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Nursing School Tips from a Professor of Nursing

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

Aspiring nurses embark on a challenging journey where they are greeted with a literal truck load of brand new information from day 1. The world of nursing education immerses them in a vast sea of intricate concepts, complex procedures, and a wealth of knowledge that is necessary to become a competent and safe nurse. The road to becoming a nurse requires dedication, perseverance, and effective strategies to navigate the demanding coursework and clinical experiences.

It is not enough to merely survive nursing school. Imagine if the nurse responsible for your family's care passed their courses with just the minimum passing grade of 75%. Is that the level of competence and dedication you would want in a healthcare professional? Wouldn't you prefer a nurse who excelled with a final grade of 98%? The difference between surviving and thriving in nursing school is not only reflected in your grades but also in the depth of knowledge, skill, and confidence you possess as a future nurse. Even now, lives are in the hands of the survivors and the ones that thrived- and the difference in patient outcomes and safety are significant.

As a nursing professor, I have had the opportunity to meet with both the students who are merely surviving and those who are truly thriving in their educational journey. In conversations with the thriving students, I sought to uncover their secrets to success, to understand what sets them apart. The valuable insights and strategies shared by these exceptional individuals are what I am excited to pass on to you now. By implementing their approaches and adopting their mindset, you can transform your own experience from one of mere survival to one of thriving excellence. By the way, some of these amazing students are full-time working single parents.

1. Make To Do Lists
  • Start your to-do list by identifying the larger, more time-consuming tasks. These are the assignments, projects, or studying that require dedicated focus and longer periods of time. Complete these items first! If you complete the little/easier things first, you will always have the big thing at the back of your mind, weighing heavy. By completing the big things first, you avoid the stress of constantly thinking about them, it feels amazing and motivating when you complete them, and you're only left with the easy things to do- which does not feel so overwhelming.

  • To prevent overwhelm and maintain focus, limit your to-do list to a maximum of six tasks per day. Having a concise and manageable list allows you to allocate your time and energy effectively. Remember, quality over quantity is key to productivity.

  • If you don't finish your to do list, move the unfinished items to the next day and prioritize them. This way, you maintain a sense of continuity and ensure that important tasks don't fall through the cracks.

  • Include due dates of assignments and dates for exams. This visual reminder helps you plan and allocate your time effectively, ensuring that you have ample time for preparation and submission.

  • As you complete tasks on your to-do list, take the time to physically cross them out. Seeing the crossed-out tasks serves as a visual reminder of your progress, instilling a sense of pride and momentum. It feels amazing and will motivate you to finish the entire list.

  • Consider using a physical or weekly planner to centralize and organize your to-do lists. This allows you to track your progress, make notes, and refer back to previous days or weeks. By incorporating your to-do lists into a planner, you create a comprehensive system that keeps you accountable and promotes efficient time management. Download this FREE weekly planner:

Weekly Plan
Download PDF • 43KB

2. Set Weekly Goals
  • We know the end-goal: Pass the NCLEX and become a Registered Nurse! Now set weekly goals to get there. By breaking down the larger goal into manageable milestones, you can ensure steady progress and maintain your motivation throughout the journey.

  • Make your goals SMART- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-based. For example, if you are someone who is always running late, create a goal to be early and put systems in place to help you achieve it:

    • I will set my alarm so that I have 1 hour to get ready and arrive 15 minutes early.

    • I will place the alarm clock in the bathroom to ensure I physically get up.

    • I will lay out my clinical uniform the night before.

  • Remember to track your progress, celebrate small victories, and adjust your goals as needed to ensure continuous growth and improvement.

  • Incorporating these strategies into your routine will not only help you stay organized and disciplined but also cultivate the skills and habits necessary for a successful nursing career. So, set your weekly goals, commit to them, and watch yourself progress steadily toward your ultimate goal of becoming a Registered Nurse.

3. Create a Weekly Schedule
  • By utilizing a weekly schedule template, you can effectively plan and allocate time for various activities, ensuring that you stay on top of your commitments and make progress towards your academic goals.

  • Start by identifying the non-movable obligations in your life, such as class time, clinical placements, work shifts, and gym sessions. These are the fixed time blocks that you need to work around. Once you have them in place, you can then fill in the remaining time slots with study sessions and quiz preparation.

  • It is crucial to prioritize regular and consistent study time throughout the week. Aim for a few hours of focused studying every single day, as this approach is proven to be more effective than last-minute cramming. Successful students typically allocate 4-6 hours per day for studying, but find a study routine that works best for you and your learning style.

  • As you create your schedule, remember to also include time for self-care and leisure activities. Carve out free time for relaxation, hobbies, exercise, and socializing. It is important to maintain a healthy work-life balance to prevent burnout and keep yourself motivated and refreshed.

  • Once you have established your weekly schedule, stick with it and make it a habit. Consistency is key, and over time, following your schedule will become second-nature. Be flexible when necessary, but also hold yourself accountable to the commitments you have made.

  • Remember, the best way to get things done is to plan time for them. By utilizing a weekly schedule, you will have a clear roadmap for each week, allowing you to effectively manage your time, reduce stress, and ensure that you stay on track to achieve your academic and personal goals.

  • Below is a FREE weekly schedule template. Start filling it in with your obligations and study time, and embrace the power of planning to maximize your productivity and success as a nursing student.

Weekly Schedule
Download PDF • 78KB

4. Develop Habits for Nursing School Success
  • Cultivating positive habits can greatly contribute to your overall success and well-being. By incorporating certain practices into their daily routine, successful students found they could enhance learning, manage stress, and maintain a healthy work-life balance. Here are some highly recommended habits that can make a significant difference:

    1. Practice Daily NCLEX-style Questions: Commit to completing at least 20 practice questions every day. This habit not only helps you assess your knowledge but also prepares you for the format and content of the NCLEX exam. Regular practice builds confidence and reinforces key concepts.

    2. Cultivate Gratitude: Nursing school can be stressful and overwhelming, but practicing gratitude can shift your mindset towards positivity. Take a few minutes each morning or evening to write down 1-3 things you are grateful for. Focusing on the good in your life can help reduce stress, increase resilience, and improve overall well-being.

    3. Prioritize Physical Fitness: Regular exercise is essential for maintaining physical and mental health. Aim for 20-40 minutes of exercise at least four times a week. It could be a workout at the gym, a brisk walk, or engaging in a sport you enjoy. Physical activity boosts energy levels, enhances focus, and reduces stress.

    4. Make Time for Fun: Nursing school shouldn't consume your entire life. Schedule activities that bring you joy and help you relax. Dedicate at least four times a week to doing something fun, whether it's pursuing a hobby, spending time with loved ones, or engaging in activities that recharge your spirit.

    5. Embrace Mindfulness: Incorporate brief moments of mindfulness into your daily routine. Take just two minutes each day to practice meditation or deep breathing exercises. These brief pauses can help reduce stress, improve concentration, and enhance overall well-being.

    6. Prioritize Sleep: Getting enough sleep is crucial for cognitive function and overall health. Strive for a consistent sleep schedule and aim for a minimum of eight hours of quality sleep each night. Creating a nighttime routine and ensuring a comfortable sleep environment can greatly support this habit.

  • To track and reinforce these habits, utilize the yearly and weekly habit trackers available in this weekly plan. Monitoring your progress visually can motivate you to stay consistent and make adjustments when needed.

5. Take Notes in Class
  • There are many students who come to class and don't even take out a pen. Attending lectures and passively listening might not be enough to fully absorb the wealth of knowledge shared by your professors. By actively engaging in note-taking during class, you can significantly enhance your understanding and retention of the material.

    1. Identify Key Points: Pay close attention to the professor's speech and presentation. Jot down and star the information that the professor spends more than a couple of minutes on or repeats and emphasizes. These are likely to be important concepts that warrant further focus.

    2. Utilize Phrases and Symbols: To capture information efficiently, use concise phrases and symbols instead of writing in complete sentences. Develop a shorthand system that works for you, allowing you to quickly jot down essential details without falling behind.

    3. Embrace an Outline Format: Organize your notes in an outline format. Use headings, subheadings, and indentation to create a logical structure. This hierarchical approach helps to establish connections between ideas and facilitates comprehension during the review process.

    4. Personalize Your Notes: Use your own words to summarize concepts and explanations. By putting information into your own language, you make it more meaningful and easier to grasp. Instead of copying definitions verbatim, try to come up with examples or analogies that illustrate the key terms.

    5. Review Immediately After Class: Make it a habit to review your notes as soon as possible after each class. The immediate repetition reinforces the information in your memory and increases the likelihood of long-term retention. Fill in any gaps, clarify unclear points, and make additional annotations while the material is still fresh in your mind.

6. Take Breaks!
  • Did you know that incorporating regular breaks into your study routine can actually enhance your productivity, concentration, and overall well-being? Breaks are not an indication of laziness; they are a vital component of effective learning. By strategically incorporating breaks into your study routine, you can enhance your productivity, improve concentration, and avoid the negative effects of burnout.

  • Determine the frequency and duration of your breaks based on your personal preferences and attention span. A commonly suggested approach is to take a 20-minute break after every 50 minutes of focused studying. Alternatively, you could opt for a 10-minute break after every 30 minutes of intense study. Experiment with different intervals and find the rhythm that works best for you.

  • Set Alarms and Stay Disciplined: To ensure you stay on track with your study and break schedule, set alarms or timers as reminders. This will help you maintain a structured routine and prevent distractions from derailing your progress. When the alarm goes off, promptly transition from studying to taking a well-deserved break.

  • Switch Focus Completely: When it's time for a break, make a conscious effort to shift your focus away from studying. Engage in activities that promote relaxation and provide a mental escape. Step outside for a refreshing walk, have a casual chat with a friend, savor a nourishing snack, watch a short and entertaining video, take a quick nap, or spend quality time with your furry friend. The key is to indulge in activities that bring you joy and rejuvenation.

  • Minimize Distractions: While studying, create an environment that is free from distractions. Put away your phone or switch it to airplane mode to resist the temptation of notifications. Find a quiet and comfortable study space where you can fully immerse yourself in the material without interruptions. By eliminating distractions, you can optimize your focus and make the most of your study sessions.

7. Save Your Notes
  • The exit exam taken at your last semester of nursing school is comprehensive. The NCLEX is comprehensive. This means you should not throw away your notes at the end of every course. In the vast sea of information that you encounter throughout your nursing school journey, it's crucial to have a reliable system for storing and accessing your study materials.

  • Invest in a large 3-ring binder and some tab dividers (you could also use paper and post-it notes). For each concept covered, create a tab divider for it and add your notes, exemplars, concept maps, drug cards, etc behind that tab. Here are some FREE Templates:

Download PDF • 38KB
  • Keep adding to the binder each semester to create the ultimate resource for yourself by the end of Nursing School.

  • By consolidating your notes in one well-organized binder, you'll have a streamlined and centralized resource at your fingertips. Instead of flipping through countless pages of textbooks or searching through scattered digital files, you can rely on your comprehensive binder for quick reference and review. This not only enhances your study efficiency but also provides a sense of confidence and preparedness as you approach your exams and the NCLEX.

8. Read the Rationales
  • When it comes to preparing for the NCLEX, practicing with sample questions is an essential part of your study routine. But don't just stop at answering the questions—take it a step further by delving into the rationales provided. These rationales are invaluable learning tools that can significantly enhance your understanding and retention of the material. Most NCLEX prep books and resources that have practice NCLEX questions come with rationales.

  • Begin by completing a practice quiz or set of NCLEX-style questions without referring to your notes or external resources. This allows you to gauge your current knowledge and identify areas that may require additional focus. Don't worry about getting questions wrong; it's part of the learning process.

  • Once you've completed the quiz, review the provided rationales for both the correct and incorrect answers. Rationales offer detailed explanations that highlight the underlying concepts, principles, and reasoning behind each question. Take the time to read and understand them thoroughly.

  • As you read through the rationales, jot down key points, important concepts, and any new information that you encounter. This note-taking process helps reinforce your understanding and acts as a handy reference for future review.

  • Analyze your performance on the quiz and pay attention to the areas where you struggled or got questions wrong. These weak points indicate knowledge gaps that require additional attention. Use the rationales as a guide to direct your focused studying on these specific topics.

  • Incorporate quizzes into your study routine on a regular basis. Use them not only to gauge your progress but also to guide your studying efforts. Prioritize the topics or question types that you consistently get wrong or find challenging. By focusing your studying on these areas, you can gradually improve your understanding and boost your confidence.

  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Continuously engage in question-based practice using resources that offer detailed rationales. This active learning approach helps reinforce your knowledge, improve your critical thinking skills, and familiarize you with the format and style of the NCLEX.

9. Join a Nursing Study Group
  • Forming a study group allows you to tap into the collective knowledge and insights of your peers. Each member brings unique perspectives, experiences, and study techniques to the table, enriching the overall learning environment.

  • Keep your study group relatively small, preferably with no more than six members. This ensures effective communication, active participation, and meaningful interactions during study sessions.

  • Designate a group leader who can facilitate organization and coordination. The leader can assign tasks, schedule meetings, and keep the group on track. This role helps maintain structure and accountability within the study group.

  • Divide study topics among group members to encourage active engagement and shared responsibility. Each member can take ownership of specific areas, thoroughly study them, and present their findings to the group. This approach fosters a collaborative learning environment and enhances understanding through peer teaching.

  • Create online quizzes or games to test each other's knowledge. You can also work on practice questions independently and then come together to discuss and review the rationales. This process reinforces critical thinking skills and promotes a deeper understanding of the material.

  • Practice applying the nursing process to various scenarios or case studies within the group. Discuss assessment findings and analyze their implications. Determine appropriate nursing interventions and prioritize them based on the identified needs. Engaging in these discussions helps sharpen your clinical reasoning and decision-making skills.

  • Utilize different study methods within the group. Use tables, charts, and whiteboards to visually organize information and enhance comprehension. Draw diagrams or concept maps together to visualize complex concepts. Additionally, practice skills such as performing assessments or demonstrating procedures on each other. By actively engaging with the material, you reinforce your learning and build confidence in your abilities.

10. Participate in Class
  • Successful students sit in the front-half of the classroom, are always raising their hands, asking thoughtful questions, and actively participating in class activities. This active approach strengthens your memory and improves your ability to recall and apply knowledge in the future. In the fast-paced world of nursing school, simply sitting back and passively absorbing information won't maximize your learning potential.

  • Before each class, review the assigned readings and jot down any questions or areas you want to explore further. This preparation will enable you to actively participate in discussions, clarify your doubts, and contribute meaningfully to the class.

  • The old adage "You'll remember what you did better than what you heard" holds true in nursing education. Many nursing programs incorporate active learning activities that encourage critical thinking and application of knowledge. Take full advantage of these opportunities by thinking out loud with your group, exchanging ideas, and teaching one another through discussion. Active engagement enhances comprehension and prepares you for the practical application of knowledge in real-world scenarios.

11. Use Your Resources
  • Successful students go to office hours. If you encounter difficulties or have questions about the course material, don't hesitate to reach out to your professors. Utilize their office hours or email them to clarify any confusion. Proactively seeking assistance shows your commitment to understanding the subject matter and allows you to address concerns before they escalate.

  • Many schools offer free tutoring services for students. Take the initiative to find out if such services are available and utilize them. Tutoring provides an additional avenue for clarification, personalized guidance, and targeted support in areas where you may need extra help.

  • If you require accommodations, such as extra testing time, due to a documented disability or other valid reasons, inquire about the options provided by your school. Understanding the available accommodations and following the necessary steps to access them can level the playing field and ensure a fair assessment of your knowledge and skills.

  • If financial constraints prevent you from obtaining required textbooks or uniforms, explore the possibility of financial aid or scholarships specifically designated for these purposes. Many schools have funds or assistance programs to support students in acquiring the necessary materials for their education.

  • Take advantage of mentorship programs offered by your school or professional organizations. Mentors can provide valuable insights, guidance, and support throughout your nursing journey. Meeting with a mentor allows you to discuss study strategies, test-taking techniques, and seek advice from someone with experience in the field.

  • Many textbooks come with access codes that provide online resources, including practice questions. Take full advantage of these resources to reinforce your learning, gauge your understanding, and familiarize yourself with the format of nursing exams like the NCLEX. Regularly practicing with these resources can improve your test-taking skills and boost your confidence.

12. Cramming Doesn't Work
  • Nursing classes cover a vast amount of information, often focusing on several concepts or exemplars for a single exam. Attempting to cram all that content into your memory in one night is not only impractical but also ineffective. The complex nature of nursing requires a comprehensive understanding built over time. It might have been possible for your prerequisite classes, but not for Nursing School.

  • Consistent studying, spread out over time, supports long-term knowledge retention. By reviewing the material regularly, you reinforce your understanding and create a solid foundation of knowledge. This approach allows you to build upon previous knowledge, making it easier to grasp new concepts and establish connections between different topics.

  • Study for a few hours every single day. Then quiz yourself every single day. By the time the exam comes around, you will know what you already know and what you need to focus your studying on.

  • Nursing education goes beyond rote memorization. It requires the ability to apply knowledge in real-world scenarios, think critically, and make sound clinical judgments. Consistent studying and regular self-quizzing promote active engagement with the material, enhancing your ability to apply knowledge and develop critical thinking skills.

​A note about sleep... Students are very willing to forego sleep- surviving or thriving. But restful, uninterrupted sleep makes for better focus, better mood, and better functioning the next day. Deep sleep is when your short term memories become long term memories. This means you will remember more on exam day! Not getting enough sleep also weakens your immune system. Getting sick during nursing school means missing clinical and class and it's not easy to catch up. If your work schedule prevents you from getting adequate sleep, see if it is possible to go part time or decrease work hours. Using a to-do list and weekly schedule and sticking to it will help with getting enough sleep.

By embracing these habits consistently, you can give yourself the best chance to thrive and succeed in nursing school. Nursing school doesn't have to be like those horror stories that you might have heard. There are plenty of students- I've witnessed first hand- that thrive in nursing school and come out stronger and as nurses that I would trust with my life.

Good luck!

Professor C.


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