How to Become an LPN

Programs, Steps, and Career Information for Aspiring Practical Nurses

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According to a December 2014 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services, 22 states will experience a shortage of licensed practical nurses by 2025. With an aging patient population, increased access to healthcare coverage, and many nurses approaching retirement age, the employment outlook for LPNs is bright and promising. But how does one become a practical nurse? What types of degrees and programs are available and what other requirements are necessary to enter the practical nursing field? The following guide walks prospective students through the different types of LPN programs, highlights necessary skills for success, outlines requirements for licensure, and explores how an LPN role can lead to more advanced positions in nursing.

According to a December 2014 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services, 22 states will experience a shortage of licensed practical nurses by 2025. With an aging patient population, increased access to healthcare coverage, and many nurses approaching retirement age, the employment outlook for LPNs is bright and promising. But how does one become a practical nurse? What types of degrees and programs are available and what other requirements are necessary to enter the practical nursing field? The following guide walks prospective students through the different types of LPN programs, highlights necessary skills for success, outlines requirements for licensure, and explores how an LPN role can lead to more advanced positions in nursing.

Road Map for LPNs

Before embarking on the education needed to become an LPN, it’s helpful for students to take a few important steps beforehand—as well as know what to expect afterward.

Take the TEAS and fulfill any other prerequisitesBefore being admitted, many nursing schools require that LPN applicants pass the TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills) to ensure they meet baseline academic requirements.

Research and apply to a nursing programProspective LPN students should carefully research the different types of programs available, including diploma, certificate and associate degree options to determine which path is the best fit for their financial budgets, time, and ultimate career goals.

Apply for licensure and pass the NCLEX-PN examOnce a program is completed, students must pass the NCLEX-PN (National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses) before receiving their license and being eligible to work in healthcare settings.

Find a job and complete continuing educationWith employment for nurses set to rise by some 16 percent in the coming years, new LPNs are at an advantage when it comes to landing their first jobs. To stay competitive and to maintain licensure for practicing, they’ll need to keep learning through continuing education courses.

Pre-Admission Requirements for Nursing School

The TEAS is the pre-entrance examination that prospective LPN students must pass before being admitted to a program. This exam ascertains whether or not candidates have the basic academic skills needed to be successful in an LPN program. The test is comprised of four blocks, including reading, mathematics, science, and English and language usage.

Costs vary by state, but most charge about $100 to take the test, and students can purchase test study materials from a variety of providers if they feel they need extra preparatory work.

Each program has different requirements for TEAS scores, and students are able to take the test twice if they need to improve their scores.

Select an LPN Program

Selecting the right LPN program is an important step. Programs lead to either a certificate, diploma, or associate degree. The following table highlights the time commitment and pros and cons of each approach.

Diploma/Certificate Degree
12 months or less 18-24 months
Takes less time, allowing the graduate to start working quickly; costs less money; provides about the same salary potential as an associate degree. More comprehensive and skill-based; coursework can be transferred toward a bachelor’s degree.
Sometimes considered a lesser credential by some employers; credits typically don’t transfer to higher degree Costs more; requires greater time commitment to complete

Complete Your Program

Coursework for certificate, diploma, and degree programs can be completed online or in person. Hybrid programs allow aspiring LPNs to complete required courses in a virtual setting, while clinical hours must be fulfilled in person at an approved local site.

Regardless of academic setting or type of program, LPNs in training cover much of the same core coursework. Full-time students usually take 12-15 credits per semester, learning necessary skills and knowledge by studying theories, completing lab assignments, and spending time in clinical settings. Common courses include:

Fundamentals of Nursing

This class gives students baseline knowledge of the nursing profession, covering topics including client needs, basic human care, therapeutic interventions and safety protocols.

Human Anatomy

Topics in this course introduce students to the normal function and structure of the body, covering such things as organ systems and physiological responses, while building a vocabulary of medical terminology.

Introduction to Pharmacology

Students gain critical knowledge of pharmacology and how to safely administer medication in this course, with special emphasis on dosages, drug classifications, drug administration, and legal implications.

Adult and Child Nursing

The focus of this class is preparing students to work with patients throughout their lifespans. Coursework takes a broad view of common disorders originating from the endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, neurological and reproductive systems, and teaches students how to provide care in safe, legal and ethical ways.

Tips for Successful Completion

Although LPN programs are fast-paced and demanding, students armed with appropriate strategies can achieve success. Some of the best tips for excelling include:

Take it one day at a time

Rather than getting overwhelmed by the LPN requirements as a whole, focus on excelling each day. This helps mitigate the pressures from demanding professors, difficult exams, or mounting assignments.

Ask for help immediately

If there’s a topic that you don’t understand, ask your teacher to explain the concept after class or during office hours. Coursework often builds on previously covered materials, so it’s important to thoroughly understand everything before proceeding. More senior students are another good resource for help.

Practice, practice, practice

Take advantage of every opportunity to practice clinical skills while still in school, so you’ll feel comfortable and confident when it comes time to perform those tasks on the job.

Manage your time

Many LPN graduates agree that successful time management is critical to handling the many assignments, projects and examinations integral to a program. Whether it’s keeping a detailed calendar, planning your week in advance, or setting up dedicated times for studying, find a way to keep track of your assignments and their due dates.

Take the NCLEX-PN

After completing LPN education requirements, students must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nursing (NCLEX-PN) before they can be hired. The NCLEX Candidate Bulletin is an excellent source of information to consult both before and after the examination, and students should review these materials before signing up to take the test.

Candidates should spend time reviewing the topics covered on the exam before attempting the test. Students preparing to take this test will find valuable and insightful information in our How to Pass the NCLEX-PN guide.

How to Ace the NCLEX-PN

Continuing Education and Maintaining Your License

More than 4.5 million nurses are currently licensed in the United States, making them the second largest group of licensed professionals in the country. Licensing is granted by a body approved by the government and assures the public that practical nurses meet qualifications and competencies needed to provide safe and ethical care. In order to maintain their licensure, practical nurses must complete continuing education units (CEUs) to sharpen their skills and learn about new protocols.

The number of CEUs required annually is mandated on the state level, so LPNs should check with the governing body where they plan to practice to learn how many they will need to complete.

To help accommodate busy schedules, there are a number of ways CEUs can be obtained while still fulfilling work or family commitments. Some popular options include:

  • Complete training courses offered by an employer
  • Attend staff seminars on specialty topics
  • Complete online CEU credits throughout the year
  • Read approved articles or videos
  • Attend lectures or conferences on practical nursing

For more information on specific state licensing and CEU requirements, visit the state pages below:

Benefits of Becoming an LPN vs. RN

Many prospective nurses struggle with the question, should I become an LPN or go straight to becoming an RN? Each role offers a range of career benefits so ultimately, the decision comes down to one’s financial budget, time and ability to attend nursing school, and overall career goals. For many, becoming an LPN is the right choice because of the following advantages:

  • Completing an LPN program takes less time

    From start to finish, LPNs are typically able to complete their program and pass the NCLEX-PN in 18-24 months, less than half the time required by an RN program. This not only allows them to spend less time in school, but also to start earning a salary more quickly.

  • An LPN program is more cost effective

    While the idea of completing a full RN degree may be appealing, some students cannot devote that much money – or time – to their education all at once. The cost of LPN and RN programs can vary greatly depending on the school, but overall a certificate, diploma, or associate degree in practical nursing will be more cost effective than a four-year bachelor’s degree in nursing. For some students, this is a big win.

  • LPN associate degree credit is transferable

    Individuals who complete an associate level LPN program from an accredited school can usually transfer their credits to an LPN-to-RN bridge program if they decide they want to specialize or advance their nursing careers. A significant portion of their coursework should transfer with this option, allowing them to complete an advanced degree more quickly.

Top LPN Specializations

LPNs can apply their skills and knowledge to a number of specialty areas, which is part of the reason these healthcare professionals are in such high demand across the country. Although there are several different niches to pursue, some of the most common are:

LPNs with specialized skills are also in high demand. Some of the most common specialty areas include:

The Next Step: Advancing Your Career

After gaining several years of work experience, some LPNs may decide to take the next step in furthering their careers. Those who have completed an Associate Degree in Nursing can often transfer their existing credits to a bridge program, while those with a certificate or diploma may need to start from the beginning. Some popular career moves for experienced practical nurses include:

Health Information Technician

These professionals manage health data, ensuring all records can be easily accessed when needed. They may work in hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices, or other healthcare facilities. The position is expected to grow by 15 percent in the coming years and offers an average salary of $35,900.

EducationThis role requires a postsecondary certificate or associate degree. Individuals will receive laboratory and clinical training throughout their program.

Medical Services Manager

After working in a clinical setting, some practical nurses may wish to take on a more managerial role. Medical services managers oversee and coordinate health services, either for a specific clinical area or for a group of physicians. The role is expected to grow by 17 percent in the coming years, with an average salary of $92,810.

EducationThis role requires a bachelor’s degree in nursing, health administration, public health, or a related topic. The majority of professionals have prior experience working in either a clinical or administrative capacity.

Travel Nurse

Practical nurses seeking adventure may consider becoming a travel nurse and using their skills to care for patients in underserved or remote areas. The role is expected to grow by 16 percent in the coming years and offers an average salary of $61,483.

EducationTravel nurses are typically RNs, which means practical nurses must hold either an associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing and pass the NCLEX-RN. Experience in trauma or basic care settings is strongly preferred.

Oncology Nurse

These healthcare professionals work with individuals of all ages who are being treated for cancer. They monitor symptoms, prescribe medication and work alongside doctors to administer treatments. The role is expected to grow by 19 percent in the coming years and pays an average salary of $65,470.

EducationThis role requires students complete a BSN degree and pass the NCLEX-RN examination. Those interested in this field should try to take specific oncology courses throughout their degree and complete clinical hours in an oncology unit.

Nurse Practitioner

After completing an RN degree, some nurses decide to advance their careers even further by becoming a nurse practitioner. These experienced nurses work in myriad healthcare settings and provide advanced and specialty care to patients. The role is expected to grow by 31 percent in the coming years, with an average salary of $95,350.

EducationThis role requires a master’s degree in nursing, and students should look for programs offering a specialized path in advanced nursing practice.

For more detailed information on how to advance a practical nursing career, learn about and explore LPN to RN and LPN to BSN programs.