The Complete Guide to RN to MSN Programs: ADN to MSN, Bridge Programs

RN to MSN programs are for registered nurses who have their associate degree in nursing (ADN) and who wish to earn their MSN without first completing a BSN program (note: some RN to MSN programs will accept RNs with a diploma in nursing). RN to MSN programs can be advantageous for RNs who wish to earn their MSN as efficiently as possible, as these types of programs generally require students to take fewer classes overall than they would if they earned their BSN and MSN degrees separately. This is because BSN and MSN degree programs tend to have overlapping courses (for example, general education courses or particular nursing courses that are required at both the baccalaureate and the graduate degree level); RN to MSN programs eliminate these redundancies and streamline their curriculum to save students time and course credits.

In general, there are two main types of RN to MSN programs that differ based on their admission requirements–traditional RN to MSN programs and bridge RN to MSN programs (these are sometimes referred to as RN BA/BS to MSN programs or RN + Non-nursing bachelors to MSN programs).

  • Traditional RN to MSN programs are comprised of undergraduate general education courses, BSN-level nursing courses, and MSN-level nursing coursework, and accept registered nurses who have earned at least an ADN (or a diploma in nursing for some programs). These programs also typically accept students who have earned a non-nursing bachelors in addition to their ADN and allow those students to transfer credits towards general education courses.
  • Bridge RN to MSN programs require RNs to hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field in addition to their ADN. Since students with a bachelor’s degree have typically already completed undergraduate general education courses, these programs are comprised of select “bridge” courses (typically undergraduate-level courses that cover fundamental nursing concepts) followed by graduate-level nursing courses.

Unfortunately, the naming convention for RN to MSN programs is not well standardized. Therefore, students often need to look at specific admission requirements for each program to see if they require a diploma in nursing, an ADN, or an ADN plus a non-nursing bachelor’s degree for admission. For Bridge RN to MSN programs, some schools refer to these as RN to MSN programs while others just refer to them as MSN programs that accept RNs with either a BSN or a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.

RN to MSN programs can vary in terms of their curriculum structure and specialization options. For example, some RN to MSN programs allow students to stop partway through the program and receive their BSN upon completion of the required coursework, while other programs either only award the MSN degree or require students to complete the entire RN to MSN program in order to earn both their BSN and their MSN. Some RN to MSN programs only provide clinical concentrations such as Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner, or Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, while other programs also offer concentrations with a more administrative focus, such as Nurse Educator or Nursing Leadership. When researching the variety of RN to MSN programs that are available, students should take stock of their goals and the courses they have completed to try and find the best program for their needs.

Advancements in education technology in recent years have led to an unprecedented number of options for students who are interested in enrolling in an RN to MSN program. Aside from traditional campus-based programs, online and hybrid RN to MSN programs provide additional flexibility to students whose family obligations, work schedule, or geographical location limit their access to campus-based programs. However, with this flexibility comes reduced opportunities for in-person interactions with faculty, classmates, and program staff; students who find these interactions to be an important component of their learning experience should weigh the pros and cons of on-campus versus online degree programs.

Admissions requirements for RN to MSN programs typically include a combination of academic prerequisite requirements, overall and/or nursing course-specific GPA requirements, and professional experience requirements to ensure that students have the nursing experience necessary to succeed in the program. For the purpose of this guide, all programs require students to have an active RN license in the state where they plan to complete their clinical hours.

The Different Categories of RN to MSN Programs: Campus, Hybrid, and Online

RN to MSN programs can be divided into four main types, according to the mode of delivery for course content. These four types range from 100% online programs to fully on-campus programs. When researching programs, students should weigh the importance of their learning preferences alongside their scheduling limitations and geographical constraints to try and find the best programs to match their learning style and practical needs. Below are descriptions of each main type of RN to MSN program that students can select from:

Campus RN to MSN Programs: Traditional campus-based RN to MSN programs require students to attend class lectures, discussions, labs, and examinations in person. This type of program may be optimal for students who benefit from in-person support from faculty and program staff, and who enjoy discussing class concepts in-person with peers. On-campus programs may also provide students with more of a student community and greater networking opportunities, relative to online and hybrid RN to MSN programs, which can be a bit more isolating.

Online RN to MSN Programs with 100% Online Instruction: Online RN to MSN programs deliver their courses in a 100% online format, granting students maximum flexibility and requiring zero visits to campus. These programs are ideal for students who need a flexible lesson format due to their family or work obligations, and who are able to learn independently with less structure, relative to a traditional campus-based RN to MSN program.

Online RN to MSN Programs with Limited Campus Visits: This type of RN to MSN program provides students with most of the flexibility of an online program, but includes required on-campus intensives that provide students the opportunity to meet course faculty and interact with their classmates. These intensives, also called on-campus immersions, are meant to reinforce the concepts that students learn in class, and sometimes give them the chance to apply their academic knowledge to clinical tasks. Oftentimes, these intensives include in-person lectures and discussions with course faculty, networking events, hands-on clinical simulations, and/or in-person examinations. On-campus intensives may help students feel more a part of an academic community, but also generally require students to make their own travel arrangements and cover the cost of coming to campus.

Hybrid Online RN to MSN Programs: Hybrid RN to MSN programs are generally comprised of a more balanced mix of online and on-campus components, relative to online RN to MSN programs that have a limited number of campus visits. There are two types of hybrid RN to MSN programs–the first type is comprised of a mix of classes that are entirely online and entirely campus-based, while the second type is composed of classes that have both an online and an in-person component. Hybrid programs are suitable for students who want a campus community and in-person learning experience, but who also wish to have some flexibility incorporated into their program experience through online lectures and discussions.

At present, there is no standardized definition of an online graduate nursing program versus a hybrid program, and nursing schools will often define and use these terms differently. There may be some online RN to MSN programs, for example, that require more visits to campus than do other programs that classify themselves as hybrid. As a result, students should not take for granted that hybrid programs have fewer on-campus obligations relative to programs that define themselves as online. Rather, these students should check the specific on-campus requirements of the programs that interest them, and even confirm them with admissions staff.

To help students sort through the potentially confusing variation among different RN to MSN programs that have online components, OnlineFNPPrograms.com defines an online program as one that requires three or fewer visits to campus annually.

Students should note that, regardless of whether the RN to MSN program they select is on-campus, hybrid, or online, all RN to MSN programs have similar clinical practicum hours requirements. All RN to MSN programs that have been accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and/or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) require enough clinical practicum hours to qualify students to sit for the national certification examination in their desired specialty. APRN certifying bodies include the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP), the National Certification Corporation (NCC), the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB), and the American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN).

Concentration Options for RN to MSN Programs

RN to MSN programs are available in both advanced clinical and administrative nursing specializations. Clinical RN to MSN program specializations typically prepare students to become nurse practitioners (NPs), clinical nurse specialists (CNSs), and other types of specialized APRNs such as certified nurse midwives or certified registered nurse anesthetists. RN to MSN programs with more administrative or nursing education focuses are often ideal for nurses who wish to become Clinical Nurse Leaders (CNLs), nursing school instructors, or CNSs who work mainly in administration or organizational leadership. Below are a few examples of the specialization options available for RN to MSN programs:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nursing: The comprehensive nursing care of adult patients suffering from severe or life threatening illnesses or injury in inpatient hospital settings.
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nursing: The primary nursing care of adult patients ranging in age from young adulthood to geriatric age.
  • Family Nursing: Primary nursing care of patients across the lifespan, from childhood on through old age, with a particular focus on caring for patients within the context of the family unit.
  • Neonatal Nursing: The stabilization and ongoing care of critically ill and/or premature neonates, as well as healthy and moderately ill neonates, in settings such as the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), neonatal intermediate or step-down care units, and hospital nurseries.
  • Nurse Anesthesia: The safe administration of anesthesia for patients in surgical, palliative care, or labor and delivery settings, as well as dentist’s offices and certain private practices.
  • Nurse Midwifery: The medical care and monitoring of pregnant women and newborn infants, and their support during labor and delivery as well as the post-partum period.
  • Nursing Education: Educating nurses in academic and staff development environments. The design and implementation of nursing education programs, and the evaluation of learning outcomes.
  • Nursing Leadership / Administration: How to manage health care teams, translate research into improvements in systems of care, and serve in administrative roles across different medical settings. The skills and responsibilities required to run medical facilities and train and supervise staff at the administrative level.
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nursing: The stabilization and ongoing care of pediatric patients suffering from critical illness or severe injury.
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nursing: The ongoing primary care of pediatric patients from infancy through adolescence.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing: The evaluation, stabilization, and ongoing care of individuals suffering from mental, emotional, and/or behavioral health conditions.
  • Women’s Health Nursing: The ongoing reproductive care of women of childbearing age, and the care and monitoring of pregnant women.

The Curricular Structure of RN to MSN Programs

As mentioned previously, RN to MSN programs can vary in the structure of their curriculum. In general, however, there are two types of RN to MSN programs: traditional RN to MSN programs, and bridge RN to MSN programs. A detailed description of both types of programs is provided below.

Traditional RN to MSN Programs

RN to MSN programs for registered nurses holding either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Diploma in Nursing are typically comprised of undergraduate general education courses, undergraduate nursing-specific courses, and graduate-level nursing courses. (Note: schools offering traditional RN to MSN programs will often accept RNs with a non-nursing bachelor’s degree as well and allow them to waive classes they have already completed.)

Undergraduate-Level General Education/Prerequisite Courses

RN to MSN programs typically require entering students to have completed certain general education courses that they can apply to the BSN portion of their degree. These courses may include some or all of the following:

  • English Composition: How to write coherent essays and arguments, and master grammar and sentence structure for effective communication across different contexts.
  • Statistics: Basic probability principles, discrete and continuous random variables, and other essential concepts in statistics. Application of statistical principles to social, scientific, political, and/or medical situations.
  • Psychology: The human mind and how it develops across the lifespan. The history of the field of psychology, and the core theories of human cognition, emotion, decision-making, and behavior.
  • Microbiology: The morphology and physiology of microbes, the classification of different microorganisms, host-microbe relationships, and the main classes of infectious diseases.
  • Human Anatomy and Physiology: The different human organ systems and how they interact and collaborate to yield a well and functioning human body. Examining the human body at the organ, tissue, and cellular levels to understand human metabolic functions, development, and genetics.

Some nursing programs allow students to transfer previously completed coursework in the above subjects into their program of study, which can save students time and course credits. Students should check with program staff to confirm whether any coursework they have completed prior to enrollment into their RN to MSN program of choice can count towards completing these undergraduate-level prerequisites. Finally, some RN to MSN programs require students to complete prerequisite courses before enrolling in the program, typically at a local college or community college.

BSN-Level Nursing Coursework

After students have completed program prerequisites, they progress to the BSN-level portion of the curriculum, which may include nursing courses such as:

  • Foundations of Nursing Practice: The professional nurse’s role in the medical environment, and essential theories and methods of nursing practice, including nursing ethics, maintaining safe patient care environments, professionalism, teamwork and collaboration, and safety standards in the workplace.
  • Health Assessment: The practice of taking medical histories and conducting physical assessments to measure patients’ health status, identify health risks, and diagnose deviations from the norm. Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, and advising and supporting patients in the reduction of health risks and the promotion of health through lifestyle changes.
  • Clinical Diagnosis and Decision-Making: The principles and methods of analyzing patient data to make clinical diagnoses and arrive at treatment decisions.
  • Human Physiology and Pathophysiology: How the human body functions at the organ systems, organ, tissue, and molecular levels. How to detect common health deviations and identify their origin, and make recommendations for treatment.
  • Human Pharmacology: The different classes of drugs and how they affect different organ systems in the body. The principles of pharmacotherapeutics, pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics.

MSN-Level Nursing Coursework

Students then move on to the MSN portion of their coursework after they complete the undergraduate requirements of the program. Core MSN-level classes for RN to MSN programs typically include:

  • Advanced Health Assessment: Physical assessments, diagnostic reasoning, differential diagnoses, ordering and interpreting labs, and developing and modifying care plans according to patients’ medical histories and current health status.
  • Advanced Human Physiology and Pathophysiology: An advanced examination of the different organ systems in the human body, and how these systems develop in a healthy person throughout the lifespan. Different health conditions that affect the human body at the organ systems, organ, tissue, and cellular levels, and how to detect the onset of these conditions.
  • Advanced Pharmacology: Clinical applications of pharmacological concepts and principles. An investigation of the different drug classes and their applications in primary and acute care settings.
  • Nursing Research: The principles of nursing research, including the research process, engaging in nursing and medical studies, analyzing data, and writing formally about findings.
  • Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine: Evaluating the health of people at the individual and community levels, and how to incorporate preventative care, patient education, and health interventions into a community care plan. Applying health research and nursing theory to health care management at different levels of care.
  • Health Care Systems and Policy: The process of developing, financing, and implementing health care policies aimed at community health improvement at the individual, local, state, and national levels.

The MSN portion of RN to MSN programs will also include courses that vary based off of the desired concentration. Depending on their academic focus, students enrolled in RN to MSN programs may take the some of the following courses:

  • Advanced Acute Care of Adults: How to address severe health conditions that adults may encounter across the lifespan, including serious illnesses such as cancer, pneumonia, heart disease, and neural disorders, as well as traumatic injuries. How to manage intakes, stabilize patients, monitor patient health statuses, and coordinate patient transfers and/or discharges.
  • Advanced Acute Care of Pediatric Populations: How to stabilize children who have experienced traumatic injuries or are afflicted by severe illness, and manage their care in collaboration with a larger medical team in the emergency room and the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).
  • Advanced Primary Care of Adults: Evaluating the health of adult patients ranging in age from young adulthood to geriatric age, and providing ongoing support to patients through patient consultations, preventative care, and treatments for mild, moderate, and/or chronic conditions.
  • Advanced Primary Care of Pediatric Populations: Assessing the health of children from infancy through adolescence, and supporting children’s well-being in collaboration with their families through a combination of patient education, preventative care, and the monitoring and treatment of mild and moderate health conditions.
  • Community Nursing and Public Health: Integrating nursing principles and public health concepts to develop community-focused health programs.
  • Family Nursing Theory and Clinical Practice: Primary care nursing principles as they apply to patients across the lifespan, within the context of the family unit. Family-centric patient support, health evaluations, and medical interventions.
  • Neonatal Health Assessment: How to conduct a thorough health assessment and gestational age assessment of newborn infants. How to identify moderate to severe health conditions in neonates and develop a medical care plan to address these conditions.
  • Principles of Nurse Anesthesia: The core principles and methods of safe, ethical anesthesia administration, including determining a patient’s anesthesia needs, the use of anesthesia equipment, documenting patient outcomes, and monitoring patient responses to anesthesia.
  • Psychiatric Assessments: How to conduct a thorough psychiatric assessment of patients to identify moderate to severe mental and emotional health disorders. The different types of mental and emotional health challenges that patients may face across the lifespan, and how to support patients in addressing them.
  • Women’s Health Across the Lifespan: Supporting women’s reproductive health from early adolescence through menopause and beyond. Conducting gynecological examinations, advising patients on fertility and family planning, administering birth control, and supporting women before, during, and after pregnancy.

Bridge RN to MSN or RN + Non-Nursing Bachelors to MSN Programs

Bridge RN to MSN programs require RNs who hold an ADN (or sometimes a Diploma in Nursing) from a ACEN or CCNE accredited institution to also hold a bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. Bridge RN to MSN programs differ from traditional RN to MSN programs in that they waive certain baccalaureate-level courses that students completed during their bachelor’s degree program, which saves students additional time. These programs typically award only an MSN degree, and are comprised of a sequence of bridge courses, an MSN core, and graduate-level specialization courses.

Bridge Courses

Bridge RN to MSN programs are thus named because they replace the typical BSN-level course sequence that students complete in traditional RN to MSN programs with a shorter bridge course sequence. These “bridge” courses vary from program to program, but typically cover fundamental nursing methods and concepts, such as advanced health assessment, human physiology, pharmacology, and/or evidence based practice. Below are descriptions of several example bridge courses.

  • Health Assessment: This course covers how to conduct a thorough medical history and physical examination for a patient, and incorporate this data into a patient’s overall care plan.
  • Evidence-Based Practice: Evidence-based practice is defined as the integration of clinical research, nursing ethics, and fundamental clinical nursing methods to competently evaluate patient needs, develop medical care plans, and implement these plans. This course covers the latest research in best practices for advanced practice nursing care and how students can apply these research findings to their practice.
  • Community Health Nursing: Principles and methods of caring for a diverse patient population both individually and within the context of their social, familial, and larger communities. The role that nurses play in health promotion, disease prevention, and patient education for the improvement of community health.
  • Statistics for Medical Professionals: The use of medical statistics in forming and implementing best practices for nursing care and improving patient outcomes. The connection between medical statistics and evidence-based practice.

After completing these and/or other bridge classes, students of bridge RN to MSN programs progress to the MSN portion of their curriculum, which is generally equivalent to those of traditional RN to MSN programs. For the MSN portion of their curriculum, students of these programs will first complete MSN classes covering topics such as advanced health assessment, advanced human physiology and pathophysiology, and health promotion and preventative care, and then move on to courses that are specific to their academic and professional specialty.

Practicums for RN to MSN Programs

Clinical practicums, also known as clinical internships, are an important component of RN to MSN programs, as they provide students with valuable hands-on experience in the responsibilities and work environments of advanced practice providers and nurse leaders. RN to MSN programs with clinical concentrations such as primary care, acute care, and nurse midwifery require their students to complete a certain number of clinical practicum hours in settings that are relevant to their desired specialization and certification. For example, students of RN to MSN programs with a focus on family nursing may complete practicums in a variety of family nursing settings, such as private practices or internal medicine departments of hospitals, while an RN to MSN student with a focus in pediatric acute care nurse practitioner generally completes practicums in the pediatric intensive care unit and/or similar environments.

RN to MSN programs in non-clinical specializations such as nurse educator or administrative leadership may not have a practicum component, though many do. Instead of requiring students to fulfill clinical responsibilities and work directly with patients during their internships, these programs ask students to secure and complete an internship in nursing management or administration. Below are more details on internship requirements for both APRN-focused and administrative/education-focused RN to MSN programs.

Clinical Practicum Requirements for Clinical RN to MSN Programs

For APRN-focused RN to MSN programs, the number of clinical practicum hours students must complete varies depending on the program and students’ academic concentration. Certain clinical specializations may require more practicum hours than others. For example, while an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner program may include 500 clinical practicum hours, a dual nurse midwifery/women’s health RN to MSN program may ask students to complete 1000 hours or more at the graduate level. In general, RN to MSN programs require students to complete between 500 and 1000 clinical practicum hours in order to graduate.

Students complete their practicums under the supervision of an APRN who works at the site of their internship; these supervisors are called preceptors and they both evaluate students’ progress and provide knowledge, support, and mentorship. Some RN to MSN programs ask that students find their own preceptor and medical facility at which to complete their internships, while other programs handle the clinical placement process for their students.

Graduate nursing students typically complete their clinical practicum hours in several rotations during the MSN portion of their curriculum, often attending a corresponding academic seminar during the terms in which they are engaged in practicum. These seminars give them the opportunity to discuss their clinical experiences with peers and course faculty. Some programs allow students to keep the same preceptor and medical site for several clinical practicum rotations, while other programs require that students change medical settings with each rotation, in order to give students a greater breadth of advanced clinical experience. For more information on clinical practicums, including the clinical placement process and how students can make the most of their internships, please refer to our Graduate Student’s Guide to Clinical Placements.

Internship Requirements for Administrative and Leadership RN to MSN Programs

The number of internship hours required for RN to MSN programs with a focus on nursing leadership, education, or a similar field varies by program, but tends to be less than the hours requirements for APRN-focused RN to MSN programs. Internships for these types of RN to MSN programs tend to be located in administrative offices of health care facilities, at nursing advocacy organizations, and other settings that focus on organizational leadership in medical environments, program development, nursing advocacy, and nursing education in academic and professional development contexts.

While some administrative or nursing educator-focused RN to MSN programs ask students to find their own internship sites and supervisors, other programs may handle this process for their students. Due to the variance in internship requirements among these non-clinical RN to MSN programs, students should consult the admissions staff of the programs that interest them for the most specific and up-to-date information.

Applying to RN to MSN Programs

Admission to RN to MSN programs can be selective, and the application process is often fairly rigorous. Candidates for RN to MSN programs must demonstrate maturity and a strong understanding of the responsibilities involved in entering their desired field of advanced nursing in their application materials.

The components of an application to an RN to MSN program may include some or all of the following:

  • Transcripts containing proof of completion of certain prerequisite courses in fundamental nursing concepts
  • An active and unrestricted RN license from one’s state of residence
  • Fulfillment of minimum overall GPA requirements, or minimum GPA requirements in nursing-specific coursework (typically a minimum of 3.0 on a 4.0 scale)
  • A personal statement explaining one’s motivation for enrolling in graduate nursing school, academic and professional goals, and relevant nursing experience
  • One to three letters of recommendation (some schools require at least one of letter of recommendation from an academic reference, while others require at least one professional reference)
  • One or more interviews with admissions staff and/or course faculty

Some, but not all, RN to MSN programs require standardized test scores, such as GRE scores. As application requirements vary from program to program, students should contact the admissions staff of the programs that interest them for the most accurate information.


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About the Author: Kaitlin Louie is the Managing Editor of OnlineFNPPrograms.com, and creates informational content that aims to assist students in making informed decisions about graduate programs. She earned her BA & MA in English from Stanford University.