Understanding Nursing School: A Guide for Prospective Medical Students

Understanding Nursing School: A Guide for Prospective Medical Students
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Noodle Staff March 12, 2024

Embarking on a career in nursing is a noble calling that demands immense dedication, resilience, and compassion. This comprehensive guide serves as an invaluable roadmap for those aspiring to enter the multifaceted world of nursing education.

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Entering the world of nursing education brings with it a host of unique challenges and experiences. It’s a pursuit not limited by gender nor a less rigorous path compared to other medical fields. As a future healthcare professional, you must be prepared for demanding coursework and a curriculum that extends beyond technical skills to include aspects of holistic care and communication. Admission to graduate nursing programs is highly competitive, requiring a well-rounded application that demonstrates both academic preparedness and a commitment to the field through experiences like community service. Moreover, the realities of nursing school include developing resilience through intense clinical rotations and mastering complex exams.

This guide provides an introduction to the multifaceted journey of nursing education, aimed at preparing prospective students for the academic and professional challenges that lie ahead.

Debunking Nursing School Myths

Several myths about nursing school have been debunked, including the notion that it is only for women, the misconception that exams are impossibly difficult, the belief that nursing education is a less challenging alternative to medical school, and the idea that nursing programs solely focus on technical skills. In reality, nursing education is highly demanding, requiring a solid foundation in science, a high level of critical thinking, and strong communication skills to provide comprehensive patient care. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for the complexities of modern healthcare, encompassing far more than foundational medical knowledge, such as patient advocacy and care coordination.

When you hear the name Florence Nightingale what comes to mind? Maybe it’s the ‘Lady with the Lamp’ image or the Crimean War. Or perhaps it’s nursing school, a concept she helped pioneer when opening London’s Nightingale Training School for Nurses in 1860.

Formal nursing education took shape in America 13 years later with Bellevue Hospital School of Nursing in New York City. It was first of its kind in the nation, strongly influenced by Nightingale’s intention to train nurses to perform qualified and specialized care, and develop the necessary skills and sensitivity to meet patient needs.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is. In the almost 150 years since nursing school began in the U.S., its purpose remains the same. Yes, there are stark differences—like an emphasis on research, actual healthcare laws and regulations, and the trade-off of snake oil for bona fide medical technology—but students continue to pursue nursing for careers that let them make a difference in a respected, stable industry.

So, after all this time, why do so we hear the same misconceptions about nursing school again and again? The following is a collection of nursing school myths and realities, so prospective nursing students (and everyone else) can have a better idea of what the experience truly entails.

1. Only women go to nursing school.

According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s 2018-2019 report on Enrollment and Graduations in Baccalaureate and Graduate Programs in Nursing, men comprised 12.9 percent of students in baccalaureate programs, 12.2 percent of master’s students, 11.2 percent of research-focused doctoral students, and 13.4 percent of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) students. In 2008, men made up 10.4 percent of baccalaureate students and 8.4 percent of master’s degree students. Another report from the National League of Nursing (NLN) shows that men made up 8 percent of Registered Nurse (RN) program graduates, which was an increase from 6 percent in 1989.

Yes, the title of “nurse” has many connotations, including images of mothers nursing their children and women in white cotton dresses and caps walking the hospital floor. Neither of these representations is inaccurate, but they don’t help the stereotype that only women enroll in nursing school. Because if the numbers prove anything, it’s that men attend nursing school more than ever before.

2. Nursing exams are impossible to pass.

Nursing exams tend to make nursing students feel mentally scattered. A fundamental multiple-choice question can become so overly simplified that it’s hard to tell what it means, or if the correct answer is missing, or there are multiple correct answers. Other times, nursing exams may not seem comprehensive enough or may seem like they’re missing essential content areas. It’s a frustrating experience that sets many nursing students up to feel like they can’t win.

The reality of nursing school exams isn’t that their questions are intended to trick you, but make you think differently. Many nursing students who run up against the impossibility of exams haven’t mastered the thought process that NCLEX style questions require, even after so much time in school. One of the best ways to increase your chances of passing is to familiarize yourself with an exam’s different question types, which include fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, order response, and select-all-that-apply (or SATA) questions.

Many free online resources can help prepare for nursing school exams, like practice quizzes and daily practice questions sent straight to your inbox.

3. All nursing degrees are the same.

Where do we even begin? Differences in nursing degrees are immense, especially when accreditation—or lack thereof—comes into play. While some employers require RNs to have a bachelor’s degree, an associate’s degree is typically the gateway to entry-level work in the field, including specialty areas such as the neonatal wardemergency room, and intensive care.

Many nurses also have a bachelor’s, master’s, or doctorate. Generally, a higher degree comes with more advanced certification and specialization, more significant professional opportunity, opportunities for leadership and management roles, and enhanced earning potential.

4. Nursing school is for people who can’t hack it in medical school.

If advanced nursing students wanted to become physicians, they would pursue medical school. Instead, many choose nursing school for its approach to healthcare that lets them provide holistic care to patients; something physicians are not typically expected to do. Nevertheless, the professional responsibilities of advanced practice nurses and physicians are becoming increasingly intertwined. The overlap is partly due to the shortage of healthcare providers across the U.S., which has required Nurse Practitioners (NPs) to provide the primary care evaluations and treatments typically expected of physicians.

Are nurses as smart as physicians? Yes—and they’re just as capable, too. A report from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners indicates that, in 2019, 86.6 percent of NPs were certified to evaluate patients, diagnose illness, and prescribe medication. The connection between nurses and their patients is another real marker of their effectiveness in the workplace. Studies show that nurses are more vigilant about patient safety than physicians and more honest, especially at the end of a patient’s life. Nurses are also more accurate at predicting which patients might pass away in the hospital, while physicians are better at longer-term estimates concerning illness.

5. Nursing school will only teach you technical skills.

No disrespect to plumbers, but nursing school is not for learning a trade. While technical training—like how to interpret test results and use medical equipment to stabilize and monitor patients—makes up the foundation of nursing school, nursing students are also tasked to take a compassionate, broad-thinking approach to their program. One way they do so is through mock clinical scenarios and debriefings with faculty and cohort members, which prepares nursing students to communicate with patients and their families and other members of their care team later on. Plus, they’re required to spend a considerable portion of their time focused on assignments, studying, and staying on top of deadlines—a habit that will be useful down the line as they manage patient care plans.

Nursing students also have to understand there are no black-and-white answers to exam questions, but rather, the “most right” responses to the circumstances they pose. The same notion is true for the majority of patient care scenarios, which fall into a gray area and task nurses to quickly determine the most appropriate treatment plan, sometimes without the ability to ask a patient what’s wrong.

Nursing school is also quick to show students that a sense of humor is an especially powerful tool for letting go of the complicated emotions that can accompany everyday work in the field. After all, laughter is said to have significant health benefits—and you don’t need a nurse to prove it.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Nursing School Admissions

To be considered for admission into a nursing school, especially for graduate programs, carefully preparing your application is crucial.

  • Your academic background must include the necessary prerequisites with strong performance, reflected in your GPA. Typically, prerequisite courses include anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, and other foundational sciences.
  • Scores from standardized tests like the GRE or TOEFL (for international students) are often part of the assessment criteria for graduate nursing programs.
  • Your commitment to nursing is judged through your personal statement, which should convey your motivation, understanding of the nursing role, and alignment with the program’s values and mission.
  • Letters of recommendation should reinforce your academic and professional preparedness for the rigors of nursing education. These letters are typically required from professors, employers, or supervisors who can attest to your abilities and potential.
  • Real-life experience in healthcare settings, whether through work or volunteer opportunities, will strengthen your application by demonstrating hands-on experience with patient care and an understanding of the healthcare environment. Such experiences showcase your familiarity with the nursing profession and commitment to the field.
  • The interview process is your opportunity to make a personal impression and showcase your interpersonal skills, which are vital in nursing. Interviews may include situational questions to assess your critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and communication skills.

For more comprehensive tips about admissions into graduate nursing programs, read the article How to Get Into Nursing Graduate Programs written by Mairead Kelly. You’ll find applicant checklists, prerequisite information, and guidance on finding the right nursing programs to consider.

1. Accreditation

Ensure the nursing program is accredited by a national agency. This is especially important if you plan to seek financial aid because many sources are not available for non-accredited programs. It is also critical if you intend to continue your education, as you will be limited in progressing in your career if you graduate from a non-accredited program. The two national associations that accredit nursing schools are the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, which accredits all types of nursing programs including diploma, associate, baccalaureate, and master’s; and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education, which only accredits baccalaureate and graduate degrees.

2. Approval by the State Board

At the end of nursing school, you will need to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to be licensed as a nurse in your state. Each state determines the standards and approves schools for educating nursing students so they are eligible to take the NCLEX. Prospective applicants should check whether the program(s) they’re considering are approved by the state board. For information about licensing requirements where you plan to practice, contact your state board.

3. Pass Rate for NCLEX

One of the benchmarks of a program’s success is the first-time NCLEX pass rate of its graduates. This is a good indicator of how prepared the students are at graduation and a good indicator of a healthy nursing program.

4. Degrees Available

Although the bachelor’s in nursing degree (BSN) is becoming the accepted entry-level degree for nursing, associate’s degrees in nursing (ADN) are still widely available. There are many career paths you can pursue as a nurse. Try to determine your ultimate goal, and find the degree program best suited to meet that goal. For example, if you plan to continue your education to become a nurse practitioner, getting your BSN will give you more flexibility in pursuing master’s-level work.

5. Clinical Sites

Your clinical experience will be crucial to your success in nursing school, so be sure to ask the school how much assistance they provide in finding and securing these placements. Investigate the potential clinical sites to ensure you will have a well-rounded experience. Calculate the expected amount of travel, and determine if it is feasible for your current situation (e.g., do you need a car, or can you rely on public transportation?).

6. Schedule and Setting

This is especially important if you are a “non-traditional” student who works or has a family. See if the school offers a flexible schedule, including evening or weekend classes and clinicals. Although most of the classes for pre-licensing degrees are live, many programs have blended the instruction to include online components, as well.

7. Tuition and Other Costs

Tuition and fees can vary significantly from school to school, especially when you compare public and private colleges. There are also a few overlooked costs associated with starting a nursing program: uniforms, clinical tools, software, and books. Most programs can give you an estimate of any other expenses you are likely to encounter.

That said, many schools have well-funded scholarship programs and a wide range of financial aid options.

It’s also important to think beyond the expense of the program to the career path you’re choosing. While many nurses enter the field with an associate’s degree, employers are increasingly seeking bachelor’s-trained nurses. Additionally, the cost of earning your BSN may be greater, but BSN-RNs earn higher average salaries than ADN-RNs.

8. Labs and Simulations

Ask if the school has a complete clinical lab used for learning and whether they use simulation in their instructional practice. The use of simulation devices, which has increased as technology has become more sophisticated, helps bridge the gap between the classroom and real-life experiences. Simulation use ranges from non-responsive mannequins to mannequins that breathe, blink, and change as clinical conditions shift. These tools allow instructors to gauge student responses to critical situations. Nursing is a hands-on profession — the more practice you get, the better.

9. Class Size

Just as the size of a school can vary significantly, so can the size of your lecture classes. If you know you are intimidated by large lecture hall classes, you might want to consider a school with smaller class sizes. Keep in mind that nursing school also offers the benefit of small clinical groups, so even if you are enrolled in large lectures, you will still have intimate learning opportunities.

10. Support

To close, I’ll note that nursing school is a very challenging and different experience from traditional higher education experiences. For this reason in particular, it’s important to investigate whether a nursing program provides additional support resources, such as tutors, study groups, or audiovisual aids. In addition, ask about the faculty’s availability for students who need extra support. These professors will be invaluable mentors who can help you make decisions that will advance your career.

(Written by Joan Spitrey)

Realities of Being a Nursing School Student

In clinical settings, nursing students learn the art of critical thinking, moving beyond rote memorization to applying complex concepts to patient care. They are taught to assess situations, make judgments, and act in the best interests of their patients, drawing upon a deep well of knowledge gained through their studies. This application of knowledge underpins every aspect of their education, preparing them for the unpredictable nature of healthcare work.

The academic rigors of nursing school are steeped in extensive reading and complex coursework. Students must digest large volumes of material, necessitating a disciplined approach to studying. Effective time management becomes a non-negotiable skill, as does the ability to discern key information and anticipate examination questions that test application rather than mere memorization.

The intensity of nursing programs brings the risk of burnout, making self-care a critical component of a student’s strategy for success. Recognizing the signs of stress and taking proactive steps to maintain a healthy work-life balance is encouraged. This includes regular physical activity, adequate rest, and the pursuit of personal interests, ensuring that students remain refreshed and engaged with their studies.

Choosing a Nursing Specialty

Choosing a nursing specialty is a significant decision that shapes the trajectory of a nursing student’s career. It involves introspection about one’s strengths, interests, and the type of healthcare environment one wishes to work in. Students are advised to research the job market for various specialties, considering where demand is highest and how that intersects with their personal and professional goals. Understanding the educational pathways and certifications required for specialized fields is also crucial, as some areas of nursing may require additional qualifications or experience beyond the initial nursing degree.

1. What keeps you motivated at work?

Every nursing specialty comes with its own unique set of challenges and experiences. By choosing one that suits your personality and interests, you’ll be able to land in a career where you like the subject matter and the work itself. Do you thrive on adrenaline, constant challenges, and fast-paced, unpredictable situations? Working as an emergency nurse practitioner (ENP) may be ideal. Do you have exceptional organizational and communication skills and a high degree of patience? A career as a Hospice Nurse will let you ensure quality end-of-life care to patients and serve as a liaison between physicians and families who are coming to terms with the possibility of loss.

What about your capacity for engagement with others? Some nurses are naturally introverted, meaning that they tend to feel worn out after extended periods of social interaction. They tend to prefer solitude and independence and to listen instead of talk. Finding a nursing position that suits these qualities can be difficult, but not impossible. Take nurse educator, a role that requires nursing knowledge and extensive clinical skills to design and implement academic and continuing education programs for nurses. While those in this occupation typically work in social, educational settings like nursing schools and community colleges, it’s an independent job that allows them to set their pace for interaction.

More outgoing nurses may choose to take on roles like head nurse or nurse manager. While introverted nurses can—and do—make great leaders, these roles tend to require constant interaction with doctors, patients, families, and a range of other hospital workers, as well as the staff of nurses they coach and mentor.

2. What environment do you feel most comfortable working in?

BLS reports that 60 percent of RNs work at state, local, and private hospitals. As for the remainder of professionals in the field, many find work non-hospital settings like physicians’ offices, home healthcare services, and nursing care facilities. Some work in outpatient clinics, schools, public health departments, and industrial job sites. Others perform research, monitor I.T. at healthcare consulting firms, or serve in the military.

Hospital-centered or otherwise, you’ll want to consider how your immediate work environment will play into your career. Some may find an operating room unbearable, where the surgeon, anesthetist, and surgical technician hierarchy reigns supreme. Others may find that a nursing home or hospital’s geriatric wing isn’t fast-paced enough for their needs.

There are vast differences in work environments in terms of pace and the kinds of interactions you’ll have with patients, physicians, and other caregivers. You can only be at your maximum productivity if you are relaxed and feel that you fit in.

3. Would you be willing to relocate?

No? Then you’ll have to choose a specialization that’s in demand where you live. As you get farther outside of cities, you may not be able to practice in certain specialties. Rural areas, in particular, often look for generalist nurses to develop close ties with the individuals and families they serve.

Job and recruitment site ZipRecruiter reports that specialized nursing jobs are widespread in major metropolitan areas known for top-ranking hospitals, medical centers, and nursing schools—naming Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Houston, among others. You can also consider cities that offer the highest number of nursing jobs per resident, like Columbus, Ohio and Hartford, Connecticut, as well as Nashville, Tennessee.

4. Have you factored in job security?

While the overall field is booming, in some of the most in-demand nursing specialties, demand is even higher. BLS reports that medical and health services manager jobs, which covers nursing roles in management and administration, will increase 18 percent through 2028. Since advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) are qualified to perform many of the same duties as physicians, their skills are in particularly high demand as well. Employment for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners—all types of APRNs—is projected to grow 26 percent by 2028.

Despite the growth across industries, nurses should think seriously about specializations that depend heavily on procedures that aren’t necessary to preserve a patient’s health, such as plastic or exploratory surgery. In the event of an economic downturn or a recession, elaborate procedures that require patients to go under the knife—like liposuction, breast augmentation, nose jobs, and laparotomies, to name a few—tend to be swapped for less costly, minimally-invasive alternatives.

5. How important is salary?

If you’re in it to make more money than the average nurse, aim for an executive position or an in-demand specialty with a high salary potential. Using salary average annual salary data from PayScale, we rounded up the top five highest-paying nursing occupations:

  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist: $147,603
  • Psychiatric Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner: $112,370
  • Nurse Practitioner: $97,255
  • Certified Nurse Midwife: $91,517
  • Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner: $89,832

Remember that you’ll need to balance any financial benefits with your personal needs and interests, as well as the demands your specialization will ask of you. What’s more, you’ll also need to factor in any existing student loans—and the cost of any additional required education.

6. Are you up for any additional education requirements?

Many specialties require no more than an associate degree, including those as sought after as labor and delivery, neonatal, and orthopedic care. From here, every additional step of education will open more doors to more nursing jobs, many of which offer more significant professional opportunities and higher salaries.

Those who pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and gain RN licensure have the option to become certified as a medical-surgical nurse. Credentialing for specific patient populations, such as cardiac, geriatric, and diabetic patients, is also an option, as is whoever’s coming through the doors of the emergency room.

APRNs are the next step up, characterized as RNs who’ve completed a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Specialization within the APRN category includes nurse practitioners, as well as certified nurse midwives, certified registered nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists. Given their more generalized advanced training, nurse practitioners may choose to further specialize in a specific type of nursing, becoming a family nurse practitioner or acute care nurse practitioner, or focusing on gerontology, or pediatrics, among other subfields.

Clinical nurse specialists (CNS), like nurse practitioners, receive graduate-level training at the MSN or DNP level and are licensed to carry out advanced nursing responsibilities. However, clinical nurse specialist training tends to emphasize administrative, research, and program development. While some CNSs would consider providing direct care to patients as the main element of their job, many others focus on patient advocacy, research, and education.

(Written by Mairead Kelly)

Common Questions About Nursing School

By Mairead Kelly

If you’re considering a career in nursing, you have options when it comes to the type of degree you can earn. And by options, we mean lots of options. With so many different levels of nursing credentials and countless specialties and job titles that apply to them, the path to starting in the field—or advancing in it—can seem anything but straightforward.

One thing’s for sure, though: the greater your education in the field, the greater your opportunities. For those new to nursing, both the certified nursing assistant (CNA) and licensed practical nurse (LPN) roles can be great ways to get your start caring for patients. But where can you go from there?

Many nurses begin their careers as either and then go back to school to gain credentials as a registered nurse (RN). But that’s just one option. The truth is, whether you have hopes of specializing, climbing the ranks, or both, nursing school at the undergraduate and graduate levels offer all types of programs to suit your specific professional goals.

So, what are these types of nursing school programs? And how long does nursing school take? The answer all depends on the degree path that’s right for you. We’ll explore that answer by addressing the following questions:

  • What nursing degrees are available at the undergraduate level?
  • What nursing degrees are available at the graduate level?

What nursing degrees are available at the undergraduate level?

Currently, students who complete an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from an accredited institution and pass the National Council of State Boards of Nursing’s National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) can pursue work in registered nursing.

Associate’s in Nursing

An ADN from an accredited nursing school is an excellent choice if for becoming an RN without having to commit to a bachelor’s program. However, it’s important to note that while this is the minimum education for licensing, employers are increasingly requiring that new hires hold a bachelor’s degree.

Additionally, in some states, RNs with associate degrees will eventually need to earn their bachelor’s to maintain their license. New York, for example, passed legislation in 2017 that requires registered nurses graduating from associate degree or diploma nursing programs in the state to obtain a BSN within ten years of initial licensure.

So, why do students still pursue this degree? For one, it’s the fastest path to becoming an RN—and is typically more affordable than its BSN counterpart. And since ADN curricula include core education requirements along with specific nursing topics, most bachelor’s programs in nursing allow students to transfer most (or all) credits from their associate’s education to meet their their BSN requirements. This enables students to complete their bachelor’s in less time.

What do students learn in this program?

ADN programs provide students are designed to teach the core competencies needed to become a registered nurse. In addition to basic prerequisite coursework and general education classes, students take courses specific to nursing practice, including:

  • Anatomy
  • Chemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Nursing practice and theory
  • Nutrition
  • Population health
  • Psychology

Accredited programs also include extensive on-site clinical training that aligns with your state’s licensing requirements.

How long will it take?

The length of an ADN program will vary from school to school, but students in this track typically take two years to complete their degree. Part-time students may need more time, whereas some tracks, such as accelerated ADN programs, can take 12 to 18 months.

What can you do with this degree?

As mentioned, in some states, RNs with associate degrees eventually need to earn a bachelor’s to maintain their license. Many opt to complete the requirement through an RN to BSN online program, which can be completed in as few as 12 to 18 months.

Those who opt to start work in registered nursing with an associate’s degree may have slightly fewer job options than those with a BSN, but that doesn’t mean RNs whose highest level of education is an associate’s degree are out of luck.

Many healthcare organizations hire nurses with an associate degree for the same direct-care positions for which they hire nurses with a bachelor’s degree. Some may require ADN nurses to work towards obtaining a bachelor’s degree as a condition of their employment.

In terms of available specializations, RNs with an associate degree can pursue work in:

  • Family medicine
  • Geriatric care
  • Home health
  • Hospice
  • Labor and delivery
  • Pediatrics
  • Public health
  • Radiology
  • Rehabilitation
  • Substance abuse
  • Surgery

They’re also able to pursue additional certifications in specialty areas through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (AANC), such as:

  • Ambulatory Care Nursing
  • Cardiac Vascular Nursing
  • Gerontological Nursing
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing
  • Nursing Case Management
  • Pain Management Nursing
  • Pediatric Nursing
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing

Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing

Prospective RNs are increasingly encouraged to pursue a BSN for a variety of reasons. Following a 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine, healthcare providers across the country pushed forward initiatives to get more of their nurses trained at the BSN level, stating that 80 percent of all RNs should obtain a BSN qualification by 2020.

The AACN weighed in, providing evidence that demonstrates BSN-prepared RNs experience better patient outcomes, greater nursing competency, more effective communication skills, and stronger leadership skills than their colleagues who hold associate degrees.

In response, both healthcare institutions and lawmakers began to focus on ways to make this initiative a reality. For example, hospitals that seek Magnet Recognition, a title that recognizes the quality and caliber of the nursing care offered, must satisfy a BSN by 2020 requirement.

What about pay? If a job doesn’t require a bachelor’s degree in nursing, holding a BSN may not translate to higher pay. However, registered nurses with this degree do tend to make more overall. According to PayScale data, BSN-holders make an average annual salary of $84,000. In contrast, those with an ADN take home an average of $69,000 per year.

What do students learn in this program?

The specific courses of a BSN vary from one program to the next. Even so, the curriculum requirements for this track are relatively standard—and tend to explore nursing theory in greater detail than the ADN degree path. BSN courses include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Basic pharmacology
  • Chemistry
  • Community, family, and geriatric nursing
  • Microbiology
  • Nursing assessment
  • Nursing ethics
  • Nursing policy
  • Nursing research
  • Nutrition and diet
  • Statistics

Since BSN programs operate at the bachelor’s level, students must also take several general education courses, such as English, history, and social sciences. BSN students must also complete clinical experience. Exact clinical hour requirements vary by specialization, setting, and individual program requirements, but usually, the recommended ratio is three clinical learning hours for every hour of classroom time.

How long will it take?

Students enrolled in a BSN program on a full-time basis will need about four years to complete their degree. Many programs allow students to attend part-time, which translates into a longer completion time. Accelerated BSN programs are also an option for nursing students who want the intensive immersion in nursing theory and practice they need to enter the field more quickly. These programs typically take one to two years.

Additionally, RN to BSN programs are an option for current registered nurses whose highest level of education is an associate’s degree. Often referred to as a “bridge” program, this track is designed to build on students’ previous nursing education and experience by providing advanced courses that focus on developing skills outside of direct care. They can be completed in about two years.

What can you do with this degree?

BSN programs prepare students to work at hospitals, physician offices, clinics, government agencies, and other inpatient and outpatient facilities. In addition to registered nursing, individuals with BSN degrees are qualified for a wide range of positions and specialty areas of practice, including:

BSN graduates may also pursue these specialist qualifications such as:

What nursing degrees are available at the graduate level?

Nursing professionals who want to strengthen their skills at the graduate level and advance in the field can do so by pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree and/or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). While both degree paths offer benefits to those who complete them, they’re not the same—and they’re not intended for the same type of nursing student.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

In the past, an MSN degree was almost universally accepted as the minimum education level required for becoming an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN).

However, in 2004, the (AACN) voted to endorse moving the current level of preparation necessary for advanced nursing practice from the master’s degree to the doctorate-level by the year 2015. In response, there has been rapid growth in the number of DNP programs available. But still, in 2020, the MSN remains the go-to degree for most aspiring APRNs—and the AACN’s recommendation has yet to be fully realized.

What do students learn in this program?

Traditional MSN programs provide students with a generalist degree or one of several specializations in a wide range of clinical and non-clinical areas. Students who pursue an MSN in clinical nursing typically focus on a broad range of nursing theory and advance practice concepts.

In contrast, MSN in advanced practice nursing programs are designed to suit training in one of the four APRN roles and at least one of the six “population foci,” which includes:

With such a wide range of MSN degree options and specializations available, it’s not surprising that the total number of required practicum hours varies for both clinical and non-clinical programs. Generally, APRN programs mandate a minimum of 500 clinical hours.

How long will it take?

Many traditional MSN programs are offered on both a part-time and full-time level. Time-to-completion depends on the type of program and area of specialty. Non-clinical, generalist degrees typically take the shortest amount of time.
Accelerated MSN programs that require full-time participation typically can be completed in about 18 months. In a traditional program, full-time students generally take about two years to earn this degree.

RN to MSN programs are also available for RNs whose highest level of education is an associate’s degree. In these programs, students can earn masters-level qualifications more quickly than they would if they pursued a BSN and MSN separately. They typically take about three years to complete.

What can you do with this degree?

MSN programs prepare graduates to qualify for advanced positions in both clinical and non-clinical healthcare settings:

Clinical nursing:

Non-clinical nursing:

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree is a doctoral program focusing on medical practice rather than medical research. Unlike traditional, research-based PhD degrees, DNP degrees provide training specifically designed for application in the clinical environment—and are ideal for practicing nurses who are interested in taking on leadership roles in a wide range of healthcare settings.

What do students learn in this program?

While the specifics of courses vary from one DNP track to another, accredited programs follow a framework provided by the AACN. Known as the Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Practice Nursing, the framework outlines the foundational outcome competencies expected of DNP programs.
Regardless of specialty or functional focus, all DNP students must receive doctoral-level training in:

  • Advanced nursing practice
  • Clinical prevention and population health for improving the nation’s health
  • Clinical scholarship and analytical methods for evidence-based practice
  • Healthcare policy for advocacy in healthcare
  • Information systems/technology and patient care technology for the improvement and transformation of healthcare
  • Interprofessional collaboration for improving patient and population health outcomes
  • Organizational and systems leadership for quality improvement and systems thinking
  • Scientific underpinnings for practice

How long will it take?

As with many programs in the nursing field, there are many different routes that prospective students can take to earn their DNP. Some opt for BSN-DNP programs, which generally take three to four years to complete and are designed for students who’ve completed their BSN and have a year or more of professional experience.

MSN to DNP programs, on the other hand, take one-and-a-half to two years to complete and are specifically designed for those who’ve graduated from an MSN program. A growing number of schools also offer an RN to DNP, which may be between four and six years in length and allow ADN-holders to “bridge” their education to a DNP.

What can you do with this degree?

DNP graduates take an active role in shaping US healthcare by way of policy, organizational leadership, education, and patient care. In the patient care realm, this degree allows APRNs to further specialize, assume leadership and management roles in clinical settings, or both.

DNP graduates may also choose non-direct care positions in which they bring their expertise to a wide variety of roles in education, research, management, and advocacy, among other areas of focus. They include:

By Mairead Kelly

There’s no denying that nursing school is notoriously challenging. Most nursing programs require high GPAs and stellar scores in math, chemistry, biology, and psychology, which can make the run-up to a Nurse Practitioner RN program feel somewhat of a gauntlet in itself.

Now that you’ve applied and enrolled, the reality of what you’ve heard from working nurses may set in. Nursing school will demand that you work hard, study harder, and in ill-prepared cases, virtually say goodbye to your social life. At times, it may seem like you’ll need to prove yourself consistently to maintain some sense of confidence. You’ll feel like you have no time for anything other than reading, memorization, labs, and exams, let alone to change into something more elaborate than a pair of scrubs.

But completing a nursing degree isn’t all stress and cynicism either. In reality, it will be a mix of hard work, camaraderie, opportunity, and nerves. It’s where you’ll gain an incredibly diverse set of skills and knowledge, and a stomach strong enough to withstand even the worst case of bedsores. And with the right approach, it’s where you’ll successfully take the first step of your journey towards a career improving the health and happiness of others. Here’s how to survive your first year of nursing school.

1. Use the buddy system

Making friends in nursing school isn’t easy for everyone, but it can come naturally, especially given the likelihood that you’ll take classes with the same students from one semester to the next. Reaching out to your peers is an easy way to foster a support network that knows what you’re going through and can sympathize with the challenges you’ll face while adjusting to nursing school.

Whether it’s someone who’ll listen to your concerns about a particularly tough instructor or drill you on dosage calculations for an upcoming exam, these relationships will be immensely helpful and have the potential to last throughout your nursing career.

2. Choose knowledge over memorization.

Your nursing school program will require you to learn and retain a lot of information, which comes with the challenge of not just memorizing content, but committing it to long-term memory. One way to do this is by considering the context of the material, like why a particular condition occurs or why a type of medical intervention is best for treating it. Once you get the hang of understanding concepts, you’ll soon see patterns emerge quickly understand how things are interrelated.

When studying, you may also find it helpful to go with the rule of thumb that if you can understand a concept or term well enough to explain it to friends or family, you’ll be able to successfully apply your knowledge in all kinds of situations, including nursing school exams.

3. Opt for supplemental reading.

Despite what your list of required textbooks may say, additional books on the core components of your program are an easy way to have instant access to refreshers when tasked to form a diagnosis or create a care plan. Better yet, many of these books don’t necessarily need to be the most current edition since diagnoses rarely change. Instead of paying full-price for textbooks, you’ll be able to snag older versions from former students or find used copies online.

4. Avoid comparison at all costs.

As a nursing student, you’ll find that everyone in your program has a unique set of qualities and skills. The tendency to compare yourself is only natural. Still, when pervasive enough, it can make your desire to compete with other students feel intense enough to be unhealthy—and your confidence takes a turn for the worse. The most important thing to understand is that there is a vast difference between using your peers’ success to see where you can improve and using something as fleeting as an exam grade or a positive remark from an instructor to send yourself into a spiraling funk.

If you want to tackle nursing school to the best of your abilities, you’ll need to dedicate your time and what you’re capable of now and how you can improve yourself as a student. Set goals for yourself and focus on achieving them. Learn at your own pace and focus on what you’re good at and where you’re struggling. After all, this is about your future.

5. Strive for balance.

Nursing school involves a host of responsibilities, especially for students on the fast track to earning your degree. You probably didn’t apply to a program to become a socialite, but that doesn’t mean you won’t crave time for anything other than taking a mannequin’s vitals or listing off the names of prescription drugs. By implementing a few time management techniques, your first year of school will be a whole lot simpler.

Start by making a routine of studying for a class the day that you have it, and planning study time for when you have the most energy during the day. You can also consider consolidating certain daily activities, like sifting through some flashcards or lecture notes during your commute or running through a presentation as you make dinner.

From here, practice saying, “no.” You’ve likely already developed the skills to manage your time and balance life with work, but the first year of nursing school can change that. You know that you’ll have less time to see friends and family, but you need to be prepared to say no whenever deadlines are around the corner.

But don’t turn down fun entirely. Do your best to save at least one day a month for time with whoever‘s most important. Maybe you’ll visit the aquarium with your kids, host a potluck with your significant other, or meet up with a friend for coffee. It can help boost your confidence, recharge your sense of energy, and get your mind off even the most demanding classes.

Lastly, remember that you’re not perfect. Nursing school might come with a sense of mobility, but it’s also a source of intense and demanding work. Aside from worrying about your classes and grades, you’ll need to balance a social life with the time you give to your program. You’ll forget to highlight an error on a patient’s chart. You’ll reference a condition using the wrong name. The truth is, you’ll learn so much in nursing school that it will be nearly impossible to always be right. What matters is that you see your mistakes as learning opportunities of their own.

By Joan Spitrey

1. Nursing Equipment

As with anything in life — be prepared! And this means, to begin with, having the right tools. As a nursing student, you are going to receive a list of necessary supplies and equipment — such as pens, notepads, a penlight, scissors — but top of the list will be a stethoscope.

There are lots of different models on the market, with varying features and price tags, but you get what you pay for — so be wise! A stethoscope will become one of the most important tools you use to care for patients throughout nursing school and your career.

Littmann stethoscopes are durable and popular among experienced nurses. MDF makes stethoscopes that are well-regarded by many nursing students for their affordability.

Remember — when you get your new stethoscope, put a nametag on it immediately.

2. Shoes

Another wise investment will be in your shoes. Follow your school’s uniform guidelines, but be smart. You are going to be on your feet for long periods of time, so your new shoes need to be comfortable and provide support for the entire day. Be sensible, not necessarily fashionable. Of course, if you can do both, bonus!

Dansko makes an extensive line of clogs that are popular with nurses. That said, people seem to either love or hate them — there’s no middle ground. For another option, check out Crocs, which have kept my feet, legs, and back happy through long nursing shifts.

3. Test-Prep Tools

In addition to your clinical tools, you’ll probably also want to invest in some study tools. Nursing students have to absorb large amounts of information, and various technology supports can make this easier. There are some fantastic services to help with NCLEX preparation, such as Quizlet, an app that allows you to build flashcards and create practice tests.

I also strongly recommend getting a test-prep book and NCLEX question book early in your program. Nursing exams are likely quite different from other tests you’ve encountered throughout your education.

4. Study Groups

Study groups can be very effective, but only if everyone participates equally — so be sure to choose the members of yours carefully. Students can create study materials together and share them via Google docs, Dropbox, or a private Facebook group.

And when you’re working with your group, take turns acting as the instructor — if you can teach the material, you’ll know you’ve got it down!

5. Organization

Organization will be key to surviving nursing school. If you weren’t very organized before, you’ll need to cultivate organizational skills quickly. As a student and professional nurse, you’ll be multitasking throughout each day — or night — and you’ll need to keep track of multiple patients, drug regimens, and schedules.

Keeping a planner can help you with scheduling for tests, assignments, and projects, and this will enable you to see what lies ahead in the coming weeks and months. Don’t forget to schedule your reading and study time, too! If you put those in your planner, you’re much more likely to finish them. Some students suggest color-coding classes and topics to help keep tasks straight.

6. Feedback

Taking care of people is serious business, and the goal of nursing school is to prepare you to do this safely and effectively. Nursing instructors will be tough; they take their responsibilities seriously — and you should too. This is never more the case than during the clinical portion of your education, during which you care for patients. The instructors are responsible for students’ actions, and there is no room for errors.

Be prepared to receive feedback — both positive and constructive — from these educators. You’ll be learning new subjects, new ways of thinking, and new skills, and you’re likely to have a significant learning curve. Remember that the instructors are responsible for training you to deliver safe, competent, and compassionate care. Be open to their advice.

7. You

It may sound cliché, but taking care of others requires you first to take care of yourself. It’s critical that you do this so that you can effectively look after the health of your patients. You may believe that pulling an all-nighter will help you pass the next test, but the lack of sleep and focus you’re likely to experience over the next couple of days will be significant.

Still, remember that planner you have? Don’t forget to put some down time on the calendar, whether a dinner with friends or a movie once in a while. These activities will help you stay balanced.

8. Sleep

Don’t mislead yourself into believing that nursing school is an educational path for which cramming will be successful. Most of the information you learn will build on concepts you have been taught previously, and a lack of sleep will only make you less focused and able to take in what the next day brings. In fact, by getting the sleep you need, you’re actually less likely to need to cram as you will be more alert and able to understand new concepts.

9. Diet and Exercise

A balanced diet and exercise are essential to good mental health and clarity. They also keep your immune system functioning to fight off illness. No one wants to be sick when there is so much to learn — not to mention the fact that you can’t be around sick patients if you are ill. So take care of yourself!

10. Support System

Having a good support system will definitely help you remain focused during your nursing school journey. Most family and friends understand the commitment you’re making — or they will soon learn to appreciate it. Surround yourself with people who keep you accountable but don’t make you feel bad if you have to miss a few leisure events. If they are truly looking out for you, they will support your dedication — and be waiting to celebrate with you when you graduate!

By Catherine Holland

School Aid

Whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student pursuing an education in nursing, your primary financial aid options will be comparable to those available to others at your educational level. The first place to start for financial aid is to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form, which is the form used to determine eligibility for federal grants and loans, as well as many state and institutional aid programs.

When you complete the FAFSA, you’ll have the option to consider work-study programs, which enable you to earn money by working for the university or a community agency related to your course of study. Colleges administer these programs, so you need to check that the schools you’re considering participate in the Federal Work Study program. If they do and you’re eligible for this type of aid, you’ll be given an award amount that will determine how many hours you can work each month. Undergraduates are paid on an hourly basis, while graduate students will be paid either hourly or by salary.

Federal Loans

Federal loans are available at different rates for both undergraduates and graduates.
These loans are either paid back directly to the government or to institutions authorized to administer these programs, such as your school. Below is some basic information about each type of loan.

Stafford Loans

These loans have a fixed interest rate of 4.66% or 6.21% for the 2014-2015 school year, depending on the type of loan you’re awarded. There are two different types of Stafford Loans:

  • Subsidized loans: Available only to undergraduates, Stafford subsidized loans are provided to students with significant financial need as determined by your FAFSA. The amount you can borrow depends on your year in college and the other awards you are offered. You do not need to repay these loans while you are enrolled in college full-time, and the interest does not begin to accrue until after your graduate.
  • Unsubsidized loans: These loans are available to both undergraduate and graduate students who apply for federal financial aid, and they carry a higher interest rate than subsidized loans. Unsubsidized Stafford loans are available to all students, regardless of financial need. The amount that you can borrow is determined by the school you’re attending based on its cost and the other sources of aid you’re receiving. The interest begins to accrue as soon as the loan disburses, so it’s valuable to repay these loans as soon as you’re able to, even if you can only pay back small amounts. Be sure to indicate that you want any repayments to go towards your unsubsidized loans if you receive both types.

Perkins Loans

These loans use federal money awarded by colleges to undergraduate and graduate students who have significant financial need. They carry an interest rate of 5% in 2014. Not all schools offer Perkins loans, so check with your school’s financial aid office to find out if they participate.

PLUS Loans

Graduate students and parents of dependent undergraduates can take out a PLUS loan to pay for any education expenses (room, board, tuition, and fees) that are not covered by the rest of the aid package. Students must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree or certificate program at schools that participate in the Direct Loan program. The 2014-2015 PLUS loan interest rate is set at 7.21%. This type of loan also requires the borrower to have a good credit score. PLUS loans have more complicated repayment requirements that vary according to multiple factors. Be sure to check this Federal Student Aid link for exact details.

Loan Forgiveness

The government offers loan forgiveness, or cancellation, for particular loan programs to nurses who practice in underserved communities after becoming licensed. You can read about the details of these programs at this Federal Student Aid link.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The RWJF has been a been a strong supporter of nursing students for many years. It is looking to launch new leadership programs for students at all levels in 2015. These initiatives will create a strong network of nurses who can exchange ideas, use interdisciplinary models to provide leadership development, and increase the number of leaders and students that they will support. You can learn more about their programs by visiting the RWJF website.

In addition, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation collaborates with the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University to offer an internship program called Project L/EARN. This internship, offered to college students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the healthcare industry, provides participants with mentorship and training for ten weeks. In addition to paying for students’ room, board, and tuition for the duration of the program, Project L/EARN offers students a $4,000 stipend and college-credits for their participation.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Grant

As of 2012, the U.S. HHS has given $30.2 million in grants to nursing programs. The money is distributed to:

  • 112 schools that support nurse faculty (master’s and doctoral students) in the pursuit of their degree through programs like loan forgiveness.
  • Financial assistance to more than 10,600 students who come from underrepresented backgrounds in the nursing field.
  • Nurse anesthetist training.

State Nursing Board Grants and Scholarships

Many state nursing boards, such as New York and Arkansas, offer financial aid through grants, awards, loans, and scholarships to students pursuing nursing degrees. Look for opportunities in the states where you are considering studying.

You can explore examples of these programs by visiting the websites for New York and Arkansas.

NURSE Corp Scholarship Program

The NURSE Corp Scholarship Program helps students finance their tuition in exchange for working at a Critical Shortage Facility for two years after graduating. Participating nurses will receive a competitive salary. Check out the NURSE Corp website for more information.

NGO and Corporate Scholarships

Non-profit organizations (NGOs), such as the American Cancer Society, also offer scholarships to students who are pursuing a career in nursing. In addition, particular associations and companies may offer nursing scholarships focused on professional areas of need. 


A Bold New Direction for Leadership Programs. (n.d.). RWJF. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Financial Aid for Graduate and Professional Degree Students. (2012, Fall). Retrieved July 29, 2014 from Federal Student Aid

HHS awards $58.7 million to bolster America’s health care workforce. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Health Services. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from Health Resources and Services Administration

NURSE Corps Scholarship Program. (n.d.). U.S. Department of Health Services. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from NURSE Corp

Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. (n.d.). Federal Student Aid. Retrieved July 31, 2014, from Federal Student Aid

(Updated on February 15, 2024)

An Overlooked Field in Nursing School: Research

It’s been well established by now that nurses work in many different fields. One field that we really don’t seem to talk about a lot or recognize the significance of is research. Let’s talk about what nurses do in this field.

Nurses who work in research do so as part of a multi-disciplinary team. There may be multiple nurses, as well as doctors and pharmacists on a team. These nurses almost always possess a bachelor’s degree. In fact, some studies require a master’s degree or higher.

Research can be conducted at a university lab, in a university hospital’s lab, or even an independent company. Most commonly, this is a pharmaceutical company’s lab. Of course, there is also government research opportunities, such as the with the FDA.

Medical research that uses nurses often focuses on curative projects, such as finding a cure for cancer or HIV. But of course, nurses participate in research aimed at efficacy of drugs, creating new drugs to treat illness, and studying long term side effects of drugs.

Nurses in this field operate under a doctor’s guidance, just like a floor nurse. But this is a more unique setting, where there is direct and constant interaction among the professions on a daily basis. There may or may not be “patients,” known in this field as volunteers or even test subjects. Not all areas of research need “patients,” as some phases of the research haven’t progressed to human trials. It is a more professional setting, if you will, with everyone having much higher education and usually specific education or experience in the field in which their research is based. Research is science at its most basic level, sometimes those participating aren’t even medical professional! Regular old scientists are often just as involved in this field.

Are you considering research as a field in nursing school?

Books Every Aspiring Nurse Should Read

(Listed by Mairead Kelly)

For aspiring nursing students, reading firsthand accounts and guides can provide invaluable insights into the realities and demands of the profession. The following is a list of books that offer diverse perspectives – from nurses’ personal narratives highlighting the compassion required to thrive in the field, to test prep resources for mastering the crucial NCLEX licensure exam, to explorations of the mindsets needed to build meaningful connections with patients and colleagues. These books aim to prepare and inspire those embarking on the challenging yet rewarding journey of nursing. For more details about these books, click here to learn more about these recommendations.

  • “I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out: True Stories of Becoming a Nurse” (Lee Gutkind): A collection of authentic narratives highlighting how nurses are the invisible backbone of the healthcare system, portraying their struggles against burnout and bureaucracy to serve patients with compassion and empathy.
  • “Tending Lives: Nurses on the Medical Front” (Echo Heron): A nurse’s firsthand accounts of real-life medical dramas, sharing inspiring, tragic, and humorously unfiltered stories from various nursing specialties like emergency, prison, and surgical settings.
  • “Test Success: Test-taking Techniques for Beginning Nursing Students” (Patricia M. Nugent and Barbara A. Vitale): A preparatory guide for nursing students to familiarize themselves with the challenging NCLEX licensure exam, providing study tips, practice questions, and strategies for critical thinking and time management.
  • “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” (Brené Brown): Based on research, this book emphasizes the power of vulnerability and encourages readers, including aspiring nurses, to courageously embrace vulnerability to build meaningful connections and overcome shame and disengagement.
  • “Cooked: An Inner City Nursing Memoir” (Carol Karels): A memoir recounting the author’s nurse training experience at Chicago’s chaotic Cook County Hospital in the 1970s, depicting stories of compassion amidst poverty and neglect in an underfunded public health environment.

Do Nurses Only Work in Hospitals?

While hospitals are a common workplace for nurses, the nursing profession offers a wide range of career paths and settings beyond hospital walls.

Key Points:

  • Nursing students are often told their first job should be in a hospital medical/surgical unit to gain experience.
  • However, not all new nurses can find hospital-based employment, leading to a shift in employer expectations.
  • Nurses can contribute to nearly any healthcare environment with proper mentorship and training.

Non-Hospital Nursing Settings:

  • Long-term care facilities
  • Psychiatric facilities
  • Ambulatory surgery centers
  • Insurance companies
  • Holistic health clinics
  • Prisons and jails
  • Home health and hospice agencies
  • Public health departments
  • Schools (public, private, boarding, colleges/universities)
  • Private duty nursing agencies
  • Nurse consulting firms

Diverse Nursing Roles:

  • Legal Nurse Consultant
  • Nurse Researcher
  • Nurse Manager/Executive
  • Nurse Educator
  • Nurse Case Manager
  • Nurse Consultant
  • Nurse Writer

Nursing Career Outlook:

  • Nurses enjoy high public trust (according to Gallup polls)
  • The 21st-century nursing profession offers depth and growth opportunities
  • Nurses can choose hospital-based careers or explore the broad and varied nursing world

In summary, while hospitals are a common workplace, nursing offers diverse career paths in various settings and roles beyond the traditional hospital environment.

Questions or feedback? Email

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