The Ultimate Guide to Nursing School Admissions

Navigating the Admissions process for Nursing School takes time, skills and perseverance. The biggest mistake people make when it comes time to apply to nursing school is talking about applying to nursing school – as in “I should really work on getting my application for nursing school together” – instead of actually doing it.

It’s a mistake way too many people make, people who would make good nurses if they could just get over that first hurdle: getting up the courage to apply. It’s understandable. The application and admissions process can look pretty intimidating. But it’s like any other undertaking – the first step is often the hardest. With Top RN to BSN’s Nursing School Admissions Guide, one step just leads to another, from research to your first day of classes.

Ready, Set, Go!

Let’s be real for a minute – there’s no single “first step.” Every potential nursing students is starting from their own place. Nursing school applicants tend to skew older than traditional-aged college students (older than 25) and are traditionally women, but in general, the people applying for nursing school come from everywhere – a variety of racial, ethnic, economic, and educational backgrounds.

When we say “applying for nursing school,” we mean applying for a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. Generally speaking, “nursing school” is a particular school or college within a university, and they cover the last two years of a four-year college degree in nursing. Some nursing schools will begin nursing courses from the freshman year of college, but most do not start nursing courses until the first two years of foundational general education courses and prerequisites are done. Some nursing schools will accept applications at the same time that you apply to the college, but many require a separate application to enter nursing school; you may get accepted into the college, but not into the nursing school.

Where are You in the Process?

Associate’s Degree and/or RN: If you have your associate’s degree (ASN) and your RN license, you’re halfway to the BSN. This is the point at which most nursing schools accept applications for the BSN. With the ASN, you should have all the general ed courses and nursing prerequisites necessary to apply, so go ahead!

Bachelor’s Degree in Another Field: With a high demand for nurses, it’s becoming more common for people to enter nursing as a second career. If you already have a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing, you may be a hot commodity for a nursing program. You’ve already shown that you can handle upper-level work, you’ve got all of your general education out of the way, and you can bring insights from outside of nursing that enrich your experience and the program.

What Are Nursing Schools Really Looking For?

Every nursing school has its own basic requirements for applying, and it’s absolutely essential that you make sure that you’re doing the right process for the right school.

In general, your nursing school application is going to require basics like:

High school and college transcripts – Self-explanatory. Call your high school or college registrar and get your transcripts. Call early – some offices are more efficient than others.

Recommendations – Letters of recommendation should usually come from a supervisor or teacher. Make sure it’s someone who has seen you at your best and can give specifics about your performance in class or on the job. Vague, boilerplate recommendations that don’t say anything specific about you are as bad as no recommendation at all.

Essay/Personal Statement – This may be the hardest part, especially for nontraditional-aged students who haven’t been writing in class for a while. It’s no crime to get someone to help you with your essay. If you’re still in school, take it to a teacher or Writing Center to get pointers; if you’re not in school, there are services online that will help you tweak your entrance essays, and lots of guides to writing a good college admissions essay. Remember – they want to see that you are professional and dedicated, so avoid the touchy-feely, but they also want your experience and personality, so use specific, real examples from your life. And answer the question they ask; don’t just send the same bland essay to every program you apply for.

Admissions Tests – Like it or not, standardized tests are still the way more nursing school week out applications. The most common admissions tests are the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) and the HESI. These tests are designed not necessarily to test how much you know, but to test how likely you are to succeed in a program. Here’s the thing about standardized tests: you can always pass them if you know how the test works. For that reason, it’s useful to practice with online TEAS study guides, and even to take a study course to learn the logic of the test.

These are pretty basic. Some nursing schools will have other requirements, like CPR certification or specialized experience. Deal with these as best you can, but make sure you do them – remember, incomplete applications get thrown out immediately.

There’s another reason to really focus on getting that application complete and correct. Nursing school, and the nursing profession, are all about resilience, persistence, and following through. Nursing school can be the most demanding two years of your life, and working as a nurse means long, physically and emotionally demanding hours. If you can’t keep it together to finish an application, no nursing school is going to trust you to get through a 14 hour shift in the ER.

Interviewing (practice really does make perfect)

With nursing schools becoming more and more competitive, interviews have become a common part of the admissions process. That idea might be scary to you, but it’s helpful to turn that feeling around – the interview is your chance to set yourself apart and impress!

Studies have shown that interviews are actually a very positive experience for nursing school applicants, especially nontraditional students, or those who may not have the best grades. The interview is the chance for applicants to show their special characteristics – their passion, their experience, their personality, and their potential. Those are the things that don’t show up on paper, but that nursing program administrators know make the real difference between students who stick with it and succeed, and students who give up.

If the program you’re thinking about requires an interview, don’t let it intimidate you – and definitely don’t use it as an excuse not to apply. The people interviewing you will be experienced nurses and nursing educators, people who have been in your shoes themselves before. They will not be out to get you, embarrass you, or scare you (and if they are, that’s an important sign that you don’t want to apply to that program). Even though they need to weed out applicants, they want you to succeed, because they believe in nursing and want the best people to be a part of their community.

So, if you are interviewing, remember: when they tell you to be yourself, they mean it. But be your best self.

Practical Tips for the Interview

  • Dress neatly and professionally – if you hear that advice and say “Well, obviously,” you’re way ahead of a surprising number of your competition.
  • Do your homework – learn everything you can about the program, remember as much as you can from your prerequisites, and know each part of the process. If you’re surprised by something, the interviewers will see that as meaning you don’t take school seriously.
  • Prepare some strong answers – most interviews ask very similar questions, like “Why do you want to be a nurse?” or “What kind of challenges have you faced and conquered in the past?” Some Google searching will turn up lots of message boards and blogs where people who have been through the process share the questions they were asked. Have a real answer, not a cliche – the people interviewing you already know the cliches, but they don’t know you. Be honest, but positive; be enthusiastic, but realistic. Show them you are ready for hard work.
  • Rehearse – get someone you trust to help you run through your prepared answers, and get them to throw you some curveballs. Get to the point where you can handle an off-the-wall question gracefully. And people being people, you might get a curveball.
  • Don’t picture the audience naked – it’s the worst advice of all time for stage fright.
  • Don’t worry about being nervous; worry about being prepared. It’s better to be nervous and know your stuff than to be confident and know nothing.

The Timeline

So, down to the nitty-gritty – when do you do all this stuff?

Let’s assume you’ve got your RN license. Maybe you’ve been working as a nurse for a while, or maybe you just finished your program and passed the NCLEX – either is fine.

Step 1: Get your application materials. Why is it important to get your paperwork ready ahead of time? Every program is going to ask for a transcript, recommendation letters, and test scores, so have all of those ready to go. Often, programs will take unofficial transcripts (even photocopies) at the beginning, and just require an official one sent from the school when you are accepted. If you have your materials ready, you won’t have to wait for a slow admissions office or a forgetful recommender when the application was due yesterday.

Step 2: Find your program. You’re probably looking for a program near you, or an online program; for most working nurses, it’s just not feasible to move for a nursing program. Have a few possibilities in mind, in case one says “No.” Most nursing schools have an application fee, usually ranging from $50-$100, and sometimes universities have a separate application fee for the university. Those fees can add up, so only apply to programs you can really see yourself in.

Step 3: Apply. Many nursing schools have rolling applications throughout the year, so if you miss this cycle, there will be one coming up in a few months. Others may only have one or two specific times a year you can apply, and the time frame may be narrow. In general, programs that start in the fall will want applications around December-January; programs that start in the winter will want them around June-July.

Step 4: Be patient, but not passive. If you’re applying to a school with rolling applications, you’ll probably know pretty quickly if you make the cut. However, if it’s a program that only accepts applications once or twice a year, the wait may be excruciating weeks or months. If the process is taking a long time, there’s no harm in contacting the program – politely, and once. That will show the program administrators that you are responsible and invested. However, calling multiple times, impatiently, will send your application to the “too much trouble” file in the admissions office.

Admissions Hacks

It’s a hacker world – we all want to know the best tips and tricks for getting ahead. There’s no “one weird trick” for killing it in your nursing school application, but there are a few things you can do to make yourself look better on paper, in interviews and ultimately, to the admissions officers.

Volunteer – For some programs this may not be a hack – it may be a necessity. Some programs will even require evidence of volunteer work in a clinical setting. But even if it’s not a requirement, showing volunteer work will prove you’re dedicated and committed.

Visit – Many programs will have an information session before applications. GO TO IT. Even if you have to take a night off work, drive 100 miles, and pay for a babysitter, you’re harder to reject if the people in charge have met you. Visiting will also give you an idea of what they are looking for so you can tailor your essay and interview for them.

Accentuate You – Sure, you’re unique – just like everybody else. But when people are applying for school, they can get so caught up in trying to be the right person, they forget that what nursing school wants is you. Nursing is a highly diverse, highly personal occupation. Think hard about what makes you you – unusual hobbies or extracurricular activities, diverse background, struggles you’ve overcome – and how that makes you an asset in working with patients alongside other nurses.