A Guide to Registered Nurse Courses and Prerequisites

Registered nurses (RNs) are in high demand, driven by societal factors that have intensified the need for fresh talent. At the heart of this is the aging Baby Boomer generation; besides requiring more healthcare services, Baby Boomers make up a significant portion of RNs leaving the labor force due to retirement.

To illustrate, the biennial National Nursing Workforce Survey found that in 2020, nurses who were 55 years or older constituted 43 percent of the RN workforce. Then, in 2022, this demographic dropped to 31 percent of RNs, resulting in an estimated departure of at least 200,000 experienced RNs from the field.

However, the nursing profession is seeing an influx of younger talent. As of 2020, nurses aged 29 years or younger made up only 8 percent of the RN workforce. By 2022, this number grew to 11 percent, or approximately 130,000 new RNs.

The addition of younger nurses provides a fresh infusion of talent and energy, however, the healthcare system now faces the challenge of filling the experience gap left behind by retiring industry veterans. This scenario underscores the critical importance of comprehensive nursing education to ensure that the next generation of nurses is aptly prepared to meet the evolving demands of the healthcare sector.

Why Nursing?

Nursing is an attractive career path because the field is vast and varied. From fast-paced emergency rooms to quiet geriatric care centers, career options are as diverse as they are fulfilling. Beyond the traditional hospital setting, RNs are essential team members in physician offices, outpatient care centers, clinics, rehabilitation facilities, nursing homes, hospice facilities, community health programs, and more.

RNs cultivate a diverse set of vital life skills: empathy, clear communication, problem-solving, efficient time management, stress coping mechanisms, meticulous attention to detail, adept multitasking, adaptability, teamwork, cultural sensitivity, negotiation prowess, leadership, resilience in the face of challenges, and more.

RN Education

The process to become a licensed registered nurse (RN) starts with education. While the specifics can vary state-to-state due to regulations set forth by individual State Boards of Nursing, the general process remains relatively consistent across the U.S.

The required RN coursework is designed to ensure that every emerging nurse is competent, confident, and capable of providing high-quality care by equipping them with both the theoretical knowledge and hands-on experience they need. Each class serves a distinct purpose, and understanding the real-world applications before you delve in is paramount to a successful career in this field.

There are three primary educational pathways to becoming an RN:

  1. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)
    A four-year BSN degree is employers’ most favored degree program and offers the greatest career prospects. Statistically, BSN graduates consistently have higher exam pass rates and are top candidates for more senior or specialized roles.
  2. Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)
    An associate degree in nursing, or ADN, is a two-year degree typically offered by community colleges. This degree provides a cost-effective, fast track into nursing with flexibility that appeals to working individuals, parents, and caretakers. However, graduates have less career mobility and exposure to certain nursing practices than their BSN counterparts. While ADN programs can be a strong stepping stone, the cumulative costs and potential barriers to advanced nursing roles can make BSN programs a more attractive option.
  3. Accelerated Nursing Degrees
    The most common accelerated nursing degree is an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing, or ABSN, ideally for those with professional healthcare experience, such as licensed practical nurses (LPN), ADNs, or paramedics. This path is also an option for career-changers with a bachelor’s degree in another field. These accelerated programs offer a time-efficient path to nursing but come with an intense workload and less time spent with the material.

Prerequisite Courses for RN Programs

Registered nurse classes are foundational courses that students must complete during the early stages of their nursing education. These prerequisites are often integrated into the nursing school curriculum, ensuring a smooth and comprehensive educational journey, but depending on one’s education to date, some could be satisfied in advance.

Here are some examples of prerequisites to expect for an RN program.

  1. Anatomy & Physiology
    Combining anatomy and physiology knowledge empowers nurses to offer holistic and effective patient care. When a patient complains of pain or discomfort, a nurse’s understanding of both the location (anatomy), function (physiology), and surrounding structures can be instrumental in providing immediate care.
  2. Cellular Biology
    Building on foundational biology coursework, cellular Biology dives deeper, focusing on the microscopic units of life. Nurses need to understand how cells function and interact because many diseases and conditions originate at the cellular level. This knowledge helps nurses comprehend the basis of diseases and the rationale behind treatments that target specific cellular processes or pathways.
  3. Nutrition
    Nutrition is not just about food, but understanding how different nutrients impact the body’s functions, how they can be used therapeutically, and how dietary needs vary between life stages and health conditions. For nurses, nutrition coursework imparts the knowledge and skills needed to guide patients in making choices that promote wellness, manage disease, and improve their quality of life.
  4. Statistics
    Coursework in statistics will teach RN candidates how to evaluate research studies critically, make informed decisions on patient care based on evidence, and even participate in clinical trials or public health studies.
  5. Psychology
    Psychology enriches nurses’ understanding of the mental and emotional aspects of health, disease, and recovery. By studying psychology, nurses learn to empathize with diverse patient populations, understand the effects of mental health on physical well-being, and tailor care approaches to meet individuals’ emotional and cognitive needs. 
  6. Public Policy
    Understanding public policy allows nurses to advocate for patients within the broader healthcare system, ensuring that care is not only effective but also equitable. Nurses can help create more inclusive and patient-centered regulations by being informed on policies.
  7. Ethics
    Ethics courses explore the moral principles that guide nursing practice. Nurses learn how to operate with integrity, respect, and compassion, especially when faced with decisions where right and wrong may not be clearly delineated. These lessons will apply when navigating patient confidentiality, making end-of-life decisions, addressing health disparities, and advocating for patients.

These prerequisites are just a sample of the knowledge and skills that future RNs will learn in the classroom. This is a partial list, and institutions will vary in their specific course requirements and electives.

The NCLEX-RN & State Requirements

After completing a nursing program, graduates must take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). This exam tests knowledge, skills, and abilities essential for safe and effective practice at the entry-level.

The NCLEX-RN stands as a pivotal milestone for aspiring registered nurses. By maintaining a consistent standard across jurisdictions, the exam guarantees that a licensed nurse, regardless of where they were trained, meets a nationally recognized level of proficiency. This consistency elevates trust in nursing and facilitates mobility for nurses seeking to practice in different states or territories.

Applying & Registering for the RN Exam

About six weeks prior to graduating from nursing school, aspiring RNs receive their applications for licensure. They must submit the completed forms and fees to their nursing schools by a predetermined date. 

Then, they receive their Authorization to Test (ATT), which is required to schedule one’s test date and time. Typically, nursing school graduates take the exam about 45 days post-graduation.

How to Pass the NCLEX-RN

Preparing for the exam requires candidates to review their entire nursing curriculum thoroughly. Passing the NCLEX-RN is no easy feat, and marks a significant milestone in a nurse’s career that should be celebrated. 

  1. Study Strategically
    The Saunders Comprehensive Review for the NCLEX-RN Examination is a well-respected resource that will help a candidate develop a structured daily study plan, ensuring consistent progress and avoiding last-minute cramming.
  2. Take Practice Tests
    Platforms like UWorld and Kaplan offer mock testing to refine one’s understanding and approach while honing crucial test-taking techniques.
  3. Learn with Others
    NCLEX-specific community forums like AllNurses offer opportunities to connect with other future nurses studying for the exam and learn from the collective wisdom of peers.
  4. Mobile Exam Prep
    Turn doom scrolling into productive reviews using mobile apps like NCLEX-RN Mastery, which features practice questions, mnemonics, terminology, quizzes, and progress tracking. 

A passing score for the NCLEX-RN is 0.00 and above. After taking the exam, those who pass will move forward in the licensure process, while those with a negative score will receive a summary of areas for improvement. You are permitted up to eight retakes per year with a 45-day waiting period in between each test.

RN Licensure

Some states have additional registered nursing requirements by state, like jurisprudence tests for state-specific nursing laws or background checks. 

Upon successful completion of all steps, and verification from one’s state’s board of nursing, a candidate will be issued an RN license, which authorizes them to practice as a registered nurse in their state.

License Renewal & Continuing Education

To maintain an active RN license, nurses must renew their license periodically (often every two years) and may need to complete a certain number of continuing education (CE) hours. Requirements vary by state, but these CE hours are a good opportunity to choose an area of specialization. 

Areas of Specialization

A range of factors could influence one’s choice to specialize. If an RN interested in specializing, here are some considerations that could help them choose the best career path.

  1. Passions and Interests
    Nurses are often drawn to a specialty because of personal interests or experiences with the healthcare system.
  2. Patient Population
    Some nurses prefer to work with certain demographics, such as children, the elderly, women, or families.
  3. Salary and Compensation
    Certain specialties may offer higher salaries or additional perks than others, and for some RNs, this can be a determining factor.
  4. Job Demand and Security
    The demand for particular specialties can vary based on geographical location, healthcare trends, and population needs.
  5. Work-Life Balance
    Some specialties may require longer shifts, on-call hours, or more unpredictable schedules.
  6. Education and Training
    Continuing education requirements vary by specialty. Some nurses may opt for a path that requires less additional schooling than others.
  7. Personal Experience
    Personal or familial health experiences often inspire a nurse’s choice, based on the impact they’ve seen nurses can have first-hand.

Ultimately, pursuing a particular nursing specialty is multifaceted and deeply personal. Many nurses will weigh several of the above factors, with some considerations taking precedence based on individual priorities and life circumstances.

Becoming a Registered Nurse

Embarking on a nursing career is a profound commitment, not for the faint of heart. The journey is not just about the joys and challenges of patient care but also a testament to lifelong learning and the assurance of a fulfilling role in the ever-evolving world of healthcare.

Sharlys Leszczuk

Sharlys Leszczuk

Guest Contributor

Sharlys Leszczuk is the founder and owner of Shar-Liss, a creative, deep-thinking, insights-driven communications consultancy. She built her career counseling high-technology companies of all sizes – from not-for-profits and pre-seed startups to Fortune 100s – on messaging, communications, and go-to-market strategies. Her specialties include ghostwriting, content development, corporate communications, creative strategy, events, and social media, with a focus on project management, operations, and executive relations.

Born and raised in North Jersey, Sharlys received bachelor’s degrees in public relations and global studies from Hofstra University on Long Island. After graduating, she spent nearly a decade working for New York City PR agencies. Then, with the remote work flexibility afforded by the pandemic, she took an interest in roadtripping, which ultimately led her to relocate to Oregon. She is an active member of her small coastal community, Pacific City, where she spends her free time exploring the outdoors and activities such as hiking, biking, paddleboarding, and kayaking.