What to Look For in an Online MSN Program

female nurse working on laptop 

As an established nurse, you already have a great understanding of how undergraduate nursing programs work and know what to look for when evaluating. You could give plenty of sound advice to friends or family on that front.

But when it comes to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program, particularly an online MSN program, you might not be feeling as confident. Will I have clinical hours to satisfy? Can I continue to work while in school? Will the course load be overwhelming? How does it all work?

We’re here to help clear up some of the confusion and provide you a road map of things to consider when evaluating online MSN programs. Keep reading for the info you’re seeking.

How do online MSN programs work?

You’ve obviously got a lot on your plate already and nursing shift schedules aren’t always easy to work around. So how does an online MSN program make this work? While the details will vary depending on the program, online programs typically provide flexibility by making course resources available at any time. This means in most cases you won’t need to be at your computer at a set time during the week to take in lectures or other important materials.

That doesn’t mean the experience is without structure—students in online MSN programs can expect regular weekly assignments or projects with deadlines to meet. You just have a little more freedom around when you tackle the required work.

6 smart questions to ask when evaluating online MSN programs

There’s a lot to weigh when trying to determine whether an online Master of Science in Nursing program is a good fit for you. Here are a few focus areas you may want to consider.

1. Is the program accredited?

Simply put, accreditation matters. It’s an important source of third-party validation of the quality of a program and can be an important factor for state licensure. Before you enroll, you’ll want to take the time to confirm a program’s accreditation status and determine whether it meets your needs.

Two of the programmatic accrediting bodies for nursing are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). If you’re unsure of a program, both offer the ability to verify an institution’s accreditation status.

2. What roles will this program prepare me for?

Another important factor to consider before enrolling in an online MSN program is determining whether the program is tailored to the outcome you’re seeking. Some graduate-level nursing programs cater to hands-on roles like those of Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs). Others focus more on preparing students for leadership or education roles.

Types of APRNs include certified nurse practitioners, clinical nurse specialists, certified registered nurse anesthetists and certified nurse midwives. These programs typically include additional clinical work performed under the supervision of established APRNs.

Outside of advanced practice registered nursing, MSN programs can also be designed for students seeking leadership roles within nursing administration or a role as a nurse educator. Once you have a clear picture of the graduate-level nursing outcome you’re seeking, it will be easier to narrow down your online MSN program options.

3. How will my schedule be structured?

You might think there’s limited room for variation on this front, but there are important factors that can influence the course schedule of an online MSN program. Is the school on a quarterly system? Or does it adhere to traditional spring and fall semesters? Are all courses available over the summer—and are spots limited during this time? The answer to these questions can have a surprising impact on your learning experience.

Another scheduling factor to consider is the number of courses typically taken in a given session—most MSN programs have students tackle 2-4 courses at a time, though some may take a different approach. The Rasmussen College Master of Science in Nursing program features a unique design where students focus on a single course at a time taken over a shorter—5.5 week—time frame throughout the year.

“We’re trying to streamline things by giving students a format where they can immerse themselves in one subject at a time,” explains Joan Rich, vice president of the Rasmussen College School of Nursing.

4. Are there any in-person components to this online program?

You’ve been around the block and know firsthand how big of a role in-person lab work and clinical experience can play in a nurse’s education. While it’s reasonable to assume there will be less of it in an online MSN program, you’ll definitely want to verify what, if any, work must be completed in-person. Are there clinical rotations? Are there projects that draw on nursing or practicum experience? If there are in-person components to the program, what are your options for fulfilling them?

Depending on your location and the program you enroll in, these questions could range from a major issue (like needing to travel hours out of your way to complete practicum work) to a small addition to your to-do list.

5. What requirements do I need to meet to be accepted?

A program that appears to be a perfect fit doesn’t do you a lot of good if you aren’t able to meet the requirements for admission. As you begin comparing programs and options, you’ll want to have a clear understanding of what requirements must be met.

Typically, a Master of Science in Nursing program will require students to meet several criteria. Some may be pretty obvious, like first completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree and possessing an active and unencumbered RN license. But other requirements like writing samples, CPR certifications, letters of reference and minimum grade point averages could throw a wrench in your plans if you’re not prepared.

6. How long will the program take to complete?

Even the most enthusiastic students don’t typically want to spend any more time than necessary to complete their degree program—and that doesn’t become any less true when combined with a nursing work schedule. Even if this isn’t your top concern (after all, earning an MSN is going to be a time investment no matter where you attend), this is a topic worth inquiring about as it’ll help you plan ahead.

Most programs will take around two years to complete if all goes to plan, but there are programs that may provide a faster route to completion. The Rasmussen College online MSN program, for instance, can be completed in as a few as 18 months, allowing you a streamlined path for moving on to the next phase of your nursing career sooner.1 

Start your search for an online MSN program

Committing to a graduate nursing education program is a big step with plenty to consider. This article should give you a great starting point for weighing your options. Take some time to evaluate your priorities and needs before starting your search. If you’re ready to get this process started, visit the Rasmussen College Master of Science in Nursing degree page—this flexible, CCNE-accredited program just might be the perfect fit for you!

1Completion time is dependent on transfer credits accepted and the number of courses completed each term.

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen College. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.

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This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen College to support its educational programs. Rasmussen College may not prepare students for all positions featured within this content. Please visit www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of programs offered. External links provided on rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced. Rasmussen College is a regionally accredited private college.

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