How to Survive the First Year of Nursing School

To preface this post: I did not get a 4.0 nor did I figure out the key to ace every pathology/pharmacology exam. I’m only human.

First of all, the fact that you made it into a nursing program is a feat of its own! Give yourself a pat on the back – you’ll need a lot of self-appreciation and self-love throughout this season of your life. And yes, actually making it to lecture was a feat of its own some days, and you can sure as hell bet that I treated myself with an iced latte when I did.

So it’s the summer before your first semester of nursing school, and you’re nervous as hell. You’ve spent hours picking out the perfect stethoscope, trying to figure out your schedule, and spending hundreds of dollars on your textbooks. Let me reassure you that I, too, did all of this.

Let me also reassure you that no stethoscope is “perfect,” you won’t understand your schedule for the entire first year, and you will rarely use your textbooks. I’m just being real with you guys.

1. Relax.
Alright. That’s it! Good luck!

Just kidding.

I know it’s easier said than done, but trust me when I say that you will regret not spending your time relaxing the summer before your first year. I had a couple of medical terminology assignments and a summer pre-requisite class during the summer, but I made sure to plan accordingly so that I can get these things done, yet also take time to spend with my family and friends.

2. Find stress-relieving hobbies and activities.

I really applied myself in the kitchen this summer and found a real passion in developing delicious recipes and sharing them with you guys on Instagram and this blog. I created a healthy recipe guide with my time and decided to raise money to donate to the Atlanta Community Food Bank and found it to be such a great way to spend my time and my energy that I would've otherwise spent watching Netflix. (But don't worry, I spent a lot of time watching Netflix, too. I'm still sad that Parks & Rec came to an end.

Because I found this stress-relieving hobby, I was able to take this into the school year and use it when I would feel overwhelmed with my studies and just needed a break. For you, it may be knitting, kickboxing, biking, antiquing, or teaching yoga. Whatever it is, keep it with you when times get hard. You’ll need to redirect your focus on something when school/clinicals gets to be too much.

3. Find your support system.

I remember my professors telling us at orientation that we should tell our friends and family, “See you in 2 years!” I remember thinking, "Pfft. I can do it all."

Boy, was I wrong.

It’s no joke when I say that this time of your life is insanely busy. On top of 8 hour lectures, I also had online assignments, reading assignments, projects, papers, meetings, clinicals, skills validations, and lab. Then, you add on personal responsibilities like staying in shape, paying rent, and taking care of kids (for you superhuman parents). You will get stressed. Overwhelmed. But you don’t have to deal with it own your own.

With supportive parents, friends, cousins, significant others, this journey is so much more doable and rewarding. I hope that you surround yourself with people who will celebrate and champion you, no matter how much time you’re spending in the library instead of spending time with them. No one really understands what it’s really like being in nursing school, so it can be hard when you have friends who don’t grasp the idea of studying rather than partying. When it gets hard to juggle it all, remember your priorities. I truly believe that if they are for you, they will support you despite the long stretches of not seeing each other.

4. Plan and stay organized.

I used a Kate Spade planner, but recently switched back to my Passion Planner. I personally enjoy the time increments and the way that each day is set up in the Passion Planner, while the Kate Spade planner had no daily organization whatsoever. It’s crucial to stay on top of your assignments, deadlines, and responsibilities because there are just too many to remember. I’ve learned that by making to-do lists, daily schedules, and weekly plans, I was able to visualize and complete all of my tasks in a timely manner. I truly believe that with all of this planning, you are preparing yourself to become an organized, dependable nurse.

5. Be kind to yourself.

There will be peers smarter than you. This is applicable in any aspect of the social realm! There will be people with more medical experience, more resources, more time, more this, more that. The fact is though, there will always be someone better/worse than you. But this doesn’t mean that you aren’t also capable.

To be really honest, it was difficult to focus on my own progress when I would get a B on an exam, while another student would come take the exam after a night shift at the hospital and ace it within 15 minutes. (Yeah, I’m talking about you Kristen. You amazing woman, you.) Focusing on others will always take away from your ability to celebrate yourself. In that moment, I felt stupid. But what I needed to remember was that that B on the exam was an improvement from the C I’d gotten on the previous exam. I needed to be kind to myself, despite how amazing others were doing, because in the end - it isn't about how others are doing. It's about how you handle defeat and use that to become a better version of yourself.

6.  Make goals and stay focused.

"If you aren’t changing, you aren’t growing. If you aren’t seeking ways to improve, you are settling."

This is the mindset that I gained throughout this year. For some, this may seem too black and white, but in my personal experience, adopting this mindset transformed my actions. Without goals, I would have remained content with average scores and lackluster study habits. I wouldn't have cared about graduate programs, more ways to learn, or scholarship opportunities. I set daily and weekly goals, as well as 5 year and 10 year goals to keep myself focused. In retrospect, I realize that this will help me set goals for my patients, whether it be to reach an ideal blood glucose, or to ambulate for the first time 24 hours after her c-section.

7. Make connections.

You can easily go through nursing school without talking to anyone, and I first thought that this is how you succeed. I was proven wrong when I felt so lost with communicating more effectively with patients and creating more intricate care plans. So I asked for help - not only to my professors, but to my advisor, my instructor, and my clinical group. I am so grateful for all the people that I’ve met and connected with throughout this process. Depending on how your program is set up, you will have various professors, clinical instructors, and clinical members. These connections that you make with the people around you are crucial – not only to your growth, but also your future career. Healthcare depends on clear communication and teamwork. 

I have had amazing clinical instructors thus far, who have contributed so much to my personal and professional growth. However, it’s important to realize that this is not because they decided to pour out their love and wisdom unto me for no reason. It is because I independently sought out their advice and help, spoke with them on a weekly basis, and asked for their stories.

Same goes for your peers in your cohort. There are people from all walks of life. I’ve had the honor of meeting so many mothers, juggling part-time jobs, this second degree, being a wife, and taking care of their children. I’ve heard the stories of students who have to work nights while in school to pay for their rent. Some of your peers have personal experiences with the illnesses you learn about. Everyone has a story. So do you. So listen and share. Cultivate a community within your nursing cohort.

8. Apply yourself.

When you learn something new, don't keep it to yourself in your books. Practice, practice, practice! I failed my first skills validation of putting in a foley catheter using a sterile technique. I broke the sterile field when I let go of the patient's labia to insert the foley with 2 hands, when I could have maintained a body position that would have allowed me to keep my left hand on her labia while inserting with my right hand in 1 fluid motion. I believe that if I had practiced with my instructor and professors on a simulation mannequin rather than practicing at home with an imaginary patient, I would have passed my validation. I learned that lesson the hard way, but you can sure as hell bet that I will never forget how to correctly insert a foley catheter.

I also learned to communicate with patients by actually communicating with them in clinical. It is so easy to follow your nurse around and simply watch. However, I only learned how I best communicate when I actively talked to these patients who were struggling with their unmanaged diabetes due to lack of knowledge, or those who were struggling with lack of resources due to the prejudices pressed upon them because of their diagnosed mental illness. 

It's a fact that in nursing school, you learn how to pass the NCLEX. Your professors provide life lessons and tidbits of social tips here and there, but you truly do not learn how to hold your patients' hands when they're flustered with their new care plan. You don't learn how to swallow your pride and ask for help. You don't learn how to delegate to patient care techs without being an asshole. You don't learn how to correctly mourn after you have to perform post-mortem care on the patients you deeply connected with.

9. Feel those feelings.

You're gonna want to cry. You're gonna want to quit and order a large pizza and flush it down with a bottle of wine. Just remember that you're not alone in feeling these feelings. You don't have to put a brave face on and act like you can handle all of it. You are in no way obligated to "be strong" without feeling all of those feelings to their fullest extent. If you have to take 10 minutes away from your finals studying to really cry, then do it. It will serve you better than repressing that stress and overwhelming anxious feeling and having it all suffocate you later.

You get to feel this way. You get to be sad. You get to be mad. This will teach you to better understand when your patients are feeling this way. I promise. 

10. Take care of yourself. 

You can choose to take the extra 30 minutes in your day to take a yoga class before lecture, or you can choose to stay at home and watch a movie with your significant other. The truth is that there's no wrong way to spend your time, as long as it is helping you balance out the busy days. You may be a person who'd rather go on a 5 mile run with your free time. So do it! You might rather go lay in a hammock and read a good book. So do it! Just make sure that you are not constantly thinking about school and only school. Take care of your mental health. 

With all of that said, take a deep breath, and get ready to LEARN! I would recommend that you brush up on your anatomy + physiology content so that the information is a bit of a review rather than completely foreign. You will learn so much this year - not only about the nursing profession or about the NCLEX, but also about how you deal with stress, death, and life. 

Good luck!