A guide to applying to nursing school and acing your nursing personal statement
Part 1: Introduction
It’s a good time to be a nurse! The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median pay for registered nurses is $71,730. They also predict that nursing employment will rise 15 percent from 2016-2026, as both the general population and the national pool of nurses rapidly reach retirement age, and new technologies expand the array of diseases which medicine can heal.
And yet the process of actually becoming a nurse has never been so confusing. Programs, degree types and specializations abound: should I stick with an Associate Degree in nursing (ADN), or go on to a Bachelor or Master in nursing? Should I finish my degrees on a regular or accelerated track? What kind of work experience should I get before I apply? And how do I write an effective nursing personal statement?
We’re going to answer those questions, and many more, in this guide. First, we’ll walk you through the pros and cons of each type of nursing qualification and discuss the top schools for each. Then, we’ll discuss what nursing schools look for in applicants—from academics and extracurriculars to the personal statement—and how you can maximize your chances of getting in.
Part 2: How to become a nurse
Nurses fall into two broad categories—Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs, sometimes referred to as Licensed Vocational Nurses) and Registered Nurses (RNs). LPNs provide basic services like bedside care, vital sign supervision and laboratory testing, but do so under the supervision of a physician and are not allowed to administer medication.
RNs, by contrast, have wider responsibilities and typically earn much more than LPNs. Since the RN is the most common type of nursing license, we’ll focus on the nursing school admissions process through the RN program lens.
Prospective RNs must meet an educational requirement (fulfilled by completing one of the programs described below), undergo a character and criminal record background check, and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. The NCLEX-RN can only be taken after completing an accredited RN program.
Students apply for RN status through a particular state licensing agency, most of which hold to the same requirements outlined above.
To avoid being derailed by some minor detail or discrepancy, we’d recommend you check your state licensing agency’s website and become familiar with their exact requirements. The number of clinical rotation hours specified in the educational requirement, for example, can vary from state to state.
There are a wide variety of programs which fulfill the educational requirement for becoming an RN, and aspiring nurses often have a hard time picking between them. We’ll talk you through each of them, below.
Which nursing program should I choose?
The fastest and most affordable paths to becoming an RN are the Associate’s Degree in nursing (ADN), and Diploma in Nursing (DiN) programs.
The ADN is offered by community colleges and technical schools while the DiN is usually offered by hospitals. Both last around two years and usually cost between $3,000 and $30,000, and both will fulfill the minimum educational requirements for becoming an RN.
RNs who have completed a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, however, typically see higher salaries and a better chance of attaining a management position, in the long term.
A 2010 report published by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) entitled The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health recommended that 80% of RNs have a BSN by 2020, and in response, some hospitals have modified their hiring policies in favor of BSN candidates.
Some hospitals hire nurses with ADNs or DiNs with the expectation that they’ll earn a bachelor’s degree later on, and many areas of nursing (such as emergency room nursing) are entirely closed off to nurses who do not have a BSN. Some hospitals offer partial or full tuition reimbursement for ADNs earning a BSN.
Many students, nevertheless, are put off by the cost and length of the BSN, lasting four years and costing around $30,000 at public schools and $100,000 at private. Furthermore, while some schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, allow students to begin their nursing education freshman year, others, like the University of Texas, don’t let students apply for the major until two years in.
Deciding between these programs is highly personal. Maybe you’re not interested in the sorts of specializations or management positions that require BSNs. Or maybe you just don’t have the time or the finances to pursue a Bachelor’s right now. In that case, you could complete an ADN or DiN program with a view to getting a BSN later on. You could even cut down the cost and length of the BSN by transferring your credits from the ADN or DiN or by enrolling in an accelerated BSN program.
UNC and Stony Brook, for example, are just two schools which offer RN-to-BSN programs for RN nurses with an Associate’s Degree, usually lasting about two years at around $4,000 for in-state students and $18,000 for out-of-state. Berkeley College and others, meanwhile, offer programs through which LPNs can get a Bachelor of Nursing and become RNs within a similar span of time and for a similar cost.
Should I get a Master of Science in Nursing?
A Master of Science in Nursing would deepen your education—covering general nursing topics, clinical rotations, and courses on various nursing specializations—and, of course, open even more doors for you.
It’ll make it easier to land management positions. You may also be able to pick up a specialization—becoming Clinical Nurse Specialist, Nurse Anesthetist, or Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, for example—which can be highly lucrative. (US News estimates that nurses with an MSN make $20,000 more a year, on average, than nurses with an ADN or BSN; and Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists, for example, make a whopping median salary of $160,000 a year.)
Such programs are, nevertheless, expensive—with online courses costing between $35,000 and $60,000. It’ll take between one and two years full-time and two-to-four years, part-time, or longer, if you’re applying to an RN-to-MSN program, designed for students who don’t already have a BSN. You’ll have to spend another couple years taking foundational classes on campus.
So—weighing the money you can expect to lose from tuition fees and working less due to your studies against the money you can expect to gain from earning the new degree—there’s a strong chance that it will take a few years before you see a return on your investment.
What are the top nursing schools?
It’s difficult to compare nursing programs, in part because the field has been relatively neglected by the major university ranking publications.
No ranking of BSN degrees, for example, exists. And we can’t rely on the overall undergraduate rankings to give us an idea about which institutions give the best nursing education, since most nursing schools stand somewhat isolated from the rest of their campus, in terms of resources, faculty and research.
QS World does, however, rank nursing in terms of their general quality, including academics and research—so it’ll give you a general idea of where these schools stand in relation to one another. Here are the top ten American nursing schools, according to QS; we’ve included their yearly tuition and admission rates for the MSN and the BSN (where they offer it).
(Note: community colleges and vocational schools, which typically offer the ADN, are not included in this list.)
MSN tuition: $42,698
MSN admission rate: 57%
BSN tuition: $49,220
BSN admission rate: 20% (in 2014)
MSN tuition: $47,264
MSN admission rate: 58%
BSN tuition: N/A
BSN admission rate: N/A
MSN tuition: $17,040 in-state, $29,529 out-of-state
MSN admission rate: 46%
BSN tuition: $11,208 in-state, $36,588 out-of-state
BSN admission rate: unavailable (general college admission 45.4%)
MSN tuition: $11,442
MSN admission rate: 60%
BSN tuition: $49,740
BSN admission rate: unavailable (general college admission 66%)
MSN tuition: $11,924 in-state, $24,082 out-of-state
MSN admission rate: unavailable
BSN tuition: $7,467 in-state, $24,511 out-of-state
BSN admission rate: unavailable (general college admission 28%)
MSN tuition: ~$18,000 (depending on program)
MSN admission rate: 25%
BSN tuition: $12,606 in-state, $42,440 out-of-state
BSN admission rate: unavailable (general college admission 31%)
MSN tuition: $19,915
MSN admission rate: 28% (in 2014)
BSN tuition: N/A
BSN admission rate: N/A
MSN tuition: $26,788
MSN admission rate: 40%
BSN tuition: $22,826
BSN admission rate: unavailable (general college admission 60%)
MSN tuition: $22,056
MSN admission rate: 47%
BSN tuition: N/A
BSN admission rate: N/A
MSN tuition: $11,442
MSN admission rate: unavailable
BSN tuition: $11,442
BSN admission rate: unavailable (general college admission 18%)
Part 3: How to Get Into Nursing School
Step 1: Check the application requirements
Application requirements for nursing school programs vary, so you should check out your preferred schools’ websites to get a firm handle on their respective application processes. Here, though, are some general trends:
Associate’s Degree in Nursing application requirements
Almost every ADN program requires students to have completed several college-level prerequisite courses before admission—which means few accept students straight out of high school. So students will typically do a semester or more of community college in order to get those prereqs, which touch on subjects from Anatomy to Psychology to English, completed.
Aside from completing the prereqs, ADN programs typically require:
An online application form
A minimum GPA of around 2.8
Transcripts for all high schools and colleges attended
A one-page personal statement
An online academic assessment. (These tests are typically designed by the colleges themselves and measure general math and reasoning skills—akin to a placement test.)
Some programs may also require an on-campus interview.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing application requirements
As with the ADN programs, BSN programs ask that applicants fill a range of prerequisites and don’t usually accept students straight out of high school. Some, such as the University of Texas, even require applicants to have completed one or two year’s worth of credit hours before admission.
So, students who get into a BSN program have typically followed one of three paths:
1. Entered the university as a freshman and applied to its BSN program after one or two years
2. Attended a community college and completed the BSN program’s prerequisites, before transferring into the program
3. Entered the BSN program through an RN-to-BSN or LPN-to-BSN scheme
Aside from these prerequisites, BSN programs typically require that applicants submit the transcripts, personal statement, and online application form common to ADN admissions, as well as
A minimum GPA of around 3.0
Two reference letters
The ATI Test of Essential Academic Skills (ATI TEAS) Examination. (More on this later on)
A CV and proof of RN licensure (if applying to an RN-to-BSN program)
The SAT is rarely required, unless you’re applying for a freshman pre-nursing program. (And of course, if you’re applying for a non-nursing freshman program, with a view to transferring later on, you’ll have to fulfill all their regular first-year admissions requirements.) Relatively few schools, finally, require interviews.
Master of Science in Nursing application requirements
The paths to earning an MSN are far less varied, since most schools just require applicants to hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. To the extent that MSN programs ask you to meet any specific academic prerequisites, there are far fewer of them and you may even be allowed to take the necessary classes on campus.
These programs will also typically require:
A CV or resumé
Proof of RN licensure
Transcripts from all postsecondary institutions attended
A one-to-two-page personal statement
Most schools, like Georgetown and UNC, will not require the GRE—though some, such as the University of Michigan, will if your GPA is below a certain level. So check the requirements of your preferred schools to make sure you don’t forget to submit anything.
Step 2: Set a nursing school timeline
Application deadlines really depend on the type of program you’re applying to. Traditional BSN and MSN programs typically have their application deadlines around December, and their start dates in the fall.
Associate Degree and accelerated (i.e. RN-to-BSN) programs, however, will often have multiple deadlines and start dates across the year—so take a look at each school’s schedule so you can plan accordingly.
Here’s a nursing school timeline you can use to chart your course:
1-2 years before application deadline
Select preferred programs
Begin taking prerequisite courses
Identify activities to increase nursing work experience
Identify and establish relationships with professors and healthcare superiors who could potentially write reference letters
1 year to 6 months before application deadline
Prepare for and take standardized tests
Approach individuals for reference letters
Complete prerequisite courses
6 months to application deadline
Gather and submit transcripts
Submit test scores
Finalize and submit reference letters
Write and submit personal statement
Following application deadline
Prepare for interviews
Expect final decisions 3-4 months after final application deadline
Step 3: Deepen your work experience
Nursing schools are in a bind. Employment of registered nurses is forecasted to grow significantly in the next decade—so shouldn’t schools be producing enough graduates to meet the demand?
Shortages of both instructors and facilities mean nursing schools can’t admit as many students as they’d like.
In part, that’s made nursing school admissions far more competitive. The average BSN admissions GPA at even middle-ranked schools such as Missouri State, for example, is around 3.5, reaching 3.9 at top-ranked institutions such as UNC.
So what exactly do nursing schools look for in applicants?
Nursing schools are trying to admit the best potential nurses, rather than just the most devoted students. Floor nurses need to deal with long hours, high pressure, and often gore. They need to break bad news to patients and families who are frightened, sensitive, or difficult.
And to do all that, they need more than just theoretical knowledge. They need a deep commitment to their role—no matter how messy or unsexy—and experience dealing with situations where everything can go wrong.
The best way that you’re one of those candidates is by amassing real-world experience in the field: to show that you’ve experienced some of the challenges that nursing has to offer, have managed to push past them, and have concrete insights that you’ll show off in your personal statement.
If you’re already a practicing nurse, pick one part of the field that you’re particularly interested in and get closer to it (especially if you’re planning to apply for a specialized MSN).
If you’re interested in helping children, work as a labor nurse or shadow one who cares for children who have cancer. Maybe you’ll find that you dislike the high-stakes complications of deliveries and that your skills are better suited to building a long-term, trusting relationship with one young patient. Either way, you’ll have specialized knowledge and skills that many other applicants will not.
If you’re not a nurse yet, shadow one, or take up a volunteer position at a local healthcare organization. Try a hospice, where as a volunteer you would be required to develop relationships with patients and ease their discomfort; or perhaps a suicide hotline, which would provide invaluable experience for someone who wants to go into psychiatric nursing, or any field which would require you to listen closely to a patient’s needs and respond compassionately. Retirement homes, homeless shelters and anti-addiction social programs would also be enriching.
Any of these options will allow you to reflect on what kind of nurse you could be. That sort of contemplation will shine through your personal statement.
Step 4: Pick a personal statement topic
Nursing school personal statement prompts are almost always very broad—and some programs don’t provide one at all.
That’s because schools want to allow you as much freedom as possible to explain what personal qualities would make you an ideal nurse—since, again, they’re expecting their graduates to become practitioners almost immediately.
The UNC nursing program, for example, asks applicants:
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in nursing and what are your professional goals? And what are the skills and talents you possess that will contribute to your future work as a nurse?
And the University of Washington nursing school tells applicants to:
Reflect upon and describe a strength and a challenge you have identified about yourself in the context of your healthcare experience at the individual, family, community, or population level.
Both questions almost beg you to talk about why you’d make a great nurse, and the prompts provided by other schools follow a similar beat.
The attributes of an ideal nurse could be analytical, such as the ability to evaluate a patient’s state and make a quick decision about how to allocate time and resources. They could be organizational, such as being able to juggle several tasks across long hours.
But they could also be emotional.
How do you try to make a child understand that they have a near-fatal disease? How do you communicate across cultural boundaries to a conservative family whose daughter is suffering due to a complication related to sex? How do you justify treatment options to communities who, historically, don’t trust healthcare professionals?
All of these scenarios require you to be patient, compassionate—but still professional. You need to know how to accept that a patient may not like what you have to say, but attempt to build a solid relationship with them regardless.
The ideal personal statement should prove that you have these attributes by describing a personal experience. Experiences, anecdotes, stories, and narratives are probably the most effective routes into personal essays, both because they’re better evidence that you actually have those traits than some abstract thought, and because experiences tend to be somewhat unique and stand out in the mass of near-identical applications.
So don’t wax lyrical about how nursing was always your childhood dream. Instead, reflect on your experiences—in either your personal or professional life—and ask yourself if any of your experiences taught you, for example:
About structural problems in the ways that healthcare professionals deal with the ill
How to deal with high-stress situations
How to empathize and communicate with patients
Again, the goal is to prove to the admissions committee that you’ll be a great nurse. And sometimes the best way to do that isn’t with an experience that had you looking like an absolute hero, but one that shows, step-by-step, how you learned to be a better nurse.
You could discuss, for example, how dealing with parents who don’t want their children vaccinated taught you about the need for nurses who can explain the advantages of treatments clearly and respectfully to patients—and not with condescension—since many of them are simply misinformed.
Or about how volunteering at a hospice taught you about how hard it is to help a patient cope emotionally with a disease that they know they can’t beat—and why it’s important to do so, anyway.
If you’re a younger applicant with less experience in healthcare, don’t fret—just talk about some experiences that might show that you have transferrable skills. Counseling a friend with a mental illness, serving as a lifeguard, or caring consistently for an elderly family member—for example—could all be great topics, as long as you can extract from them a lesson that would be applicable to your day-to-day life as a nurse.
You can and should add some substance to your personal musings by talking to nurses about the biggest challenges and lessons they’ve learned from their field, or by reading up on the history of and current events in healthcare.
A discussion of your experiences working in a rural area, for example, would be a lot more impressive if you show an awareness of how contemporary and historical income inequality and government neglect has pushed good nurses out of those areas. They might also turn you on to cutting-edge theories of how nurses can better interact with their patients. Even if you don’t cite each of those bits of reading or interviews in your essay—and you aren’t writing a paper, so you won’t be—the time spent immersing in those questions will show through.
If you’re applying to the MSN, it’d be especially helpful if your research and context speaks to whatever specialization (if any) that you’re hoping to go into. Your broader discussion of your nursing skills and goals should also be tailored towards your specialization.
Finally, if your schools want your personal statement to be particularly long—say, around 1,000 words—you could discuss more than one experience. But, generally the best applications simply focus on one experience and find ways to weave in accomplishments from other activities.
Step 5: Write your nursing personal statement
You have two goals with this personal statement. First, to prove to admissions committees that you display the attributes of an analytical, organized, compassionate nurse.
Second, to keep the reader interested. Admissions committees run through hundreds of applications a year—most of which are clichéd, melodramatic or just dull. When they see another mediocre application, they zone out, and the essay blends into the pile.
You’ll stand out, first, by picking out a memorable, poignant, and clinically relevant experience—and then by writing with
Clarity and concision
A thesis statement that speaks specifically to what kind of nurse you will be, what values you see as inherent to the nursing profession, and how you embody those
A sense of story—opening with an engaging lead, transitioning into a thoughtful body that illustrates your qualities, and a satisfying resolution together with a narrative thread
If relevant (depending on the prompt), a statement about how this particular nursing school or program will help you achieve your goal; what resources you’ll draw on, and what about the ethos of the school’s teaching philosophy compels you
A well-written personal statement can also go a long way to proving to admissions committees that you have the communication skills to be a good nurse. You should always be clear and concrete.
Follow the structure below to make sure that your personal statement checks all those boxes. Afterwards, take a look at the nursing school essay example at the end of this article so you can see some of these techniques in action.
Personal statement structure
Start with a sentence that makes the reader ask a question. For example “I entered my house” isn’t very engaging, because it doesn’t hook the reader with any sort of mystery. “I hadn’t been home in years” is better, because it contains both time and place. It immediately makes you ask where the narrator has been, what she’s been doing, and why she hasn’t been home.
Then, set the scene of your chosen experience. This doesn’t mean describing the length of the walls or the color of the room (though it may involve some sensory details, if relevant), but introducing the context, the people involved, and the basic dilemma or challenge that you had to overcome. Remember: it’s a story. Stories have plots, characters, scenes, and dialogue.
Finally, write a thesis statement which explicitly defines what key nursing attributes you have and how your chosen experience taught you said value or proves that you have it. Ideally, you should do so in a way that also speaks to the specific prompt.
If the introduction offers a freeze-frame of the scene, the body paragraph lets time move again. Explain who you were before the experience—your aspirations and perspective. Then describe the experience—the plot, the literal events. Then describe the emotional plot: how did that experience make you feel? What did you learn? How did you grow and change?
If there are other aspects of your personal or professional life not included in this experience but which you still want to include in your personal statement, incorporate them here, as a way of better illustrating your past or the impact that the experience had on you, after it happened. For example, “I was already familiar with mental health issues because of my work as a suicide hotline operator, where I … But this experience showed me…”
Tie it back to how the experience taught you about your chosen nursing attribute, or suggest how the experience showed that you have this attribute. Ex. “What the patient had responded to, I reflected, was compassion and humility; he was tired of being condescended to by professionals who didn’t take his fears seriously.”
If possible, mention some details about how this program in particular will help you reach your nursing goals (especially if the prompt itself asks you to do so). Those goals should follow from what the experience itself taught you about nursing or healthcare.
Nursing school essay sample
Take a look at the example statement below, written by a student named Jane. It responds to the University of Washington School of Nursing prompt, asking students to “Reflect upon and describe a strength and a challenge you have identified about yourself in the context of your healthcare experience.” We’ll also break down what makes this such a good nursing personal statement as we go along.
I could hear him taking the pills, on the other end of the phone. “Calm down,” he kept saying, but I couldn’t—and I wondered if I was really doing him any good. I had wanted to be a nurse for years, but it was only when I began my work as a suicide hotline operator that I realized that care and compassion can’t be forced on people. I learned that effective care means being there without being intrusive, and listening to patients without stifling them—and I believe that lesson will serve me well in my future career.
Jane’s lead is highly engaging because it immediately throws all sorts of questions into the reader’s mind. Who’s taking the pills? Why are they taking them? And why are they on the phone with Jane?
We read on so we can get answers, paying attention as Jane gives us the context and writes her thesis statement, clearly explaining what nursing-related skill the experience gave her: how to balance both compassion and respect.
I started my volunteer position at the hotline after my senior year of high school, having completed over 50 hours of emergency mental health training. Our primary goal, they told us, was to assess the caller’s threat level and send their location to the authorities, if necessary. Soothing them was important only as much as it stayed their hand and bought us time. We weren’t mental health professionals; we weren’t there to cure them.
I scoffed at that idea, at the time. I had taken several psychology classes at my local community college and raised $5,000 for community mental health programs, while still in high school. What was the point, I thought, of just skating around the surface of a caller’s problems? We should try to make a breakthrough; try to change their lives.
But then the work started, taking calls from people who seemed totally immune to every clinical move I’d read in a textbook or online. They’d heard it before; they didn’t care. I started to wonder if there was any point to my work. I became more forceful, trying harder to make the callers open up to me. Some hung up; some cried. I found out quickly that I was just making their condition worse.
But some also called back. Repeatedly. And when I finally built up the courage to ask my fellow operators why that was, they told me it was simple. Some people weren’t interested in our advice, but in our presence. The fact that we existed, that we cared enough to be there and to listen to them was a comfort. Gradually I eased up during the phone-calls. I let the callers speak more. And as the months went by I developed a rapport with a few of them: heard about their lives, their good news, their bad news. When they told me that I had made them feel better, I knew that to be gentle in my empathy was one of the most valuable lessons I’d learn in my career.
Jane keeps the narrative going by answering all the big questions we mentioned under the “body paragraph” section. Before the experience, she believed that mental health work should be all-or-nothing and that counseling had to be thrust upon people.
When she did that, it made the callers feel worse. And as a result, she learnt that such an approach can be enormously harmful. We can believe that she really has this skill because her answer is both unique, avoiding cliché, and explained with an enormous amount of step-by-step detail.
Jane also does a great job weaving in her accomplishments outside this particular experience, writing that she “had completed several psychology classes at my local community college and raised $5,000 for community mental health programs, while still in high school.”
She is, of course, helped by the fact that her main extracurriculars were mental-health related—but it’s not too difficult for anyone to come up with some thematic excuse to reference the rest of their major accomplishments.
My goal is still to be a psychiatric nurse, and I can think of no better place to do that than the University of Washington, which will give me the best general nursing education available and the opportunity to take electives in clinical psychology. I’m excited to learn even more about how I can care for other people—even if I can’t completely cure them.
At the end of the last paragraph, Jane ties everything back to her lesson/skill—being “gentle in empathy.” She also manages, in this conclusion paragraph, to weave in how that experience has led her to apply for nursing in general and the University of Washington in particular—citing her interest in psychiatric nursing and the university’s large elective pool.
Let’s take a look at the essay as a whole now, and notice how smoothly it flows from paragraph to paragraph.
That’s in part because Jane makes sure that the first line of every paragraph responds to the last line of the paragraph before—writing, for example, “I scoffed at the idea” right after saying that her instructors had said that “we weren’t there to change people’s lives.”
But it’s also because the essay hangs together as a cohesive narrative, with a beginning a middle and an end. The overall structure and the individual transition phrases work together to give the statement its rhythm and readability.
Step 6: Prepare for standardized tests
As mentioned earlier, some MSN programs require the GRE, and some ADN and BSN programs require the SAT.
Common among many BSN programs, however, is the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS), which you can register for online. It’s supposed to test general reading, math, science and english abilities but—like any standardized test—has more to do with how familiar you are with its formatting and question style.
So whether you’re studying for the SAT, GRE or TEAS, we’d recommend that you get a study guide and take as many official practice tests as you can. The best way to prepare for such exams is to answer as many questions that mimic the real thing as possible.
Step 7: Prepare for interviews
A small minority of nursing schools require interviews. They’re typically short and not too intensive—but because every school does things very differently, sometimes mixing panels with group activities with one-on-ones, there’s no one-size-fits-all preparation.
Your best bet is to find out exactly what sorts of interview your preferred school conducts, and take a look at our articles on acing the College Admission and Medical School interviews. Though the advice is tailored for college and med school applicants, all of the strategies discussed can be used to impress nursing school admissions committees.
Qualify that advice, however, with one major thing in mind: that your main goal in nursing interviews, just as in the personal statement, is to prove that you would make a great nurse.
Becoming a nurse is a rigorous but rewarding path. Approaching the application process as a chance to reflect on why you want to pursue this career is sure to generate strong personal statements and a warm, authentic presence in your interviews.