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Surviving Nursing School: Possibly the Most Difficult Endeavor of Your Life!


Specializes in .. Has 10+ years experience.

Nursing school is hard--very hard! But, with good strategies, determination, a some help from others, you can do it. Whether you're beginning your journey or near the end, some tricks and strategies can help you turn fear of failure into proud achievement.

Surviving Nursing School: Possibly the Most Difficult Endeavor of Your Life!

Whether you're now applying to nursing schools or are in your last semester of nursing school, you've probably had doubts about your ability to succeed. These doubts may be nagging, little twinges that bother you before a major exam, or maybe you're so crippled with the fear of failure that you can't bring yourself to apply to schools--or even take the entrance exams. Typically, people are somewhere between the two points on the spectrum. For those of us who graduated from nursing school, passed the NCLEX, then found our dream job as a nurse, these worries about failing nursing school are finally behind us--we now worry about job related failures! It's normal to have some worry and anxiety--that's what keeps us on our toes and thinking clearly. Studies have found that those nervous feelings before a test actually make you score higher than if you were relaxed before and during an exam--so be thankful for a little anxiety!

Different strategies work for different people, but some common sense approaches will help you make it to graduation day. Most of us benefit from a combination of good study habits, internal pep-talks, and outside help. Most of us also benefit from the experience of those who have preceded us and those who are currently slogging it out with us.

The Mental Game

The first thing you should do is try to quiet that pesky little voice in your head that expresses doubt. "Everyone else in this program is so smart..." "I'll never learn all this stuff." "Science was never my strong suit." "Why don't I just quit now?" These internal messages come from somewhere... you!--and probably your childhood experiences. Maybe you had older siblings who you idolized or thought of as smarter. They probably knew more at the time... they were older, so by comparison you felt less competent. Those feelings of incompetence can follow you forever. Maybe you had an adult in your life who predicted your failure in some blatant or subtle way. People believe what was told to them as children, so if you were labeled, 'lazy', a 'slacker' or even 'dumb', you might still have those subconscious or even conscious thoughts about yourself, today. Maybe you weren't the best student in elementary school or high school. Some really smart students 'zone out' because they're bored, and then fail because they were daydreaming! Other young students simply lack the maturity to study or 'apply themselves' to tasks. Other kids don't have the stability at home or the support of adults who encourage them to succeed. These are surprisingly common problems--problems that can be overcome with a bit of effort now that you're an adult. Tell yourself that you can be a success. When those haunting voices express doubt, try to figure out the root of those doubts so you can stop them or override them. Look at all the evidence in your adult life that you are a success and that you are a capable person. Focus on your accomplishments and see what a strong, capable person you are.

Create something tangible so you can remember your goal and put it in a place that will remind you every day. People can become so overburdened by the details and overwhelmed with the work and stress they completely lose sight of the ultimate goal. Create a collage of nursing images. Post a count-down calendar with your graduation date on the wall in front of your desk. Buy a diploma frame that you'll use for that coveted piece of paper and hang the empty frame on your wall. These reminders will do a lot to keep you focused and goal-oriented.

In order to be mentally sharp and able to retain information, you need to keep you mind and body tuned. Exercise is not only reduces stress, it also enables a person to be more alert and attentive. You don't have to do a lot, just a daily walk around the block is better than nothing. Some students creatively combine exercise with studying by quizzing each other during walks or incorporating question and answer sessions with back and forth sports like tennis. You should never feel that you're wasting time by spending 10 minutes to an hour (or more) exercising--especially if you combine activities with social or study time.

Other common sense ways to keep yourself mentally sharp are to avoid excessive caffeine, limit your alcohol intake, sleep long enough and on a regular schedule, and budget leisure and relaxation into your days. Pace your assignments so you're not overwhelmed with last minute, panic-filled marathon study or writing sessions. It's commonly accepted that students retain more if they study consistently rather than cramming--this will not only get you through your next test, but it will help you pass the NCLEX, later.

Good Students Have Good Study Habits

Few successful people are disorganized. If you form the habit of hanging your car keys on a hook, you'll never waste precious minutes frantically searching for them. The same is true with that daunting mountain of stuff you have to sift through to find your assignments, schedule, or stethoscope. Organize yourself! Use silly tricks to keep your desk clear and your assignments and belongings at your fingertips. Use a different color notebook, book cover, and accessories for different classes. Red can be for microbiology, green for A&P, etc. You'll know at a glance which folder to grab and which book you'll need. You might go so far as to buy different colored nylon envelope bags with the drawstring closures to put each set of books/ study materials in. Before class or when it's time to study you have your blue pharmacology books inside your blue bag. It saves time and lowers your anxiety level.

Clear and organize your desk after each study session so it's inviting for the next time you'll be sitting there. Empty coffee cups, half eaten bags of chips, plus the assorted scraps of paper keep you from studying efficiently--not to mention the strew makes you feel like you should be cleaning instead of studying. If you keep it fairly neat and tidy each study session will feel more pleasant and be more productive.

Write everything down! Whether you do this electronically on your phone or have a daily planner book that you write in (or both!) it's important to keep track of assignments. Don't just scribble an assignment or test date in the margin of your textbook or on a scrap of paper. Flip to the actual test date in your calendar and write the details of the test so you won't be surprised the day before. Do the same with all your assignments.

Budget your time. If you have a 10 page paper due in two weeks, figure out what you need to do to finish it in that amount of time (and ideally, your personal deadline should be comfortably before the official deadline). First, research your subject, then write an outline, then fill in the outline, finally proofread, edit and have someone else read and give feedback. If you break the assignment into steps and pace yourself with these steps a 10 page paper becomes fairly easy. Accomplishing anything in small steps makes the task more doable.

People with good organizational skills can overcome other serious limitations. If you do nothing else to help yourself succeed, DO concentrate on organizing. Ultimately, you'll save time--lots of time!--by spending a few extra minutes organizing your belongings and your schedule. Once organization becomes a habit the process itself will take less time. These good habits will benefit you in the rest of your life, as a nurse, as a parent, as a homeowner, etc.

Reduce Your Distractions

The internet, TV, friends, family, and even the spider on the wall can be distractions. While it's important to spend time with friends, family and have some down time surfing the 'net for a little entertainment, you have to budget your time and think of your long-term priorities. It may be a sacrifice for you and for your kids to have less time together right now, but in order for you to become a nurse, to be a good academic and professional role model for your kids, and to get that coveted diploma, you will have to spend time in class, at your computer, reading textbooks, and studying with classmates. Decide how much time you'll spend doing other things, then stick with it. Set an alarm to get you back to reality when you do take a break.

A great way for parents of school-aged kids to be a positive role model and to spend time with their kids is to have study sessions together at the kitchen table. Some argue that this doesn't provide social interaction, but the same is true when families watch TV together or when kids are playing computer games while mom or dad does another activity--the difference is, studying with your kids is excellent modeling for them and allows them to see how important your goal of becoming a nurse really is to you, and to them.

Get help from others!

The other students in your program are going through the same efforts so they know what the goals are and what the burdens are of nursing school. They also might have clever mnemonics, insights in particular subjects, or abilities to explain concepts--and you have something to offer them, too. Get together and share those abilities together. If you're struggling with a concept, it's fairly certain others are struggling, too. Often people can figure out a puzzle together much more efficiently than they could alone. Also, there is no better way to learn something than by explaining it to others.

You will spend many, many hours studying, attending classes, preparing for and attending clinical rotations. If you haven't yet started school, talk to your family about what your school burden will be, what the eventual payoff will be for the family, and negotiate help with chores that you've been responsible for in the past. Agree to revisit the agreement to see if it's working or needs to be tweaked. While you're in school, dinners may be simpler, clothes may be wrinkled, and furniture might have a layer of dust; you might have to lower your standards until you graduate. Try the 15 minutes per room strategy: set a timer for 15 minutes then clean one room for that amount of time without interruption. It's surprising how much you can accomplish in 15 minutes--and it forces you to prioritize tasks--OK, the baseboards won't get polished but the room will look presentable.

If you really feel you're falling behind academically, find a tutor. You might find a student in the class ahead who really understood microbiology or chemistry. Devote an hour a week with that person and they'll help you focus on what is important; often students can't 'separate the wheat from the chaff' so they learn the wrong details. A knowledgeable tutor can be very valuable to your academic success.

Don't hesitate to ask your instructor or advisor for help. They want students to succeed and will do what they reasonably can to make sure you have the support you need.

When I began nursing school there were approximately 100 students in our class; 40 students graduated. This may sound discouraging until you look at what happened to the other 60. Of those initial 100 students, about 20 dropped out in the first semester because they realized nursing school just wasn't for them. Another dozen filtered out because other opportunities or priorities in their lives--jobs, marriage, pregnancy, or other academic programs. A number of students had unforeseen, unavoidable personal hardships that forced them to abandon (or postpone) nursing school. A handful had 'attitude issues' (no one was sorry to see them go!--and a word of advice: don't rock the boat, don't question authority, and don't ever roll your eyes at an instructor!) Some students tried to work full-time or even part-time and couldn't devote enough hours to the program. Of those who were left, virtually all struggled at some point in the program (some struggled the entire time). All those who graduated participated in study groups, all those who graduated improved their organizational skills, and all of the graduates made nursing school their top priority from the first day of orientation until they received their diploma.

This is a time consuming, energy sapping program that requires most of your waking hours. If you're not able to make that commitment, this may not be the time for you to go to nursing school.

Finally, remember that entry into nursing school is a very, very competitive program. There are many more applicants than there are spaces in programs. Reputable schools turn away capable, promising students who could be a success because they have to limit the numbers of students in the program. Those accepted have the highest probability of success. If you're attending a respected, reputable nursing school, the admissions committee and your school truly believe you can graduate and pass the NCLEX. Yes, it's a very difficult journey, but if you were admitted, academic experts know you can do it. It's like the adage of running a marathon--keep putting one foot in front of the other until you cross the finish line!

15+ years experience and works as a RN

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29 Comment(s)

Thanks! This was truly motivational and it reassured me that I can get through NS.


Specializes in NICU.

Loved this! Thank you!!!

Starting in two weeks! This is a great overview of tips I've been told from different people.

Thanks, Starting in 2 weeks too and this helps!

Thanks for this. I'll be starting the BSN program on the 22nd and I'm really excited. I know there will be a lot of sacrifices but thinking about the end result makes it all worth it.

Great article. As someone who is a long-distance runner, nursing school is, without a doubt, VERY comparable to a marathon. Thank goodness for those long, long runs I was able to reflect upon when things got tough.

What an incredible pep talk, not to mention some very good ideas to help us get through! If I could condense all of the thoughts and ideas into one and create a motivational poster just for nursing, I would! Thanks Patti......BOOKMARKED!


Specializes in Pediatrics and Med Surf Float. Has 5 years experience.

well written and very nice. i agree with everything but this:

"all those who graduated participated in study groups, all those who graduated improved their organizational skills, and all of the graduates made nursing school their top priority from the first day of orientation until they received their diploma. "

i never participated in a study group. i studied alone except if people asked me to explain something before a test or because i was there. and even without study groups, i graduated with honors. each person should study the way that works best for them.

just my 2cents.

rubato, ASN, RN

Specializes in Oncology/hematology.

Thank you so much. I'm 2 weeks from starting and just starting getting really nervous today. Your article motivated me to get a good study area and get organized. I have plenty of room to share with my middle school aged son, so that'll be a nice habit to get into.

I'm also not a fan of study groups, but will give it a try now that I'm with 63 other like minded students.

Thank you! That idea of color-coding different bags with all your books is great!

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I've bookmarked it. I start 9-18 & I'll take ANY advice I can get :)

I graduated from Nursing School this past May and passed NCLEX the first time in June. I am a mother of 3 boys. One of which I was pregnant with the first year of nursing school and delivered the second year first semester. I was extremely stressed, exhausted, but determined. I did not work during nursing school, but was a full-time student and mother. The guilt of leaving my newborn to go to school all day was the worst, I just kept telling myself I am doing this for them and our family.

I am a perfectionist. I strove to get good grades. I graduated at the top of my class and am proud to say so. Now it's August and finding a job has been more than difficult. I'm starting to question what was all my hard work for? Employers don't care about straight A's now. It's depressing. As far as surviving, having a good support system is key. Stay out of the drama! Women can be so cut throat. I kept a few close study buddies by me, but otherwise I focused on the work and not the childish drama that people seemed so consumed with.

Remember why you wanted to become a nurse in the first place and leave all that drama aside. This is not for the typical partying college student. You barely have time to do anything, but eat, sleep and breathe nursing.

It will be difficult. It will be challenging. It will test you to the core of your being. In the end it will be the most rewarding, fulfilling decision of your life. You will always have a job, and opportunites to expand your horizions.

If a mother of 3 (pregnant and delivered) during school can graduate top of her class. Anyone with the will, strength and determination will succeed in Nursing School.

Good Luck to everyone!


Specializes in .. Has 10+ years experience.

My comment about study groups was my observation about those students who survived my nursing school program. With so many classes online it's sometimes impossible to meet up with others to study. Others simply prefer studying solo. Like all the other tips and suggestions in the article, my advice is just that: a list of suggestions. Most of these are tried and true, proven ways to survive a rigorous academic program. I'm sure there are plenty of RNs out there who studied at messy desks, who wrote all their papers the day before they were due, and who watched TV more than they studied. Some people have photographic memories and don't really need to study; others are super-bright and don't need to study much. Most of us, though need to spend our time effectively. What works for one may not work for another--or may not be needed by another.

The 'smartest' students in my nursing class did not turn out to be the 'best' nurses. In fact, the guy who struggled most during nursing school, who failed the NCLEX on his first try (and barely passed on his second) was (and is) the most confident, skilled nurse from our class. If I were in the hospital, I'd want this guy taking care of me.

As you struggle with this mountain of information and feel like a drowning victim who is fighting to keep your head above water, remember: you have to pass, you have to be competent and safe in clinicals, but you do not have to be an 4.0 student. The emphasis is on learning and practicing; this is not a competition between you and other students for the highest grades.

Good luck to all. You CAN do it!

(Cat-RN, I posted this moments after you posted your reply; after seeing your comments it may appear that this was directed at you--which it was not! You are absolutely right that the drama, back-stabbing and pettiness can seriously undermine students' best efforts. I also graduated at the top of my class, and felt a great sense of accomplishment for doing so. My point is that others can be great nurses, as well--you just have to get through the program!)

Edited by Patti_RN
additional comment

No I totally didn't take it personally. I just find in general people who are extremley successful in nursing school are also judged. I think in order to be a competent nurse you have to have the whole package. Smarts, confidence, critical-thinking, and most importantly compassion for your patients. It definetly isn't and wasn't all about grades. I just had something to prove to myself. I took nursing school very seriously and felt at the time this was my so called job. I considered it my job for those two years and put 110% into my full time job as a nursing student. I am again somewhat of a perfectionist and can be very hard on myself. I stuggle with the confidence thing from time to time and that is something I need to work on. As a student nurse or new grad nurse your not expected to know nor are you going to know everything. But I found if your confident in what you are doing even if it's your first time doing it (foley catheter) it goes along way. Your patients will be at ease and you'll patients and/or families will take notice in your abilites.

One more word of advice backing up Patti's post: BE CONFIDENT!! (I'd be so nervous sometimes on the inside just do your best not to show it to your patients):nurse:


Specializes in Dialysis.

I already planned on keeping to myself. I can identify with Cat-RN. I always feel like getting good grades defines myself as a competent individual. Because I have low self-esteem about my appearances, I feel that I need to offer myself something just as good to the table. I hate feeling inferior, and not being good enough. Doing well in school has always been the determinant for my confidence. I overkilled the 2 pre-reqs that I had to take during this summer with A's (as I worked full-time), just so I can reassure myself that I will be fine in nursing school. I want to make NS my priority, and I already forwarned my peers and family that I will be MIA most of the time, and cranky other times. I want to eat, breathe, and deficate nursing!