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How to Become an APRN

Advanced practice registered nurses, or APRNs, offer a cost-effective solution to bridging widening healthcare gaps — and the growing demand for these highly skilled professionals is evidence of their value.

The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration reports that 14 million people in the United States live in medically underserved areas. As registered nurses who can perform many of the same functions as physicians — coordinating patient care and providing primary and specialty healthcare — APRNs offer a high-quality, lower-cost option for caring for those who need it most.

Anyone interested in helping to meet this growing demand for advanced nursing professionals should investigate how to become an APRN, including learning about the educational requirements and other steps involved in the process.

What does an APRN do?

The APRN classification includes several types of advanced registered nursing professionals. Depending on the state, the following roles may be classified as APRNs:

  • Clinical nurse specialist — These supporting nurses care for patients by providing expertise and developing best practices for treatment in specific settings or for particular diseases or conditions.
  • 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 or psychiatric mental health treatment.

APRN tasks

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. APRNs 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

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

Steps to become an APRN

Anyone researching how to become an APRN will discover that the 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. Here are the steps to become an APRN.

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. A bachelor’s degree often is a prerequisite for the advanced degree typically required for APRNs.

Obtain a registered nursing license

All 50 U.S. states require RN candidates to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). 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.

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 both classroom education and clinical experience. In addition to courses required for the student’s chosen APRN path as an NP or other role, master’s in nursing programs typically focus on subjects such as:

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

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 are organizations that offer national APRN certification for NPs, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives:

  • 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)

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 also can include background checks and continuing education.

Sharpen advanced nursing skills

The steps for becoming an APRN also include strengthening the skills that can help advanced practice nurses succeed. Helpful skills for APRNs 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 loved ones
  • Critical thinking capabilities — 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

APRN salary

Salaries vary according to job type, location, and experience. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the median annual salary of $111,680 for the jobs of nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, and nurse practitioner as of May 2020. That figure is well above the average median annual salary for all professions the BLS tracks, which is $41,950.

Among APRNs, the lowest 10% of earners made less than $84,120 in May 2020, while the highest 10% earned more than $190,900, according to the BLS. Median annual salaries for individual APRN roles, according to the BLS, were:

  • Nurse practitioner — $111,680
  • Nurse anesthetist — $183,580
  • Nurse midwife — $111,130

In addition, PayScale.com lists the June 2021 median annual salary of clinical nurse specialists as $91,722.

APRN job outlook

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

The BLS projects a 45% increase in the number of jobs for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives between 2019 and 2029. The U.S. Department of Labor notes the “rapid growth” of clinical nurse specialist roles. The BLS, which categorizes clinical nurse specialists as registered nurses, forecasts 7% growth for those jobs between 2019 and 2029, outpacing anticipated 4% average job growth for all professions over the same period.

Driving the growing demand for these roles is an increasing emphasis on preventive care and the aging U.S. population. The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) reports APRNs can help fill healthcare gaps, including those caused by the severe physician shortage exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Take a brave step toward transforming healthcare

Pursuing a career as an APRN is a great way to become a leader in providing the preventive, holistic approach to healthcare that’s in such great demand today. Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program can help you get there.

At Maryville University, you’ll receive a student-centered education that can help you gain the credentials to advance in your nursing career, while enjoying the flexibility of a 100% online program that can be completed in two years. Discover how Maryville University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program can help you reach your professional goals.

Recommended Reading

Bedside Nursing and Beyond: The Other Side of Nursing

BSN vs. MSN Degree: What Is the Difference?

Halfway to the Top: Career Advancement for Mid-level Employees

Sources

American Nurses Association, “Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)”

American Nurses Association, “APRN State Law and Regulation”

Association of American Medical Colleges, “U.S. Physician Shortage Growing”

Health Resources and Services Administration, “Shortage Areas”

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

Medical Care, “Drivers of Cost Differences Between Nurse Practitioner and Physician Attributed Medicare Beneficiaries”

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, “What Is a CNS?”

PayScale.com, “Average Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Salary”

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Registered Nurses”

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

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