Hi kristieboo! Good for you for going for your dreams! Wooo hooo! I can relate to the overwhelm that comes with going back to the classroom after an absence. I went back to school after a long break and all of the changes to the way college classes work really sent me reeling at first.
I am a pre nursing student about to start my last pre-requisite course this summer, so I haven't gotten into school yet, but I will share my strategies for getting in anyway. Hopefully you will also hear from some other more experienced people here, and people looking to get into your specific programs.
Going to information sessions or meeting with advisors from the schools you want to attend is essential. Often they will give out information in the meetings about how the average candidate who is accepted measures up to their admission standards. For example, a TEAS score of 75 might be their admissions requirement, but the people who get in typically have scores above 82. If you can't get this type of information directly from the school, then you might try looking through old threads on here to see if there are any for the specific programs you're looking at. Often after people are accepted to their program they will share information about how many points they had on the school's point system and what their GPA/work experience etc. is like.
With most points systems a lot of points come from GPA, so I also consider getting the highest grades possible essential for getting in. I see a lot of classmates shooting for the minimum required grade, but then you have to make up the GPA points elsewhere on your application. If you're already taking the time and energy to go to class I think putting in the extra to get your best grade is efficient. I like using some diverse/creative study strategies to try to economize on time too. I record lectures to re-listen to while I'm driving or doing housework. I also like using Quizlet (online flashcards). It's nice because you can look up other people's flashcards and use them if you like, or make your own. I tend to make my own because I feel like I learn more from making the flashcards. There are also some really good youtube videos from nursing students and pre nursing students about how they study that I've found really helpful.
As far as getting an AA goes, I would say that if you're inclined to do it (and can afford tuition and have time and all that), you should go for it. The extra classes can help you to be more well-rounded and practice critical thinking skills that a lot of programs emphasize (and that are really helpful along the road as a nurse since critical thinking skills are needed when you're a charge nurse).
I hope that helps. Congrats again and good luck!