The Ultimate Nursing School (MSN) Application Timeline

By: Debra Ligorsky

You’ve got questions about applying to nursing school (MSN), and I have your answers!

Have another question not listed on this blog? Email me at, and I will email you back personally.

The Ultimate Nursing School (MSN) Application Timeline

Before we get started, it’s important to note that there are MANY career paths in nursing (too many to cover in one blog post, frankly):

  • Certified nursing assistant certificate or diploma (CNA)
  • Licensed practical nurse certificate or diploma (LPN)
  • Associate’s degree in nursing (ADN)
  • Bachelor of science in nursing (BSN)
  • Registered nurse (RN)
  • Master of science in nursing (MSN)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA)
  • Doctor of nursing practice (DNP)

The traditional route is to obtain a BSN and then apply to MSN programs.

If you’re an RN without a bachelor’s degree, then you can apply to a bridge program (RN to MSN programs). Many bridge programs are online, and you can continue to work while in the program.

MSNs typically choose an area of specialty, such as: family medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, gynecology, etc. Working RNs can obtain their MSN in two years.

It generally takes 3-5 years to obtain the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree.  These are practice-focused degree programs (as opposed to research-focused).

How do I get a MSN?

The traditional path: BSN to MSN program.

How long does it take to go the traditional MSN route?

If you have a BSN, an MSN program can typically be completed in two years. You still have to provide a registered nurse (RN) license.

What if I don’t have a BSN?

You do not have to go back to college to get a BSN. If you are a RN, then you can go through a bridge program that will allow you to fulfill the requirements and go on to a MSN program. You must have a current RN license number along with a minimum of two years of clinical experience.

How long does a bridge program take from start to finish?

Many bridge programs are online and can be completed while still working. It usually takes about 3-3.5 years. The advantage of this route is that it can be completed faster than going the traditional route: going back and earning a BSN and then applying to MSN programs.

If I am in an online bridge program, how do I earn clinical hours?

If you are a working RN, then many bridge programs will count your work hours as clinical hours. Most programs will work with you in terms of satisfying this requirement.

List of Prerequisite Courses for Nursing School (MSN)

Nursing school requirements vary between programs, but here is a list of science prerequisites that almost every MSN or DNP program requires.

We’ll call these Tier-1 Courses:

General Chemistry: two semesters or three quarters (with labs)

Biology: two semesters or three quarters (with labs)

Microbiology: one semester or two quarters (with lab)

Anatomy: one semester or two quarters (with lab)

Physiology: one semester or two quarters (with lab)

Most nursing schools require the following non-science prerequisites as well.

We’ll call these Tier-2 Courses:

English: two semesters or three quarters

Statistics: one semester or two quarters

Psychology: one semester or two quarters

NOTE: these are the minimum MSN/DNP school requirements for the majority of programs.

To avoid limiting your options and hurting your competitiveness, I recommend taking additional courses to fulfill stricter requirements of more selective schools.

We’ll call these Tier-3 Courses:

Organic Chemistry: one semester or two quarters (with lab)

Biochemistry: one semester or two quarters (with lab)

Medical Terminology: one semester or two quarters

Genetics: one semester or two quarters

Physics: one semester or two quarters

Sociology: one semester or two quarters

Foreign Language: two semesters or three quarters

When making your school list, I would check out the American Association of Colleges of Nursing:

Are AP Credits Accepted?

Be careful with AP credits. Many nursing schools will not accept them to fulfill course requirements! Some schools will accept credit for prerequisite courses, but it depends on the program and where the credit was earned.

When Should I Have My Prerequisites Completed?

Most programs will accept applications with two or three prerequisites outstanding—but you’ll want to check each school’s protocol. And you must complete those courses prior to matriculating.

I Should Major in Nursing, Right?

Good news - as long as you complete the above prerequisite courses, your major doesn’t matter when applying to nursing school. You can still obtain an MSN, but you will have to take the circuitous route. (Become an RN, enroll in a bridge program, and then apply to programs to earn a MSN).

Choose a major that you’re passionate about and that will help you maintain a high overall GPA. It’s an added bonus if your major provides some kind of “intellectual diversity” to you as a candidate, such as the social sciences, health administration, nutrition, or a foreign language.

What is a Competitive GPA for Nursing School (MSN)?

Some Nursing programs don’t list a minimum GPA requirement. But many use a 3.0 GPA as the cut-off. Schools will look at your GPA in four ways:

  • Overall GPA
  • Science GPA
  • Non-science GPA
  • Biology, chemistry, physics (BCP) GPA

Most nursing schools will require a “C” grade or above in prerequisite science courses. If you receive a “C” in Chemistry but an “A” in Biology, your science GPA will still meet the 3.0 minimum. However, nursing schools will take note of your “C” grade. If this is your situation, I recommend retaking the prerequisite to earn a “B” or above.

What is a Competitive GRE Score for Nursing School (MSN)?

Most nursing schools require the GRE, so make sure that GRE prep and test-taking are part of your timeline and strategy.

Thankfully, you can take the GRE up to five times within 12 months, and you only need to wait 21 days between attempts. Don’t worry about schools seeing your multiple attempts. ETS allows you to only send the scores you want to potential schools. So re-taking the GRE to improve your score is in your best interest.

Kaplan offers a helpful breakdown of what to aim for:

Below Average Good Enough Competitive

Verbal <151 152-158 158-162

Quantitative <152 153-158 159-164

Writing <3.5 4.0 4.5

Similar to your GPA, you should focus on exceeding the minimum and putting yourself on par with the average accepted applicants.

Do I Need to Take the TEAS TEST for Nursing School (MSN)?

ATI (Assessment Technologies Inc.) is the company that, among other things, constructs and authors the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS).

The TEAS measures and assesses a person's ability to be academically prepared to enter and succeed in nursing school.

Not all programs require it, but the test does provide useful information if you are trying to figure out if you are ready to succeed in nursing school. It provides data about a student’s strengths and weaknesses and areas where they might not be ready to begin nursing school.

How Many Letters of Recommendation Do I Need for Nursing School (MSN)?

The number of letters that schools require depends on the program. Most ask for 2-4 letters. When you submit through NursingCAS, you will be asked to add 3-6 recommenders. It’s best if these individuals have known you in a professional capacity and witnessed you interact with patients.

The ideal choices are professionals who actively practice medicine (although one recommendation can come from a science professor). Choosing an MSN as a recommender will strengthen your application because they can speak to your interest in nursing and knowledge of the field.

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