For most nurses, nursing is a calling. The day to day life of a nurse is challenging, gritty, and as far from "glamorous" as a career could be. Not everyone is cut out to be a nurse, but nurses are a unique breed that, despite having a ringside seat to some of the ugliest situations, go to work day in and day out to try and make a complete stranger's life a little bit better.

Many people know they want to be a nurse from the very beginning and head straight through school to get out into the field in their early twenties. Some may have always wanted to be a nurse, but due to individual circumstances, they are unable to achieve that dream until later in life. Regardless of when someone starts on their journey to be a registered nurse, different stepping stones will help get them there. There is no proper path a person can take to become a registered nurse; it depends on where they are in life, and what time and money they can invest in the process.


A good starting point for those wanting to become a registered nurse is to volunteer. For teenagers from about age 14-15 to age 18, applying to become a "Candy Striper" is a valuable way to start in the healthcare field. Some of the requirements are to be up-to-date in immunizations, submit a letter of recommendation, and complete an interview. "Candy Stripers" (called that historically due to the striped pinafores they wore) perform non-medical tasks such as passing out reading materials, assisting visitors to find an area of the hospital or clinic, working in gift shops, and transporting items throughout the hospital. While direct patient care can be limited depending on the facility, it allows the volunteer to observe workflows and experience the day-to-day routine of a specific area of a healthcare facility.

Volunteering is not just limited to teenagers; adults can also volunteer. Many senior citizens also enjoy volunteering. The duties are similar to that of a teen volunteer.

Volunteering in the healthcare field can be critical when it comes time to apply to nursing school. Many nursing programs are impacted, meaning there are more applicants than available spots in the program. Some programs count volunteer experience as "points" that may increase a student's chance of being admitted into the program. Additionally, it gives the future nurse a glimpse into various healthcare settings.

Medical Assisting (MA)

For some, graduating high school and going right to college (and subsequently a nursing program) is not an option. Financial concerns or family obligations may not allow for a student to meet the demands of college coursework. Medical Assisting is a career in which training is short, and jobs are readily available. MA programs can take six months to a year to complete. Medical assistants usually work in a clinic or office-type settings. Duties are both clinical and administrative and can include preparing patients for their exam, taking vital signs, taking and delivering messages to and from a provider, and sometimes even giving vaccinations.

Because of the more hands-on experience, MAs gain important on-the-job healthcare experience that may help them when it comes time to apply for nursing programs. As stated earlier, prior healthcare experience may increase a student's chance of getting admitted to a nursing program. Additionally, once in the nursing program, the skills learned as a medical assistant can make it easier for the student nurse to transition from an "assistant" role to a "nurse" role.

Learn more about how to become a medical assistant.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) are typically based in inpatient settings such as hospitals or skilled nursing facilities. Training and certification can take anywhere from a few weeks to nine months. Duties are less administrative and more clinical as compared to an MA and may include feeding and bathing patients, assisting with mobility (ambulating or repositioning patients), taking vital signs, and sometimes administering ordered medications under the supervision of a physician or RN.

Becoming a CNA can be a great starting point for those hoping to become a registered nurse. CNAs can work in many different clinical areas and provide hands-on care to diverse patient populations. This helps them not only when it comes time to apply for a nursing program, but when they begin the program as well. Much of the first few months of nursing school is learning the duties that a CNA performs. A CNA would already have an advantage in the early part of nursing school.

Moreover, CNAs work very closely with nurses - both LVN/LPNs and RNs. They become familiar with their roles and can become quite adept at recognizing potential complications and reporting to the RN. They may be present during physician rounds and nurse-to-nurse reports. In short, they learn quite a bit about patient care and nursing as they spend a lot of time at the bedside of patients. Becoming a CNA is a great way to lay the foundation for a future in nursing.

Learn more about how to become a CNA.

Licensed Vocational/Practical Nurse (LVN/LPN)

LVN/LPNs are entry-level nurses. It can take one to two years to complete the program, depending on the school. Vocational schools and colleges may offer LVN/LPN programs. Once the program is completed, the student may test and become licensed in their state.

LVN/LPNs work in a variety of settings. They may work in hospitals, clinics, and skilled nursing facilities. They must work under the direction of a registered nurse. Duties may include everything a CNA performs, plus medication administration, wound care, and assessments/data collection (which is then reported to the RN to develop a plan of care). In many healthcare settings, LVN/LPNs and RNs work together in a "team nursing" model. This means that the RN and LVN/LPN are assigned a set of patients, and each role performs their duties to their respective scope of practice.


Prior experience as an LVN/LPN may allow for preferred admission to an RN program, depending on the school. Additionally, LVN/LPNs perform many of the same functions as an RN does, which makes the transition to an expanded role easier.

Learn more about how to become an LPN/LVN.


Because LVN/LPNs work alongside RNs and in a variety of healthcare settings, they gain the critical knowledge needed to eventually transition to an RN role. LVN/LPNs who wish to become an RN have an advantage - there are many LPN/LVN to RN bridge programs available that allow an LVN/LPN to become an RN in a reduced amount of time- usually about a year.

Although the job functions of LVN/LPNs and RNs can be similar, there are critical differences that reflect their scope of practice. For example, RNs are responsible for administering and monitoring IV medications, developing and revising a plan of care, and performing advanced life support in various populations. They also assume a supervisory role, overseeing LVN/LPNs and CNAs.


Bachelor of Science (BS) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

This transition may be considered a "linear" move towards becoming an RN. Those who hold a BS in a non-nursing field can take advantage of an BS to BSN bridge program. Bridge programs are usually accelerated and offer online options, although clinical hours are required. The length of time to complete a BSN is about four semesters.

One of the benefits of a BS to BSN career move is that much of the prerequisite coursework is already completed, and can be transferred. The catch is that the prerequisites often must be completed with a grade of "C" or better, or admission into the BSN program will not be considered.

Learn more about BSN Degrees and Accelerated BSN Programs.

Military Nursing

Becoming an RN through the military is an alternate path to nursing. The process to become a military nurse is similar to traditional methods, with a few exceptions. For example, the cost of education is usually paid for by the government, as with additional expenses. According to, military nursing can also offer specialized training in leadership that reflects army doctrine. Military nurses are also provided with benefits and bonuses. Also, the military strongly prefers BSN-prepared nurses.

Luckily, nursing is a career in which there are many paths which allow people from all backgrounds to become an RN. In today's world, increased demand for healthcare services means more nurses are needed. Students are fortunate to have so many options available.

Read more in our military nursing education and service guide.