Achieving Excellence: How to Be Successful in Nursing School

by | Feb 13, 2024 | Nursing School and NCLEX® | 1 comment

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If you’ve just been accepted to nursing school and want to prepare, this post is for you. We will outline six steps to show you how to be successful in nursing school.

how to be successful in nursing school

How to Be Successful in Nursing School

I’m a planner… an organizer… a person who sets her clothes out and packs lunch the night before a shift. I have my favorite lunch box, lunch containers, and reusable ziplock bags.


Yea guys, I’m that person.

But, there is no shame to my organization and preparedness game. This results in less stress and, therefore, more time to enjoy life and relax. (After all, nursing is what I do; it’s not who I am or all-encompassing of my identity.)

If you’re anything like me, whenever something unknown is on the horizon, you do all you can to get ahead and be prepared from the moment it begins. Nursing school is one of those big, unknown, scary things. Despite how overwhelming and demanding it is daily, I will go over a few things that will help you stay ahead in nursing school.

Be Mindful of the NCLEX From the Start

Don’t wait until senior year to start thinking about the NCLEX. The way this exam is structured and the format of questions is very different from other exams. It’s what’s called a computer adaptive exam, which means it’s different for every single person. It is not like nursing school exams.

Learn more about how the NCLEX is structured in my other post, Preparing for the NCLEX.

Because it’s so different, I highly recommend picking your NCLEX review plan early and starting to take NCLEX prep questions immediately (just a few a day), even if you don’t know the content behind them yet.

The sooner you start to build that NCLEX foundation, the better.

Learn Test-Taking Strategies Right Away 📝

The exams in nursing school are built differently. If it doesn’t, this meme will soon make sense to you.

how to be successful in nursing school; nursing school meme

While many exams are multiple-choice, there are many “select all that apply” (SATA) questions. Nursing professors make their exams pretty difficult, so learning from experienced professors about the best way to go about them is highly recommended. It took me about 2 semesters to acclimate to nursing school exams, and I would have saved so many headaches and stress by being more prepared for the exams.

Many college exams I had taken before nursing school were pretty straightforward and assessed my memory of certain events, facts, and concepts. However, nursing school exams will take it further and attempt to assess how well you can apply the knowledge, not just whether you know it. There is much to learn about the body and how we care for it in various situations!

I wrote a blog post on test-taking strategies for nursing students. If you want to read a highly-rated book that dives deep into them, click here (this is the newest edition; the previous edition had 200+ 5-star reviews).

Prime Your Brain 🧠 For Lectures

This is a common example of a nursing school weekly schedule:

  • M-W-F: Lecture 0800-1100, Sim lab1200-1330, Lecture 1400-1600
  • T-Thr: Clinical 0700-1300

You want to be prepared to learn the information provided for each of these lectures. By having a degree of familiarity, you can absorb the information much better than if you’re hearing it for the first time.

However, don’t get all in-depth, and try to comprehend a chapter or concept fully before a lecture. Merely expose yourself to the content to get a general idea of what you’ll be going over and understand some basic definitions. Please don’t make the mistake of trying to read the entire chapter word for word, highlighting 75% of it, and then getting frustrated when you answer sample questions wrong.

You can even pre-fill out your notes with definitions or basic concepts so that during lectures, you don’t have to flip back and forth between pages while the professor is talking a mile a minute.

Get an idea of what’s ahead so the lecture isn’t the first time you hear the term percutaneous endoscopic gastrostomy, which the professor keeps referring to as a PEG tube. You just spent the last 10 minutes silently figuring that out while he’s now describing an EGD.

Get As Much Practical 🩺 Experience As Possible

There’s a lot to learn, and sitting in a classroom will not adequately prepare you. Therefore, the more face-time you can get with patients and healthcare workers, the smoother nursing school and your new job as a nurse will be.

In between my junior and senior years, I completed a 10-week nurse residency program. I shadowed another nurse. It was incredibly helpful. I could see the things we were talking about in theory that I didn’t have a chance to see in nursing school clinicals simply because there wasn’t a patient there with that particular issue, procedure, or medication.

I remember specifically wanting to see a ventilator because I knew my critical care course was in the fall. I learned about so much respiratory equipment over those ten weeks, which seriously enhanced my understanding. If you don’t have the opportunity to complete an internship – volunteer.

Most facilities use volunteers, and while you won’t be physically doing procedures, you’ll at least be able to observe. I volunteered in an emergency department in college and learned so much by being there. I saw how they dealt with a combative patient who overdosed… I saw how they ran codes… I saw how they dealt with death… I saw how the team functioned.

You can also get a job as a nursing student. I would only recommend this if you have adequate support and can fulfill your schedule requirements, as nursing school is pretty intense. Here are some ideas for some of the best jobs for nursing students.

Don’t View Reading Assignments As Just a To-Do List ✅

When learning how to be successful in nursing school, these actions can feel like something to just get done or get through. However, in nursing school, you really need to learn and understand things deeply to safely care for patients.

Switch the mentality from getting it done to understanding. Comprehend the concepts; don’t just memorize the text. If you don’t finish every word of a reading assignment but understand the pathophysiology behind atrial fibrillation, count that as a win – not an incomplete.

I didn’t do this in school – I just tried to get it done. We would have 200+ page reading assignments, and I would focus on getting through each page, not actually knowing what was being discussed. If I could have a do-over, I’d look at the major concepts discussed in the assignment and use a supplemental resource like or Picmonic (use promo code FRESHRN for 20% off) if it didn’t make sense from the text. I would try to explain the concept in my own words to make sure I understood it, rather than fixating on working through massive reading assignments.

Student, you do not study to pass the exam. You study for the day when you are the only thing standing between your patient and the grave.

Dr. Mark Reid

Try To Connect The Dots 🔵 ⚪️ ⚫️

Finding those aspects of the content that turn it from something textbook to something that makes sense is challenging, especially when you’re responsible for reading so much information for each exam.

So, what do you do?  

Here’s a nurse pro-tip ➡️ look for the linchpin.

What’s a linchpin? It’s an “ah-ha” moments… the most important concept of a complex concept or situation.  It’s what connects the dots.

While you’re studying and identifying these linchpins, make a note of these! My tip: Have a master document on your computer and keep a list whenever you come across one.

You can also leverage nursing school support systems like or Picmonic. I highly recommend using one of those to provide general support during school. They can cut down on study and comprehension time and are full of linchpins!

(If you get Picmonic, don’t forget to use the promo code FRESHRN for 20% off)

How to Be Successful in Nursing School: Final Thoughts

Nursing school is overwhelming but doable if you are proactive and intentional with your time and efforts. Exams will be difficult, so give yourself the best chance to succeed by understanding how they work. Doing well in school means going beyond regurgitated memorized information by being able to demonstrate that you understand concepts on a deeper level. Look for ways to achieve this by focusing on the linchpins. And don’t underestimate the power of more experience in a healthcare setting. This will make the hospital and clinical feel more familiar, decreasing fear and anxiety and enabling you to engage in authentic learning better.

Godspeed, new nursing students!

More Resources on How to Be Successful in Nursing School

Do you have any tips on how to be successful in nursing school? Drop them in the comments below! 👇

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Picture of Kati Kleber, founder of FRESHRN

Hi, I’m Kati.

Kati Kleber, MSN RN is a nurse educator, author, national speaker, host of the FreshRN® Podcast, and owner of FreshRN® – an online platform created to educate, encourage, and motivate newly licensed nurses in innovative ways.

Connect with her on YouTube, Pinterest, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook, and sign-up for her free email newsletter for new nurses.

1 Comment

  1. Taylor

    I found it interesting when you said to do the test-taking course before starting nursing school. My sister is thinking about being an RN and is currently looking at online options. She should make sure to find multiple online options to see which fits her busy life.


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