How Hard Is Nursing School? Students Tell All
Nursing is an amazing, rewarding field. The work of nurses often takes on a personal touch, with patients who remember their nurses fondly years after their care.
But nursing isn’t a pie-in-the-sky, fantasy, feel-good job. Nurses are hardworking, dedicated professionals who are passionate about their patients. That’s no accident—the training and education needed to become a nurse reflect the level of professionalism and skill you see.
So should a would-be nurse be intimidated by the prospect of nursing school? Maybe you’ve heard horror stories about nursing school fraught with tough tests, all-nighters and long clinical shifts. If so, you might be wondering, “How hard is nursing school, really?”
To help answer this, we asked several Rasmussen University nursing students about their experiences. As you read about what to expect in nursing school, consider whether you’d be able to handle these challenges. Chances are you already have many of the necessary strengths.
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How hard is nursing school, really? 7 things to expect
There’s no better way to prepare for something than to gather advice from those who have experience. So to answer your question of "How hard is nursing school?", we went straight to the source. Consider this firsthand insight directly from nursing students themselves.
1. You’ll study a lot
This one should not be a surprise, but it is important. Nursing school requires a lot of memorization and work.
“I’m always prioritizing my study time,” says Megan L., a Rasmussen University BSN student enrolled in the accelerated second-degree entrance option.
Megan L. says she squeezes her study time in around her classes and her work-study schedule while focusing on minimizing distractions. In fact, she says she’s even deleted all of her streaming accounts to prioritize quality study time. While you might not need to go that far, a relatively intense focus is necessary in any nursing program.
“It’s a lot of information that you have to retain in a short amount of time,” Megan L. says.
"Nursing school is not always black and white, just like real life."
Samantha S., another Accelerated BSN student at Rasmussen University, says she schedules out her entire upcoming week on Sundays. Doing this helps her structure her study and homework time around clinicals, lectures, labs and other commitments. By planning ahead and getting a clear look at when she’ll have time to do the work, she says she is better able to stay on track and make sure she’s as prepared as possible for her classes, exams and clinicals.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for how to manage your study time, but there are several solid options. Will H., BSN student and mentor at Rasmussen University, recommends students use a Microsoft Outlook™ calendar in combination with task lists to create an ‘action plan’ for each week.
2. You’ll gain a new perspective
Along with new challenges comes new knowledge. Being in nursing school will put a whole new spin on the way you think about going to the doctor, watch medical shows or what you consider when you look at a prescription label.
In your nursing classes, all the information you learn—whether it’s biology, chemistry or physics—will have a nursing bent to it. You’ll always be asking, “How does this relate to my nursing career?”
Though both Megan L. and Samantha S. have educational backgrounds in science, they’ve noticed how their nursing classes prepare them specifically for nursing work, unlike their previous degrees. Having confidence in your ability to understand anatomy and physiology is crucial for a career in nursing, Samantha S. says, “Everything builds off of that.” Knowing how important this information is for patient health and safety helps her stay motivated.
Megan L. says Pharmacology was a particularly challenging class. But knowing how vital prescription information is for patient safety helped her stay motivated.
“If you mess up giving a medication, you could potentially kill a patient,” she says. Even if a doctor orders a medication and a pharmacist approves and fills it, the nurse is often the last line of defense before the patient and is responsible for ensuring the patient is getting the correct medicine, dose and method of delivery.
3. You’ll strengthen your critical thinking skills
It takes brains to pass the TEAS test and become a nursing student. But the academic challenge doesn’t stop there.
“On our tests, there are multiple correct answers, but only one is the ‘most correct,’” Megan L. says. “You always have to know the best answer.”
Tricky questions like this might seem frustrating, but is there a good reason for nurses to know the “most correct” answer? Their patients’ very lives are at stake! Megan L. describes a question on her last exam that presented the symptoms of four very sick patients. It asked which patient the nurse should treat first? In reality, there’s likely other nurses in the hospital to help, but in this scenario she had to ask herself a tough question, “Which one is going to die the fastest if I don’t do anything?” Though this a grim question, it’s also a lifesaving one nurses may face in emergency triage situations.
In that example, it is very possible that more than one of those answers could be right. All of those patients need care, but students should fight the temptation to select the first seemingly correct answer they read, says Natalia D., Rasmussen University BSN student and tutor. She reminds students to make sure they’ve gathered all the necessary information and established priorities before selecting an answer.
“Nursing school is not always black and white, just like real life,” says Samantha S.
Though it’s difficult Will H. says carefully reading the question, placing yourself in the scenario and trusting your instinct is both the hardest and most necessary thing. You’ll become more and more confident as you sharpen your critical thinking skills.
4. You’ll be supported
Nursing school isn’t easy. You’re practically learning a new language—medical terminology—while caring for patients and their family members who are sick, exhausted or both. While you’re taking care of others, don’t forget to care for yourself. Whether that means asking for help around the house with chores or children, extended deadlines or a quiet place to study, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your family, partner or professors. “Your mental health is just as important as that of your patients,” stresses Samantha S.
"All of the time, energy and literal blood, sweat and tears are going to make you a better nurse."
In nursing school, you’ll work hard alongside classmates who understand exactly what the experience is really like and are working toward the same goal you are—becoming a nurse. Samantha S says that since students all come from different backgrounds and have come to nursing at different life stages. This means everyonebrings a unique perspective to the challenges you’ll encounter together.. You can rely on peers to inspire and support you.
Will H. says he counts on his immediate family. They’ve supported him in his career change and he knows he can depend on them, as well as his peers and professors, for encouragement. If you can rely on your family, communicate with them as much you can regarding upcoming changes in your schedule and challenges that nursing school will bring. Be open about the emotional and logistical support you may need from them.
5. You’ll be challenged
There’s no doubt about this: Nursing school will be challenging. You’ll be asked to step out of your comfort zone and balance a new workload and way of life. Even for those with extensive educational backgrounds, nursing school might be different. Though Natalia D. has experience learning at a collegiate level, she’s found that her time in nursing school requires more initiative and a willingness to learn independently than she’s faced in the past.
It’s a sure bet that you’ll have a lot going on outside of nursing school as well. Whether it’s family commitments, work or unexpected life events, something is bound to come up. Though managing all this can be a roller-coaster ride, Natalia D. says there are positives that come with the ups and downs.
“You’ll learn that you can make it through anything and that makes you stronger,” she says.
During those challenging times, Will H. says he keeps his end goal in mind. More than anything, he wants to build a meaningful career, serving others through nursing. “Working towards a degree for the direct benefit of others is rewarding in ways that no other program could provide,” he says.
6. You’ll find a new balance
Though you’ll likely be busy in nursing school, you can find ways to avoid burnout and enjoy daily pleasures. Half the balance battle is won through creating the best schedule for you and adapting to a new rhythm.
"It's important to study and complete your assignments, but it's also important to laugh, relax and enjoy your life."
You’ll learn when discussion posts are due, how to estimate how much time you’ll need and how to start studying for exams a week or more ahead of time—and actually stick to those plans. Natalia D. tries to study a little bit each day, while Samantha S. finds her balance by taking one day off from nursing every week. While that’s not always possible, the habit helps her remember that nursing school is not her life, but just a big part of it.
You’ll be able to avoid burnout by implementing self-care practices. For instance, Megan L. says she enjoys going on walks and cooking healthy meals.. Natalia D. says the trick for getting through tough times is to remind yourself why you wanted to go to nursing school in the first place.
“Although it’s important to study and complete your assignments, it’s also important to laugh, relax and enjoy your life,” she says.
7. It’s worth it
“At the end of the day, you’re working towards a career that’s bigger than you are,” says Samantha S.. Natalia D. says she knows that a career in nursing can provide security for her family and uses that as motivation. Will H. says he loves nursing’s practicality and the satisfaction he feels caring for others. No matter what your motivation is, keep it at the forefront of your mind—whether that means creating a mantra for yourself or carrying a picture of a loved one with you.
“All the time, energy and literal blood, sweat and tears are going to make you a better nurse,” Samantha S. says.
Conquer nursing school with confidence
It’s only natural to be a little unsure of yourself before taking on a new challenge. Is nursing school hard? Sure, it will definitely be a challenge. But succeeding in nursing school is possible if you put in the work, get organized and are willing to sacrifice some of your free time in the short term. Before you know it, you could be on your way to a rewarding career.
If you’re considering nursing school, you may be wondering about the TEAS exam, an admissions requirement for many nursing schools. Check out our article “Don’t Fear the TEAS Test: 5 Common Questions Answered.”
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2014. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2019.