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Nursing school is a big unknown scary thing. So join me as I help you stay ahead in nursing school despite how overwhelming and demanding it is day to day.

How to stay ahead 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.

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

Be cognizant of the NCLEX from the beginning

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, start getting into a routine of taking NCLEX prep questions immediately (just a few a day) even if you don’t know the content behind them yet, and getting your test-taking skills down early for both general nursing school exams and the NCLEX

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

Learn test taking strategies right away away

Nursing school exams are a bit different than other majors. Therefore, learning how to tackle them in a knowledgeable and purposeful way early on in your nursing school journey is so, so smart.

I wrote a blog post on test taking strategies for nursing students. However, if you want to read an entire book that dives deep into them, click here.

Prime your brain for lectures

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

Conversely, don’t make the mistake of not reading anything beforehand either. Going in cold to a lecture will leave you behind, as you’re trying to look up the basic definitions to terms that professors just whiz by.

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

Get practical experience however you can

In between my junior and senior year, I completed a 10-week nurse residency program. I basically shadowed another nurse. It was incredibly helpful. I was able to physically 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 10 weeks, which seriously enhanced my understanding. If you don’t have the opportunity to complete an internship – volunteer.

Getting ready for nursing school clinicals, but feeling unprepared?

Skills Refresh 3 1

Nursing Skills Refresh from FreshRN is a self-paced video course for both new and experienced nurses. Whether you’re preparing for your first clinical experience, or need to brush up on your nursing skills, this course is for you. Each lesson walks you through the basic tasks and concepts you will experience in the clinical setting. Once completed, you’ll feel comfortable in a hospital setting, understand the basics of what the bedside experience will feel like, and know insider tips and tricks that will make you feel confident and in control.

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 simply 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.

And if neither of those are an option for you, consider this online resource.

Don’t look at your reading assignments as just a to-do list

When you’re trying to get ahead, it’s easy for it to turn into something to just check off as done on your to-do list. But in this situation, you really need to try to learn and understand things deeply, not merely get things done to be successful in nursing school. Switch the mentality from getting it done to truly understanding it.  Look for “ah-ha” moments in the text. Understand the concepts, don’t just memorize the text. If you don’t finish every word of a reading assignment, but now you really understand the pathophysiology behind atrial fibrillation, count that as a win – not an incomplete.

When I was in school, I didn’t look for the “ah-ha” moments in the text – I just tried to get it done.  I personally got pretty bogged down by all the fluff in the textbooks because I didn’t know where to focus. It can get pretty tough to identify the information that will lead to your “Oh, now I get it” moments.  When you find them, make sure you take notes and focus there.

It’s not about checking off a to-do list, it’s not about getting a certain grade. It’s about understanding the information so that when you are taking care of patients, you’re making the safest decisions at every turn.

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

Focus on what connects the dots

Finding those aspects of the content that really turn it from something textbook to something that really 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 identify these linchpins, make 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 really cut down on study and comprehension time, and are full of linchpins!

(If you use Picmonic, make sure you use the promo code FRESHRN for 20% off)

Final thoughts on how to stay ahead in nursing school

Nursing school is overwhelming, but doable if you are proactive and intentional with your time and efforts. Don’t wait for multiple bad test grades to begin outlining some study strategies. Don’t wait until you’ve failed a class to invest in a support system. And don’t waste hours searching for lost study material or missing multiple deadlines before getting more organized.

More nursing school resources

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