The Definitive Guide to Surviving Nursing School

Real-world tips, advice and resources to stay sane and be a student nursing superstar.

Each and every day, nurses across the world provide care and compassion to millions of patients. Being a nurse offers continual opportunities to engage in rewarding work, but getting through nursing school can feel overwhelming (and downright impossible at times) for even the most determined students. As the need for new nurses continues to rise, it’s imperative we do everything possible to help current and future students gain the confidence and skills they need to make it to graduation and get their dream nursing career.

To do our part, EduMed has created this comprehensive guide, featuring practical, easy-to-follow tips, advice and resources to help nursing students at every stage of school. Whether you read it top-to-bottom or jump straight to the sections that are most relevant to your situation, you’ll come out the other side feeling more positive and motivated about the journey ahead.

The 5 Most Important Tips for Every Nursing Student

Knowing what to expect going into a nursing degree program is often half the battle. Follow the tips below to center yourself from the start and ensure you stay in good mental, emotional and physical shape throughout.

1. Get enough sleep

Get-enough-sleep

This can be easier said than done – especially when a midterm or research paper looms. But burning the midnight oil can actually make it harder for you to retain information. Go to sleep early, get some rest, and start again in the morning.

2. Create a study group

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Going it alone can feel overwhelming. By creating a study group of students in your class who also take the program seriously, you can feel supported and ensure you stay on track with study plans.

3. Build in breaks

Build-in-breaks

For every hour you study, make sure you get up and walk around or do a quick exercise for at least 10 minutes. This not only keeps your body limber; it also helps stimulate your brain to feel more focused.

4. Study along the way

Study-along-the-way

Rather than cramming for an exam in the day or two prior, make sure you take thorough notes and try to review them throughout the semester – even a 20-minute session a couple times per week can take the pressure off testing day.

5. Nourish your body and brain

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In addition to eating healthy foods and engaging in enjoyable movement, make sure to build in time for quiet reflection, meditation, and renewal. Consider taking a walk in a local park with your favorite music or podcast to reset.

What to Do If You’re Thinking About Quitting

Between long days and hard tests, nursing school can stress out even the best students. You’d be hard pressed to find a nursing student who hasn’t at one point considered dropping out. While nursing school isn’t for everyone, you should carefully consider the decision to quit before going through with it. Check out some of these common reasons for leaving school and see why you may want to reconsider.

I want to quit because…

I feel like I’m all alone in this.

When it feels like you’re drowning in assignments, studying, and clinical rotations, it’s easy to think you’re completely alone. But try to remember that everyone in your program – and in nursing programs around the globe – are likely experiencing the same emotions as you. In addition to leaning into your local community, check out the online community resources highlighted at the end of this guide.

I’m super stressed out.

Stress can make any learner question whether it’s worth it to stay the course and gain his or her degree. Another, more positive, way of looking at stressful deadlines is to see them as preparation for the rigors of the nursing profession. If you’re feeling paralyzed by stress, be sure to review the section in this guide on lessening stress.

I’ve lost all motivation.

When it feels like the work will never end and you can’t see straight from staring at a textbook for hours, it’s hard to keep pushing to the finish line. If you find yourself feeling this way, try to remember what made you want to become a nurse in the first place. Think about things like the care you’ll be able to provide patients, the professional opportunities that will come your way, or the financial security it could afford you or your family.

This is getting way too expensive and isn’t worth it.

It’s no secret that degrees in this country aren’t cheap. As student loans stack up, you might start questioning if it’s worth it to go into so much debt for a degree. The good news is that registered nurses tend to earn salaries substantially higher than the national average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 2018 median pay sat at $71,730, nearly 86 percent higher than the median annual wage for all occupations combined.

I don’t have time for anything but school.

After a few years of running from class to work to clinicals to labs, it’s no wonder why many nursing students can feel like they’ve lost touch with their lives. Nursing programs require much of degree seekers, but there are a couple things you can do to build in personal time. If possible, consider taking one semester off to center yourself. If that’s not doable, try moving to a part-time schedule until you feel more connected and have a better school-life balance.

Do’s and Don’ts for First-Year Nursing Students

The first year of nursing school can be one of the most challenging as students get adjusted to their new program and course load. This is a critical time for getting settled and feeling confident. Here are a few key do’s and don’ts to make the first year one of your best.

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Do’s

1. Get organized.
Nurses-in-training have jam-packed, nonstop schedules, so find a digital or paper planner you like before the semester starts so you don’t miss any classes, deadlines, or important meetings.


2. Get to know your professors.
Nursing school is tough, but having trusted advisors and mentors can help you avoid feeling lost and alone. Introduce yourself to each professor within the first week or two of class.


3. Pace yourself.
Completing a standard BSN program takes four years of full-time study, so find and keep a pace that feels manageable over time rather than sprinting during the first semester and then dealing with burnout.


4. Get to know your cohort.
As important as it is to get to know professors, making friends with your peers is just as important given that you’re all going through this strenuous process together. Consider creating a social media group or chat thread to keep in touch and commiserate with each other.


5. Make time for yourself.
Whether that means going for a quick run, stealing away for a smoothie, or watching an episode of your favorite TV show, build in small amounts of downtime that help you recharge before your next class or appointment.

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Don’ts

1. Be afraid to get help.
If you find yourself falling behind or struggling with course content, don’t wait until it gets worse. Find a tutor or mentor who can help explain concepts and ensure you feel confident walking into the next exam rather than saying nothing and failing it.


2. Underestimate yourself.
It’s easy to compare ourselves to others who we feel are smarter, more studious, or better cut out for nursing. Avoid this negative self-talk and instead remember that wanting to be a nurse is a selfless act and you are more than capable.


3. Forget that school doesn’t last forever.
College can feel never-ending, especially at the beginning, but in reality we spend far less time in school than we do in our careers. Keep pressing through in a healthy way. Consider creating a countdown if you’re number oriented.


4. Forget to give it your all.
Students who skip classes and turn in half-hearted work often feel more stressed and disconnected from the program than those who truly stay the course and participate in class. It can be tempting to sleep in, but know that this type of behavior will just make everything harder.


5. Try to do everything at once.
Many freshmen and other first-year students overcommit themselves by joining student counsels, participating in clubs, playing in intramural teams, and holding down part-time jobs. For at least your first semester, hold off on all these activities so you can get a sense of what your nursing schedule entails.

Managing Nursing School Stress

Stress is a normal part of any college student’s life, but between the demands of clinicals and coursework, nursing school can be particularly stressful. Follow the steps below to lower your stress levels and breathe a little easier.

1. Develop smart study habits

Rather than taking one day at a time, review the syllabus of each class you’re taking at the start of the semester to get a sense of required projects, assignments and tests. Add all of these dates to your calendar so you don’t get caught by surprise and aren’t forced to stay up all night studying while also feeling hopeless about your chances for a good grade.

2. Check in with friends and family

Whether that means calling home and chatting with your parents/siblings, texting with a friend from high school, or emailing a former teacher, make sure to stay in touch with those who know you best and care about you the most. These individuals can provide meaningful and encouraging words that help calm nerves.

3. Communicate with your professors

Nursing faculty know that school can be stressful. You won’t be the first or last student of theirs to struggle with stress, but they cannot help you if they do not know what’s going on in your life. Speak to them early and often and continue to update them throughout the semester.

4. Master multitasking

Because nurses-in-training have so much on their plates, finding ways of accomplishing multiple tasks at once is critical to being successful and keeping sane. Whether this means doing laundry while studying or making voice memos about essay ideas while you’re on the treadmill, find ways to combine tasks when possible to get more done and feel less stressed.

5. Don’t strive for perfection

As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of good. School is a time for you to hone your skills, receive constructive criticism, and practice under supervision. Go easy on yourself when you make a mistake and remember that you’re still learning – no one expects perfection, so don’t hold yourself to that impossible standard.

Tips for Nontraditional Nursing Students

Nursing school can present unique challenges for nursing students who don’t fit the standard profile. Get specific tips and advice for your situation below.

  • Parents

    How to Survive Nursing School with a Family

    As a single parent 
    When solely responsible for your children, routine is key. Work with advisors to create manageable class schedules that fit around daycare, family time, and any other personal commitments. Don’t forget to apply for financial aid, ask for help from loved ones, and explain to your children why you’re in school. You may also want to consider the added flexibility and convenience of an online degree.

    With a baby 
    Juggling a newborn or infant alongside clinical rotations and group projects can be challenging – to put it mildly. In addition to creating schedules that work with your life, check to see if your school offers on-site childcare. If you need to meet with your team, consider inviting them to your house as to not disturb your child’s sleep schedule.

    While pregnant 
    The most important consideration when attending nursing school while pregnant is to ensure you stay healthy and unstressed, as stress can create complications. Things to consider include timing (e.g. how do semesters fit with your due date?), cost (e.g. can you afford both?), and rest (e.g. can you complete clinical rotations in an advanced state of pregnancy?).

  • Full-Time Workers

    Getting Through Nursing School with a Full-Time Job

    The reality is that many learners can’t afford to attend school without holding down a full-time job. It may seem impossible given nursing students’ hectic schedules, but it can be done with careful planning and a little understanding from professors and employers. Make sure to keep everyone in the loop on scheduling, consider stacking classes in the morning or evening, and think about whether online learning might best suit your needs.

  • Online Students

    Advice for Surviving Online Nursing School

    Online nursing school appeals to many learners due to its flexible and cost-effective nature. But, done poorly, it can also feel isolating and discouraging. Surviving in an online program requires dedication, focus and planning. Make sure you have a designated desk/office for watching lectures and engage regularly with your peers and professors so you feel involved.

  • Male Nursing Students

    Male Nursing Students: How to Overcome the Stigma

    It’s no surprise that women represent the vast majority of nurses. While stigmas continue to fade in this industry, some male nurses may still feel out of place. When this happens, remember that you want to be a nurse to help others. Seek out other male students and look at joining a membership group such as The American Association for Men in Nursing.

How to Dominate Your Nursing Coursework

In addition to receiving good grades, nursing students must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to practice as a nurse. Learners who keep their priorities straight and remain vigilant yet calm about their workload are more likely to find success.

General Study Tips

1. Make study time count.
Rather than studying distractedly or sleep deprived for hours and finding that you didn’t really absorb the information, try to maximize quality study time. For some learners, this means studying in the early morning hours before class. For others it means setting aside a Saturday or Sunday.

2. Know your learning style.
If you’re studying with a classmate who thrives on talking through concepts but you do best by creating notecards, break off and study on your own or find others who share your study preferences.

3. Take advantage of campus resources.
Most schools provide writing and math centers, tutors, study guides, and details on testing strategies. Make the most of these.

NCLEX Exam Prep

Given that nurses can’t practice without passing this exam, it’s normal to feel anxiety about doing well. But with some preparation, you need not worry about failing.

1. Attend a school with a good record.
Most nursing programs post their first-time exam pass rates. If they don’t, it could be a sign that students of that program struggle with the exam and haven’t been well-prepared. State nursing boards often publish NCLEX pass rates as well.

2. Take advantage of prep services.
Many schools provide NCLEX prep courses – either as part of the plan of study or as an optional class. If so, be sure to take advantage of this class as it will help you learn about the test format and develop test-taking skills.

3. Use practice exams.
These can help you get a sense of what to expect, identify areas of weakness, and shake out some of the anxiety surrounding testing day.

How to Get Back on Track if You’re Failing School

After working so hard to become a nurse, getting the news that you’re failing a course can immediately strangle all resolve. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to get back on track.

Step 1 – Ask for help.

If you find yourself falling behind, reach out for help immediately. Your professors can provide clarification, set you up with a tutor, or meet with you after class.

Step 2 – Don’t lose hope.

Failing a class can feel completely demoralizing, but these feelings can actually make it worse. Try to remain positive and find a mantra that builds confidence and resolve.

Step 3 – Ask for extra credit assignments.

You can’t go back and change your test or paper score, but you can look for ways to improve your grades through extra work.

Step 4 – Reprioritize.

If you’re doing great in one class but suffering another, try to devote more time to the latter until you can right the ship again.

Surviving Your Nursing Clinicals the Smart Way

Nursing clinicals can be the most demanding part of nursing school, but students who plan ahead and keep the right mindset can use this time to cement their knowledge and gain skills that impress hiring managers. Tips to keep in mind include:

Get prepared.
Before ever setting foot in your new hospital or care facility, make sure you have all your supplies ready, clinical bags packed, scrubs cleaned, comfortable shoes purchased, and breakfast/lunch packed.

Go in calm.
Make sure you get a good night of rest, play calming/uplifting music, and allow extra time to arrive in case of traffic.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Clinicals exist to ensure nursing students possess the hands-on skills needed to transition into employment. Ask your supervisor if you’re uncertain about something.

Make yourself helpful.
Ask your instructor what you can do if you find extra time on your hands. It shows initiative and allows you to learn new skills.

Keep a good mindset.
There will be days where you feel like you failed, but there will also be days that make you really proud of yourself. Try to remain positive through it all.

How to survive night shifts

Working night shifts can make the world feel upside down at first. Here are three quick tips to help you stay feeling strong and rested.

  1. Get enough sleep.
    Try keeping the same bedtime, investing in blackout curtains or an eye mask, and eliminating noises.
  2. Be smart about caffeine.
    Like any other shift, caffeine can help keep you awake and alert, but make sure you stop drinking it long before your shift ends as to not interfere with sleep.
  3. Find ways of staying busy.
    Night shifts tend to be less chaotic than others, so nurses must find ways of staying focused. Consider completing paperwork, organizing closets, or reading a book.

How to Survive Financially in Nursing School

Surviving nursing school is about more than passing your classes and making it through clinicals. Students also need to make sure their finances stay in good shape before enrolling, during school, and after graduation.

Before You Enroll

Securing financial aid prior to starting school is often the easiest time to do it, as you don’t have the pressures of coursework added into the mix. The first step is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This allows you to qualify for federal grants, work-study funds, and loans. Students should also research scholarships and grants from private foundations, professional nursing associations, state governments, and private companies. Check out EduMed’s financial aid resources below for more information.

During Nursing School

Most students don’t realize that they can continue applying for scholarships and grants even after they’re in school. In fact, some awards exist specifically for students in their junior and senior years. Try to locate these during holidays and summer breaks when you have ample time to fill out and submit applications. You’ll also need to fill out the FAFSA each year to identify how much money you can receive for the following academic term.

When You’re Looking at Job Offers

When looking at prospective jobs, keep in mind that any federal loans you have will start requiring payments six months after graduation. Use a calculator to determine how much your loan payments will be each month based on potential salaries. Graduates should also calculate cost-of-living expenses in their city. By pulling together all these numbers, you can get an idea of how much you need to make to live comfortably while paying down your debt. If an employer doesn’t offer a high enough salary, seek work elsewhere.

Real-World Advice from a Nursing Grad

mike-Icon
Kaitlyn-White

Kaitlyn White graduated from Belmont University in 2012. She worked at Vanderbilt University on a surgical floor, then as a Trauma ICU nurse for a few years before starting as a traveling ICU nurse, which ultimately led her to Alaska. Outside of work she enjoys outdoor recreation including rock climbing, camping, snowboarding, yoga, hiking, and enjoying the mountains and scenery that Alaska has to offer. She also enjoys traveling, quilting, and spending time with her sweetheart.

1. Looking back on nursing school, what do you wish you’d done differently?

The biggest thing I would change about nursing school is allowing myself some “me” time, focusing more on self-care, and giving myself a break from school. Looking back, I wish I could have taken more “fun” classes mixed with my nursing classes. I found that for me, nursing classes were challenging and I didn’t necessarily have peers who were good friends, so I really enjoyed learning about something other than straight nursing with different people who had more diverse backgrounds.

I also wish I would have understood the importance of balancing out free time with studying, because the culture of nursing school is definitely focused on spending 100% of your life studying, working on projects, and preparing for exams. I wish someone would have told me that it’s not humanly possible to be perfect in nursing school and that sometimes studying for just an hour followed by 5-6 hours of sleep will get you a lot farther than drinking two pots of coffee a day and pulling all-nighters to attempt perfect grades.

Speaking of, the culture never tells you that you can get B’s and still graduate and become an excellent nurse! The people who are number one in the class may have no idea how to talk to a patient, while the people with less than the best grades may be the most compassionate nurses you ever meet. I wish someone would have told me that in school!

2. What can students do to make their lives easier while in nursing school?

3. What’s something that you didn’t really consider or anticipate about being in nursing school and working in this field?

4. What advice do you have for students who might feel stressed?

Essential Equipment: The Gear You Need to Succeed

The right equipment can make or break your time in nursing school, so it’s worth it to buy the proper items. Necessary purchases include:

Comfortable Shoes for Clinicals

Nurses spend hours upon hours on their feet, making it imperative that they have supportive and comfortable shoes. Check out Prevention’s guide on the best shoes for nurses according to podiatrists.

A Backpack That’s Got Your Back

When carrying up to 40 pounds of textbooks, notebooks, snacks, a laptop, and other miscellaneous items, finding a large enough yet still comfortable backpack is critical. Look for one that distributes weight and sits comfortably to prevent back and/or neck aches. The Nerdy Nurse provides a roundup of five top backpacks for nursing students.

Helpful Student Nursing Communities and Resources

From Reddit and Facebook communities to informative YouTube videos and podcasts, there’s a ton of free resources available to help nursing students make it through school.

Facebook Groups/Pages

Facebook Groups/Pages

Nursing Students: This active page maintains more than 88,000 followers and counting.

National Student Nurses’ Association: Students can find support and insights from this page, which has more than 500,000 followers.

Surviving Nursing School with Nurse Angie: This page encourages the sharing of resources and tips, and offers free tutoring for nursing students.

Reddit Communities

Reddit Communities

Reddit for Nurses: This page exists for practicing nurses looking for support and camaraderie.

Reddit for Nursing Students: Created for students, by students, this is a helpful community for asking questions and sharing experiences.

Reddit for Pre-Nursing: A great community to check out if you’re thinking about becoming a nurse but want more details.

YouTube-Videos

YouTube Videos/Channels

How I passed the NCLEX First Try with 75 Questions: RegisteredNurseRN shares her insider tips on acing the exam the first time.

How To Survive Nursing School: Registered nurse Ashley Adkins shares her best resources for getting through nursing school relatively unscathed.

Nurse Liz: Nurse Liz hosts an active YouTube channel with tons of videos and several new ones posted each week.

How to Prepare for Nursing School: Wondering how to get ready for all the demands of nursing school? Nurse Liz can help.

Pre-Nursing and Nursing School Tips: This video highlights Nurse Bianca’s experience getting accepted to nursing school and staying sane while enrolled.

Podcasts

Podcasts

FreshRN: This popular podcast talks about the first year of nursing in weekly episodes.

Good Nurse, Bad Nurse: This lighthearted podcast is hosted by an RN and includes lots of special guests.

Johns Hopkins Medicine Podcasts: JHM offers two podcasts for staying up-to-date on medical news.

Medscape Nurses Podcast: This podcast tackles common topics in nursing and provides insightful interviews.

Nursecasts: This is a podcast for nurses, by nurses.