What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started Nursing School

Today I helped host a meet and greet for new nursing students. It was a little surreal thinking that I’m entering my last semester in a few weeks. It doesn’t feel like that long ago that I was the new student wondering how on earth, I, a spill-prone klutzy gal would manage to keep my bright white scrubs clean.

I remember walking into orientation, surrounded by unfamiliar faces and being bombarded by too much information. Well-meaning students who had just completed their first semester tried to give us advice. My take away was that was nursing school was impossibly hard, I could kiss my social life goodbye, my life should now henceforth be devoted to studying, and above all don’t panic.

Well, panicking hadn’t entered my mind. I had felt that sense of peace of knowing I was in the right where I was supposed to be. I was nervous, sure, but I hadn’t considered panicking until I heard people tell me at least ten times not to panic. Fortunately, as I left I found a voice mail message from my nursing buddy who was entering her last semester. I quickly called her back. “Naomi, should I be panicking?” I asked. She laughed and laughed. She told me I could do it, that sure nursing school is hard but I’d be fine. She was right.

So here’s what I wish someone had told me before I started nursing school:

To become a nurse, you must first become a patient. I felt I was in and out of the doctor/lab every other week. There was a drug test, a blood test, vaccines, a two-step TB skin test, and a physical. And the vaccinations and testings just continue as you go along. This was a little detail I was unaware of until I looked at all the requirements.

Nursing tests are different. Most nursing schools are competitive. Getting into a nursing program isn’t as easy as one may think. That means, usually, nursing students are good students. Good students know how to study or at least how to pay attention in class and make good grades. But nursing tests are a whole other ballgame. There may be more than one right answer. You may need to prioritize in your answer selection. You have to figure out what the question is asking. You may be reading too much into the question. It’s just different. You will probably end up studying differently too. It may take awhile to figure out your studying rhythm. That’s okay. Try something new. I’m not really sure there’s a “right” way to study. I’ve felt like I couldn’t be more prepared for a test and failed it. I’ve found myself wishing I had more time to study and gotten a perfect score. I’ve failed and aced tests back to back. So don’t quit on yourself. One bad score does not a failed class make. If you can’t figure out how best to study or you aren’t doing so hot, ask for help. Ask a tutor, ask an instructor, or ask a fellow student. Don’t fret if those A’s don’t come quite so easy. As my lovely pharm instructor told us, “Take a C and run!”

You can have a life outside of nursing school and you should. This may take some balancing, especially if you’re working, or a mom, or both. It’s about being smart with your time. I’ve heard people say things like, “Say goodbye to Facebook,” and “Tell your family you’ll see them on break.” And if that’s the only way you can make it through, well so be it. But you need a support system outside of your nursing friends. You need to be reminded that there is life outside of textbooks and lectures. Sometimes stepping outside of the nursing bubble can be the very best thing for your sanity. You need to be reminded that you are more than just a nursing student. So, go to coffee with a friend, take your kids to a movie, go on a girl’s night out, spend time quality time with your significant other. And don’ feel guilty about it. You may have to be more intentional about scheduling and when people ask what you’ve been up to you may not have a lot to say except nursing school but that’s okay. Being with non-nursing people is wonderful.

Nursing school is humbling. If you think you are perfect and know everything, you are delusional and will either quickly realize this or you will kill someone. But even if you know you aren’t perfect and you expect to make mistakes, it’s hard to know you’re going to screw up. And there’s this added level of pressure when you realize that these mistakes could cause real harm to someone. This is a fear I wrestle with each time I walk into clinical. It creeps up on me when I try to imagine being a “real” nurse. The first time this really hit me was in a simulation. A simulation is a patient scenario that is run in the lab. It involves a dummy as the patient. It’s pretend but it does not feel pretend. I was assigned the role of the main nurse. Suddenly, I was in charge. It was in my hands. There wasn’t someone to tell me what to do. And all my practice at clinical, everything I knew faded. My mind went blank. I couldn’t think, the fear crept in, and I started worrying that this is what would happen to me in real life. Which made me feel more panicky. It was too much. Fortunately, my instructor could see that I was drowning. She very graciously let me take over as the observer and someone else took my place. Once the simulation ended, the tears crept into my eyes. Normally, I can push them down. I am not usually a public crier. I’m more of the silently-cry-yourself-to-sleep-in-private kind of crier. But in that moment, it was too much. We were in a very stressful testing period. I was tired. It was the final straw, this thing that felt like failure. We were debriefing post-simulation, and there I was crying in front of two instructors and my clinical group. And I couldn’t stop, I tried all my tricks but they just kept trickling. The worst part about crying in public is that I always feel so stupid for crying, which just leads to more crying. It’s hard to be vulnerable. I’m slowly learning to embrace it but it is not my favorite nor is it the easiest thing for me to do. But in that moment, I discovered these people weren’t just classmates and peers, they were also my friends. I got a phone call and messages later checking on me. I was told about their recent breakdowns. It was so humbling. But I learned more from that failure than I’ve learned from other successes. And we all laugh about it now, no one more than me.

Make friends with your classmates. On day one of class, when I didn’t know a soul, I thought this would be like regular college classes where you might get to know a couple of people but most would be just faces. I have never been happier to be proven wrong. It works like anything else, you know some people better than others. You like some people better than others. You get on each other’s nerves from time to time. But you learn to work together. You become a unit. You cheer each other on and clam each other down. So, don’t hesitate to get to know the people around you. There’s no one that will get what nursing school is like more than your classmates. They can relate to that test question you never remember going over. They know the quirks of your instructors. They appreciate how hard you have to study. They will help you figure out what you didn’t understand. They are your lifeline. They help you get perspective. They share your moments of horror, failure, success, and joy. They laugh with you. We’ve laughed about so much. We laugh so often. If the choice is laugh or cry, sometimes it’s just better to go ahead and laugh. And for all that and more I can’t thank my classmates enough. I can’t wait to stand with you at pinning and go out one last time to celebrate after finals.

Take care of yourself. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. So, go for that run. Eat ice cream after a long day. Read a good book. Call up your best friend. Play with your dog. Tickle your kiddos. Make a meal from scratch. Go shopping. Go fishing. Do yoga. Zone out in front of the TV. Write in your journal. Say your prayers. Throw a dinner party. Go to book club. Get a good night’s sleep. Get a pedicure. Take a day trip. Soak up some sun. You know what regenerates you, what makes you the best version of yourself. Don’t neglect those habits. Studying, school, work, family, and that never ending to do list with no room for fun and rest will lead to burnout. Allow yourself some space to just be you.

All nurses were once beginners. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from those who are beyond your training. Just because a nurse seems to have it down pat, doesn’t mean she was always like that. Chances are she was a bumbling, fumbling mess once upon a time. And most nurses are happy to help lend a hand. Always thank them for their time. It goes a long way. Every now and then you will run into a nurse short on time or who simply doesn’t like working with students. Don’t let that stop you from learning and asking and growing. Don’t take it personally- it’s probably not you. It is perfectly okay to ask for help. Just remember how this moment feels and maybe do it differently when you are a full fledged nurse.

Everyone has a story. This is something I remind myself frequently. I love learning why people are the way they are. And patients are most definitely people. They don’t just need medication to make them better. They need care and compassion. Above all they need to know they’ve been heard. They don’t want to be seen as just another bed; they want you to see them. As a student nurse, you have a gift of time most floor nurses do not. Use that time to get to know about your patient. They have some of the most amazing stories. And I’ve found that often when they get to talking, their pain levels go down and their attitudes improve. They don’t hit the call button as often either. There’s this quote I love:


Maybe your patient’s impossibly needy. But possibly it’s because his wife died a few years back and his kids haven’t called to check on him today. Maybe a mom is second guessing the way you’re doing everything. Chances are she’s just worried sick about her kid. And this is just as true for nurses and doctors, techs and cafeteria workers, family members and friends. Maybe your nurse was a little short with you. Maybe it’s because she’s already running behind on her med pass and she didn’t get much sleep because she was up studying. We make judgements, but we don’t usually have all the facts. So if you’re going to err, err on the side of kindness. You will never regret the times you were kind.

Finally, believe in yourself. It’s easy to believe that the guy who makes straight As will be a great nurse. It’s easy to believe your instructors are great nurses. It’s easy to believe that the nurse you’re shadowing is a great nurse. It’s easy to believe Florence Nightingale was a great nurse. But it’s harder to believe in yourself. So, do what my first semester instructors always told me, “Put on the cloak of confidence.” Easier said than done, right? So, sometimes, I let Julie Andrews and Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s “I Have Confidence” help me out.


Oh, I must stop these doubts,
All these worries.
If I don’t I just know I’ll turn back!
I must dream of the things I am seeking.
I am seeking the courage I lack.
The courage to serve them with reliance,
Face my mistakes without defiance.
Show them I’m worthy
And while I show them
I’ll show me!

I sing it as loud as I dare. It becomes my mantra. And in the singing I find myself believing that I too will someday be a good nurse (or at least a great governess of seven children, one of whom is sixteen going on seventeen). And with each test passed, each shot given, each hurdle jumped, each patient cared for I’m one step closer to showing them and one step closer to showing me. And with a lot of hard work, effort, blood, sweat, tears, and heart you one day find yourself one step closer too.


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