The Insider’s Guide to Nursing School 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 nursing school.

Meet the Experts
Nancy Brook Read More
Joy Herbst Read More
Evelyn Nolan Read More
Elizabeth Simango Read More
Rachel Strube Read More

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.

Clinical Practice

Clinical practice is where students put the concepts they learned in textbooks to work in the real world. They get firsthand experience the responsibilities that nurses have for the first time. While it can be intimidating to be working with patients, it’s a great time to seek out as many opportunities to practice as possible.

Remember Goals

During challenging times, it can help nursing students to remain calm by remembering their goals and why they need to keep moving forward. Thoughts of a satisfying career and taking care of family can help these students feel optimistic.

Think Positively

Being overwhelmed can make nursing students think negatively about their school experience and their abilities. It’s important for nursing students to keep a positive attitude so that negativity does not exacerbate their stress. This can be done by saying positive affirmations, visualizing success and stopping destructive thoughts in their tracks when they start.

Get Some Sleep

Although students tend to skimp on sleep in order to study and get assignments done, this can actually do more harm than good. Getting at least seven hours of sleep can improve brain performance and aid in converting information into long-term memory, which is important for learning course material.

Family

Nursing schools have a tendency to attract older students as many have decided to enter the field after working in another profession. These students may already have spouses and children they need to consider as they juggle their nursing school with family responsibilities and work.

Find Balance

School-life balance is extremely important for reducing stress and doing well in school. Nursing students should be sure to regularly spend time with friends, participate in the activities they enjoy, and pamper themselves. This helps prevent burnout and allows students to take a needed rest from the fast-paced nursing school environment.

Remember Goals

During challenging times, it can help nursing students to remain calm by remembering their goals and why they need to keep moving forward. Thoughts of a satisfying career and taking care of family can help these students feel optimistic.

Think Positively

Being overwhelmed can make nursing students think negatively about their school experience and their abilities. It’s important for nursing students to keep a positive attitude so that negativity does not exacerbate their stress. This can be done by saying positive affirmations, visualizing success and stopping destructive thoughts in their tracks when they start.

Night Shift

Likely one of the biggest changes in a nursing student’s life is the shift in schedules. Since the needs of patients do not adhere to a schedule, nurses are often required to work during night shifts. While students may only have to work the night shift in school, they still have to physically, mentally, and emotionally adjust to working at night.

Get Some Sleep

Although students tend to skimp on sleep in order to study and get assignments done, this can actually do more harm than good. Getting at least seven hours of sleep can improve brain performance and aid in converting information into long-term memory, which is important for learning course material.

Manage Time

Time management is imperative in the nursing profession, so it’s an important skill for students to learn as soon as possible. Making to-do lists is a good start for students needing to prioritize their day and get things done in a timely manner, and many nursing student recommend creating a daily schedule that carves out a certain amount of time for school work or NCLEX prep.

Eat Healthy

It’s easy for students to grab fast food on the run because they’re busy. However, making healthier food choices can help them keep their stress levels low and their energy levels high. In addition, a balanced diet can contribute to good brain function, which is imperative for learning the complex information nursing students are required to know.

Exercise Regularly

It can be difficult for nursing students to find time to maintain an exercise routine. However, a minimum of 20 minutes of exercise per day can help alleviate physical, mental and emotional stress. Even if students cannot make it to the gym regularly, they can do things such as using the stairs, parking further away from school than usual, and taking walks in between classes. Even these small behavioral changes can go a long way toward reducing stress.

Personal Commitments

All nursing students juggle personal commitments with their studies. Time is limited for time with friends, volunteer activities, religious services, and even taking care of one’s health. However, one can achieve balance if they are well organized.

Find Balance

School-life balance is extremely important for reducing stress and doing well in school. Nursing students should be sure to regularly spend time with friends, participate in the activities they enjoy, and pamper themselves. This helps prevent burnout and allows students to take a needed rest from the fast-paced nursing school environment.

Think Positively

Being overwhelmed can make nursing students think negatively about their school experience and their abilities. It’s important for nursing students to keep a positive attitude so that negativity does not exacerbate their stress. This can be done by saying positive affirmations, visualizing success and stopping destructive thoughts in their tracks when they start.

Remember Goals

During challenging times, it can help nursing students to remain calm by remembering their goals and why they need to keep moving forward. Thoughts of a satisfying career and taking care of family can help these students feel optimistic.

Work

A common assumption is that nursing students have to give up their full time job to attend school. While the ability to focus solely on school is helpful, it’s not realistic for many nursing students. Students who work during nursing school often have to adjust their schedule with their employer, be good at multi-tasking and cope well with distractions.

Find Balance

Nursing students have a lot on their plate, so if they’re not organized, they may not be able to juggle everything that needs to be done. Marking every assignment due date and test date in a calendar can help students be organized. In addition, students can get a binder for each class and organize them with tabs that separate class lectures.

Remember Goals

During challenging times, it can help nursing students to remain calm by remembering their goals and why they need to keep moving forward. Thoughts of a satisfying career and taking care of family can help these students feel optimistic.

Think Positively

Being overwhelmed can make nursing students think negatively about their school experience and their abilities. It’s important for nursing students to keep a positive attitude so that negativity does not exacerbate their stress. This can be done by saying positive affirmations, visualizing success and stopping destructive thoughts in their tracks when they start.

NCLEX

The NCLEX is the final test for nursing students. Passing it means students can get their license and begin their career as a nurse. While it can seem like a huge obstacle, it is an opportunity for students to see how well they analyze the hypothetical situations used on the exam with the knowledge they learned in school.

Manage Time

Time management is imperative in the nursing profession. To-do lists are a good start for students needing to prioritize their day and get things done in a timely manner. Many nursing students recommend creating a daily schedule that carves out a certain amount of time for school work or NCLEX prep.

Get Organized

Nursing students have a lot on their plate, so if they’re not organized, they may not be able to juggle everything that needs to be done. Marking every assignment due date and test date in a calendar can help students be organized. In addition, students can get a binder for each class and organize them with tabs that separate class lectures.

Get Some Sleep

Although students tend to skimp on sleep in order to study and get assignments done, this can actually do more harm than good. Getting at least seven hours of sleep can improve brain performance and aid in converting information into long-term memory, which is important for learning course material.

Eat Healthy

It’s easy for students to grab fast food on the run because they’re busy. However, making healthier food choices can help them keep their stress levels low and their energy levels high. In addition, a balanced diet can contribute to good brain function, which is imperative for learning the complex information nursing students are required to know.

Exercise Regularly

It can be difficult for nursing students to find time to maintain an exercise routine. However, a minimum of 20 minutes of exercise per day can help alleviate physical, mental and emotional stress. Even if students cannot make it to the gym regularly, they can do things such as using the stairs, parking further away from school than usual, and taking walks in between classes. Even these small behavioral changes can go a long way toward reducing stress.

Think Positively

Being overwhelmed can make nursing students think negatively about their school experience and their abilities. It’s important for nursing students to keep a positive attitude so that negativity does not exacerbate their stress. This can be done by saying positive affirmations, visualizing success and stopping destructive thoughts in their tracks when they start.

Remember Goals

During challenging times, it can help nursing students to remain calm by remembering their goals and why they need to keep moving forward. Thoughts of a satisfying career and taking care of family can help these students feel optimistic.

Find Balance

School-life balance is extremely important for reducing stress and doing well in school. Nursing students should be sure to regularly spend time with friends, participate in the activities they enjoy, and pamper themselves. This helps prevent burnout and allows students to take a needed rest from the fast-paced nursing school environment.

Get Organized

Nursing students have a lot on their plate, so if they’re not organized, they may not be able to juggle everything that needs to be done. Marking every assignment due date and test date in a calendar can help students be organized. In addition, students can get a binder for each class and organize them with tabs that separate class lectures.

Manage Time

Time management is imperative in the nursing profession. To-do lists are a good start for students needing to prioritize their day and get things done in a timely manner. Many nursing students recommend creating a daily schedule that carves out a certain amount of time for school work or NCLEX prep.

Get Some Sleep

Although students tend to skimp on sleep in order to study and get assignments done, this can actually do more harm than good. Getting at least seven hours of sleep can improve brain performance and aid in converting information into long-term memory, which is important for learning course material.

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.

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

Understand your learning style

Studying in the way that best helps students learn and remember information is important. The approach differs for visual, tactile, and auditory learners. For those who don’t know, the VARK method can help them determine their learning style. Once identified, find study materials that cater to it. For example, visual learners get the most out of aids like flashcards, while auditory learners can maximize their study time by listening to MP3s.

Join a study group

Facing the NCLEX alone is a daunting task and is not recommended. Working with study groups can allow students to identify their strengths and weaknesses, quiz each other on information, and explain concepts to one another. Students can also vent their concerns to their colleagues, which can help alleviate stress.

Practice

Practice tests help students familiarize with the exam format and the types of questions they can expect. The practice exam results shed light on their weakest areas and gives them a chance to focus on those topics.

Visualize success

It is not secret that the NCLEX is a stressful experience. However, visualization can help. By visualizing passing the exam, students can keep their fears at bay and reduce stress and anxiety.

Make a study plan

Procrastination will increase the anxiety that students feel when they’re studying. It’s best to create a study plan as soon as possible, carving out time each day for test preparation. Creating a study schedule and sticking to it will boost students’ confidence that they are well-prepared for the exam.

Take deep breaths

Deep breathing can help students alleviate their stress as they study. This is done by breathing from the diaphragm, which entails slowly inhaling through the nose until the abdomen rises and then slowly exhaling through the mouth until the abdomen is completely empty of air.

Choose the right study area

It’s a good idea to find a quiet, well-lit area to study, whether at school or at home. Students who have families or roommates should let everyone know beforehand not to disturb them when they are in their study space.

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.

Additional Resources

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.

Internurse

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.

Nurse.com

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.

RNchat

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.