Advanced Practice Nursing

How to Get Into Nursing Graduate Programs

How to Get Into Nursing Graduate Programs
While APRN credentials come with plenty of opportunities and benefits, acquiring them takes substantial effort. Image from Unsplash
Mairead Kelly profile
Mairead Kelly May 15, 2020

Of all the challenges that come with getting started in an advanced nursing specialty, completing a relevant graduate program may be one of the most significant. But before that comes another obstacle: getting in.

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According to a recent National Nurse Practitioner Sample Survey from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), more than 270,000 nurse practitioners (NPs) were licensed to practice in the US in January 2019. That number—and all-time high—jumped from an estimated 248,000 NPs in March 2018 and is more than double the estimated 120,000 NPs reported in 2007.

As this field of nursing professionals grows, so does demand. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the employment of nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners is projected to grow 26 percent through 2028.

Along with a sunny job outlook, BLS data reveal that NPs and other advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) have the potential to earn generous incomes. As of May 2019, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners had a median annual income of $115,800, with the highest ten percent of earners pulling in more than $184,180.

While APRN credentials come with plenty of opportunities and benefits, acquiring them takes substantial effort. Of all the challenges that come with getting started in an advanced nursing specialty, completing a relevant graduate program is undoubtedly among the most significant. But before that comes another obstacle: getting in.

In this article, we’ll cover how to get into nursing graduate programs by addressing:

  • What is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)?
  • Choosing the right programs to apply to
  • Prerequisites for nursing graduate programs
  • Application checklist for nursing graduate programs
  • Additional tips for getting accepted

What is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)?

The most common type of graduate-level nursing degree is the Master of Science in Nursing. MSN programs are designed to help nursing students build valuable clinical skills through the completion of core nursing classes, electives, and clinical hours. An MSN can qualify holders to enter all major APRN concentrations as well as administration and leadership roles in nursing. The MSN degree may also function as a stepping stone towards a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.

While traditional MSN programs are typically for registered nurses who hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution, it is possible for a nurse without a BSN to pursue an MSN. An RN to MSN program serves registered nurses with a nursing diploma or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN). These programs, which typically take two to three years to complete, allow students to earn their BSN as they fulfill their MSN requirements.

Choosing the right programs to apply to

Admission counselors should come away from your applications with a clear understanding of what you want to study in grad school, why you want to study it, and why their institution is the best place for you. This makes knowing exactly what you’re looking for in a program not only crucial to your school search but also to your success in the applicant pool.

Choosing the right programs to apply for involves asking questions like:

  • Is the program accredited?
  • Does it offer the right degree for the career I want?
  • Does the program offer the specializations you want?
  • Does it offer training in my desired population focus?
  • How much clinical time will I get?
  • How well do students do on licensing exams?
  • What types of support services—whether academic, financial, or career counseling help—are available for students?
  • Can I afford tuition and other expenses associated with the program?

What about online nursing graduate programs?

While many students enroll in traditional on-campus nursing graduate programs, an increasing number opt for online or hybrid options that let them pursue a graduate degree while balancing other commitments. In both cases, hands-on clinical coursework needs to be done in person, but typically, most nonclinical classes can be taken online.

There is no difference between the MSN degree you receive from an on-campus and online nursing program. Schools with both confer identical degrees to students in each program. So long as you attend a reputable, accredited institution, it should not matter to employers whether you received your degree online or in-person (they won’t even know unless you tell them).

Prerequisites for nursing graduate programs

MSN admissions prerequisites vary from one program to another. The first and most common prerequisite for an MSN program would be for applicants to possess the desired educational requirements.

Generally speaking, graduating from a BSN program indicates that you completed the degree prerequisites for most MSN programs, while an ADN or nursing diploma would steer you towards the RN-to-MSN path.

Nursing graduate programs may also require:

  • Transcripts from all previously attended higher education institutions
  • A minimum GPA
  • Letters of recommendation
  • A resume or CV
  • A statement of purpose
  • Valid RN licensure

Some schools require standardized test scores such as the GRE, MAT, or GMAT from applicants who do not meet the minimum GPA, while some don’t require them at all. Others may recommend that students with satisfactory test scores submit them to be considered holistically with other admissions qualifications.

Application checklist for nursing graduate programs

Schools are all different, and that applies to their application process as well. Each school may have different requirements and different timelines for applying. Even so, the following information should serve as a solid outline for what you can expect.

At least six months before you apply

  • Complete any necessary prerequisite courses
  • Take any standardized tests needed for admission, if you haven’t already. Give yourself time for retakes if needed
  • Finalize your list of prospective schools, and familiarize yourself with the professors within your desired program at each school
  • If required, start thinking about who you’ll ask to write your letters of recommendation

Two months before you apply

  • If references are required, reach out to your recommenders about getting letters drafted and returned to you. Include information on the school, program, requested format, and deadline, as well as supplemental materials like your resume or CV.
  • Collect any additional required supporting documents, such as transcripts, certification data, etc.
  • Start sketching out ideas for your personal statement. Write a few full drafts that highlight who you are and what you value in the promise of a graduate degree in your field.

One month before you apply

  • Once you have a final draft of your personal statement, have someone in the field and a few friends read it over and offer feedback
  • Follow up on any documents that haven’t been received, such as transcripts, letters of recommendation, etc.

As you apply

  • Thoroughly proofread each of your applications to be sure you’ve accurately and thoroughly answered all questions. Double-check for mistakes.
  • Submit all applications, keeping copies of every section for your records

After you apply

  • Follow-up with schools to make sure your file is complete
  • Complete interviews if necessary
  • If accepted to the school of your choice, send in the required deposit. If offered a place in other programs, contact those schools to decline
  • Send a thank-you note to anyone who helped you during the application process, e.g., individuals who wrote your letters of recommendation
  • If you receive a rejection letter, review your application and talk to admissions specialists about improving your application and applying again

Additional tips for getting accepted

Along with what’s typically required for admission, you can do several other things to boost your qualities as a prospective student and increase your chance of getting in.

Give back

Community service and volunteer work in healthcare is always a plus, especially if you stick with the same position or organization for a good length of time. When you submit your resume as part of the application process, be sure to include volunteer or community service work you’ve completed. It demonstrates your commitment to helping your community and your profession.

Visit your prospective schools

By talking to advisors, students, and professors, and sitting in on classes (if you can), you might gain insight into what admissions committees look for and how competitive some programs are.

Stay informed

Keep up-to-date on the trends that are changing healthcare, the challenges those working in it face, and the professionals and organizations whose interests you share. If considering a specialized area of practice, seek out information from related organizations that work at the state, regional, and national levels.

Cast a wide net

If your program search results in a long list of schools that are a good fit, by all means, apply to them all. The more schools applied to, the greater the chances of being accepted.

It may also be worthwhile to consider schools outside of your immediate state or region. This is especially the case in states like California, where issues like nursing faculty shortages and class-size constraints have resulted in nursing applicants waiting as long as six years to get into a program. In cases like this, the ability to relocate for a nursing graduate program could significantly decrease the time it takes to complete your degree.

Don’t give up

Getting into a graduate-level nursing program is no cakewalk. Rejection letters, in particular, are a bitter pill to swallow, and if you’ve received one of them, you know they’re difficult to get over. If feeling discouraged, try to remember that while you can’t control what admissions do or how they think, you can make sure you have the best application assembled when you apply again.

Questions or feedback? Email

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Advanced Practice NursingNursing & Healthcare