How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are a subset of healthcare professionals known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). These highly skilled primary care providers bridge the gap between doctors and regular RNs. NPs must hold at least a master’s degree in nursing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 45% growth in employment for APRNs from 2019 to 2029. NPs earned a median salary of $117,670 per year as of May 2020. This guide covers the steps individuals must follow to join this well-paid profession.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners mainly work in hospitals and clinics, holding leadership roles in providing and coordinating primary and emergency care. Unlike regular RNs, NPs have the authority to diagnose conditions and write prescriptions. They can also order and review the results of medical tests.

Nurse practitioners mainly work in hospitals and clinics, holding leadership roles in providing and coordinating primary and emergency care.

Given the scope of their professional practice, nurse practitioners relieve some of the burden placed on doctors. They also provide care to patients with long-term or complicated illnesses and medical conditions, plus participate in research initiatives.

To learn about the nurse practitioner profession in greater detail, follow the link below.

Read More About Nurse Practitioners

Nurse Practitioner School Requirements

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) cites two key schooling requirements for NPs. A candidate must hold at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) to enter graduate-level NP school. Secondly, candidates must complete a general or specialized master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.

An MSN is the minimum education needed to qualify for NP licensure. However, organizations like the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) advocate for the DNP designation to become the new standard for APRNs. Therefore, prospective NPs may avoid the need to upgrade their credentials in the future by opting for a DNP instead of an MSN.

Notably, multiple nursing schools offer BSN-to-DNP programs that allow students entering with a bachelor’s degree to graduate with terminal credentials. These programs generally demand a greater time commitment, but they also maximize students’ career potential since they culminate in the highest degree designation.

Meanwhile, experienced RNs seeking quick advancement may find more value in accelerated MSN programs. The links below detail the various educational paths a student can follow to earn the educational credentials needed for NP licensure.

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Required Experience for Nurse Practitioners

Candidates for nurse practitioner education programs must hold a BSN and an active, unencumbered RN license. An unencumbered license does not have any restrictions related to monitoring or disciplinary action.

Candidates for nurse practitioner education programs must hold a BSN and an active, unencumbered RN license.

Some NP schools mandate professional RN experience as a prerequisite for admission. In other cases, schools simply require candidates to hold unencumbered RN licensure.

Required Credentials for NPs

Nationally recognized professional organizations award NP certifications, which cover focused practice areas such as emergency nursing, gerontology, neonatal nursing, and family nursing. Regulators require candidates to hold at least one specialty certification to qualify for APRN licensure examinations.

State-level nursing boards issue and renew the licenses NPs need to practice their profession. The subsections below explain the distinctions between licensure and certification in greater detail.

Licensure for Nurse Practitioners

Though NP license procedures vary by state, the general process is similar across the country. Organizations like NCSBN link nurses to state-specific resources.

Aspiring NPs must earn both RN and APRN licensure. NCSBN administers the NCLEX examination for RN licensure, but there is no nationally standardized counterpart for APRNs. Therefore, candidates must pass the state board-issued APRN examination in the state where they plan to practice.

Next, NPs must generally renew their RN and APRN licenses simultaneously through their state-level nursing board. RN licenses easily transfer between states, but APRN licenses do not.

The NCSBN adopted a framework known as the APRN Compact in 2020, which aims to streamline the APRN license transfer process. It will permit licensed APRNs to practice in other states participating in the compact. However, the compact is not yet active and will only go into effect once at least seven states join.

Nurse Practitioner Certifications

In addition to the AACN and the AANP’s Certification Board (AANPCB), several other national organizations offer recognized certification programs. These include the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation (ONCC), and the National Certification Corporation (NCC).

NPs can choose from more than a dozen certifications. Some examples include:

  • Acute care nurse practitioner
  • Cardiac nurse practitioner
  • Certified pediatric nurse
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Oncology certified nurse

Nurse practitioners can also add specialized certifications, such as:

  • Adult gerontology (acute or primary care) nurse practitioner
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner
  • Orthopedic nurse practitioner
  • Psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner
  • Women’s health nurse practitioner

Eligibility requirements for these certifications vary. For example, highly specialized certifications often demand that candidates have active NP licensure and significant, recent clinical experience in the desired practice area. General credentials like family nurse practitioner certification are available to candidates with an RN license and an MSN or DNP degree.

NPs can hold multiple certifications. Many NPs begin with generalized credentials and add specialized certifications as they gain experience and develop new areas of professional interest. These certifications typically need renewing every 3-5 years. Renewal standards differ by certification.

How to Become an NP

Becoming an NP begins with acquiring RN licensure, which students can earn from associate and BSN programs. However, RNs without a BSN will likely need to enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program. A bachelor’s is required for entry to most MSN or DNP nurse practitioner schools.

Aspiring NPs must also earn an MSN or DNP and obtain nurse practitioner certifications as required by states’ APRN licensure laws. Candidates who meet their state nursing board’s qualification standards can then take their NP licensing exam and begin working as a nurse practitioner after passing.

Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

  1. Obtain RN Licensure. Registered nurses gain initial licensure by passing the NCLEX-RN examination. Candidates must hold at least an associate degree in nursing to take the exam. However, some states are moving toward requiring RNs to hold at least a BSN. For example, New York recently passed a “BSN in 10” law mandating new RNs must complete a BSN within 10 years of working as a nurse.
  2. Accrue RN Experience. Those who begin their RN careers with an associate degree can enhance their employment prospects by gaining multiple years of professional experience. NP schools generally look favorably upon applicants who hold optional RN certifications. Add these whenever possible as your professional interests, experience, and education levels allow.
  3. Upgrade to a BSN Degree. RNs who entered the profession with an associate degree must upgrade to a BSN to meet nurse practitioner school requirements. RN-to-BSN programs offer an accelerated path to associate degree-holders seeking to strengthen their educational credentials.
  4. Complete a Graduate Nursing Degree. Nurse practitioner schooling includes either an MSN or a DNP degree. Similar to the general push to require RNs to hold BSNs, some healthcare industry experts endorse the idea of requiring nurse practitioners to earn DNPs.
  5. Earn Certifications and NP Licensure. Aspiring nurse practitioners must hold at least one certification to qualify for NP licensure exams. Exact requirements vary by state. After passing your NP exam, you will qualify to work as a nurse practitioner.

Should I Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Prospective nurse practitioners should evaluate whether the role matches their personal and professional goals. Experienced RNs with BSNs typically need to pursue an additional 2-4 years of education to acquire the necessary degrees and certifications. Nurse practitioners also carry more responsibility than RNs, which can cause stress.

With this increased responsibility comes higher pay. As of May 2020, the BLS reports a median annual salary of $75,330 per year for RNs, while APRNs earned $117,670. Over a 25-year career, that can translate to more than $1 million in additional earning potential at current rates.

Aspiring nurse practitioners must display high levels of drive and commitment to succeed. As such, becoming a nurse practitioner generally appeals to ambitious RNs seeking to advance to their profession’s highest level.

The NP Job Hunt

Experts recommend that nurse practitioner job-seekers always update their resumes before entering the employment market. In addition to their advanced credentials, NP school graduates also accumulate significant clinical hours, which their resumes should highlight.

Many nurse practitioner schools offer career services to place graduates in APRN positions. These are great places to launch an NP job search. Other avenues include personal and professional networks and professional organizations that offer employment listings.

The following job boards can help new NPs find work:

AANP Job Center

AANP’s flagship career development resource includes active job listings, along with resume hosting, job alerts, interview tips, and more.


St. Louis, Missouri-based PracticeMatch features a dedicated portal for advanced practitioners. Users can refine search results by specialization/certification to connect with opportunities nationwide.

ENP Network

ENP Network is a healthcare technology company focused on nurse practitioners. It has more than 263,000 active members and lists thousands of career opportunities.


PracticeLink, a physician-oriented job board, contains categorized job listings covering dozens of medical and dental specializations, including a large number of APRN jobs.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How hard is it to become a nurse practitioner?

    Becoming a nurse practitioner requires significant time and commitment. Candidates must complete advanced graduate coursework that builds on their existing skills in the field.

  • How many years of school does it take to be a nurse practitioner?

    Beyond the four years it typically takes to earn a BSN degree, nurse practitioner education programs demand an additional 2-4 years of schooling. The entire academic journey can take 6-8 years to complete if enrolled full time.

  • Can you become an NP without being an RN?

    No. All nurse practitioners must hold unencumbered, valid RN licenses to maintain their NP credentials.

  • What is the fastest way to become a nurse practitioner?

    To become an NP, individuals need a BSN, an RN license, professional experience, and an MSN or DNP. BSN to MSN programs generally take 18-32 months to complete.

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