Advanced Practice Nursing

What I Wish I’d Known Before Beginning Nursing School

What I Wish I’d Known Before Beginning Nursing School
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Joan Spitrey May 1, 2015

If you’ve ever thought about a nursing career, there are aspects of this educational path that you may not have considered. Hear from Noodle Expert Joan Spitrey about the tips she wishes she’d gotten before enrolling in nursing school.

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When I entered nursing school, I knew it would be challenging, but in hindsight, I had no idea what I was getting myself into! If you are considering a nursing career or are about to enter a nursing program, here’s some friendly advice I wish I’d gotten before beginning my education.

An Overview of the Content

Nursing is a discipline founded on understanding the biological sciences. Yes, there are the “art and compassion” aspects of nursing, but we have to understand our patients’ physical conditions to better care for them. In preparation, most prerequisite coursework will be in areas like anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and chemistry. You may also be required (or it’s at least recommended) that you take courses in psychology and human development. All of these subjects are foundational to nursing, and most of your subsequent classes will build on the concepts learned in these early courses. As a nurse educator, I frequently ask my students to recall concepts that they learned previously and believed they were done with.


Each class that you take in your nursing program will be important for passing the NCLEX-RN and eventually being eligible to apply for your RN license. The exam tests students on the basic knowledge that a new nurse would need to provide safe and effective patient care. Although most questions will fall into the medical/surgical category, all concepts covered in an undergraduate nursing program are fair game. Before taking the exam, it’s helpful to take a refresher course to review topics you studied earlier in your program. Keep your notes and most of your course books to refer to as you prepare for the NCLEX-RN exam (and even for starting your first job!).

The Reading

In nursing school, the quantity of content you need to learn will seem impossible — this is normal. That said, organizational skills will be your key to success. Decide which tools, such as a daily planner or wall calendar to plot out your exams and projects, will work best for you. Don’t let time get away from you — stay on top of the reading, assignments, projects, and studying, and it will be manageable. Work at these tasks in small chunks; for example, if you have a large section to read, tackle a little bit everyday. No one wants to read hundreds of pages in one sitting!

The Exams

Testing in nursing school is very different from what many students have previously encountered in school. Prior to this point, many assessments have been knowledge-based exams. In nursing school, students are tested on their ability to apply the concepts they’ve been studying. Turning to test-taking resources, such as those used to prepare for the NCLEX exam, early in your nursing program will enable you to develop your abilities as a strong test taker, skills you’ll particularly need when you take the NCLEX-RN.

The Skills and Grades

As with any educational endeavor, many students have the goal of earning good grades to demonstrate their mastery of content; in nursing school, however, the eventual goal is to care for people and their health. Applying your nursing knowledge is where you’re headed, and while grades are important to distinguish yourself as a student and for preceptorship (or nursing apprenticeship) placements in some programs, the practical skills you develop as a health care provider are just as essential.

An Overview of Clinicals

Throughout nursing school, you will learn a range of new skills, from administering medications to starting IVs and placing catheters. Often, the bulk of the practical content of your program is taught early in each term, in preparation for what are known as “clinicals.” Because there can be a lag between the introduction of these skills and their application, it’s valuable to review them before beginning each new clinical experience.

A significant portion of your nursing education will be spent in clinicals. During this part of your schooling, you will go to a health care facility — such as a hospital, nursing home, or clinic — and practice what you have learned in school. It is a critical part of your education, and as such, you’ll want to seek every opportunity to apply your nursing skills here.

Getting the Most out of the Opportunities

That said, clinicals can be stressful because you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. You’ll be doing things to strangers that you’re not accustomed to — such as dressing wounds, giving tube feedings, and providing injections. Many students shy away from these opportunities to practice their skills, and attempt to just get through the day so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable. And many of these same people will tell you later that they wish they had used their clinical time more wisely.

This component of your program offers a chance to practice nursing in a safe environment with lots of support and supervision, and to overcome any reluctance you may feel to interact with patients in such intimate ways. Mastering nursing skills and gaining a solid understanding of the daily role of a nurse makes the transition to practicing independently much easier once you graduate and are licensed.

Making an Impression

Clinicals also offer an opportunity for you to shine before potential future employers and to network for career prospects. Staff always note the students who stand out, and will frequently bring these students to the attention of their managers. Pursuing a job starts the moment you enter your clinical setting — think of nursing school as a long interview process, one to which you always want to bring your “A-game.”

Since a principal goal following graduation is to secure a job, one of the best ways to get your foot in the door is to obtain a position as a nursing assistant or tech while you’re still in school. These roles have the dual benefit of helping students to continue practicing their skills while pursuing your education and making professional connections that may lead to job offers once you’re licensed.

A Balanced Life

With all the stress and pressure to master new knowledge and skills and apply it continuously throughout your program, you also have to take time to care for yourself. There will be extraordinary demands placed on you, making it all the more important to continue enjoying your life. Making time to relax and pursue leisure activities is just as essential as building in time to study — in fact, you should schedule it into your planner right next to the blocks of time you set aside to read or prepare for an exam.

Why Leisure Matters

Balance and self-care are critical to becoming an effective nurse, and these habits begin in nursing school. You can’t care for others safely and compassionately if you are not well yourself. Just as flight attendants advise on a plane, put the mask on yourself before helping others. Even if you don’t have precisely the same amount of downtime you had before enrolling in your program, you can certainly still have some fun!

The Role of Your Peers

As with any group of people who go through an intense, shared experience, nursing students become very close in their programs. Your peers truly understand the journey and stress you’re all experiencing, and you’ll want to stick together and lean on each other. Study groups can be very helpful for building these relationships; I met my best and dearest friend in one during nursing school. It was invaluable to have someone who understood the trials I was facing in school, as well as those we encountered as we started our careers.

Final Thoughts

Many students enter nursing school with an idea of the type of nursing practice they want to pursue, and this is great. Still, keep an open mind and consider other specializations as you are exposed to them. I thought I was going to be a midwife when I first entered nursing school but quickly realized that intensive care nursing was the place for me. So, be open to other areas not previously considered.

As one of my students remarked recently, “Nursing school is no joke!” That said, with proper training, a good game plan, and and a willingness to step outside of your comfort zone, it can actually be manageable and fun. Good luck!

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About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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Categorized as: Advanced Practice NursingNursing & Healthcare