Getting an Advanced Degree in Nursing: The Application Process

filling out application


This month’s posts focused on advancing your nursing career by deciding to go back to school and get an advanced nursing degree. In today’s post, we’ll talk about first major hoop to jump through once you’ve made the decision to return to school: the application process. Tips on writing your admission essay and on preparing for your nursing school interview will finish out this month. 

The First Hoop: The Application Process

So you’ve decided on the nursing program and the school you want to attend. Exploring schools and programs can be exciting with figuring out what you want to do and all the new challenges and opportunities that await. Once you’ve narrowed your list, the tedious part begins. The logistics of getting into school include time-consuming tasks of downloading and completing application materials, ordering college transcripts, submitting to background screenings, paying fees, etc. 

Step One: Download the Admission Materials

Step One in overcoming this first logistic hurdle is to make sure you understand the admission requirements and have all the appropriate admission forms downloaded or bookmarked. These forms usually consist of personal information and a declaration of the program you are interested in, reference forms, forms for background checks and drug screenings, and other admission requirements. 

Admission requirements will outline what you have to have (i.e., minimum GPA, certain prereqs) and what you have to do to be considered for admission. Requirements include items such as whether you need to submit scores from achievement tests (e.g., ACT or SAT for BSN programs) or college admission tests like the GRE for graduate school; a list of the required prerequisite courses; personal interview requirement, a personal statement or essay, etc.

Most colleges will expect you to apply online. You can either by complete and submit the forms online or download and complete them first by hand and then scan the completed forms into a pdf to upload to the college admission system.

Spelling and grammar count! Be sure that you and at least one other person proofread your application before you send or click Submit! 

By the way, many schools are using a centralized nursing application system called Nursing’s Centralized Application Service (NursingCAS) to submit applications on behalf of potential students. If the college uses this service they will direct you to follow directions on the NursingCAS website. According to the NursingCAS website, once you establish an account you only need to complete “a single online application and one set of materials to apply to multiple nursing programs at participating schools.” You will pay a fee for application submissions. You can click on their link in this paragraph and learn more about their services. 

Supplemental Admission Materials

Supplemental materials that must be submitted with your application usually include forms (and additional payments) for Background Checks and drug-use screening; curriculum vitae (CV) or résumé; proof of current immunizations and a negative TB test; and official college transcripts from every college you’ve attended.

Note that drug screenings may not be a requirement for admission, but usually have to be completed 90 days prior to your first clinical rotation. So you may get admitted, but if you fail the drug screening you can be expelled from the program. Also, realize that even if you reside in a state which has legalized recreational marijuana, as a nursing professional you may not partake! Marijuana will show up in your drug screening results – and I don’t want a nurse who’s high taking care of me or my loved ones! 

Also note that you cannot just copy your student copy of your transcripts for a college application. You will need to order your transcripts to be sent directly from your previous colleges to the new college. These transcripts usually have a special seal or engraving that signifies the authenticity of the transcripts. Transcripts are used to validate your previous degrees and to validate courses you are planning to transfer in (e.g., prerequisites or nursing courses completed elsewhere). If you are applying to more than one nursing program, you will have to have official transcripts sent to each school for which you are applying. 

If you are applying for an RN completion or graduate nursing program, you’ll need a copy of your unrestricted nursing license. International candidates have additional requirements, like submission of copies of their study permits/visas and submitting the scores of an English Language Proficiency test. 

A résumé is usually also required. You want to present an overview of your education, work experience, and professional skills. There are templates on Word or online that you can follow. Be sure to include work councils and professional and community/civic organizations you belong to; identify if you hold leadership positions.  This type of involvement displays characteristics of advocacy, professional interest, and leadership. When I was reviewing applications, I looked for professional nursing involvement in particular — that was a sign to me that the applicant cared enough about nursing as a profession to share their expertise, time, and effort. 

A personal statement or essay may also be required. Most colleges will give you directions as to the content of the statement or essay. Follow the directions! This is an important part of the how the admissions committee will evaluate you — so take your time! I’ll give you tips on writing the personal statement and essay in a future post. 

Reference Letters

References from one to three people are usually required to be submitted as part of your application; one reference is expected to be from an academic. You need to recruit credible people to write references for you — not your mother! Seriously. 

Expert Advice about References: As someone who has read hundreds of reference letters for potential students, I’ll tell you that references alone won’t necessarily sink your application unless they are not flattering or portray a picture of someone who clearly is not a good fit for the nursing profession.

Many reference letters are online forms with directed questions and space for written answers. You may have to upload your reference’s contact information to the admission portal and the system will email the person to complete the online reference.  Just make sure you’ve asked permission to use someone as a reference before you put their contact information in the system!

Your reference(s) also may write a letter and upload it as a pdf to the admission portal. Your references do not have to share their letter with you – so have an idea of what they are going to say. If someone is reluctant to give you a reference, I’d steer away from that person and choose someone else. At least one reference is supposed to be from an academic source (e.g., a faculty member, administrator). (This is one reason why you never want to burn bridges with faculty — you may need them for references for future degrees or jobs!) 

Tip #1: make sure you chose people who will speak well of your character and work ethic. Remember, we are looking for people who we think will be successful in nursing school and in professional practice. It’s okay if a reference says you are not especially good at something – but make sure they also say that you are working hard and committed to do better, succeed, etc. This kind of honesty is appreciated. 

Tip #2: It’s always helpful if the reference letter includes one or two specific examples of your work or work with others. For example, a faculty member talking about your initiative to seek out new learning opportunities or relating the positive outcomes of a capstone project speaks well of your drive and desire to succeed. Or writing about a specific project you led with good outcomes speaks to your ability for professional or clinical leadership and your skill at collaborating with others. Additionally, an example of overcoming a hardship or challenging experience speaks to your resilience and determination. All of these characteristics are important to success in nursing school – and in life!

Tip #3: Be careful about having every reference say exactly the same things, otherwise it looks like a form letter and is perceived as inauthentic. 

Tip #4: Ask your references to sprinkle in terms that fit you personally that are highlighted on the school’s webpage about their students or graduates – especially for the program you are interested in attending. Professional, friendly, future-oriented, good steward, innovative, leader, compassionate, caring, evidence-based, dedicated, committed, collaborative, quality, excellence, team player, … you get the picture. (You’ll want to do this for your essay, too — more on that later, though.)

Step Two: Get Your Materials in By the Deadline!

Nursing school is competitive. There are limited spots for admission especially, in my experience, for nurse practitioner programs. There are many reasons for why nursing programs are not able to admit all qualified students. A 2016-2017 report on nursing school enrollment and graduations identified the major factors. “U.S. nursing schools turned away 64,067 qualified applicants from baccalaureate and graduate nursing programs in 2016 due to [an] insufficient number of faculty, clinical sites, classroom space, and clinical preceptors, as well as budget constraints” (AACN, 2017).

So, be aware of application dates and deadlines! I have sat on many admission caucuses for both undergraduate and graduate nursing programs. Faculty time is precious, too. If you want to have your application materials reviewed in a timely manner, you need to make sure that you have ticked off all the boxes and sent in your complete packet by the deadlines or your packet will be put to the side and held for the next admission caucus. 

As a rule of thumb, applications for Fall admission are due in early spring (March/April), Spring admission is due in the fall (September/October), and Summer admission applications are usually due in January. Of course, some schools offer many different programs, so your institution may vary from these general time frames to accommodate reviews of all the applications. In addition, some colleges have rolling admissions and accept new students every month. So the point is to know the application deadlines for your proposed college program. 

Complete admission packets received on or before the application deadline may be reviewed first. If there is one person reviewing applications – it’s possible that your application may be reviewed as it is received. Getting the application in early is a subtle way to demonstrate your organizational skills (Wolff, 2017) and may give you a better chance at receiving a spot in the next cohort of students. 

However, if your application goes first to an admission coordinator or advisor, your application will be checked for completeness and then filed with the rest of the applications to be reviewed – whether you got the application in early or not would not matter. As long as you get your completed application in on time, you should be considered for the next cohort of students.  

Applications incomplete at the time of the deadline may be considered depending on the importance of the missing material (e.g., one reference missing versus missing transcripts) and if there is still space available in the program. Otherwise, incomplete packets are held for future consideration. 

In many schools, faculty volunteer or are appointed to meet and consider the applications and to make recommendations for admission. Depending on the size of the faculty, one group may do this work or multiple groups specific to the program specialties may take on this task. For example, RN-BSN candidates may be considered in a separate group from traditional or accelerated BSN candidates.

Besides reviewing candidate applications, faculty may also be responsible to interview prospective students.  Ratings from the interviews are then collated with the other factors that are considered (science GPA, overall GPA, experience, etc.). The group then meets together to make a final admission decision. Space in each program limits the number of qualified students one can admit. Wait lists are commonly used to identify qualified students for whom there is no space in the current cohort. 

Usually, graduate program applications are considered according to their intended specialty or degree: nurse practitioner students, nurse administration students, clinical nurse specialist students, doctor of nursing practice students, PhD students, etc. are all considered by their respective program faculty. Interviews may or may not be conducted.

I’ve had experience making admission decisions both ways – in a group and as an individual. I’ve sat on BSN admissions caucuses and interviewed and rated prospective students. The Admission Coordinator/Advisor prepared a spreadsheet with admitting criteria that included every student. The admissions group caucused and reviewed each applicant and how they met the criteria; decisions were made based on that evidence. But as a CNS Option Coordinator, I reviewed all applications for the CNS students first and then brought forward qualified students to the CNS faculty for an admission decision.

In the next two posts, I’ll give you some tips on preparing your nursing school essay and on preparing for your nursing school interview. 

For those of you considering returning to school, I want to highly recommend Dr. Debra Wolff’s new book, Advancing Your Nursing Degree: The Experienced Nurse’s Guide to Returning to School. This book is a goldmine because it covers everything you have to think about when deciding to return to school. Every chapter offers practical suggestions and strategies for making the transition back to “school mode” and being successful in your scholarly pursuits.  I highly recommend this text!


American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2017, May 18). Nursing shortage fact sheet. Retrieved from

Wolff, D. A. (2017). Advancing your nursing degree: The experienced nurse’s guide to returning to schoolNew York, NY: Springer Publishing.