LPN vs. RN | What's the Difference?

LPN vs. RN: What's the Difference?

The decision to apply to nursing school is perhaps the most important career decision nurses make, but it is only the first. The second? Deciding whether to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or a registered nurse (RN). There are important differences between LPNs and RNs, many of which are tightly regulated by the state in which you practice. It can pay to do your research, and not just in the metaphorical sense. Read on to learn more about the differences -- and similarities -- between these two fields.

Snapshot: LPNs vs. RNs

It can't be stressed enough how much state and employer regulations define both LPNs and RNs, which can make it difficult to make broad statements about either field. The primary difference between LPNs and registered nurses (RNs) is the scope of duties and education:

  • LPNs assist doctors and RNs with disseminating information about care programs to patients and their families
  • RNs must usually complete more training than LPNs, so tend to operate a bit more independently than LPNs
  • LPNs are in higher demand than RNs, nationally speaking
  • RNs tend to earn more than LPNs

As you can see, which type of nursing career you pursue can define not just your training, but your role, earnings and employment potential throughout the course of your career.

On the Job: Typical LPN and RN duties

Licensed practical nurses and registered nurses share a common goal: Providing excellent medical care to patients in need. But how they do this -- and how such tasks are regulated -- can vary tremendously from one job or state to the next.

Common LPN duties, as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

  • Monitoring patients' vitals
  • Administering basic patient care, like changing bandages
  • Helping patients bathe and dress
  • Maintaining patients' health records
  • Reporting patients' status to RNs and doctors

Registered nurses tend to perform all of these tasks, plus the following duties:

  • Administering medications and treatments
  • Establishing and maintaining patients' care plans
  • Performing diagnostic tests and analyzing results
  • Operating and monitoring medical equipment
  • Teaching patients and their families how to manage illnesses and injuries

Keep in mind that every state regulates the duties RNs and LPNs may perform, and what is acceptable in one state may not be in the next. Duties can also vary by employer or specialty. Your state's Board of Nursing can clarify these differences.


Programs typically include study in core subjects such as biology, psychology, mathematics, and English composition, since communication with RNs, medical staff, and patients plays such a crucial role in success in the field.

To become an LPN: To work as an LPN, students must complete a state-approved educational program that culminates in an LPN certificate of achievement or a diploma. Those who wish to enter the field can get a head start by enrolling in core science courses in high school or at a local junior college.

LPN educational programs are usually offered at community colleges or vocational schools, and contain a mix of classroom and laboratory courses and clinical field experience. Some community colleges require students interested in enrolling in their LPN certificate programs to complete two or more semesters of general education studies prior to enrollment.

According to the BLS, all states require LPNs to earn a certificate or diploma from an accredited LPN training program. These programs typically require about one year of full-time study with a supervised clinical component and should culminate in a certificate of achievement or a diploma, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Practical nursing programs prepare students to provide care in a variety of settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, and residential-care facilities.

To become an RN: RNs must complete more education than LPNs before entering the field. The BLS notes that RNs can typically choose one of three education paths, namely: A diploma from an accredited nursing program An associate degree in nursing (ADN) A bachelor's of science degree in nursing (BSN) ADN and diploma programs typically require two to three years of study while BNS programs often require four. As with LPN programs, RN schools require students to complete supervised clinical experience in addition to laboratory and classroom work.

Specialty and bridge programs. It is not uncommon for LPNs or RNs to eventually invest in more training in hopes of earning more, advancing their careers faster or gaining a competitive edge in a tight job market. Many nursing schools offer so-called bridge programs, which allow practicing nurses to complete only the training they need to advance their educations. Common programs include: LVN to RN programs, ASN to BSN programs and RN to BSN programs. (Read more on the types of nursing degree programs)

LPN and RN certification and licensing requirements

It is important to note that all states require RNs and LPNs to be licensed. Licensure requirements can vary by state, but typically require candidates to meet minimum education and experience thresholds, pass a national licensing exam and complete ongoing continuing education courses.

Students who successfully complete their educational requirements are eligible to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) practical nursing test, which is required by every state. The test measures a student's competency to work safely as an entry-level nurse.

Before taking the NCLEX, students must get authorization to take the test through their state board of nursing and register for the computer-based exam with test administrator Pearson VUE. Additionally, students are advised to log on to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing Web site (www.ncsbn.org) and review the NCLEX Candidate Bulletin and NCLEX test plans.

LPN students need to pass the NCLEX PN; while those who complete RN programs need to pass the NCLEX RN. Successfully passing the NCLEX-PN is the foundation of your entry into the nursing profession. It shows you understand the requirements to administer the appropriate level of care to patients and also to work with senior medical staff as an educated professional.

LPNs and RNs can often pursue additional, more voluntary certifications through various professional groups. These certifications allow nurses to specialize in a particular field (or several) of healthcare, like pediatrics, oncology or gynecology. Some employers prefer to hire certified nurses.


The skills required of an LPN are varied. Strong interpersonal and communication skills help LPNs converse productively with patients and other members of the healthcare team. They must also have keen attention to detail and be able to make fast decisions regarding patient care. Scheduling flexibility may prove important, as many LPNs work long night shifts over weekends and holidays. LPNs help patients get around their rooms, bathe, and dress, so they should be strong enough to assist patients with those tasks.


Both LPNs and RNs can rejoice in the fact that both professionals are in-demand, nationally speaking, though the former has a bit of an edge. Demand is expected to come from waves of aging baby boomers who need more medical care, as well as from a rise in staffing requirements at outpatient care centers.

As with earnings, both LPN and RN career projections can vary with a number of factors, like training, experience and location. Some employers also prefer to hire candidates who have invested in voluntary professional certification, further specializing their training.


  • Integrated Bridge to Licensed Practical Nursing Program, LaGuardia Community College, http://www.laguardia.edu/uploadedFiles/T2/pcap/docs/LPN11.3.pdf
  • Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics, May 2014, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm
  • Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm#tab-1
  • NAPNES Advanced Education Certificate Programs, http://www.nursingcerts.com/Default.aspx
  • NCLEX-PN Test Plan Examination, National Council of State Boards of Nursing, www.ncsbn.org/2014_PN_TestPlan.pdf
  • Number of Candidates Taking NCLEX Examination and Percent Passing, by Type of Candidate, 2014, National Council of State Boards of Nursing, www.ncsbn.org/Table_of_Pass_Rates_2014.pdf
  • Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/licensed-practical-and-licensed-vocational-nurses.htm
  • Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages: May, 2013, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm">http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes292061.htm
  • Registered Nurses, Occupational Employment and Wages: May, 2013, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes291141.htm
  • Registered Nurses, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/registered-nurses.htm
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