progressive Care Certified Nurse through the American Association of Critical Care Nurses.

      Medical-surgical nursing 

      • Acquire a wide range of knowledge that can help doctors on the surgical floor in a hospital.
      • The average annual salary can vary between $36,512 and $92,282.
      • In order to work in this specialty, you'll need to:
        • Work as an RN and gain 2,000 hours of experience in the medical-surgical area.
        • Pass the Certified Medical-Surgical Nursing exam from the Medical Surgical Nursing Certification Board. 

      Nursing for pain management

      • Take care of patients suffering from or debilitated by chronic pain.
      • The average salary is $101,295. 
      • In order to work in this specialty, you'll need to:
        • Put in at least 2,000 hours in three years working in the clinical sector of pain management.
        • Obtain a Certificate in Pain Management from the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

      *The average salary of each specialty was taken from RegisteredNursing.org

      Top-Rated Nursing Schools in the U.S.

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      The nursing school you attend can have a big impact on your future career. With so many options, it can be hard to pick the right one for you. Below is a list of the top-rated nursing schools in the U.S.:

      Duke University

      • Private university located in Durham, North Carolina.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 98.39%.
      • Website: nursing.duke.edu

      Georgetown University

      • Private university located in Washington D.C.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 100%.
      • Website: nhs.georgetown.edu

      Johns Hopkins University

      • Private university located in Baltimore, Maryland.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 92.31%.
      • Website: nursing.jhu.edu

      New York University

      • Private university located in New York City.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 89.8%.
      • Website: nursing.nyu.edu

      University of Pennsylvania

      • Private university located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 94.83%.
      • Website: nursing.upenn.edu

      University of Michigan

      • Public university located in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 98.95%.
      • Website: nursing.umich.edu

      University of California-Los Angeles

      • Public university located in Los Angeles, California.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 97.73%.
      • Website: www.nursing.ucla.edu

      University of Washington

      • Public university located in Seattle, Washington.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 94.04%.
      • Website: nursing.uw.edu

      Emory University

      • Private university located in Atlanta, Georgia.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 96.26%.
      • Website: nursing.emory.edu

      University of Maryland

      • Public university located in College Park, Maryland.
      • NCLEX-RN exam pass rate: 98.39%.
      • Website: nursing.umaryland.edu
      *Passing rate statistics for each university were taken from nurse.org

      Financial Aid for Nursing Studies

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      Studying nursing in the U.S. can get pretty expensive. Fortunately, there are plenty of types of financial aid available to students. You can start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine if you qualify for federal loans.

      Keep in mind: You don’t have to be a U.S. citizen to obtain this type of aid. 

      You can also apply for private grants and scholarships, such as: 

      A Nurse I Am Scholarship

      This is a $2,000 scholarship for nursing students. You’ll have to submit an essay to apply. 
      Read more about A Nurse I Am scholarship.

      Healthline Stronger Scholarship

      This scholarship of up to $5,000 is for undergraduate students. To apply, you’ll have to write an essay describing your work, experience, and/or extracurricular activities that are related to health and/or climate change.
      Read more about the Heathline Stronger scholarship

      Dream.US Scholarship

      This scholarship covers tuition and other expenses, such as transportation and educational materials. To apply, you’ll need to be registered as a full-time student in an Associate’s or Bachelor’s program for the first time and maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5. Graduates of community college need a GPA of 3.0 or higher. You’ll also have to be eligible to register for the state license in an associated university.
      Find out more about the Dream.US Scholarship

      Paul and Daisy Soros Scholarship

      This is a scholarship for immigrants, refugees, and first generation Americans. It grants up to $90,000 for two years of tuition and fees. You’ll have to have already planned to enroll in a postgraduate program in order to apply.
      Find out more about the Paul and Daisy Soros Scholarship

      Scholarmatch Scholarship

      This is a full assistance program that provides advising, financial assistance, and career assessment for students who are the first in their families to attend college. This aid is granted from the time that the student registers at the university through graduation.
      Find out more about the Scholarmatch scholarship.

      How to Obtain a Nursing License as a Foreigner 

      If you studied nursing at an institution outside the U.S. and want to practice here, you’ll have to take the following steps:

      1. Complete all homologation processes for your foreign degree 
      2. Pass an official English test
      3. Pass the NCLEX–RN exam

      Once you’ve completed this process, you can get your RN license in the U.S. and practice in the state where you’re licensed. 

      Frequently Asked Questions

      Where can I find out about online nursing programs?

      You can find out about all nursing and specialty programs at nursejournal.org or nurse.org. If you’d prefer to find information in Spanish, check out estudiodesalud.com

      How much do nurses make in the U.S.?

      According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median RN salary was $77,600 in 2021. That said, this number is the median overall and includes various regions across the country, different specialties and levels of seniority, and other factors. There are states with a higher average (up to $125,000 in California) and a lower average (up to $60,500 in Alabama). 

      Get Ready to Study Nursing in the U.S.!

      Studying nursing is an excellent option if you want to get a job with a great salary and benefits. It can be a long journey and require a lot of sacrifices, but the rewards are well worth it.

      We hope we’ve answered some of your questions about this career. If you were unsure about whether or not to study nursing, hopefully now you’re inspired to pursue this rewarding profession. 

      If you have any other questions about this topic or any other career path, feel free to contact us. We’ll be happy to assist you!