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The Path to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP)

A diverse group of NPs stand strong together in a clinical setting

Millions of Americans seek out NPs for their health care. The unique ability of NPs to blend clinical excellence and personalized care with an emphasis on prevention is a key reason why patients choose NPs. As it turns out, those are also reasons why more individuals are choosing a career as an NP.

The NP community reflects the diversity of the U.S. — representing a multitude of backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders and life experiences. NPs can be found in every health care setting: from private NP-owned practices to large, multistate health care systems; in outpatient primary care offices and the intensive care unit (ICU); and from small frontier communities to large urban cities. Building on the strength of that diversity and continuing to meet the needs of patients and our health care system will require a robust NP workforce.

Whether you are just beginning your NP education or are a seasoned professional in a different field who is considering becoming an NP, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners® (AANP) has the resources to help you plan for your future and join the ranks of over a quarter million NPs as we improve the health of our nation.

Where to start: Are you wondering how to become an NP?

Becoming an NP is a rigorous educational process underpinned with evidence-based coursework and clinical rotations. To become an NP, one must be a registered nurse (RN), hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), complete an NP-focused graduate master’s or doctoral nursing program and successfully pass a national NP board certification exam.

In addition to core science and math coursework, such as a pre-health sciences core, the baseline prerequisites for acceptance into an NP program include the requirements that potential students hold a BSN degree and be actively licensed as an RN.

NPs are classified as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) — along with certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), certified nurse-midwives (CNMs) and clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). Graduate NP education builds upon the foundational knowledge obtained in undergraduate BSN-registered nursing education. During graduate school, NPs gain the advanced clinical knowledge and skills to diagnose, manage and prescribe medications and other treatments for patients.

An infographic explains the pathway to becoming an NP, from a bachelor's degree in nursing to passing the NP licensure exam

Download the Pathway to Becoming an NP

Select your patient focus.

NP students determine their patient populations at the time of entry into an NP program. Identifying a population focus from the beginning of educational preparation allows NP education to match the knowledge and skills to the needs of patients and to concentrate the program of academic and clinical study on the patients for whom the NP will be caring. For example, a primary care pediatric NP will spend the entire time in didactic and clinical education dedicated to issues related to the development and health care needs of the pediatric patient.

While core courses in pathology, pharmacology and physical assessment are included in all NP programs, this population focus-based education ensures that an NP student’s educational time is 100% concentrated on the clinical area where the NP clinician will ultimately be practicing.

Population foci include:

The majority of people are familiar with NPs in primary care. That’s not surprising, as 89.7% of NPs are certified in an area of primary care and 69% deliver primary care. However, there is a growing need and interest in NPs in all areas. NPs work in a number of clinical and other professional settings, including but not limited to private practice settings, school-based health centers, hospitals, specialty clinics, correctional facilities, Veterans Health Administration facilities, community health centers and emergency departments or urgent care facilities.

NPs often partner and work with interdisciplinary teams of health care providers and frequently serve as leaders on such teams. What’s more, NPs may also be educators or researchers in university settings, consultants in legal or health policy fields, administrators, elected officials and the list goes on!

Test your competency.

National board certification not only formally tests your knowledge on all that you’ve learned along your journey to becoming an NP, but it is also a necessary requirement for state licensure and for credentialing with insurance companies.

National certification boards are rigorous, psychometrically-sound, evidence-based exams that verify entry level to clinical practice. These exams test both general advanced practice knowledge and population-specific competencies. These exams are specific to NP population education, and NPs are only eligible to sit for exams that are consistent with their graduate preparation.

NPs can also specialize in other therapeutic areas after completing NP programs. Check out some of these areas and explore additional opportunities in the AANP Communities.

AANP Is a PEARL — Advancing NP Practice, Education, Advocacy, Research and Leadership

As an NP, you become an advocate of wellness. You listen to and partner with your patients. You provide lifesaving care. AANP is here to support you every step of the way — from your start as an NP student to your retirement. Now, join 121,000 in strengthening The Voice of the Nurse Practitioner® by becoming an AANP member or renewing your membership.

No one represents you like AANP does. AANP is working hard in Washington, D.C., and across the nation, taking a stand for NPs and patients, raising awareness of the NP role and championing regulatory improvements to allow for direct access to NP care. Together, we can continue to help lawmakers increase their understanding of the core issues influencing NP practice.