How To Be the Ideal Nurse Practitioner Program Applicant

Applying to nurse practitioner programs is not an easy task. Not only are there hundreds of programs to choose from, application requirements for each program can be quite demanding. You must request letters of recommendation, write admissions essays and prepare for interviews. Fortunately, the time and energy you put into your NP program application will be worth the effort. Which parts of the application process matter most in the eyes of admissions faculty?

Yesterday, I had the unique opportunity to speak with Dr. Shelley Hawkins, Director of DNP and MSN Programs at the beautiful University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing. She agreed to give us some insight into the NP program admissions process. Seated in my usual chair at the kitchen table, cell phone on speaker so I could capture Dr. Hawkins’ words of advice by typing furiously on my laptop, I chatted with Dr. Hawkins glued to her words of wisdom for NP program applicants. Here’s what she had to say.

What qualities make a nurse practitioner program applicant stand out among other prospective students?

Dr. Hawkins is quick to point out that admissions faculty “don’t rely on just one attribute, it’s collective” when it comes to admissions decisions. Dr. Hawkins says that faculty “specifically focus on GPA and performance in the sciences” as well as letters of reference in the admissions process.

Not only does overall GPA weigh into admissions decisions, faculty look at a student’s specific coursework especially performance in nursing courses. “If I see an applicant that has good grades but poor performance in nursing school clinical courses, for example a C or B-, this is a red flag to me” says Dr. Hawkins. “This leads me to be concerned about the student’s ability to do well in clinical management courses. This may be a challenge they cannot overcome at the graduate level which is of greater rigor and intensity” she explains.

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At the University of San Diego, nurse practitioner program applicants who make the first cut after an exhaustive review of applications are awarded an interview. This interview is taken seriously in evaluating prospective NP students. I was surprised at the rigor of the interview questions as I talked with Dr. Hawkins. “We ask questions in relation to how students think critically and evaluate their awareness of the healthcare environment on a national and global level” she explains. Examples of interview questions students might be asked include “What are some of the healthcare challenges on a national and global level that are affecting or will affect you, both as a NP student and in your future role as a nurse practitioner?”. Preparing for these types of complex questions will help students stand out among other applicants.

In the interview process, admissions faculty are looking for students “who present themselves in a manner that is professional with good communication skills” says Dr. Hawkins. Faculty also identify students “with a true commitment to nursing and the advanced practice profession”, they are not looking to admit students who want to become NPs “because they couldn’t get into medical school”.

Is it possible to be admitted to a nurse practitioner program with a low GPA?

I ask Dr. Hawkins if students with previous poor academic performance still have a shot at being admitted to a nurse practitioner program and, if so, what steps they need to take to overcome past academic blunders. “If you have a situation where ‘life happened’ and you didn’t establish your priorities correctly, it is still possible to be accepted” she says, “We look at the whole individual and what they bring to the table”.

If your GPA is lacking, Dr. Hawkins recommends you “prove yourself” to prospective NP programs in order to overcome bad grades. “Take an advanced pathophysiology course, or pharmacology course and show us you are capable of graduate level nursing coursework” she encourages.

Dr. Hawkins also notes that she is happy to meet with and advise any applicant who is denied admission. Admissions faculty are willing to give advice to students as to what next steps they should take so they have a stronger application and have the opportunity to be more competitive the following year.

What are the biggest mistakes you see NP program applicants make on their applications?

The most common mistakes Dr. Hawkins encounters in the admissions process relate to letters of reference and the admissions interview. “Some students don’t give thoughtful consideration to the individuals they ask to be their references” she explains, “The letter of reference is very important, it shouldn’t be any Jim, Bob or Harry you ask to write your letter”.

The University of San Diego requires that students have three letters of reference, two from individuals with a doctorate degree. Within these parameters, Dr. Hawkins says students must carefully select who they will ask to write their letters of recommendation.

Regarding interviews, Dr. Hawkins says a common mistake applicants make is not doing their homework in researching the program to which they are applying. “You should come to the interview having done reading about the program, looked at the curriculum and visited the website” she says. Dr. Hawkins laments that “There are still those who haven’t done their homework. If applicants haven’t done their research, that says a lot to me”. Admissions faculty want to see that you have thoughtfully made a decision as to why you have applied to a particular program. “You need to have a rationale for the decisions you make” adds Dr. Hawkins.

How heavily does experience weigh on a nurse practitioner program application?

Experience is important in NP program admissions as evidenced by the university of San Diego’s required minimum of one year of experience in the RN role for NP program applicants. “Our faculty believe that having that minimum one year experience is necessary for socialization into the NP role” says Dr. Hawkins. She notes that students with intensive care and emergency department type of experience where there is a significant amount of required knowledge of health assessment, pathophysiology and pharmacology tend to make strong clinicians. “It is challenging as a faculty to take a young, inexperienced BSN graduate to an advanced practice role within a limited time” Dr. Hawkins says in explaining the reason for the nursing experience requirement.

Dr. Hawkins also addresses the fact that type of nursing experience plays into the application process. Applicants are encouraged to have experience in the specialty to which they are applying. For example, a student applying to the adult/gerontology nurse practitioner program who only has worked in pediatrics may be encouraged to get some additional experience working with adults, then reapply to the program.

Is extracurricular involvement considered in NP program applications?

“We definitely look at involvement in organizations” Dr. Hawkins says when I ask if extracurricular activities are considered when evaluating NP program applicants. “We look to see if they are members of nursing organizations, we look to see what RN certifications they have obtained and what applicants have done in terms of leadership” she says. Dr. Hawkins cites military nurses as an example of how extracurricular involvement and unique experiences can help make a solid NP program applicant. “These nurses have been to different parts of the world, functioned in various settings as a nurse and have exposure to a variety of populations so these nurses tend to be strong applicants” she says.

If you could give one piece of advice to students considering a nurse practitioner career to help them with their chances of admission to a NP program, what would it be?

Dr. Hawkins’ final piece of advice is “you need to do your homework”. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, explore different programs, compare and contrast them” she advises. Dr. Hawkins recommends exploring a variety of nurse practitioner programs not only through their websites but also by dialoging with alumni and individuals attending your program of interest to help you make your ultimate decision. The University of San Diego, for example, offers only a traditional face-to-face classroom environment. “A lot of applicants will tell us the reason they want to come here is the traditional classroom setting- they want to interact with faculty and get to know their peers” she says. For students interested in online coursework, another program would be a better fit.

NP program admissions faculty are seeking students who are a good match for the school’s particular learning environment. “Oftentimes I can read between the lines as to what motivated students to apply” says Dr. Hawkins, “we want students who really want to be here”.

A big “Thank You” to Dr. Shelley Hawkins for taking time out of her afternoon to speak with me and for her valuable insights into the nurse practitioner program application process.


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4 thoughts on “How To Be the Ideal Nurse Practitioner Program Applicant”

  1. Patrick McCormick

    Thank you very much for such a well written and informative article on applying to NP programs. I graduate from Belmont University in Nashville in a couple of weeks and your website and FNC appearances have been a valuable resource to me. Keep up the great work!

  2. Does Dr. Hawkins realize it is harder to get into nursing school than medical school? 25% acceptance rate into nursing schools nationwide vs a 50% acceptance rate into medical schools nationwide. I would think one would go into a medical school interview and state “I’m applying to medical school because I could not get into nursing school”.

  3. I like this article for it give an inside look. Regarding the experience factor. I understand you must select the best qualified but due to the labor market nurses don’t always have a choice in the positions they obtain.

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