How to Become a Licensed Practical Nurse
One of the fastest ways to enter the nursing field is to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN). You can complete the necessary credentials in about a year and at half the cost of becoming a registered nurse.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), LPNs earned average annual wages of $50,090.
Becoming an LPN can start your nursing career quickly and help you advance. Below, we've answered common questions, including 'What is an LPN?' and 'How long does it take to become an LPN?'
What is an LPN?
LPNs provide care to hospitalized patients or residents of long-term care facilities. California and Texas call them licensed vocational nurses (LVNs), but LPNs and LVNs perform the same function.
LPNs' duties include monitoring patients' vitals, observing their recovery from treatment, and administering medications. LPNs oversee nursing aides and orderlies and typically report to registered nurses (RNs).
Steps to Becoming an LPN
Many LPN programs require a high school diploma or GED. You also may need to take an English-language proficiency exam. At a minimum, you'll need to communicate and read effectively and have basic math skills since your responsibilities involve:
- Communicating with patients
- Reading orders
- Double-checking medication amounts
Diploma and certificate programs offer the relevant coursework and hands-on experience you'll need for an entry-level position as an LPN. Here's what to know before searching for programs:
- LPN programs can take 9-18 months to complete (most last one year).
- The curriculum includes the skills and knowledge you need to know for quick entry into the workforce. You'll also take core courses like mathematics and natural sciences.
- Programs range in price from $3,000-$20,000, with most programs costing $5,000-$10,000.
Each state establishes educational requirements for LPNs. Make sure to research the following aspects of an LPN program before enrolling.
- State nursing board accreditation: You can find this information on state government websites. If your school is not accredited, you can't sit for the required licensure exam.
- Faculty with nursing experience: Instructors who worked as LPNs can share their insights and advice with you.
- Exam preparation and support: All LPNs must take the National Council Licensure Exam for Practical Nurses (NCLEX-PN). Given the exam's importance, many schools offer test prep, including dedicated classes and practice tests.
- Latest NCLEX-PN pass rate: Before committing to a program, ask how many of its graduates pass the licensure exam. Sometimes, state nursing boards publish this information. Alternatively, you can ask an admissions counselor from the program.
If you get into an LPN program at a community college, you'll have to pass an additional exam called the Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS).
The TEAS covers fundamental science knowledge important in any healthcare career. It costs around $100.
Once you've completed an approved program, sign up to take the NCLEX-PN. Here are a few facts you need to know about the exam:
- The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) develops and administers the exam digitally.
- You will need to pay a $200 registration fee to take the test. In addition, your state may charge an additional state licensing fee.
- If you don't pass the exam on your first try, you can retake it, but you'll have to wait a couple of months.
You can find a guide to the NCLEX-PN on the NCSBN's website for more detailed information.
Once you have your license, you're ready to start working as an LPN or LVN. Here are some job search tips:
- Start at your school's career center. It might offer services devoted to helping students find jobs. Find out what your career center may offer.
- Create a resume and profile for a job site. We ranked the top 15 online job boards.
- Locate your local chapter of the National Association of Licensed Practical Nurses (NALPN) to network with LPNs in your state.
You can earn certifications in long-term care, wound care, pharmacology, IV therapy, and others, qualifying you for specialized practical nursing roles.
Certification training combines self-study at home with workshops in person. Overall, you can expect to spend 30 hours in training over a few weeks. The cost of training can range from $250 to $600 or more. Some workplaces will pay for your training, but keep in mind that an institution-specific credential won't transfer to other hospitals or health systems.
Before enrolling in a certification program, consult your state's board of nursing education on what a certification allows you to do in your state, so you can judge if it's worthwhile.
LPN Salaries and Job Growth
Data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Projections Central, a U.S. Department of Labor-sponsored website.
Top 10 States With the Highest Job Growth
- Arizona: 29%
- Colorado: 21%
- Idaho: 20.4%
- New York: 19.6%
- Nevada: 17%
- Utah: 16.7%
- Maryland: 16.2%
- California: 15.1%
- Iowa: 14.6%
- Tennessee: 14.2%
Career Paths for LPNs
LPNs have a head start on becoming a registered nurse. Many LPN-to-RN bridge programs offer an associate degree of nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).
Typically, LPNs can shave a year off the time it takes to complete either degree compared to someone entering the program without experience. In other words, LPNs can get their ADN in one year or BSN in about three years.
Returning to school for your ADN will cost another $5,000 to $15,000. A BSN program may cost you $5,000 to $25,000 a year for tuition.
If you earn a master's degree, you can become an advanced practice nurse (APN), also called advanced practice registered nurses (APRN). Nurse practitioners, nurse-midwives, and nurse anesthetists fall into this category.
It takes about two years to earn a master's degree in nursing — longer if you go to school part-time while working. These programs range in price from $10,000 to $40,000 a year. They also come with higher salaries. According to the BLS, nurse practitioners earned $114,510 on average in 2020.
You can transition into healthcare administration or education by building your experience and advancing your education.
Some nurses pursue doctorates of nursing practice (DNPs) to take on leadership roles like hospital president or head of nursing. Maybe you're interested in becoming a nursing professor or dean of nursing students. You will probably need your Ph.D. or doctorate of education (Ed.D.) to become faculty at a university.
Doctorate programs are expensive, but you can pursue many advanced careers in healthcare.
There is no end to careers related to nursing and health care. Learn more about your options and explore other top medical field jobs.
Courses in LPN Programs
LPN programs will include the following courses for nurses:
- Review medical ethics
- Develop communication skills and bedside care knowledge
- Learn about the human body's structure and function
- Apply this knowledge to patients
- Understand mental health and human development basics
- Recognize mental distress signs
- Focus on nursing care throughout pregnancy, birth, labor, and postpartum
- Focus on diagnostic testing and treating injuries and disease
- Practice in a clinical setting under an LPN or RN
Pro Tips on Becoming an LPN
Editor's note: We've edited these tips for clarity and length.
- Most practical nursing is forming care at the bedside. This is extremely taxing on the body. You need to be in good shape.
- After graduation and passing the license exam, make sure you know your stuff. If you're going to be giving patients medication, you need to know how the drug works and to anticipate any potential side effects. This is what the training is for — to practice good nursing care.
- In nursing, we're dealing with an individual at their worst. Some patients are cognitively impaired because of their medication or an illness, and they are depending on you. I tell my students, “If you're not going to take care of the patients like you do your own family, this job isn't for you.”
LPNs are mostly employed in nursing homes. But in some areas in the country, they get additional training in the hospital and work in any area. Some companies are training LPNs to work in pediatric home care. In the southern states, some hospitals will train LPNs to become surgical techs.
Becoming an LPN is a good stepping stone. It's a good way to get into a professional situation, and from there, you can work your way up — all the way up to hospital VP or president.
Then again, a lot of LPNs practice very well and give excellent care at the bedside.
Remember, in any aspect of nursing — whether you are an LPN, RN, NP, PhD — make sure that when you go to the bedside, your client is safe. And if you practice good nursing, it will shine above everything else in the patient's experience.
Related Careers at a Glance
- Average salary: $80,010
- Job growth: 7%
- Education and training needed: Diploma or associate degree in nursing required. Employers may prefer candidates with a bachelor's degree in nursing.
- Average salary: $114,510
- Job growth: 45%
- Education and training needed: Master's degree
- Average salary: $32,050
- Job growth: 8%
- Education and training needed: Postsecondary training
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