Going through a nursing program is an exciting, tiring experience for a student nurse. From application to graduation and taking the NCLEX exam, it’s a long and exhausting start to your nursing career, but it’s worth it in the end.
To help get you through the process, here’s an overview of what to expect at each stage of nursing school from beginning to end.
Application Process for a Student Nurse
Applying for a nursing program is a long and involved process that involves taking and passing prerequisite courses and meeting the requirements of the program’s application. Here are brief overviews of these two elements of the process.
Prerequisites to Become a Student Nurse
Every application-based program of study requires a set of prerequisite classes. These are specific classes you should have finished before you begin the program, and sometimes, you won’t even be admitted into a program without them on your transcript with passing grades.
Good grades in prerequisite courses can help you be competitive, especially if the program you’re applying for regularly has hundreds of applicants for less than a hundred spots.
If you’re planning on applying to a program that’s hosted by another university or college than the one you’re doing your prerequisites in, make double sure before you even start those courses that they’ll transfer over.
The last thing you want to do is spend the time, money, and effort to pass a course that you’ll just have to retake when you transfer to a new school. Contact your intended program’s advisors for advice and clarification if you’re planning on transferring from another school.
In some cases, you might be able to be admitted to the program without having completed certain prerequisite courses. But you’ll be expected to complete them before you graduate from the program. That adds extra classes you’ll need to take on top of the coursework from the program.
As a general rule, have your prerequisites completed before you enter the nursing program, so you can focus on the program coursework.
Applications for nursing programs will vary on the program. Each program has a set number of spots for nursing students because they have to make sure they have enough instructors and enough clinical and lab resources to give students the best experience to learn.
Some programs will be more competitive than others. The admissions committee will use a variety of ways to determine who they’ll admit for the program, and you want to be as competitive as possible.
Find out from other students, program professors, and academic advisors how the committee ranks applications. For example, they might use a point system, where they give an application points when it meets certain criteria. The more points you have, the higher you’ll rank. You might get more points if you’ve applied in previous years or if you have experience working in health care.
Then the committee will usually look at more subjective information on the application, like an essay that you’ll need to write about a set topic.
When writing the essay, make sure to stick to the theme. Don’t ramble off about something unrelated, and don’t try to sound like someone you’re not, like using large words you’d never use otherwise.
Like with anything you write professionally if you’re not sure how it sounds, have someone like a friend or classmate read it and give you advice or feedback. This is also a great time to use any writing tutoring that your school might offer to make sure the technical aspects of the essay are in place.
Finally, don’t be afraid to apply to multiple nursing programs near you. That way, if you aren’t accepted into one program, there’s a chance you might be accepted into another, and you won’t have to put your education on hold to wait for the next cycle of applications.
Acceptance, Denial & Waitlist
Nursing programs generally accept new students every year or every semester, depending on how often they run rotations. That means you need to pay close attention to due dates for your application and make sure it’s submitted as early as possible beforehand.
Once that’s done, you just have to wait. Eventually, you’ll get a notification, usually by mail, that you’ve been approved, denied, or waitlisted.
- Approval: This means exactly what it sounds like; you’ve been given a spot in the program, and you’re ready to start at the next cycle.
- Denial: Usually a denial is accompanied by encouragement to try again during the next cycle. Some schools might even offer the reasons behind the denial.
- Waitlist: This means you’re qualified to enter the program, but there were other students who were a little more qualified or had higher scoring applications than you. If you’ve been waitlisted, don’t give up hope. It’s highly likely that students have applied to and been accepted by multiple nursing programs, and a spot might open up as these students opt to go to another program.
Once You’re in the Student Nurse Program
Getting that acceptance letter is a sweet victory, and it’s good to feel excited. You’ve put in a lot of work already to get this far, and now the program itself can begin.
Nursing programs are divided into three different types of coursework: the typical classroom work with a lecture, assignments, and exams; a simulation lab where you learn and are tested on common nursing skills; and clinical rotations, where you are assigned to real-life nursing units to learn from nurses already working in the field.
Like any school program, you’ll have regular classes every week to learn the fundamentals of nursing. Along with those classes are regular quizzes and exams.
Depending on your particular program, quizzes and exams are often weekly with classes alternating the week so as not to overwhelm you with too many exams.
Exam questions are equal parts memorization and applying your developing nursing brain to process and analyze data in order to come up with the best answer. You’ll likely get tired of hearing about how every answer on a particular question is technically the right answer, but one answer is the most right answer.
In other programs, they call those trick questions, but in nursing, we call it using your nursing brain.
The simulation lab is the time you have scheduled with a small group of your fellow classmates to learn and practice nursing skills with real equipment in a controlled environment.
Your patients are yourself, your fellow classmates, and stand-in mannequins, so you can focus on memorizing and perfecting the skill without the added pressure of doing it on a real patient.
Practice each skill as much as you can, especially if you have classmates who are willing to practice with you. Take advantage of any practice time offered. We learn and perfect hands-on skills through repetition, and what better way to do the same skill over and over again than in a sim lab where there aren’t real patients adding on the extra pressure.
This is also a great time to practice bedside manner. You’ll usually have mannequins to practice with. Sure, it feels super awkward sometimes talking to a dummy, but your sim lab tests will usually require you to do so anyway, so you may as well get used to it while also perfecting your techniques.
The clinicals are where real-world learning happens. In clinicals, you’re assigned to basically shadow real nurses on real shifts in local hospitals and health care facilities.
That might mean waking up at 4 a.m. to be there for pre-clinical prep and to meet up with the nurses on your assigned unit.
You’ll be there for half a day, and then usually you go sit in a post-clinical class with the rest of your classmates on the same clinical rotation, so you can talk with your clinical instructor over how everyone’s day went.
The point for clinicals is to give you real-world experience working as a nurse with real patients in real health care settings, but under the direct supervision of a licensed, working nurse. Ideally, you’ll be able to experience what it’s like working in a variety of different facilities and settings, including units like med-surg, psychiatric, labor and delivery, and surgical.
Here are some tips to make the most of your clinical experience:
- Do as much actual nursing work as you can. That means jumping at every opportunity to put in a foley catheter, do an assessment, or insert an IV.
Clarify with your instructor and training nurse if you’re legally able to do a skill if you aren’t sure, but don’t wait for someone to ask you. Clinicals give you the benefit of having someone watching you while you test out your nursing skills on real patients.
- Get enough rest before clinicals. As you’re working with real patients in real health care settings, you don’t want to be exhausted and your mind muddled while going through your clinical days.
- Make sure you eat. Same as sleep, you need food. Clinical days are long, and you don’t want to go most of the day without having something nutritious to eat.
- Participate in the pre-clinical and post-clinical class. This is your chance to touch base with your clinical instructor and learn from them and your fellow classmates, who have all had different experiences with their own assignments during the day.
Classroom work can prepare you for many things, but nothing really teaches you how to be a nurse like a real-world case.
When all is said and done, the nursing program is preparing you for two milestones: passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and being able to work as an actual, competent nurse.
Once you’ve graduated from the nursing program, you become eligible to sign up and take the NCLEX.
The NCLEX format and questions get tweaked every few years, and you’ll hear some people claim it’s harder than it was before and others claim it’s easier. Regardless, the format generally stays the same.
Known as a computer adaptive test, the test will give you test questions based on how you answered previous questions. In this way, it can narrow down on what topics and specialties you might be missing answers on and try to better gauge how much you know about them.
Questions might be multiple responses, fill-in-the-blank, hot spots where you identify a point on a picture, chart interpretation, ranked responses, and graphic answers instead of text. Some questions will have you do math while others will ask you to read case studies and identify specific issues.
You will have a minimum of 75 questions to answer. If the test ends after you’ve answered the 75th question, then all that means is the test only needed those 75 questions to determine your nursing ability.
For many students, the test will continue past 75 questions as the test tries to get a good feel of your overall nursing ability. After 75 questions, the test will end at any time up to the maximum number of 145 questions and a maximum time of five hours.
All those many quizzes and exams during classroom time are meant to prepare you for the questions on this monster of a test.
The bank of test questions is changed and updated every few years and is rotated regularly, making it impossible to know exactly what you might get questioned on.
What you do to prepare for the test will vary from person to person. Some people find value in enrolling and taking an NCLEX prep course. Others will look through all their notes and program exams, maybe buying or renting an NCLEX prep book to take practice exams and questions and figure out what topics specifically they need to work on.
All those many semesters of studying for exams during the nursing program are meant to prepare you for this test. Use the studying and testing strategies you’ve developed over the year or two of the program to prepare for the NCLEX.
Tips for Survival as a Student Nurse
Nursing school is several years of our lives of living and breathing nursing education. It’s tough on our bodies, minds, social lives, and the people we live with, so it’s important to take certain measures to get through it.
Here are some general tips for surviving the nursing program:
- Sleep. We get it, there just doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done. But without proper sleep, your brain isn’t as quick to think and memorize, and that can make studying more difficult and last longer as you try to force a tired brain to memorize an endless list of medications.
- Develop a study routine. In nursing school, there is a lot to memorize. Lists and lists of medications and their side effects, disease names, and their processes, and it’s something new and something different every week. Don’t try to cram before your exams. Not only will it stress you out, but won’t remember information as well.
Spread out your studying into chunks of time, making sure you schedule breaks to give your body and mind some rest. Setting a schedule can also work in meeting up with a regular study group to learn from your fellow nursing students, and it can train your brain to be ready for studying.
- Learn how to study. Everyone learns differently. Some people use mnemonics while others find endless repetition gets information to stick. Maybe you can sit and focus for hours at a time while others can muster an attention span for 20 minutes.
Learn your study tendencies and how you best learn and remember new information, and then adapt your study habits accordingly.
For example, if you’re the type of person who can only focus on studying for half an hour, set a timer for 30 minutes, and study during that time. When the timer goes off, get up and take a break. Maybe reward yourself with something small, like a brief walk, before sitting down for another 30-minute stretch.
As you proceed through the program and the many early mornings and sleepless nights, remind yourself what brought you into the nursing field in the first place. You’re taking a huge step in establishing yourself into a career that centers on helping other people. Take care of yourself, and don’t lose sight of what you’re aiming for.