How to Earn an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Learn everything you need to know about earning an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), salary expectations after graduation, and if it's the right nursing program for you. Education

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While there are multiple pathways to becoming a registered nurse (RN), one of the most common is through an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN).

Learn more about the degree as we shed light on its significance, the journey to earning one, and its implications on your nursing career in contrast to other entry-level nursing programs.

Whether you're a high school graduate contemplating a career in nursing or a working professional considering a shift to healthcare, understanding the ADN is one of the first steps toward making an informed decision.

What Is an ADN?

An ADN is a two-year degree program that offers the minimum amount of schooling required to become licensed as a registered nurse (RN). Once you graduate from an ADN program, you will be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN examination. You must pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become licensed by the State and obtain RN licensure.

It's important to consider your educational timeline, budget, and career goals when deciding if an ADN is right for you. Attending an ADN program is shorter and less costly than other paths to becoming an RN, but it can hinder your long-term career growth as more desirable job opportunities often prefer RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Prerequisites and Requirements

Admission requirements for two-year ADN programs vary by school, including minimum GPA requirements. Applicants must typically submit a high school diploma or GED certificate and provide proof of completing high school coursework in math, biology, chemistry, English, and humanities. It is also required that you have completed CPR-BLS, Mask Fit Testing, and required immunizations.

Some ADN programs will also require additional post-secondary educational requirements before entering the program. These courses may include:

  • English Composition
  • Communications
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Human Anatomy & Physiology
  • Statistics


The ADN curriculum includes a general education of both theoretical courses and clinical experiences in a hospital setting. Some of the theoretical courses include:

  • Foundations in Nursing
  • Nursing Care of Adults
  • Behavioral Health
  • Pharmacology
  • Microbiology
  • Maternal and Child Nursing Care

ADN students engage in clinical rotations onsite to practice hands-on patient care. All programs specify the minimum number of clinical hours that are required for completion of the ADN program, and it's important that prospective students do thorough research on all programs of interest.

Can You Earn an ADN Online?

Currently, ADN programs cannot be offered completely online. There are, however, hybrid ADN programs available, which means that the program will be a mixture of both in-person and online classes. 

Even programs that are advertised as "online ADN" programs aren't 100% online, because state nursing boards require a set number of in-person clinical hours in order to become a registered nurse. The exact number of clinical hours varies by state but is usually approximately 70 clinical hours.

Clinical requirements are necessary because that's where students will learn the hands-on skills they need to perform as RNs.

Steps to Earning Your ADN

  1. Get a high school diploma or a GED diploma: While some courses require little to no prior learner knowledge, others such as English, science, math, and social sciences have prerequisite requirements, so you cannot enroll in an ADN program without having one of these diplomas.
  2. Apply to an accredited ADN Program and go through the registration process: Employers favor nurses with degrees from accredited institutions, so the college you choose can impact the odds of you getting the job you want.
  3. Apply for financial aid, if needed. Explore all options for paying the cost of your education. If you qualify for financial aid, be sure to make all the financial arrangements before classes start.
  4. Attend the program and complete its requirements: Before sitting for the NCLEX-RN exam, students must complete their ADN program.
  5. Register for and take the NCLEX-RN exam: Licensure from The National Council Licensure Examination is mandatory to be able to practice as an entry-level nurse. The NCLEX exam tests your competence in nursing skills and knowledge; you must pass the exam in order to receive your RN license.

Is an ADN Worth It?

ADN programs have been the standard for entering the nursing field for many years now. However, there is a new law that entails an increase of U.S. nurses holding BSNs to 80% by 2020, which is why many hospitals are prioritizing hiring nurses with BSNs in order to obtain the Magnet Status and achieve a reputation for improved patient outcomes. Noentheless, the ADN program is still relevant., as completing it allows you to work as an RN with the option to pursue a bridge program (RN to BSN program) to obtain a BSN degree at a later time.

Bridge programs may be desirable as depending on your career goals and financial situation, it may be more or less feasible to complete a four-year BSN program versus a two-year ADN program. Regardless of the route you choose, the shortage of nurses in the U.S. is significant and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of available nursing jobs in the U.S. is expected to grow by 15 percent from 2016 to 2026.

Salary Expectations

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average salary for RNs in 2022 was $89,010, however, doesn't specify between ADN- and BSN-prepared nurses.

According to Payscale, the average full-time RN salary with an ADN degree is $80,660 a year. This salary is the average for all ADN-educated RNs regardless of experience, location, employer, and specialization. You can expect a lower earning potential when you first enter the workforce, but this will grow with time as you gain more experience.

The BLS further reports that the highest-paying states for RNs include:

  • California: $133,340
  • Hawaii: $113,220
  • Oregon: $106,610
  • Massachusetts: $104,150
  • Alaska: $103,310

Costs of an ADN

Nursing school will cost a different sum depending on the length, type, location, and level of degree being earned. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that all institutions' average tuition, fees, room, and board in 2021-22 was $26,903.00, with four-year degrees costing $30,301 and two-year degrees costing $11,976.00.

Considering that an ADN is typically a two-year program, the latter is more likely to apply. However, factors including geography, program duration, and institution may vary. It's important that prospective students research the tuition and associated fees of each program of interest to understand its costs.

Working as an ADN-Prepared RN

ADN programs generally focus more on nursing fundamentals and clinical skills, whereas BSN programs focus on clinical skills plus education related to evidenced-based research, leadership, and management. An RN with a BSN has more opportunities to advance in clinical leadership and more diversified career opportunities in areas such as management, administration, research, and informatics.

Healthcare Settings

An ADN program prepares nursing students for a variety of entry-level nursing jobs. These are some of the places where you can work as an RN with an ADN:

  • General hospitals
  • Specialized hospitals
  • Nursing care facilities
  • Doctor's offices
  • Community care facilities
  • Outpatient clinics
  • Home healthcare

Nursing Specialties

New RNs with ADNs are generalists and handle a wide range of basic but critical tasks, such as taking health histories, administering medication, ordering tests, providing instructions to patients, helping patients prepare for procedures, and assisting doctors with patient exams.

With some experience, you may also become specialists in key health areas like women's health, pediatrics, and gerontology. You may also supervise coworkers with a narrower scope of practice, including certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs).


Is an ADN degree difficult?

The difficulty level of the program depends on various factors such as your academic background, study habits, and time management skills. Nursing school programs are intensive and require a significant time commitment that can impact a student's ability to work, socialize, or engage in other personal commitments during the program.

How do I know if an ADN is right for me?

Before deciding whether an ADN is right for you, it's important to consider your educational timeline, budget, and career goals. Consider that an ADN program is shorter and less costly than other paths to becoming an RN, but it can limit your long-term career growth as more desirable job opportunities often prefer RNs with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

If you're looking to get into the workforce quickly or on a budget, an ADN degree may be a good option for you. However, if you plan to pursue advanced nursing degrees such as becoming a nurse practitioner or nurse educator, a BSN degree or MSN degree is generally required.

Editorial Team / Admin

Carly Elliott has 9 years experience as a BSN, RN and specializes in Hospice Palliative Care and Home Health.

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