ADN vs. BSN: What’s the Difference and Which Degree Should You Choose?

ADN vs. BSN: What’s the Difference and Which Degree Should You Choose?

Just over a decade ago, the Institute of Medicine issued a call to action for 80% of nurses to hold at least a Bachelor of Science (BSN) nursing degree by the year 2020. Their logic was based on a growing body of evidence that nurses who hold BSN degrees are better prepared than those who hold Associate Degree of Nursing (ADN) degrees to analyze data, understand evidence-based practice, promote patient safety and achieve better patient outcomes.

Since that time, there has been a substantial increase in the number of nurses who hold BSN degrees. But which degree is right for you? And why would you consider earning one degree over the other? 

What’s the Difference Between an ADN and a BSN in Nursing?

The most obvious difference between the two degrees is the length of time required to complete them, but there’s more to the distinctions. Let’s go over them now.

The ADN is a degree that also prepares students to take the NCLEX-RN and go on to earn state licensure as a Registered Nurse (RN). An ADN takes two years to complete if going to school full time, although some schools offer accelerated options or give students with professional experience or prior course work the option to graduate faster.

The BSN is a four-year degree program if attending school full time. That means that the curriculum includes general education course work, such as classes in math, the social sciences and the humanities as well as the typical nursing curriculum. Students in a BSN program are exposed to topics ranging from nursing physiology to nursing ethics and are required to complete labs and supervised clinicals in a hospital or other healthcare facility.  

So, the approach to training the student is different. An ADN degree is focused on the clinical tasks that a nurse provides, such as monitoring patients, maintaining their records and performing other basic healthcare procedures. A BSN degree incorporates other aspects of nursing, such as evidence-based practice, management and public health. The BSN degree encourages nurses to embrace the big picture of nursing and how it integrates with the overall goal of healthcare. 

Associate Degree in Nursing Education Requirements 

These are the admission requirements of most Associate Degree of Nursing programs: 

  • A high school diploma with a minimum 2.0 GPA or GED 

Once students complete their clinical rotations and pass their foundational nursing courses, they must take the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for state licensure. Licensing generally involves:

  • Completing an application
  • Submitting transcripts proving that the nurse completed the educational requirements
  • Proof of passing NCLEX-RN exam scores
  • A background check and application fee

Bachelor of Science in Nursing Education Requirements

These are the admission requirements of most BSN programs:

  • A high school diploma and a competitive GPA
  • ACT or SAT scores 
  • A writing sample (sometimes) – This might be a personal statement or essay that asks why the student is interested in enrolling in nursing school. It is an opportunity to introduce oneself and share more about the student’s background and experience and interest in nursing as a profession. 
  • Letters of recommendation (sometimes) – In some competitive nursing programs, a letter of recommendation is required. The person writing the letter might be a previous teacher or employer and the intent is for that person to share more about the student’s work ethic, character, experience and willingness to learn. 

Once students complete the BSN program, they must take the NCLEX-RN exam and apply for state licensure as described above. In addition, candidates should do the following: 

  • Complete an application
  • Prove that the nurse met the educational requirements
  • Provide proof of passing NCLEX-RN exam scores
  • Complete a background check and pay an application fee

Competency Differences

ADN programs focus on nursing concepts and clinical practice. The ADN is sometimes referred to as more of a “technical” nursing degree. 

The BSN, on the other hand, offers a comprehensive nursing curriculum that delves into nursing skills and theory, including courses on public health, ethics and pharmacology. 

BSN nurses are better prepared to deliver high-quality patient care in a variety of areas, from mental health to critical care to outpatient care. BSN nurses learn to think critically and navigate an ever-changing landscape with continually evolving patient care needs.

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing recognizes the BSN as the minimum educational requirement for what the organization holds to be professional-level nursing practice. That said, it doesn’t seek to limit the role of ADNN-prepared nurses in the practice setting, but rather, define scopes of practice that are congruent with educational preparation. AACN believes that education has an impact on the skills and competencies of a nursing clinician. 

NCLEX Pass Rates

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing is a not-for-profit organization whose U.S. members include the nursing regulatory bodies in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.

Each year, NCSBN publishes the pass rates of those taking both the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN. For 2020, first-time, U.S.-educated candidates holding diploma degrees had an 86% pass rate on the NCLEX-RN as compared to a 90% pass rate for baccalaureate degree candidates. Candidates with associate degrees had an 82% pass rate. 

Salary and Career Advancement Opportunities

Nursing offers a lot of career advancement potential and variety. Nurses work in many different areas, such as medical/surgical, pediatrics, intensive care unit, obstetrics/gynecology and hospice. In addition, nurses with BSN degrees are able to move into new and exciting jobs in nursing management, clinical nurse specialist, nursing education (for LPN and ADN programs), quality assurance, case management and more. 

The earning potential between nurses who hold associate degrees and those who hold bachelor’s degrees is significant. Payscale reports the average salary of ADN-educated nurses to be $70,019, while that average jumps to $85,734 for BSN-educated nurses.

How to Decide if an ADN or BSN is Best for You 

There are clear advantages to holding a BSN degree, but many nurses prefer to pursue a more direct path into practice, which is understandable. In choosing the program for you, here are a number of questions to ask yourself: 

  1. What is your timeframe? ADNs can be completed in 12-24 months, while BSN programs typically take four years. RN to BSN programs can be completed in a shorter timeframe, depending on the arrangement. American Sentinel’s CCNE-accredited RN to BSN program can be finished in eight months. 
  2. Do you want to hold a bachelor’s degree? For many nurses, the prestige of holding a BSN is important and a life dream. If this matters to you, the investment in the BSN upfront will be worthwhile. 
  3. Do you have aspirations for leadership or to teach? To advance in nursing, a BSN is required for a number of roles. If you are interested in becoming an educator, a Nurse Practitioner, a manager or leader, it’s worth considering whether to pursue a BSN degree over an ADN.
  4. Do you plan to work at a Magnet hospital? Magnet facilities have established policies in recent years to only hire BSN-educated nurses or ADN-educated nurses that agree to earn the BSN within a few years of their hiring. Keep in mind that while the ADN might not hold you back initially, it could make it harder for you to advance—and a future employer might require or encourage you to get a BSN eventually anyway. 

Nursing is an exciting and rewarding career! You can work in a variety of settings and change course several times to try new things and different healthcare settings. You can become an educator or a leader in a hospital system. You can move into infection prevention and control or case management. And there are many educational pathways you can pursue as well. 

At American Sentinel University, in addition to our BSN program, we offer an MSN degree with seven specializations:

MSN Specializations

NP Specializations

If you hold an ADN and are ready to get started, contact American Sentinel to learn more about our RN to BSN programs, which offer flexibility and choice. Discover the traditional term-based RN to BSN program or our RN to BSN Powered by SIMPath®, in which students can complete three courses per semester. 


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