I had been working for about a year on a med/surg/tele/oncology unit when I decided to go back to school. I looked into a bunch of different options and decided to apply to a couple UC (University of California) schools within the state that were full-time/two year programs. Like applying for nursing school, the process was involved and something that takes preparation for. While there are endless options and combinations of graduate schools, I am writing upon my experiences for my admission to graduate school to become an Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner.

Before you apply:

Figuring out what you want to study is a big part of the decision. While this is certainly easier for some people than others, I based my decision upon experiences that I had working on my unit and the aspects I liked about nursing. Through the nurse residency program I was a part of at the Veterans Administration, I was thankfully able to shadow a primary care NP (something I definitely recommend you do, but with your prospective job interest).  I certainly did not have an “Ah-ha! So THIS is what I want to do!” revelation… but I did get an idea of what the day-to-day job description would be like—which helped to prepare me for what my role in that position would be. I realized that I could put my own spin on how to deliver care and tailor it to the needs of my patients and what I also wanted to professionally achieve.

It is also just as important to find out what you DON’T want to do before you apply. I had originally decided to pursue the role of an NP hoping to work in dermatology and aesthetics. I took it upon myself to land an internship with a well-known owner of an aesthetic business and through this experience I learned that (at least at this point in my life) an aesthetic course was not something I wanted to pursue. After realizing that all these plans that I had weren’t going to work out the way I thought they were, I reevaluated what I loved about nursing and what I wanted to contribute to others. I loved working with veterans, I loved talking to/motivating patients, I loved telehealth, and I loved the idea of helping to prevent patients from being in the hospital through better symptom management and lifestyle education. There the answer was; becoming an adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner was the best fit for my goals.

Choosing the right school:

There are two main options that I was presented with—online or standard university. I personally feel as though I learn better in a classroom, so the choice was clear for me. For others, however, online school is a better option. Most nurses I knew that were going back to school online had families, didn’t want to move or they wanted to continue to work full-time. Depending on your situation, it’s important to choose the option that works best with your lifestyle/learning style.

Preparing for the applications:

The applications I filled out covered the following information:

General Information/Personal Info:

  1. Personal background (depending on program)
    1. What has prepared you for grad school, what would you bring to the university’s community, what makes you “special”
  2. Transcripts
  3. Resume
  4. Prerequisites for program (try to have as many requirements fulfilled as possible)
  5. Volunteer/Work Experience
  6. Goal statement (1-3 pages, depending on program)
  7. Fulfilling questions such as:
    1. What you know about the profession of nursing
    2. The reason you want to pursue an advanced nursing degree
    3. The reason why you are applying to the program that you are
    4. Your professional goals after graduating
    5. What you believe your academic/personal experiences will bring to the nursing profession
    6. Diversity/cultural experiences

Letters of Recommendation:

One university required three letters of recommendation while the other required four/five (I submitted five for that one). My manager, a prior employer, two charge nurses, and an instructor for nursing school wrote my letters of recommendation. Prior to submitting my application I had spoken with the director of one university’s AGNP program on my own time. She gave me the advice that application reviewers put much more weight on receiving recommendation letters from direct managers/teachers/coworkers rather than people such as doctors. She said that reviewers were much more in favor of recommendations from people who directly observed you on a daily basis as they could more appropriately attribute to your nursing skill. Recommenders should give specific examples of things you’ve done while working.

Sample Questions that recommenders were asked to answer:

  1. How would you describe the student’s strengths and weaknesses?
  2. How competent is the student is in respect to clinical work?
  3. How would you rate the student’s potential for graduate studies in his/her chosen field?
  4. How well does the student get along with coworkers?
  5. What types of leadership positions has the student been involved in?
  6. What experience does the student have with different cultures?
  7. Would you recommend the student for graduate studies?

After submission:

One of the schools I applied to took a month to get back to me while the other took two months. Both gave the notification via email, the second week of the month. Students are notified as spots are accepted or declined.

Miscellaneous tips:

  1. Making relationships is key—become close with everyone you can and never burn bridges if it can be helped. Letters of recommendation are a very important part of the process and if you have people who can speak highly of you, it will get you far.
  2. Help everyone that you can. Not only is this a kind thing to do but you will find that the nicer you are to people the more they will want to help you reach your goals. The world is a small place and opportunities are often times brought by others—they don’t just fall out of the sky.
  3. This speaks for itself.
  4. Become a part of organizations or activities pertaining to your field of study. Not only will this help to prepare you for grad school but it will also show the admissions committee that you are informed about your goals.

While you are working or during nursing school make a list of things you do that are noteworthy. It is always helpful to have a list you can go to for annual proficiencies, your resume, job interviews or grad school applications.


Heather is a SoCal-trained tele/oncology RN currently in school to become a NorCal-trained Primary Care AGNP. Some of her favorite activities include cooking Japanese food, reading books of personal essays and "lifting."

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