Becoming a licensed practical nurse or a licensed vocational nurse is one way to enter the surging health care field without attending years of school. Students frequently complete their education and begin working within two years. It is also a career that can be a starting point for further education and employment opportunities in the nursing field. Keep reading for a step-by-step guide to becoming an LPN/LVN, including an in-depth review of LPN training programs. In addition, this guide will highlight the average salary for practical nurses, related careers to consider, and what the future might hold for this dynamic occupation.
LPNs and LVNs have different names but perform the same function. LPN, short for licensed practical nurse, is the term used in most of the country. Meanwhile, Texas and California call these professionals LVNs, or licensed vocational nurses. Regardless of their name, nurses in these roles are usually part of a team of health professionals providing care in a variety of settings. State law outlines their work duties, but they typically monitor a patient’s vital statistics, administer basic care and report concerns to registered nurses and physicians.
Aspiring LPNs must complete a state-approved training program, often in the form of a diploma, certificate or associate degree. The majority of programs can be completed in one year, although some offering an extensive nursing curriculum may take longer. Conversely, accelerated programs can be completed in as few as nine months. Once completed, graduates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). Before enrolling, students should ensure the program meets their state’s LPN licensing and training requirements.
Licensed LPNs have varied opportunities for career advancement, including becoming a registered nurse (RN) or completing a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Both options are available as bridge programs, meaning numerous existing credits may transfer into a new program.
Students considering careers as LPNs or LVNs should examine their earning potential prior to enrolling in an educational program. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 700,000 LVNs and LPNs were employed in the United States in 2013. In 2014, the median salary was $43,420, with those employed at junior colleges earning the highest mean salary of $51,050 per year.
The following states had the highest average salaries in 2014:
|States/areas||2014 Average salary|
Salaries can vary dramatically based on a number of variables, including the size and kind of health care facility, geographic location and the educational levels of individual nurses. The interactive map below provides the annual income averages of the 10th, 50th and 90th percentiles of earners for each state.
Use the map below to compare LPN/LVN salary estimates by state:
The first step to becoming an LPN/LVN is to decide which type of credential to undertake. A diploma or certificate is often the fastest route into the workforce, but credits from these programs cannot be used toward further education. Students aspiring to become registered nurses may find an associate degree offers the best option for future career goals.
After deciding on the type of program to pursue, students need to find one approved by their state. Each state establishes its own educational requirements for LPNs and approves the schools offering credentials. Most yearlong programs are offered by junior colleges, hospitals, community colleges or technical schools, and provide the opportunity for supervised practical nursing clinical experience.
Coursework may include studies in:
In some cases applicants can get a head start by completing prerequisites in mathematics, chemistry, biology, English and psychology prior to enrolling; however, these are not always required so students should check their program’s requirements first. Admission varies by state, although applicants need at least a high school diploma or equivalent to enroll in a nursing certificate or diploma program. Additionally, some schools may require applicants to pass an entrance exam prior to acceptance to an LPN certificate program.
Upon completion of an approved LPN/LVN diploma or certificate program, graduates sign up to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). All states and the District of Columbia mandate the NCLEX-PN competency exam as a core requirement to be employed as an LPN.
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing develops and administers the exam. The NCLEX version for practical nurses is computerized and includes approximately 85 to 205 test items to be completed within 5 hours. The computerized test monitors progress, adjusting the difficulty and subject matter of the questions based on the student’s demonstrated aptitude. Those who do not pass must wait 45-90 days before retaking the test. This multiple choice examination focuses on specific areas of nursing practice, including:
One way LPNs can distinguish themselves and qualify for specialized clinical roles is by completing additional training or professional development courses. Certifications for LPNs include gerontology, long-term care, pharmacology, hospice and palliative care, IV therapy, immunization, dialysis and neonatal education.
After graduating and obtaining licensure, students are ready to take their first job as an LPN/LVN. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in practical nursing are expected to grow much faster than the national average, providing numerous opportunities for recent graduates.
Many programs offer career support to help students locate jobs in their area. Students should also create a resume to post on LinkedIn and other career websites and leverage any professional connections. The National Federation of Licensed Practical Nurses maintains a career center on its website where LPN/LVNs can post their resume and receive job offers.
Completing LPN training, earning a license and entering the workplace is one way to explore the larger field of nursing. Beginning a career in nursing as an entry-level practical/vocational nurse requires a shorter investment of time and money than initially pursuing training as a registered nurse. After being in their role for a while, LPNs may decide to engage in further education, such as a nursing degree at the associate or bachelor’s degree level. Both options generally provide wider employment opportunities and increased earning potential. Similar to the LPN career path, aspiring RNs will need to meet state requirements and pass a standardized national exam before being fully licensed.
Depending on the type of school students choose, LPN programs culminate in a diploma, certificate, or associate degree. Each offers a different focus, and students should consider their career goals prior to selecting a program.
|Diploma or Certificate||Associate Degree|
|Curriculum Focus||Career-focused education limited to LPN skills and knowledge||Supplements LPN coursework with general education classes|
|Duration of Program||9-18 months||18-24 months|
|Benefits||Quick entry to the workforce; training typically provided by professionals in the field||More versatile academic credential; credits may transfer toward a bachelor’s degree|
|Disadvantages||Some employers may prefer to hire applicants with a degree and these credentials usually won’t transfer over should the individual decide to pursue further nursing education||Longer time commitment; admissions process may be slightly more rigorous|
Similar in structure and requirements, the LPN diploma and certificate are both terminal programs, meaning they are not intended to transition students to a higher level of education. Coursework covers the essentials of practical nursing, including anatomy and physiology, developmental psychology, biology, and chemistry. Students will learn about these topics both in the classroom and through clinical instruction. Diplomas are often completed in one year, although accelerated programs can be finished in as few as nine months of full-time study. Conversely, certificates may take up to 18 months, depending on the specific program and school. Graduates of approved programs will be eligible to sit the NCLEX-PN exam, the national requirement for full licensure.
In addition to medical knowledge, successful LPNs and LVNs need to possess skills in communication and empathy, and have physical stamina. These topics and more are typically covered in required coursework. Some of the common classes include:
An introduction to concepts of practical nursing and clinical care.
Overview of terminology and processes related to anatomy, physiology, and disease.
An overview of psychology, from history to methodologies to an exploration of behavior, sensory processes, perception, development, cognition, and other related topics.
Continued instruction in clinical skills and additional opportunities for hands-on practice.
While a diploma or certificate provides a solid foundation, some students may prefer to earn an associate degree instead. These programs are offered at community colleges and often provide graduates greater career flexibility. An associate degree can be used as the foundation for a bachelor’s degree, whereas credits earned in a diploma or certificate program typically cannot be transferred to an advanced degree. In addition to covering all foundational nursing coursework, associate degrees include more in-depth study of relevant topics and offer additional classes as electives. State laws dictating the level of care LPNs and LVNs are allowed to provide will inform coursework at this level, but in general, students may encounter the following types of courses:
Below is a table of common coursework covered at the associate degree level:
General education that provides an introduction to college-level writing; students may review works of literature, craft essays and learn basic editing skills. Often a prerequisite for an associate degree in practical nursing.
Focus on pathophysiology, including diagnostic testing and the treatment process for disease and injuries in adults and children. Schools may offer a classroom course of medical/surgical nursing theory to be taken alongside a clinical course providing hands-on care.
Course that includes both lecture and clinical components to review therapies used in the treatment of mental disorders. Topics include appropriate nursing intervention, critical thinking in a crisis situation and documentation requirements.
Instruction in how to care for patients receiving treatment via intravenous methods. Classroom instruction may review patient preparation and infection control while clinical experience is offered in equipment preparation, vein selection, skin puncture, blood withdrawal and medication administration.
Practical nursing is a hands-on profession requiring clinical instruction not easily translated via online learning. While some courses may be available online, an LPN program requires varying amounts of face-to-face interaction between students and professors. Community colleges often offer prerequisites or general education courses such as English and psychology online, allowing busy students to complete these courses in a more flexible environment. Clinical classes, on the other hand, must be completed on campus or in an approved health care setting. These may be offered in the evenings or weekends to accommodate working professionals.
Whether planning to take some classes online or fulfill all requirements in person, aspiring nurses should remember that not all LPNs programs are equal. Prospective students should research the following aspects of any LPN program before enrolling:
In order for LPN and LVN graduates to receive state licensure, they must have completed their education at a properly accredited institution. Prospective students should check with the National Council of State Boards of Education for a list of approved programs in each state. If a student earns a degree or credential from an unaccredited institution, he or she will not be eligible to sit for the required licensure exam.
Educational requirements of faculty vary by state: some institutions may allow LPNs with an associate degree to lead classes while others will require instructors to have at least a bachelor’s degree. In addition to educational backgrounds, instructors with an established nursing career will have more on-the-job experience and insight to share than those who recently graduated and began teaching shortly after.
All LPNs must take the NCLEX-PN examination in their state in order to practice. Given the importance of this exam, many schools will offer test preparation services, including a practice class or sample test questions. Students should ensure the institution they are considering offers support services to guide them through the licensure process.
One of the most insightful ways of gauging the quality of a LPN/LVN program is to research the percentage of recent graduates who successfully passed the NCLEX-PN examination. This information can usually be gathered from the state board of nursing or by asking the institution directly. Some colleges also provide this data directly on their website. In 2014, the average pass rate was 82 percent on first attempt. Some schools will have a 100 percent pass rate while others may be significantly lower than the national average. Students should always ensure the program has a proven track record of success before enrolling.
The most successful practical nurses possess both clinical and interpersonal skills. While their stated job duties may include monitoring vital signs, recording data and administering medication, interaction with patients plays a significant role in their work.
LPN/LVNs need to be able to listen attentively to patient concerns, communicate those clearly to others on a health care team and, in some cases, discuss treatment plans with individuals and their families. To be effective, practical nurses must be compassionate and sensitive. They often access confidential information while caring for patients and must maintain high ethical standards. Since nursing can also involve long hours, physical stamina is another important component.
Examples of some of the certifications available to LPN/LVNs are given below, along with the certifying body:
The tools and technology used by LPN/LVNs can be broken down into the following categories:
|Medical Tools for Treatment||Needles, Nebulizers, Intravenous Therapy Supplies|
|Diagnostic Tools||Thermometer, Spirometer, Pulse Oximeter|
|Computer Hardware||Handheld Tablets, Notebook or Desktop Computers|
|Computer Software||Microsoft Office Suite, MedicWare, scheduling software, triage software|
As mentioned previously, job opportunities in this field are expected to grow exponentially in the coming years. Several factors lead this expansion, including:
Nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects job opportunities for LPN/LVNs to grow by 25 percent between 2012 and 2022, but the actual growth rate varies by state. The top ten states expected to see the highest levels of growth during this period are given below:
Curious about growth in your state for this career? Select a state below for more information about employment and job growth for LPNs.
While working as an LPN or an LVN can be rewarding career, some nurses may still be interested in exploring other healthcare-related paths. Here’s a quick glance at parallel occupations, including average salaries, expected job growth and educational requirements.
For a number of LPNs and LVNs, practical nursing is only the first step on their career paths. For practical nurses looking to move into advanced roles as their careers progress, a review of 2014 salaries for a number of related occupations is given below.
Armed with an understanding of the different types of LPN programs available, students can use the search tool below to find a relevant program that matches their career goals.