How to Become an APRN

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Dedicated to patients and preventive care, advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, offer a cost-effective solution to bridging widening healthcare gaps. The surging demand for these highly skilled professionals speaks to their great value.

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration reports that 97 million people in the United States live in medically underserved areas. APRNs offer high-quality, lower-cost healthcare. These registered nurses can perform many of the functions of physicians:

  • Coordinating patient care
  • Providing primary healthcare
  • Providing specialty healthcare

RNs interested in the opportunities presented by becoming an advanced practice nurse should investigate the responsibilities of these professionals and the educational requirements of an APRN program.

A smiling nurse talks with a patient lying in a hospital bed.

What Is an Advanced Practice Nurse?

APRNs perform many of the same tasks as registered nurses (RNs), including gathering information about a patient’s health and providing treatment for the patient’s condition. However, their advanced level of training and practice allows them to perform a variety of other tasks as well. All types of advanced practice nurses bring a patient-centered, preventive-care approach to healthcare that considers not only a patient’s concerns but also how their lifestyle affects their health.

Providing care independently or alongside physicians, APRNs in most states can write prescriptions and order medical tests. Other duties of APRNs may include:

  • Offering guidance to the public about health issues
  • Collaborating with other health professionals
  • Developing and adjusting treatment plans
  • Engaging in research and continuing education
  • Evaluating diagnostic test results
  • Monitoring patients’ health
  • Performing physicals
  • Recording patients’ medical histories and symptoms

Types of Advanced Practice Nurses

Broken down into categories, what is an advanced practice nurse? The APRN classification includes several types of nursing professionals. Depending on the state, the following roles may be classified as APRNs:

  • Clinical nurse specialist. Clinical nurse specialists (CNS) are APRNs who specialize in a specific area of nursing practice, such as a disease or population. They diagnose and treat patients, as well as manage their care. As with nurse practitioners, depending on the state in which they practice, they can prescribe medications and medical equipment.
  • Nurse anesthetist. These RNs administer anesthesia and provide pain management care associated with diagnostic, obstetrical, surgical, and therapeutic procedures.
  • Nurse midwife. These professionals provide primary, gynecological, and reproductive care, including delivering babies and assisting with family planning.
  • Nurse practitioner. NPs provide primary, acute, and specialty care for patients of all ages.

While many APRNs are primary care providers, APRNs also can specialize in certain types of care or patient populations. For example, nurse practitioners (NPs) may choose to focus on family care, gerontology, or psychiatric mental health treatment.

APRN Work Settings

Whatever the type of advanced practice nurse, all APRNs deliver effective patient care in a variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals and urgent care centers
  • School-based health centers
  • Specialty clinics
  • Correctional facilities
  • Veterans Health Administration facilities
  • Community health centers
  • Outpatient surgery centers
  • Birthing centers

How to Become an Advanced Practice Nurse

APRN requirements vary by state. Generally, APRNs must have an RN license, hold an advanced nursing degree, pass a national certification test, and acquire an APRN license. The following eight steps are key to becoming an APRN.

1. Gain a Nursing Education

The path to becoming an APRN begins with preparing to earn an RN license. Depending on the state, either an associate or bachelor’s degree with a strong foundation in science can be a springboard to becoming an RN. However, a bachelor’s degree often is a prerequisite for the advanced degree typically required for APRNs.

2. Obtain a Registered Nursing License

RN candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). The test presents hypothetical situations an RN might encounter on the job to gauge theoretical knowledge, ethics, critical thinking, and problem-solving ability. Other requirements for RN licensure differ according to state but often include background checks and continuing education.

3. Choose a Specialty

When starting a nursing career as an RN, most nurses focus on getting general experience at first, to get a good feel for what an advanced practice nurse is. With so many types of advanced practice nurse roles to choose from, it may take some time to decide what area of practice is the best fit. After a year or so, however, choosing a specialty is natural.

Narrowing one’s focus, ideally before beginning a graduate program, is important. This allows students to find the degree program and clinical experience that align best with their goals.

Students in the online Master of Science in Nursing program at Maryville University can select from the following concentrations:

  • Family care
  • Pediatric care
  • Adult-gerontology primary care
  • Adult-gerontology acute care
  • Psychiatric mental health

Once an aspiring APRN has selected a field, the specialized graduate program can help prepare them for relevant certifications.

4. Find a Mentor

A key item on the list of how to become an advanced practice nurse, finding a mentor can further an aspiring APRN’s understanding of their options and help them choose the path that best fits their needs. The mentee can learn from the mentor’s own experiences, which can include key insights not readily found in textbooks.

A mentor might be a professor, a coworker, or an alumnus of the nurse’s graduate program. Local mentors can be especially helpful, potentially giving mentees specific, unique guidance for navigating the health systems in their areas.

5. Earn an Advanced Nursing Degree

APRNs generally must hold at least a master’s degree in a healthcare-related field from a program that offers classroom education and clinical experience. In addition to courses required for the student’s chosen APRN path as an NP or in another role, MSN nursing online programs typically focus on subjects such as:

  • Advanced health assessment
  • Foundations of nursing
  • Leadership in nursing
  • Healthcare policy
  • Professional skill development

6. Pass a National Certification Exam

Most states require national certification for APRN licensing. Some states classify clinical nurse specialists among RNs, so their certification requirements may be different from that of other APRN roles. The following organizations offer national APRN certification for clinical nurse specialists, NPs, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives:

  • Clinical nurse specialists: American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and AACN Certification Corporation
  • Nurse practitioners: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB), American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), and Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB)
  • Nurse anesthetists: National Board of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA)
  • Nurse midwives: American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB)

7. Obtain an APRN License

As with RN licenses, APRN licensing requirements vary by state. To receive an APRN license, individuals typically must have:

  • An RN license
  • A graduate-level nursing degree
  • National certification

The APRN license process generally also includes background checks and requirements for continuing education.

8. Sharpen Advanced Nursing Skills

The steps for becoming an APRN also include strengthening the skills that can help advanced practice nurses succeed. These soft skills are essential for success as an advanced practice nurse. They ensure patient safety and effectiveness of patient care and help promote patient satisfaction, a key metric for care quality. Skills include:

  • Attention to detail for carefully evaluating patient conditions, directing specific steps in treatments, and evaluating outcomes
  • Communication skills to effectively collaborate with other healthcare providers and convey information to patients and families
  • Compassion for offering sympathetic care to patients and their families
  • Critical thinking to determine the best course of action to treat a patient’s condition
  • Interpersonal skills for working effectively with healthcare colleagues and patients
  • Leadership for directing the work of other nursing professionals
  • Patience to handle the sometimes challenging process of finding successful treatments

Advanced Practice Nurse Salary

Salaries vary according to job type, location, and experience. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the median annual salary of $123,780 for the jobs of nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, and nurse practitioner as of May 2021. That figure is well above the average median annual salary for all professions the BLS tracks, which is $45,760.

Among APRNs, the lowest 10% of earners earned less than $79,870 in May 2021, while the highest 10% earned more than $200,540, according to the BLS. Median annual salaries for individual APRN roles, according to the BLS, were as follows:

  • Nurse practitioner: $120,680
  • Nurse anesthetist: $195,610
  • Nurse midwife: $112,830

The median annual salary for CNSs was approximately $94,000 as of August 2022, according to compensation research site Payscale.

Advanced Practice Nurse Job Outlook

Another consideration when investigating how to become an APRN is the job outlook: It’s bright.

The BLS projects a 40% increase in the number of jobs for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives between 2021 and 2031. It projects 6% growth in the demand for registered nurses and CNSes.

A number of factors drive the demand for these roles:

  • Aging population. By 2030, more than 70 million people in the U.S. will be 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nurse practitioners specializing in gerontology will be needed to help treat an array of age-related diseases and conditions.
  • Complex care needs. Patients with chronic conditions often need expensive care. Researchers have found nurse practitioners to be cost-effective and to provide care that leads to high patient satisfaction.
  • Healthcare provider shortage areas. Physicians and other providers across all healthcare disciplines are in short supply. Advanced practice nurses can fill in these gaps.

Advance Your Career as an APRN

Interested in how to become an advanced practice nurse? Maryville University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice, Master of Science in Nursing, and Maryville University’s Post-Master’s NP Certification programs can help you meet your career goals. With a curriculum that provides in-depth training in medicine, biostatistics, ethics, and professional development, the program gives students a solid framework for a rewarding career as an advanced practice nurse.

Recommended Reading

Regional vs. National Accreditation for Nursing Programs

What Can Nurse Practitioners Specialize In?

Celebrating Maryville Accomplishments: Nursing Faculty Awards


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “National Nurse Practitioner Week: NPs Ready to Help Aging Baby Boomers Live Longer, Healthier”

American Nurses Association, Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

American Nurses Association, APRN State Law and Regulation

Health Resources and Services Administration, Shortage Areas

Indeed, “How to Become a Registered Nurse: Career Guide and Requirements”

International Journal of Nursing Studies Advances, “The Effectiveness of the Role of Advanced Nurse Practitioners Compared to Physician-Led or Usual Care: A Systematic Review”

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX & Other Exams

Payscale, Clinical Nurse Specialist

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses

U.S. Census Bureau, “Demographic Turning Points for the United States: Population Projections for 2020 to 2060”

U.S. Department of Labor CareerOneStop, Clinical Nurse Specialists