6 Tips for Successful Nursing Students

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve reached the last of five semesters needed to complete this dang ADN. I feel like I’ve been in school forever…and really, I have. I spent years trying to decide what program I wanted, more years trying to get into the competitive school of my choice, more years catching up when they changed their prereqs, and then more prereqs for a different school when I wasn’t accepted to the first. So many years and tens of thousands of dollars worth of student loans later, I’m 94 days from graduation. It hardly seems real.

My point is not to reminisce about my long, crooked path to becoming a nurse, but rather to illustrate that I’ve had plenty of time to hone my study skills. I thought I’d share my favorite or most used tips. FYI: I am a very visual and kinesthetic learner, but I’ve tried to incorporate things that might benefit a range of study style preferences.

These are in no particular order, rather just as they come to my hyperactive, insomniac brain right now.

1. Familiarize yourself with the material before every class. That doesn’t mean that you need to read every word and commit it to memory, but it’s good to look at the text, PowerPoints or any other materials you’ve been given. Skim texts for headings, boxes, tables/charts, bold words, repeating themes, etc. And for goodness sake, read the chapter objectives and summaries. It’s a perfect snapshot of what the author thinks you need to know about the material.
Never walk into class blind. This achieves two things: 1. if you already kinda’ know the content, the instructor’s comments will make more sense, and you may retain this info better - or be able to ask important questions. 2. It will prevent you from looking like a complete idiot to your instructor or classmates. You’re more likely to learn if you’re not panicked or embarrassed by being unprepared.
Nurse Nacole has a great video on how to read textbooks. You can find it here. Subscribe to her while you’re at it. I’ll get to more about YouTubers later.

2. Supplement your learning on your own. Your instructors may have a lot of helpful suggestions about other learning sources beyond the classroom instruction; some may not. Empower yourself to find resources that work for you. Once you’re a nurse, no one is going to hand you a syllabus for your career. The internet is a powerful tool and I encourage you to use it for more than watching hilarious cat videos.

In addition to using my textbooks and the program’s chosen online companion site (which I will not name), I enhance and reinforce my learning in many different ways. There are podcasts, YouTube channels by nurses and hospitals, phone apps and Pinterest illustrations/diagrams/mnemonic devices galore. I’ll break these down in other posts…I’ll give you a list of my favorite “celebrity” nurses, podcasts and other modern ways of making learning less boring. Of course, stick to tried-and-true methods like flashcards, study guides, practice problems, etc.

3. Study daily. Yes, daily. And no, I’m not insane. I know you’re going to be overwhelmed, exhausted, and frustrated at times. You’re going to be spread thin. I get it. I’ve done it. You will survive. But if you’re going to do all this, make it worth it. Do 5 minutes of flashcards on the bus. Try to remember everything you can about a pathology while brushing your teeth. Hang your study guide over the sink and review it while you do dishes. These few minutes here and there can make a massive difference. If you study an extra five minutes a day, daily for a 16 week semester, that’s an extra 9.5 hours of study time. And I know you’re going to poop eventually, so take your NCLEX app with you to the bathroom (just wash your hands after and disinfect your phone once in awhile, alright?).

4. Self-care! You’re useless when you’re tired/hungry/sick. Ah, I can’t say I’ve never crammed or studied when exhausted. I have. I’ve gone to clinicals on only a few hours of sleep. I’ve gone from work to class to clinicals and felt like a zombie.  And it never turns out well. Trust me when I say you don’t want to get diarrhea in the middle of an OB simulation because you’ve been eating Panchero’s and guzzling coffee all week. I’m not speaking from experience or anything. ;)

Back to my point! You’re in nursing school now. No more pizza-fueled weeks, chugging coffee and taking no-doze. You know how the body works, or at least you kinda know so far. So treat your body like a high-performance machine to keep yourself from crashing and burning before midterms. I’ll keep this lecture short. Drink water. Avoid booze. Avoid drugs to give you pep (legal or not). Take healthy snacks for long lectures or clinical days. Move. Get off your butt. Go to bed when your body says it’s tired. Even if you do try to cram, you’re not retaining anything when you’re exhausted. If you gotta cram or throw a few back on a Friday before a 7 am clinical, make it infrequent. Don’t kid yourself into feeling like crap down the line. You’re going to be healthy, and you’re going to carry these good habits into your future practice!

5. Work as a CNA. Now, I’m not saying you can’t be a good RN if you were never a CNA, but I can tell you that CNAs have a distinct advantage over nursing students who don’t work in the field. I’m also not advocating disrupting your whole life to find a CNA job in the middle of the semester. But if you can swing it, working or volunteering among nurses with the tools they use, getting to see the system in progress is invaluable.

I’ve been a nurse’s aid in a hospital for 11 years. While I don’t recommend my path for everyone, I can tell you that I have never been scared walking into a clinical because it’s already an environment that feels familiar to me, even if it’s a unit I’ve never been to before. I still learn a million things every shift, and it’s been the best damn thing in terms of getting me through school with some confidence because I have a basic literacy of patient care. (Note: some schools require you work 20hours/week max. Even if they don’t, this is the goal to shoot for. It can be done working more, but you really gotta have your routine together perfectly to not fall behind.)

6. Set your fear aside and get in there. There have been times I was terrified when faced with a task or a patient. But they don’t need to know that. As far as they’re concerned, you’re confident and in control. Don’t be a know-it-all, of course. But swallow your fear, ask questions if you need to, and do everything you get the opportunity to do while in clinicals. Terrified to touch a penis to put in a catheter? Just do it. Afraid to take the bandage off that huge wound? Just do it. Scared to go into the OR? Are you crazy?! Definitely do that! ;) The first time is scary. The second and third times may be, too, but the more you do the better you will be. The more you see, the more you will know. The less scared you’ll find yourself in the face of new tasks.

REMEMBER, everyone learns differently and that’s ok. If these tips don’t work for you, ask classmates, teachers, co-workers, family members that work in the industry for theirs. There are as many different study styles as there are blogs in the webiverse…..

OK, that’s enough for this post. If you have suggestions or tips for your fellow nursing students, leave a comment below. Have a question about something I’ve said? I’d love to hear from you.

Stick around. I intend to post more as the semester rolls on, but I’m easily distracted, so you just never know…..


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