The Insider’s Guide to Nursing School
As a first-year nursing student, capturing the wisdom those who have come before you and achieved success in the field is priceless.
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How to Survive, Thrive and Stand Out When Becoming an RN
Heavy workloads. Clinical practice. Night shifts. Becoming a nurse requires constant juggling of schedules and priorities. Whether you’re a first-year nursing student or days from graduation, capturing the wisdom those who have come before you and achieved success in the field is priceless. Five nurses with years of collective experience share expert advice and critical tips to surviving and thriving in your nursing program.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse - Nursing Timeline
A typical nursing degree can take 2-4 years to complete. Each level of nursing has its own timeline, and that timeline can vary depending upon factors like part-time vs. full-time enrollment, certification, and the type of program.
Below is an overview of the typical amount of time it takes to complete a nursing degree, keep in mind that the length provided is for the amount of time it takes to complete that segment of the degree, not the entire academic path overall:
|Nursing Degree Level||Time of Completion|
|Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)||2-3 years|
|Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)||1-2 years|
|Registered Nurse (RN)||4 years|
|Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)||4-5 years|
|Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)||1.5-3 years|
|Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)||1-3 years|
6 Potential Nursing Challenges
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7 Tips: To Crushing the NCLEX Exam
The National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, is an examination that all nurses need to pass in order to obtain a license in their state and find employment. Lasting up to six hours, this test measures the competency of prospective nurses in topics such as physiology, pharmacology, disease detection and prevention, infection control, and psychosocial adaptation. The exam is 75 to 265 questions long, depending on test takers’ responses.
Taking the NCLEX is one of the biggest challenges that nursing students face. It’s the culmination of everything learned in nursing school and one cannot be employed without a passing score. The following tips help students alieve the stress of the NCLEX exam.
8. Key Tips for Nursing Students
Being accepted into nursing school is an accomplishment in itself. Depending on the program, the next several years are filled with changes in routine, learning, and new situations like clinical practice. While it may be stressful, there are plenty of ways for nursing students to excel in the classroom, with their patients, and in their personal lives.
Non-Traditional Nursing Students
Often viewed as a profession dominated by younger females, the face of nursing is changing. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, 53 percent of working nurses are over the age of 50. In addition, the organization also reports that as of 2011, men made up nine percent of licensed nurses — a 12.5 percent increase from 2000. From work-life balance to stigmas, find out about the professional lives of non-traditional nursing students.
Second Career Nursing Students
According to the National League for Nursing, in 2014 a significant number of nursing students were over the age of 30. For example, 42 percent of students enrolled in associate programs were in this age group. These nontraditional students also made up 18 percent of BSN and 64 percent of RN-BS nursing school enrollments.
Being an older nursing student comes with its own unique issues. While younger students may enter their programs without family responsibilities, their older counterparts are more likely to juggle marriage and childcare with their studies. In addition, older students pursue the nursing profession as a second career, so many of them must maintain their full-time jobs to support themselves and their families. These added responsibilities can make nursing school more stressful for older students.
Male Nursing Students
According to the National League for Nursing, men make up 15 percent of ADN and BSN students and 14 percent of BS-RN students. Despite the rising number of men entering the field, prospective and practicing male nurses still face stigma for choosing this career. The long-time perception of nurses being young women has lead to men being questioned for entering a “feminine” profession. Some men also may be criticized for not attending medical school. In addition, some female patients do not feel comfortable being treated by male nurses, particularly in the obstetrics and gynecology sector of the field. Nursing school is a good time to learn how to diplomatically handle these situations.
Expert Advice: How to Thrive in Nursing School
Those who have successfully navigated nursing school can be invaluable sources of information for current students. To provide a realistic view of the challenges nursing students face and how to get through them, we spoke to the following nursing school graduates.
- Nancy Brook, mentor at Stanford Health Care
- Joy Herbst, family nurse practitioner
- Evelyn Nolan, registered nurse at Roland Park Place
- Elizabeth Simango, registered nurse at Roland Park Place
- Rachel Strube, BSN graduate and current MSN student
Q What are the biggest academic challenges that nursing school students face?What tips would you give to help students overcome them?
Nancy Brook: Some of the biggest academic challenges that students face while in nursing programs include managing their time. Students are expected to juggle academic courses and clinical rotations. This can feel overwhelming, and many students struggle to get it all done. Additionally, there is a steep learning curve for students in nursing programs — the material is new and demands a significant amount of time outside of school.
Joy Herbst: Prioritizing and staying organized! At the beginning of each semester, make sure you review your syllabi with your monthly planner, and pencil in important project/paper due dates, exams, and clinical dates. It helped me immensely to see the big picture and get a jump on some bigger projects early on (when I could), so I wouldn't be left overwhelmed and facing a huge workload that needed to be completed all at once.
Evelyn Nolan: One of the challenges I faced in school was the lack of clinical experience I received. Clinical skills are very important. Many times I found that I was observing a procedure when I should’ve been taking part in it. To help alleviate this, I spent many hours in my school’s skills lab to increase my knowledge of doing procedures.
Another challenge I faced was taking NCLEX exams. These tests all have more than one correct answer, but it’s up to you to pick the best answer. That’s very hard to do if you don’t prepare. My advice to students is to practice, practice and practice. Download test questions on a CD-ROM and think about how to answer them. If your program has 5,000 test questions, study them all.
Elizabeth Simango: I was an older student, so one challenge I faced was doubt. Could I succeed in a class with younger students? It was something I always thought about. One thing that helped me get through it was knowing that I was helping my family and achieving something more. Family support also helped. Without that, I don’t think I could’ve gotten my degree.
Rachel Strube: One of the biggest challenges of nursing school is that there is no such thing as perfection. Every test impacts your grade, and every test is challenging. You will have to study a lot and you will fail a test or two, but don't give up. You must not only master the theoretical information — you must be able to apply it in a clinical setting. When you study, picture how a condition will look in a clinical setting. Picture what a patient with this condition might look like and what you would anticipate seeing in his or her chart.
Nursing school involves a lot of studying. Find a quality study group as soon as possible. For a study group to be effective, it should be focused on studying and not socializing, and participants should review the material individually before group meetings.
Q What are the biggest lifestyle challenges that nursing school students face?How can they overcome these challenges?
Nancy Brook: Time away from family or friends may increase due to the amount of work students are expected to complete. Additionally, they may be required to do clinical rotations on day, evening or night shifts. Finally, many students expect to work part time during their academic careers — this can be very difficult during a nursing program due to the amount of work, as well as the clinical hours performed in a hospital or clinic setting. Setting aside some time to spend with friends or family each week can be helpful, and enlisting their support as you go through the program is essential.
Joy Herbst: It varies based on where you are in life. For instance, when I was in my associate degree program for my RN, we were mostly in our 20s, unmarried and without children, and we were a little rowdy! Getting yourself to bed in time to wake by 5:30 a.m. to make it to your clinical (sometimes an hour away) was a big shift. As I continued in my schooling, got married and then had children, my study times and online coursework had to be coordinated with my spouse or done during nap time to stay on task and actually be productive. I think it's also essential to keep with a healthy diet. Eat breakfast before clinicals because you don't know what your day will bring — when you'll end up at a bedside or in an operating room for hours. Pack healthy, small snacks: apples, a water bottle, your favorite nut or snack protein bar.
Evelyn Nolan: One of the biggest lifestyle changes that came with nursing school was the challenge of balancing a full-time job with the demands of the program. Many schools recommend that you don’t work, but I had to work. It got crazy, and at one point my blood pressure rose. The best way I got through it was through long-term planning. Sometimes I would work doubles on the weekends. I also made sure to have a support system with my family to help with tough times. In addition, my eating got worse. When you’re a student, you are eating on the go. That means a lot of convenience foods. I would recommend not losing sight of healthy living. That includes at least 30 minutes of exercise.
Elizabeth Simango: I found it difficult to balance family, work and school all at once. My children went to college, and my husband worked — we had financial responsibilities. One thing that helped me was making choices ahead of time. While I continued to work, I cut back my hours to allow for study time. My family had to cope with a decrease in income. In the long term, I knew going to school was a benefit, but to get through it, my husband and I had to plan for the loss. Without planning, we wouldn’t be in good shape now.
Rachel Strube: One challenge of nursing school is that it is emotionally draining. Taking a load of demanding courses combined with 12-hour clinical days will wear you down. Realize that there will be bad days, but there will also be great ones. Remind yourself of why you decided to pursue nursing and use that as your motivation to keep going.
Q What can nursing school students do to alleviate their overall stress?
Nancy Brook: There are many ways to alleviate stress. Students may benefit from some kind of exercise program, whether it is time spent at the gym, a walk in nature, or a yoga class. Journaling is another well-documented way to decrease daily stress and increase feelings of gratitude. Talking or connecting with a friend, meditating or spending some time on an activity you enjoy are also helpful ways to decrease the stress of a heavy academic load.
Joy Herbst: It’s so essential that you get seven hours of sleep per night, drink water and not sugar-laden sodas or "fruit" drinks, get outside when you can to take mind-clearing walks in fresh air and nature, and take study breaks when you're overwhelmed. But don't plop down in front of the TV. Do some gentle yoga, take a shower, have some herbal tea, and learn to meditate and breathe into your belly. It's all good! You will get through this!
Evelyn Nolan: I made sure to get monthly massages. Don’t forget to pamper yourself. I also took time, even if it was just a walk, to concentrate on myself.
Elizabeth Simango: Schedule everything. This allowed me time for myself. I found peace in my Bible study. Also, don’t forget what you’re accomplishing. I reminded myself that I was doing this for my future, to help my family be better.
Rachel Strube: Exercise, sleep and eat right! Don't neglect your body because you are busy and stressed. Exercising, sleeping and eating right actually helps you perform better in school. When you hit a mental roadblock and just can't seem to focus anymore, a nap or a run around the block might just be the mental break you need.
Worrying about paying for nursing school can cause a lot of stress. Having a budget can help you stay in control of your money, which can add some much-needed sanity to your life. I use You Need a Budget (YNAB.com), and it helped me stay in control of my money and quickly pay off my student loans when I finished school and landed my first job.
Q What can people about to enter nursing school do to prepare for the realities of the program?
Nancy Brook: Knowing that you will make a big difference in the world is helpful to remember when times are difficult. When you complete your studies, you will be well-equipped to change not only the lives of your patients, but also your own. Nursing is a very gratifying career, and each day you work you will know that you have impacted the lives of others for the better.
Joy Herbst: You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others. Make your physical, mental and emotional health a priority, and journal about your experiences. It really helps!
Evelyn Nolan: One thing nursing students should do is talk to others who have been through the program. It will make a world of difference. Also, don’t lose sight of being healthy. Again, a 30-minute walk can make a huge difference.
Elizabeth Simango: Remember to have a goal. Why are you in school? What are you hoping to achieve? Also, don’t let anxiety take over. Before starting school, make sure to relax — you are going to need it, so enjoy that time.
Rachel Strube: Set realistic expectations for family time and for your studies.
Nursing school can be overwhelming, and students need as much help as they can get to be successful. In this section, potential students will find several resources they can use to boost their success while lowering their stress.
- American Association for the History of Nursing
The AAHN provides publications and other resources for those interested in the history and evolution of the nursing profession.
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing
Students can find information on scholarships, financial aid and career opportunities. The AACN website also allows students to search for traditional and accelerated nursing programs.
- Discover Nursing
The Discover Nursing website includes facts about nursing school and the profession, specialties in the field, types of degree programs, and financial aid opportunities.
This site has a collection of peer-reviewed nursing articles on subjects like mental health, wound care and nursing specialties.
- Learning Nurse Resources Network
Learning Nurse provides nursing apps, games, assessments, e-courses and newsletters to help students learn about the field.
- Medscape Nurses
Medscape includes information on different nursing topics, including critical care, pain management, mental health nursing and palliative care. The site also includes news on the nursing profession and information on continuing education.
- National Student Nurses' Association
The NSNA caters to the needs of nursing students. Members can access research and news publications, participate in networking events, and find job opportunities.
This site provides information on nursing jobs as well as national and international news relevant to the field. Its blogs covering education, legal issues and careers are particularly helpful.
- Off the Charts
Published by the American Journal of Nursing, this blog provides information about the realities of nursing practice.
- Practical Clinical Skills
This site provides information to help medical professionals develop clinical skills.
This Twitter community hosts Internet chats so nurses can discuss different issues they deal with in the workplace.
- School Nurse News
School Nurse News is a publication catering to school nurses and other professionals who work primarily with children and adolescents.
- Student Nurse Journey
SNJourney.com is an online nursing community with information on clinical practice, pre-nursing coursework and subsections of the field.
- Virginia Henderson Global Nursing e-Repository
The repository includes evidenced-based research materials regarding nursing practice.
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