The must-haves for getting into a top online master’s in nursing program

BY Sydney LakeAugust 19, 2022, 2:42 PM
Registered nurses meet for a daily huddle at a nurse’s station at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, California, as seen in February 2021. (Photographer: Ariana Drehsler—Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Among the highest-paying, most in-demand jobs in the U.S. is nursing, according to career platform Indeed. In 2021, the national median salary for registered nurses (RNs) was almost $78,000; this position requires just a bachelor’s degree, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports show. However, nurse practitioners—who need a master’s degree to practice—saw median salaries of nearly $124,000 in 2021.

Master’s degrees in nursing are offered both online and in-person. Online programs, however, can provide nursing students with more flexibility to continue working while on their way to achieving higher earning potential. Top-ranked programs don’t accept just anyone, however. Among Fortune’s top 10 online master’s in nursing programs in the U.S., acceptance rates range from 43% to 79%.

Students entering an online master’s degree program in nursing need to be “academically strong and achievement-oriented,” Jacqueline Dunbar-Jacob, dean and distinguished service professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh, tells Fortune, which ranks the school as No. 6 in the country. 

“We’re interested in students who have done over and above the minimum requirements for their activities,” she says. “They demonstrate an eagerness to learn and to be engaged.”

The top online master’s in nursing programs in the U.S. aren’t just looking for carbon-copy candidates, but some of the common attributes include academic excellence, leadership potential, and career aspiration. Fortune spoke with officials from some of the top-ranked programs to find out what they’re looking for in nursing school candidates.

Strong academic background

Not all nursing schools require candidates to submit test scores, like the GRE, to apply to their online programs. In fact, none of the top five online master’s in nursing programs (as deemed by Fortune) in the U.S. require test score submissions.

However, schools do look at how candidates performed in their undergraduate nursing courses. Students accepted into the top 10 nursing programs in the U.S. had a 3.4 undergraduate GPA, on average, according to data collected by Fortune.

That said, many programs—like Rush University—take a holistic approach to their admissions process. Rather than focusing on specific aspects of their application, nurses should “ensure they are ready for the rigor of the program,” says Fred Brown, the MSN program director at No. 33 ranked Rush.

“We are looking at an applicant’s work history, their grades, test scores, persona, statements, et cetera,” he says. “Just as important as what they have done already done in their career is just as important as what they hope to accomplish.”

Leadership potential 

Prospective students should highlight their career goals during the application process, and how that intersects with a program’s particular focus. At East Tennessee State University, ranked No. 9, nursing students in the online master’s degree program are studying with an intent to provide holistic care to rural, indigent, socioeconomically disadvantaged, and high-risk communities, ETSU officials Lisa Haddad and Bernita Armstron, tell Fortune. 

This focus requires that students “have a passion for learning and helping others, and whose dedication and calling is to make life better for all people,” they explain. “We seek out leaders.”

Meanwhile, the University of Pittsburgh evaluates leadership potential by looking at the activities that applicants have engaged in during their academic program or their work life. Admission officials question: “Have they assumed any sort of leadership activities—and have they been successful with those?” Other universities, like Rush, even have nursing leadership-focused programs.

“To be successful, Rush looks for nurses with an interest in improving health care for patients and communities,” Brown says. “Having leadership skills [such as being a charge nurse] and experience with working on a quality project are good qualities, but aren’t necessarily required.”

Know your intent

Dunbar-Jacob, number one piece of advice for aspiring master’s in nursing students, be it at Pitt or elsewhere? Know what you want to do with your degree and know your aspirations. 

“It’s going to help them take advantage of opportunities that present themselves during the course of the master’s degree that are going to be exciting to them,” she says. 

Nursing students also exhibit these qualities during the program itself during quality-improvement activities, Dunbar-Jacob explains.  

“We want people who are curious about why things happen and have an interest in doing something about it,” she adds. “The other thing that they should know prior to entering a master’s program is that they will have broad opportunities available to them once they’ve completed their degree and they should be willing to stay the course.”

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best master’s degree programs in data science (in-person and online), nursingcomputer sciencecybersecuritypsychology, public health, and business analytics, as well as the best doctorate in education programs, and part-timeexecutive, full-time, and online MBA programs.