What do these nursing acronyms mean (RN & BSN)?

Education is essential to a successful nursing career. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one path that can get you there. Many prospective nursing students may feel confused about the difference between the “RN” and “BSN” designations, but we’ve got some information that can help.

In the very simplest of terms, a registered nurse (RN) is the certified professional role and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is a degree that many nurses earn in order to work as a nurse. Let’s break that down even further.

Registered Nurse

A registered nurse (or RN) is someone who is qualified to provide patient healthcare such as administering medication or diagnostic testing, completing medical histories and required paperwork, or providing patient education. RNs may work in hospitals, long-term care facilities, retirement communities, or other healthcare and clinical environments. Like many healthcare professionals, RNs often work long shifts, including nights and weekends, in order to provide continuous care. They may need to work in fast-paced or difficult environments.


Regardless of the education program you pursue, you’ll need proper certification in order to work as a registered nurse. Prospective nurses will need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam: The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is the national examination required to obtain a nursing license in the state you wish to work in. The NCLEX-RN exam is taken on a computer and is made up primarily of multiple-choice questions that test each candidate’s knowledge and understanding of safe and effective care, health promotion and maintenance, and more.

Diploma in Nursing

Nursing diploma programs often only take one to three years to complete and help prepare students for entry-level nursing work. They are typically hospital-based with an emphasis in patient care in a hospital environment and may rely on hands-on experience while working as a nursing assistant throughout the program. While graduates of diploma programs can earn their certification in order to obtain an RN license, they may find career opportunities or advancement to be somewhat limited.

Associate Degree in Nursing

An Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) is typically a two- to three-year program resulting in an associate degree. Like a diploma program, an associate degree in nursing can prepare you to successfully complete the certification requirements needed to begin working as a nurse. An associate degree is likely to offer additional opportunities for career advancement and more responsibility in your role than with a diploma, but many nurses find that a BSN offers the best chance for long-term career success.

Bachelor of Science in Nursing

A BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) is a typical four-year degree program that prepares students to work as registered nurses, pursue specializations, earn leadership or management roles, and become educators in their field. Having a BSN can also help increase your salary or wages as a nurse and improve job satisfaction through more fulfilling or specialized roles. Earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing can also prepare nurses for even more advanced education, laying a foundation for MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) or similar programs.

Completion Programs

If you’ve earned an associate degree or diploma in nursing, and are already working as an RN, you may be interested in pursuing your BSN to increase professional opportunities and advance your career. But you don’t have to start from square one: many nursing schools offer BSN completion programs, which are designed specifically to help you earn a bachelor’s degree through leveraging the education and experience you already have. RN-to-BSN completion programs, as they’re often called, can take as little as two years to complete. Some are even offered online, so you can complete courses on your own schedule and at your own pace.

Working as a nurse requires a solid educational foundation—and the ability to continue learning throughout your career in order to maintain skills, adapt to new technologies and best practices, and to provide great patient care. Each of these program types has its merits and can help prepare you for work as a registered nurse. And no matter where you decide to start, RN-to-BSN completion programs can help you continue advancing your education, even while you work.