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How Coronavirus Is Affecting Nursing School Admissions

Ilana Kowarski

Witnessing the courage of nurses on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis may inspire onlookers to pursue nursing degrees.

"For the first time in my career, I feel the world really understands what nurses do, and they really understand how important the contributions of nurses are to health and health care," says Donna Havens, the Connelly endowed dean at Villanova University's Fitzpatrick College of Nursing in Pennsylvania.

[Read: A Guide to the Various Nursing Degrees and Licenses.]

Since the COVID-19 outbreak took hold in the U.S., the number of inquiries and applications from prospective students has increased significantly at some nursing schools. In May, Havens note, Villanova admitted its largest class ever to its BSNExpress program. This program allows individuals with a bachelor's degree in a field besides nursing to obtain a second bachelor's degree that focuses on nursing in just 14 months.

Havens suggests that many people have been drawn to the nursing profession because of the pandemic. "I think they've seen what a horrible situation this has been," she says. "I think they're seeing the need for more health care providers."

This fall, nearly 20% of the incoming students for Villanova's traditional baccalaureate nursing program will be men, Havens adds.

Leaders of other nursing schools also have noticed an uptick in interest.

"This year, I have 20 students on a waiting list to get into my program, so the demand is much higher," says Sandra Russo, chair and director of the nursing program at Touro College in New York. Increasing awareness and appreciation of the nursing profession is encouraging people to enter the field, Russo says.

Cassandra Godzik, an assistant dean with the graduate nursing school at Regis College in Massachusetts, says she's observed a similar trend at her school. The number of applications to Regis College's on-ground and online nurse practitioner programs escalated after the onset of the pandemic, Godzik says, and application volume for these programs is currently 10% to 15% higher than normal.

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether a rise in applicants is happening at a majority of nursing programs. It is also difficult to predict how long this trend will persist and even harder to imagine the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the nursing profession.

[Read: Nursing Specialists Can Earn More Than Some Doctors.]

While the coronavirus pandemic could spur people to discover their calling to nursing, it might discourage individuals from pursuing a nursing degree if they have worries about safety, experts say.

"There is a concern that the health of nurses has not been a high priority in this fight against the coronavirus," George Zangaro, dean of the College of Nursing at the online Walden University, wrote in an email. "The media has focused on challenges such as the lack of personal protective equipment available to nurses, difficult work environments and long hours. These perceptions could result in less interest in nursing as a career. The final impact of the pandemic on the profession remains to be seen."

However, given the possibility that nursing schools might become significantly more selective in the near future, aspiring nurses should bolster their credentials accordingly, nursing school faculty say.

The nursing school admissions process was already extremely competitive prior to the pandemic. According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the shortage of spots at U.S. nursing schools for the 2018-2019 school year was so severe that more than 75,000 qualified candidates were denied entry.

Some of the contributing factors were an insufficient number of nursing faculty members, an inadequate amount of classroom space, budgetary limitations and a lack of clinical sites and clinical preceptors.

Experts suggest that potential nursing students consider taking the following steps to become compelling candidates.

Write a compelling admissions essay. Nursing school administrators and faculty members examine personal statements carefully to differentiate between applicants. Their goal is to discern whether an applicant sincerely wants to be a nurse and whether he or she possesses a compassionate disposition. "The essay can be the breaking point of them being admitted or not being admitted," Russo says, adding that the sentiment conveyed by an essay is important.

Study hard for entrance exams. Aspiring nurses should invest time and effort into test prep if their target nursing program has an entrance exam, and they should consider using a study book, Russo says. She notes that her program uses exam scores to inform its admissions decisions. A common standardized test for nursing school admission is the National League for Nursing Pre-Admission Examination.

Earn strong grades in prerequisite science classes. Although an A in every science class isn't mandatory for nursing school acceptance, prospective nursing students must earn science grades that are high enough to convince admissions officers that they have an aptitude for science, experts say.

Request references from managers or professors. Recommendation letters from an applicant's supervisor or teacher tend to be the most authoritative and convincing, Godzik says.

[Read: Should You Attend a Nurse Practitioner or a Physician Assistant Grad School?]

Gain relevant experience. Working as a nurse's aide is one way for nursing school hopefuls to learn about the nursing field, which gives them credibility when they express a desire to become a nurse, says Philip Simpson, director of student affairs with the University of North Carolina--Greensboro School of Nursing.

Demonstrate a service mindset. Russo says she's especially impressed by nursing school applicants who excelled in service professions such as the military, firefighting and emergency response.

Showcase strong people skills. Empathy is a necessity in the nursing field, Russo emphasizes, noting that a caring, trustworthy demeanor is part of what makes a great nurse. "You're with somebody when they're born," she says, "and you're with somebody when they die."

For more in-depth rankings, searchable data and an expanded directory of programs, sign up for the U.S. News Nursing School Compass.

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