Prerequisites you’ll need to get into an online master’s in nursing (MSN) program

BY Isabel Peña AlfaroJanuary 26, 2023, 2:12 PM
An Emergency Room nurse tends to a patient in a hallway at the Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital, as seen in August 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A master’s degree can provide many benefits for nurses who have chosen to serve and who often work with people in need. Successful completion of a master’s in nursing (MSN) program gives nurses an advantage with potential employers, and the degree can also lead to higher pay—with a median annual salary of more than $123,000—along with a better work-life balance, and opportunities to lead, educate, and manage others. 

Nursing is a high demand field with projected job growth of 40% for certain roles, such as nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But many of those jobs require advanced degrees, such as a master’s in nursing. 

To earn a master’s degree in nursing, you generally must hold a bachelor of science in nursing degree, as well as have a current, unrestricted U.S. registered nurse license in your state of residence. Additionally, some nursing tracks require applicants to have at least one year of work experience as a registered nurse. These tracks include, family nurse practitioner, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, and certified nurse midwifery, and nurse educator.

While MSN programs vary in what they’re looking for in applicants, prerequisites typically include prior completion of certain courses along with a solid application. Here’s what you need to know.

Prerequisite courses for nursing programs

Master’s degree programs in nursing often require that applicants have taken a set of common prerequisite courses. These may vary from school to school but commonly fall into three categories—general education, science and nursing, and statistics. 

Anatomy and physiology

In anatomy and physiology courses, students learn about cell structure and function, cellular respiration and metabolism, cellular communication, tissue types, and functions. Students also study anatomy and physiology for skin and body membranes, cardiovascular, lymphatic, respiratory, endocrine, digestive, urinary, nervous, musculoskeletal, and reproductive systems.


In nutrition courses, students go over a comprehensive exploration of macronutrients, which are carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, and micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals. Students also learn about food sources and choices, diet analysis, food composition, and body digestion and absorption of food. Furthermore, students learn about weight control, diets, eating disorders, and nutrition across the lifespan.


Psychology courses must generally include a discussion of major theories of social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development. In these courses, students learn about social identity, including gender, class, race and ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status, and sexual identity. Students also learn about how history, economics, and politics impact human development. Psychology courses also review these concepts across the human lifespan, from birth, prenatal development, and infancy, to adulthood, death, dying, and bereavement.


In microbiology courses, students learn about microbial structure, function, nutrition, and growth, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Students also review infection, infectious diseases, and epidemiology, as well as immunity. Microbiology courses go over antimicrobial drugs and microbial diseases of the different body systems, including skin, cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, urinary, reproductive, nervous, and special senses.


A course in statistics for the health sciences is preferred for MSN programs. However, other introductory statistics courses are generally also valid. In these courses, students learn basic statistical concepts including samples and populations, independent and dependent variables, scales of measurement, and the scientific method. Students also learn measures, such as percentiles, mean, median, mode, and measures of variability.

Other necessary components for an MSN application

In addition to prerequisite courses, prospective students should also keep in mind the following requirements when applying to MSN programs.

Minimum GPA 

Students accepted into the top 10 online master’s programs, as ranked by Fortune, have an average undergraduate GPA of 3.4 to 3.6. “You want to have a good, strong GPA because that is one of the measures that we look at,” says Imelda Reyes, associate dean of advanced education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Nursing and member of the Policy and Advocacy Committee for the National Association of Hispanic Nurses

Letters of recommendation

Students are generally required to submit two to three letters of recommendation with their applications. Some schools ask for an academic-based and a professional letter. Your letters of recommendation should highlight your time management skills, ability to handle a tough workload, as well as your soft skills. 

Many students continue working while they go to school on a full- or part-time basis, and that is why showing time management skills is essential, Reyes explains. “If you’ve been working for a while—maybe you work in an intensive care unit or a medical-surgical floor—how do your time management skills help you get through a difficult day?” she asks. Overall, showing your soft skills will make you stand out as well. “Someone who’s caring, compassionate and is going to bring that to the next level is what we’re looking for,” notes Reyes. 

When deciding who should write your letters, Reyes proposes choosing someone who can speak to your skillset as a nurse. “When you ask people to do your letters of recommendation, you want someone that can speak to what you bring to the profession,” she says.

Statement of purpose

Your application will also typically require a statement of purpose of one to two pages, or 300 words, depending on the school. The statement of purpose describes your professional goals, academic interests, clinical experience, as well as your reasons for pursuing a master’s in nursing and—more specifically—the specialty to which you are applying. 

Reyes notes that to show your professionalism, describe the experiences that piqued your interest in pursuing a master’s in nursing. For example, if volunteer or paid work with certain patient populations awakened your passion, express that in your application. Whether that interest is in working with a specific population like the Latinx community or working on a little-researched illness, your desire to serve will make you a strong candidate.

A live or recorded interview

Most schools require a live or recorded interview with prompts about your academic and professional experiences, along with questions about your chosen specialty. Candidates who can express their passion for a nursing track—such as primary care, psychiatric mental health, or nursing education, for example—will make their application stand out, Reyes tells Fortune.

Finally, the interview is an opportunity to describe your career goals, along with the deeper reasons why you’re choosing to advance in your profession. The Ohio State University College of Nursing, for example, is looking for students who have experience with a certain patient population or can express why having more experience with that population will help them in their career, according to Kristine Browning, clinical professor and assistant dean for graduate clinical programs. “As they’re applying for our psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner track, I would expect the student to reflect about what they would like to do with that degree,” she says.

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.