I’m finishing up the series on Secrets of Successful Nursing Students by revealing secrets #18, #19 and #20. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other articles, and you can download them all in one handy guide right here.

You can catch the below tips in episode 255 of the Straight A Nursing podcast. Listen wherever you get your podcasts, or straight from the website here.

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Secret #18: Successful students manage their test anxiety

There are two types of nursing students:

  1. Those who have test anxiety and let it affect their success. 
  2. Those who have test anxiety and thrive in spite of it. 

Let me say this louder for the people in the back…test anxiety is normal and anyone can have it! After all, there are many reasons why test anxiety is so prevalent in nursing school. For example, the grading scale is brutal, exams are timed, you’re probably dealing with massive information overload, you’ve got exit exams to pass every semester, you don’t want to disappoint anyone, and there’s a big fear of the unknown. Of course you have test anxiety!  

First, I want you to take a deep breath and realize you are not doing a single thing wrong…your response is completely valid and absolutely the norm.

This issue isn’t the test anxiety, it’s what you do in response to it that matters. When you let test anxiety run the show, you simply aren’t able to process information in any meaningful way. You get into fight-or-flight mode and it’s incredibly difficult to pull yourself out of it.

So let’s go through some strategies that successful students use to manage test anxiety in a healthy way. After all, a bit of test anxiety will actually make you more alert and aware of your environment, which is actually a good thing!

Avoid negative self talk – Successful students identify and replace negative self talk. A successful student would never say, ‘I don’t know this material” or “I am going to fail.” Instead they use more positive and affirming phrases such as “I studied hard and I’m doing my best on this exam.” If you find these negative phrases entering  your mind as you study or take an exam, immediately replace them with a more positive phrase.

Take a deep breath – Successful students use calming techniques during the exam. These include deep breathing and tensing/ releasing muscle groups to relieve the body of excess tension. I like to combine my affirming self-talk with deep breathing. Say the phrase in your mind as you inhale for a full, slow breath. And then say it again as you exhale slowly and completely. Repeat this at least three times before moving on to the next question. If you still feel especially anxious, repeat a few more times.

Trust yourselfSuccessful students have trust in themselves. They trust that they’ve prepared well, and they trust that they’ll recall the necessary information when it’s time to be evaluated. Students who don’t trust themselves tend to over study or study inefficiently which wastes enormous amounts of time. These are the students who try one method of studying, distrust themselves and think it’s not working, abandon it, try something else, abandon it, try something else, etc… By the time you get to nursing school, you know how to study or you wouldn’t have gotten through microbiology, anatomy & physiology or organic chemistry. So now is the time to trust yourself. Chances are, you’ve attended class, taken notes, studied for the exam, and know the material. Have faith that you can read each question carefully, recall the necessary information, and state the correct answer. You CAN do this!

De-stress before the exam – Successful students actively do things to de-escalate the stress response before an exam. Instead of joining in with other students who are cramming at the last minute and quizzing each other furiously, successful students take some time to reinforce calm or joyful emotions. Some great calming activities are listening to music, playing with your kids, or going for a walk.

Avoid clock-watching Successful students don’t let timed exams create unnecessary anxiety. Yes, the timers on exams can be intimidating for many people. If the timer distracts you, see if there is an option to hide the timer from your view and use a regular clock to see how much time you have left. If there’s no option to hide the timer, avoid looking at it and just go through each question one after the other. Once you start watching the clock, stress hormones kick in and this ramps up anxiety quickly.

No studying on test day – Successful students do not study on test day or cram before the exam. Cramming before the exam sends a message to yourself that you don’t have trust in yourself and escalates anxiety. Again, trust that you have prepared well and know the material. 

Once it’s over, let it go – Successful students don’t let the stress of the exam carry over into the rest of their day. They decompress afterwards and move on to the next item on their to-do list.

Know that your grades do not define you – Successful students don’t let their self-esteem get tied up with their grades. It’s not the grade that matters, it’s your attitude and dedication to learning the material. You can AND WILL be a fantastic nurse, even if you miss a few exam questions here and there.

Secret #19: Successful students have a positive attitude and mindset

The cumulative stress and ongoing demands of nursing school can wear away at your positive attitude, but only if you let it. Successful nursing students tend to have positive attitudes, even when things are tough or don’t go according to plan.

This doesn’t mean successful students stick their heads in the sand when they have a bad day, do poorly on an exam, or are faced with a challenge. Instead, successful students view these moments as learning opportunities…and what’s not to love about that? After all, FAIL doesn’t mean anything but “first attempt in learning.” You can and will move past these obstacles easily as long you have the right attitude and mindset.

Here’s a great example. I knew a student who, despite her best efforts, failed a class and had to repeat it. While most students would look at this as an absolute failure, this student had a completely different attitude. Her exact words to me were, “How could I be upset when I know repeating the class will make me a better nurse in the long run?” That, my friends, is the epitome of having a positive attitude and mindset.

Successful students also avoid energy-draining activities like complaining, as it perpetuates negativity and sends a message to yourself that you are powerless. Instead, successful students claim ownership of their problems and actively look for solutions. Remember Secret #7? Resourcefulness definitely comes into play when you’re adopting a positive attitude and mindset. 

Secret #20: Successful students have constructive coping mechanisms

And finally, we get to one of THE most important things that successful nursing students do…they cope, and they do so constructively.

Burnout during nursing school is a very real problem and a very real risk for any nursing student. From the relentless schedule and lack of free time to the challenging material and pressure to constantly perform at a very high level…it’s a LOT to deal with. Spend enough time in any nursing student forum or Facebook group and you’ll see the burnout posts pick up momentum about midway through the semester. Every single semester.

The good news is, not all students experience burnout. Those who use constructive coping mechanisms tend to get through the semester without experiencing the lack of motivation, irritability and loss of satisfaction that come with academic burnout. 

Here are some ideas for ways you can cope with nursing school in a healthy way: 

  • Recognizing when you need to take a break….and taking it! If you’re studying until midnight, are exhausted and overwhelmed, and find that you’ve read the same sentence three times and still don’t know what it says…you need a break! Continuing to study at a time like this is futile. Rather than “powering through” a break is actually going to be far more beneficial than more time spent studying inefficiently.
  • Making time for regular exercise. Many students trade the treadmill for study time and the consequences are reduced mental clarity, less ability to focus, more fatigue and declining health. While you may not have time to spend two hours at the gym every day, you can squeeze in a 30-minute walk (even if it means listening to a recorded lecture or a podcast to make the most of your time!).
  • Socializing with others, especially those outside of nursing school. While it’s tempting to live, eat, and breathe nursing school, it’s also important to step aside on a regular basis and just be YOU. Socializing with your friends and family is a great way to decompress, refresh and boost the joy in your life.
  • Using meditation, deep breathing, journaling, prayer and laughter to de-stress and process complex emotions. Nursing school is tough and you’re going to go through a massive transformation as both a student and human being. Processing everything that occurs to make this transformation possible is vitally important.
  • Remembering your WHY. You started this journey for a reason and sometimes it’s helpful to remember what motivated you in the first place. It may be helpful to write this out and place it somewhere where you’ll see it daily.

So there you have it, the final three of my 20 Secrets of Successful Nursing Students.

20 Secrets of Successful Nursing Students Download

You can also read all my other articles in this series by using the links below:


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