5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Nursing School

  • Jessica Dzubak
  • |

Being accepted to nursing school is a huge accomplishment. You volunteered hundreds of hours, worked as a CNA, and nailed your entrance interview. Yet becoming a nurse comes with a host of challenges that not even the best nursing schools can prepare you for. Here are 5 things I wish I knew before starting nursing school:

1. There’s so much you won’t know

Many nursing students enter school knowing exactly what specialty or setting they want to work in, and many continue down that path throughout their entire career. But this isn’t always the case. Nursing isn’t at all like TV, and experiences can vary even among hospitals within a state. For example, there is a huge difference between a trauma center and a rural critical access hospital. Or between a large hospital within a major system or a smaller independent facility. Within facilities, there are often several specialties or units you may want to work in, such as the popular maternity floor. Maternity wards are filled with happy moments, but they’re also filled with the most heart-breaking moments of people’s lives. These high-stress experiences may eventually take their toll on you and your professional satisfaction. Nurse burnout and compassion fatigue is a real thing, and working in a setting that isn’t for you may contribute to this. There is no shame in changing directions or trying something new. Sometimes, you might even hear about a job that you didn’t even know existed and you may discover a new passion! That’s the beauty of nursing.

2. It’s harder than it looks

Nursing school, much like nursing, is hard. You have to be vulnerable and strong, all at the same time. Resilience is key. Some days are physically, emotionally, and spiritually draining – characteristics not uncommon for the nursing profession.  Managing clinicals, lectures, and skills labs all while trying to maintain a healthy balance in your life can be challenging. Simple things like getting regular exercise and eating a good diet will be much harder, and it will take an even greater commitment to your own self-care. There is a wealth of information and skills that need to be learned during the few short years of nursing school, and this can sometimes feel overwhelming. It is important to keep the idea of balance in mind and seek out resources that can aid in your success.

3. It isn’t about good grades, it’s about learning information that might save someone’s life

school can take the smartest, straight-A student and challenge them only to come out with a C. But nursing school is about more than just letter grades or grade-point-averages. Your view of success will change during that first semester. This is not to say that grades don’t matter or that it is impossible to get an A. But the realization that it’s more about retaining the information and honing in on critical thinking skills can change your outlook. You will realize that the information learned can be the difference between life and death. In many critical situations a nurse may be involved in, time is of the essence. Decisions must be made quickly, sometimes without time to research. Nursing school is the time to learn and absorb as much as you can. Professors are there to share not only the knowledge, but their experiences as well. Listen to them. Ask questions. Be humble. It isn’t about who graduates first in the class. It’s about learning the basics to pass your NCLEX and practice safely as a nurse. Patients will never ask you what your GPA was. They will simply ask you for help during the most vulnerable and terrifying moments of their lives.

4. A group of supportive people is key

Nursing courses are more than just memorizing facts and reciting drugs. There is a huge emphasis on critical thinking and communication. Studying in a group with likeminded, focused students can help significantly both in keeping you on track with your studying goals and learning difficult concepts. (There’s even a board game to help you study for the NCLEX!) Having a group to study with can also help you manage stress, giving you the opportunity to share experiences with others who are going through the same thing. Consider joining your Student Nurses Association, if your school has one. These groups encourage networking among nursing students at each level and can serve as a unique resource.

5. You might not feel ready

Clinical experiences are meant to prepare you for real nursing practice, but not all clinical experiences are created equal. It depends on the availability of local clinical settings, resources, etc. Simulation has become a popular, successful way to give students clinical experiences when physical settings are unavailable. Even if you are experiencing clinical rotations in real facilities, remember that “real life” practice is going to be a little different. You’re going to have a full caseload of patients and be fielding phone calls from the admit office, doctors, and pharmacists. You’ll have patients and families requesting your attention. You might have very little help, and certainly no instructor to help you. You won’t be able to pick and choose your patients. Clinicals are there to give you an idea and help you learn basic skills. But you might graduate and still not feel ready. Nothing can quite prepare you for the harsh realities of being a nurse, not even nursing school. With those gut-wrenching moments come opportunities to change or even save someone’s life. The experiences you have as a nurse are the only way to truly learn, about yourself and about the best and worst aspects of humanity.

Jessica Dzubak

Meet The Author

Jessica Dzubak, MSN, RN is a Registered Nurse and nursing professional development practitioner. Jessica holds a Master’s degree in Nursing, specializing in education. Prior to working in professional development, Jessica practiced in the emergency department. She currently works as the Director of Nursing Practice for a professional nursing organization and as a freelance healthcare writer.

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