Students ask all the time about tips for being successful in nursing school. And while you can view a wide variety of articles here, I wanted to cover my top 10 tips for new students all in one spot. Yay!
Tip #1: Plan your life one week at a time
In my nursing school prep course, Crucial Concepts Bootcamp, I teach students to make a list of everything they need to do for the semester. But when we talk about actually planning out our time, we go one week at a time.
As you will soon learn, things change in nursing school. In fact, they change a LOT. Assignments get altered, due dates get shifted, clinical days are juggled with simulation days, and labs may get moved around. As you can imagine, it can be a bit of a planning nightmare. So, every Sunday evening, take thirty minutes to look at what you have coming up that week and plan out for JUST those seven days.
Now, there is one caveat to this. When you are looking at big projects that span multiple weeks, you definitely want to have those on your planning radar so you’re not cramming them into one or two days. So for those things (such as papers and group projects), definitely mark those in your calendar in advance and block out team each week to devote to them. But for weekly tasks, assignments, quizzes and meetings…wait until the Sunday before to do your planning.
If you’ve never used a planner or aren’t sure how to tackle this for nursing school, check out this post where I go deep into how to do this step-by-step.
Tip #2: Rewrite your notes into your own words
This is the one tip that is an absolute game-changer for students, but is also one that doesn’t get done nearly enough. And that’s because it takes time, which, of course, always seems to be in short supply.
I’ve heard more than one student say, “I’d rewrite my notes, but I don’t have time. I need to study!” Well, guess what? Rewriting your notes is probably THE MOST valuable studying you can do.
By rewriting your notes, a few really magical things are happening in your brain.
- You’re repeating what you learned in class. As you repeat and review your notes from class, you’re getting repeated exposure to the content (and this is where most students stop because they simply review the notes they jotted down in class).
- You’re processing and assimilating the information as you rewrite the notes into your own words. Look at it this way…in order to explain something simply, you absolutely must have a solid grasp of the concept. And while it may be challenging to write out each concept, by doing so, you are figuring out how to explain it simply. When you can do this, you KNOW it. And you know you know it 🙂
- You are owning this information. When you go back to review your notes, the information is going to be vastly more familiar to you. The reason for this? It’s your own language. Your own words. Your own way of explaining things. It’s YOURS.
- You are relegating information to long-term memory. Rewriting your notes (especially handwriting them) helps move this information into your long-term memory. I’ll be honest. When I rewrote my notes for nursing school, I typed them and it still helped immensely (it also didn’t hurt that they were definitely easier to read!).
- You’re filling in the gaps. As you go through your notes from class, there’s a good chance that you’ll have gaps in your knowledge. This is the perfect time to open up that textbook and fill in those gaps before too much time passes.
- You’re connecting the dots. Your instructor’s PowerPoint slides are most likely just a group of bullet points with no indication how each relates to the other. For example, take a look at these two examples…which of these is more clear when you’re reading it three weeks after lecture?
So, while it can take a couple of hours to rewrite your notes after lecture, it is a fantastic way to study and an excellent use of your time.
Tip # 3: Do NCLEX practice questions regularly
Most, if not all, of your nursing school exams are going to be written in NCLEX-exam format. One of the best things you can do as a new student is to start doing NCLEX practice questions from DAY 1 of nursing school. You want to be used to these types of questions before they throw you for a loop on your first exam. Trust me on this one.
As you learn about a topic in class, go through NCLEX sample questions related to that topic. Jot down any little tidbits of information that you learn along the way and keep these in a Google Document or notebook. And, here’s the key…review this information regularly!
Tip #4: Be quick to identify time wasters
There are a lot of things that compete for your time and attention in nursing school. I want you to be very aware of those things that sneak in and waste your time….and it’s not always something obvious like TikTok or your favorite television show.
- Are you spending a lot of time on assignments or quizzes that should actually be pretty routine? For example, if it’s taking you three hours to write a discussion board post and reply to the required number of people (and this is a routine task you do each week), it’s very likely that this particular assignment is wasting your time. Can you streamline the process so it takes one hour instead of three? The same goes for routine quizzes. If they aren’t timed, and you’re spending more than two minutes per question, it’s very possible that you’re wasting your time OVERTHINKING each and every question.
- How’s that study group working out for you? If your study group isn’t highly focused on achieving a specific goal with each session, it’s a very good chance it’s actually wasting your precious study time. For tips on managing an effective study group, click here.
- Are you spending time looking for things such as assignment instructions, digital files, or paperwork? Then you, my friend, need to spend some time setting up organizational systems for nursing school. It’s something I touch on in Crucial Concepts Bootcamp, so if you’re in Bootcamp, you definitely want to review that particular module!
If at all possible, devote one hour this week to getting your paperwork and digital files into some semblance of order so you can reduce the repeated searching and wasted time for the remainder of this semester. And when you’re on your next summer or winter break, take a look at your organizational systems and devise a method that works for you. The goal is to develop a system so you A) always know where to store things and B) always know where to go looking for them. I promise, this is another key strategy that pays you back over and over and over again.
Tip #5: A good day starts the night before
Every night before you close your laptop or step away from your desk, take a few moments to take a look ahead and prep for the next day. I swear, every time I skip this small step I inevitably have a more stressful morning (or forget an important event entirely!).
If you’ve followed my advice from Tip #1, then you’ve already got all your important events and to-do items in your planner. Pay special attention to:
- Anything that’s on your schedule for tomorrow, especially those things early in the day that you might miss if you sleep in or get distracted.
- Get your breakfast together (overnight oats is a popular choice) and pack your lunch. Doing these two small things will make a huge impact on how smoothly your morning runs.
- Set out the clothing or uniform you need for the next day.
- Pack your school or clinical bag with all your must-have supplies (see Tip #8 for more tips on that!).
- If you plan to exercise in the morning, set out your workout clothing and any necessary gear so it’s easy to just grab and go (planning to listen to a podcast episode while you workout? Queue it up the night before…every minute counts!)
Tip #6: Develop a morning routine
Along the same lines of an evening routine, your morning routine is vital to having an intentional and stress-free start to your day.
I always advise students to have two different morning routines. One for those days when you have a little more time and one for the days when you have an early class or clinical. For example, my standard morning routine looks like this:
- Drink at least 24 oz water (I do this while I go through the other elements of my routine)
- Feed Oliver
- Exercise – sometimes it’s the Peloton, other times it’s a walk or an on-demand class such as yoga or Barre
- Brew coffee
- Shower, beautify, get dressed
On the days that I don’t follow my routine, I definitely feel less focused and like something is honestly missing. If you want to learn more about morning routines, check out this podcast episode here.
Tip # 7: Don’t let anxiety run the show
Do you ever get that feeling where you physically don’t know what to do with your body and your mind jumps from one thought to the next? This happens to me now and again when I am especially busy with a lot of things piling up on my “to-do” list and a big deadline approaching.
I bet you’ve had this feeling before, too. And yes…it can definitely happen in nursing school. The truth is, it feels absolutely horrible. And since your brain doesn’t seem to want to focus on any ONE thing, it can feel absolutely hopeless as well. How in the world will you get it all done if you’re just spinning out of control?
The first thing I want you to do when this happens (and chances are, it WILL happen at some point), is to recognize what is actually occurring. No, you are not hopeless or helpless or flailing. What actually happened is your brain moved faster than your body and you got way way way ahead of yourself.
So, my best tip for you when this occurs is to do three things. Stop. Breathe. Regroup.
First, we’re going to stop. You have to put a cease-and-desist on all those swirling thoughts that are going through your head. They’re taking up valuable mental energy and you have better, and more productive, things to do.
Second, we’re going to breathe. Seriously. Once you’ve stopped your mind from jumping all over the place, you’re going to take ten slow deep breaths. Sounds so easy right? And it is. Just breathe in. And out. If you start thinking, “Why am I breathing when I have so much to do?” Then start over. Ten deep breaths. In and out.
Third, we’re going to regroup. And the BEST way to regroup is to get a clear view of what actually needs to be done. Start by making a list of all the things you need to do. If you’re in my Bootcamp or read my book, you’ve hopefully already done this. Now, get out your calendar and actually block out time to do each and every item on your list. Start with the highest priority items and work your way down to the things that are more routine or don’t have a specific due date. If time management or planning are new to you, check out this post where I walk you through it step-by-step.
And then, you get to work. It really, truly is that simple.
Tip # 8: Stock your backpack for max efficiency
Having the things you need with you while at school or studying in the library means you’re going to be more efficient and get more done. So think of your backpack more like a “mobile office” than simply a bag for your laptop. What should you carry in your backpack? Some ideas are:
- Change for the vending machine (hopefully you choose a healthier option!)
- Non-perishable snack (almonds, bars, dried mango, jerky, etc…)
- Water bottle
- Change or an access card for the photocopier
- Pens, highlighters, sharpie and pencils (you’re using a pencil in your planner, right?)
- Binder clips or paper clips (I prefer binder clips as they hold so much more and are vastly more sturdy than a paper clip).
- Mini stapler and hole punch.
- Staple remover
- Your daily binder (if you’re following the system I teach in Thrive Guide (#ad) and Bootcamp)
- Page flags and tabs
- Tablet if you’re a digital note taker or using it for e-Books
- Any books you need
- Chargers for everything
Can you see why I recommend a rolling backpack?
Tip # 9: What to carry in clinical
Students often ask what they should carry with them at clinical. First, make sure you are following your school or unit’s policy regarding things like fanny packs or if you can even carry anything in your pockets. Unless your school has a “nothing in your pocket” policy, then you can carry most everything you need on your person. Here’s what I recommend students carry for max efficiency in clinical:
- A few alcohol swabs – you will use these constantly and it’s nice to have them close at hand.
- End-caps or you may hear them called “dead-enders.” These are closed-ended caps you can place on IV tubing to keep it sterile when disconnected from the patient. Never loop the IV connection back around to the y-site port.
- Hemostat and scissors (a pair of utility scissors is usually sufficient).
- Pens and a sharpie. I especially love the mini sharpies that you can attach to your badge holder.
- A small notepad for jotting down pearls of wisdom you learn throughout the day.
- Your stethoscope, of course!
Tip #10: Give yourself some grace
And lastly, I want you to remind yourself that becoming a nurse is a massive transformation. It doesn’t happen overnight and you will stumble a LOT as you go. It’s okay.
As long as you are getting back up after you stumble and learning from each and every mistake (no matter how small), then you are growing and transforming. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Keep asking questions and seeking answers. And keep moving ahead one assignment, one care plan, one exam at a time.
And before you know it, you’ll be there. You’ll be a nurse.
You’ve got this!
P.S. If you want to review these ten tips again, listen to episode 196 of the Straight A Nursing podcast.