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How to Become an LPN

The three steps that can help you become an LPN include attending an accredited LPN program, passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses and applying for LPN licensure.
A woman who became a licensed practical nurse, wearing a stethoscope, holding a clipboard and leaning toward a computer screen a healthcare professional is using.

Know before you read
At SNHU, we want to make sure you have the information you need to make decisions about your education and your future—no matter where you choose to go to school. That's why our informational articles may reference careers for which we do not offer academic programs, along with salary data for those careers. Cited projections do not guarantee actual salary or job growth.

Licensed practical nurses, or LPNs, play a critical role in today’s healthcare system. As an LPN, you can make a difference in patients' lives by attending to their care and comfort. You'll also get a taste of what it's like to work on a medical care team. While the time it takes to become an LPN may be shorter than other nursing roles, you do need to take certain steps before starting your career.

Three Steps to Becoming an LPN

If you want to begin your nursing career, becoming an LPN can help you get on the fast track. You can qualify for an LPN license by taking different educational pathways. You can often complete the coursework you need to be eligible to take your licensing exam in a year, according to Dr. Beth VanOrsdale, RN, DNP, MHA, CPHRM, CNE, an academic dean of academic effectiveness at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) and the former associate dean of health professions and full-time clinical nursing faculty.

1. Enroll in an Accredited LPN Program

LPN program is not currently available at SNHU.

Dr. Beth VanOrsdale with the text Dr. Beth VanOrsdaleSome vocational high schools allow you to earn dual high school credits and credits toward your LPN program. However, most people complete LPN programs at technical schools or community colleges, VanOrsdale said.

Your coursework will typically include English, algebra, statistics, anatomy and physiology classes. Your program might also require you to complete clinical rotations at a healthcare facility, where you'll put what you’ve learned into action. According to VanOrsdale, you might be able to take classes at a reduced cost, depending on where you live. For example, the technical schools in South Carolina currently offer free tuition.

You can find accredited LPN nursing schools and programs by visiting nursing accrediting agency websites, such as the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). These organizations have searchable databases on their websites to help you find accredited programs in your state. You can also check to see if a particular school you’re interested in is accredited by searching its website.

2. Pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses

To become an LPN, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses or the NCLEX-PN exam. This test measures your knowledge and skills and requires preparation to pass.

In 2022, 80% of candidates taking the NCLEX-PN for the first time passed their exam, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The NCSBN offers sample questions and exam previews to help you prepare for the test, and many schools have courses that can assist you, too.

3. Apply for LPN Licensure

Passing the NCLEX-PN is your first step toward securing an LPN job. Next, you must apply for licensure with your state board of nursing. To complete your application, you’ll need to provide your school transcripts and passing NCLEX-PN score. You must also pass a criminal background check. It's important to check with your individual state to understand its particular LPN licensing requirements, according to NCSBN.

What is an LPN vs. an RN?

LPNs and RNs are considered nurses, but they hold different licenses that allow them to perform different tasks. LPNs typically focus on direct patient care. In contrast, registered nurses, or RNs, assess patient conditions, recommend treatments and determine when their patients need additional support from a physician, VanOrsdale said.

LPNs work in various settings, although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that in 2021, 35% of LPNs worked in nursing homes and residential care facilities. 15% of LPNs worked in hospitals, 14% provided in-home healthcare services and 12% worked in physicians' offices, according to BLS*.

Depending on where you work, your role as an LPN could vary. You'll focus on ensuring patient comfort and care in any setting, according to O*Net. Some of your tasks could include:

  • Giving medications
  • Observing patients and charting any changes in their conditions
  • Providing basic care, including treating wounds or performing catheterizations
  • Recording any vital signs, such as blood pressure, temperature or respiration

You'll also need good communication skills to listen to patient concerns and work within a healthcare team, according to O*Net.

Registered nurses (RN) perform all of the same tasks as an LPN and have additional education and skills to meet the higher-level needs of patients. They assess a patient’s condition and can adjust treatment plans based on their assessments. Registered nurses utilize the skills of LPNs, medical assistants and other health team members to meet the needs of their patients. Registered nurses have additional education, knowledge and nursing expertise, and this provides a pathway to a variety of roles and job opportunities.

To become an RN, you must complete a registered nurse pre-licensure program. Registered nurse education is generally completed within an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, VanOrsdale said. An ADN program, which is not currently offered at SNHU, includes the education and hands-on clinical experience you’ll need to prepare you for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). This standardized licensing test qualifies you to become a registered nurse. If your goal is to become an RN as quickly as possible, pursuing the ADN pathway allows you to start working sooner.

While you don't need a bachelor's degree to become an RN, getting your BSN can make you an attractive nurse candidate and opens the door to future managerial opportunities. The AACN recommends that all professional nurses acquire a BSN degree to better meet the demands of today’s healthcare system. According to the 2022 National Nursing Workforce Survey published in the Journal of Nursing Regulation, 47.2% of nurses had earned their BSN before getting their first nursing license, up from 39% in 2015.

“If you're pursuing an LPN license, keep in mind that you will want to pursue your registered nurse degree in the future as you will have many more employment opportunities as an RN with much greater earning potential," VanOrsdale said.

Can You Become an RN While Working as an LPN?

Healthcare systems typically offer tuition reimbursement for full-time employees pursuing degrees, according to VanOrsdale. Many technical schools now offer free tuition to individuals seeking their LPN or associate degree in nursing. (SNHU does not currently offer LPN or ADN programs.) By taking advantage of these programs, you can be a working nurse while you earn your BSN.

“For example, an LPN working in a health system might be eligible for tuition reimbursement as they pursue their BSN,” she said. “Health systems see tuition reimbursement as a great recruitment and retention tool.”

Individual states and national companies also offer scholarships for LPN, RN and RN to BSN programs —although VanOrsdale said you’ll find more RN scholarships.

Pursuing an ADN before the BSN gives LPNs advantages, VanOrsdale said. (SNHU does not currently offer an ADN program.) Whether you're an LPN or an RN with an associate degree, you can take BSN classes without leaving your current job and continue to earn money while you study. Some schools offer LPN to BSN programs, which can take up to three years. (SNHU does not currently offer this program.)

"In this scenario, the LPN would pursue an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), making them eligible for the RN licensing exam. In addition to (the associate degree) taking less time, it would allow them to work as an RN one year sooner, once they've completed the exam," she said. "Many associate degree RNs do pursue their bachelor's degree. The RN to BSN option at SNHU gives you the opportunity to complete your bachelor's degree online."

Earning your BSN degree online may be a good option, as it offers work-life flexibility if you’re already a working RN. At SNHU, you can take asynchronous classes and complete assignments on your schedule.

LPNs can take different pathways toward becoming an RN, so it’s simply a matter of choosing the path that makes the best sense for you.

Is Getting Your LPN License Easier Than Getting an RN License?

You can earn your LPN license more quickly than your RN, which could take between two and four years. Pursuing an LPN before enrolling in an ADN or BSN program might be more cost-effective, depending on your circumstances and career goals. (SNHU does not currently offer an ADN program.)

You'll find more nursing job opportunities by pursuing additional education and licensure, VanOrsdale said. In your LPN program, which is not currently offered at SNHU, you'll still take courses in math and science and complete clinical and lab work to put what you've learned into practice.

“Where I have seen the LPN option work well is for those with limited time for school due to family obligations," she said. "The LPN option gets them into the field and earning a good salary with additional options for the future."

Why Working as an LPN is a Good Career

Working as an LPN gets you into the field where you can earn a good salary and leave yourself open for future growth opportunities, VanOrsdale said. BLS reports that LPN employment across the country is expected to grow 6% through 2031.*

Some states, such as Arizona, anticipate LPN jobs to grow as much as 39% through 2030, according to O*Net.* Demand for LPNs has also bumped up their salaries.

The report said that the proportion of LPNs actively working as nurses in 2022 had reached its highest level since 2015. According to VanOrsdale, the pandemic amplified the need for good nurses at every level, shifting more LPN jobs from nursing homes into acute hospitals.

More than 87% of LPNs were actively employed in nursing in 2022, with 71% employed in nursing full-time, up 5.3% from 2020, according to the 2022 National Nursing Workforce Survey.

"A recent BLS study placed the LPN in the top fastest-growing nursing positions, which was unheard of prior to the pandemic," VanOrsdale said.* "More LPNs are being hired into acute care hospital environments as the team nursing model is re-invigorated, and RNs and LPNs work together to meet patients' needs."

Working as a nurse enables you to help people when they need help the most. Entering the nursing profession as an LPN is a way to begin the path to a fulfilling nursing career.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU nursing program that can best help you meet your goals.

*Cited job growth projections may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions and do not guarantee actual job growth. Actual salaries and/or earning potential may be the result of a combination of factors including, but not limited to: years of experience, industry of employment, geographic location, and worker skill.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks '11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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