Four Keys to Survive Nursing School


Congratulations on deciding to become a nurse! Here are my four tips to survive nursing school. My first major in college was dance, and I spent a few years after college doing what everyone does in the DC area: government contracting (and teaching dance on the side, which was so fun!). I wasn’t a mom when I went back to school for nursing, but there were plenty of moms who graduated with me! Nursing school may not be for the faint of heart, but then again, neither is motherhood, am I right? So in honor of Nurses Week, here are my four keys to survive nursing school:

survive nursing school1. Know Thyself In The Classroom…

Nursing school is basically learning a whole new language and culture and way of life, crammed into a year. It’s a lot, and you need do figure out how to handle the onslaught of information.

How do you learn? Do you have to take notes while you read, or are you more of a highlighter and review it later kind of girl? Do flashcards or study groups or games help or hurt? Know what works, and then prioritize it!

Personally, I did best taking handwritten notes in class, reading and highlighting the material in a physical book, reviewing the information on my own, and then doing a final study session with friends. I love flashcards, but didn’t have the time to make my own, so I used Quizlet to find cards students before me had made (thank you!). I did better retaining information early in the morning than late at night, so studied first and worked on assignments later.

I also recommend taking as many practice exams as often as you can, because those are what will best help you prep for your NCLEX.

2. … And Outside Of It

On the first day of nursing school (my program called it “boot camp”), the head professor told us to say goodbye to our lives.

“I don’t care if your best friend from preschool is getting married,” she said, “you tell them no, you’re in nursing school now.”

That was bad news for me, since during my program, not only did many of my closest friends get married, but so did I! Everyone said I was crazy—most people get divorced during nursing school! But we did it anyway, while we were both in school and working. I am grateful to say that we managed to graduate with a strong marriage.

What fills your cup? What recharges you? You won’t have time to do most things, but it’s so important to build margins around your schedule so you don’t completely burn out.

I had a really strict curfew during nursing school—at 10pm, I stopped what I was doing and went to bed. Friday night dates were a priority with my husband (usually homemade pizza) and monthly brunches with my friends (who kindly listened to every gross thing I was learning). I also intentionally planned workouts. While I didn’t have time to work out every day, on my class days I hit the gym before my first lecture. Or when I got home from clinicals I tried to run to clear my head and remind myself why I was doing this.

3. Know Your Why

Like any hard thing, you have to know your why to help survive nursing school. Write it down, hang it over your bed, remind yourself as often as you can until it sinks deeply into your soul. When you get a bad grade or you struggle in a clinical, you need to be able to come back to that why to power yourself through.

“Save the babies” was my mantra. I wanted to go be a nurse in a refugee camp or an orphanage. In my early twenties, I visited several third world countries, and quickly realized how unhelpful it was to have a group of Americans show up with nothing to offer but piggy back rides and good intentions. I taped up pictures of these kids in my bedroom, around my desk, and when I was tired and the material was confusing and all I wanted to do was quit, I reminded myself why I was working so hard, why it mattered.

4. Find Your People

Similar to Knowing Your Why, find the cheerleaders who will help remind you that you can do this. Find at least one professor (or lab or clinical instructor) you respect, and get to know him or her, so when you’re struggling in a class, you have someone to talk it through. Obviously you can go to any professor’s office hours, but some were better at explaining concepts like blood gases better than others. You’ll need references for internships and first jobs, and you want them to really know you.

My first clinical instructor taught for one semester—she was a travel ER nurse working in DC. She listened to me vent and question and struggle, both the semester she was my instructor and then while I finished my program. I liked to joke I was going to quit to join the circus. When I graduated, she messaged me saying how proud she was of me, how excited she was for me to start saving the babies in the NICU, and how sorry she was for the circus that I’d never join them.

“You’d do well anywhere,” she said, “but I know you’ll be an amazing nurse.”

It meant the most coming from her, because she had seen me on my hard days, my overwhelmed days, my why-did-I-think-this-was-a-good-idea days. She had also seen on me on good days: the day I helped with a life threatening emergency, the day I calmed an angry family member down, the day I kept my cool as I bathed a combative old man. She had seen me through so much of it. She knew me and my abilities—both on and off the unit. Her words powered me through the next hardest part of nursing: passing the NCLEX and orienting to your first job.

survive nursing school

Find your people. Know your why. Know yourself, and what you need, both in and out of the classroom.

You can do this, and we’re all excited to cheer you on as you enter into this crazy career!

Happy Nurses Week!