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How Hard is Nursing School?

15 Min Read Published November 7, 2023
Nurse student in library with backpack and books

One of the most common questions people ask when they consider entering into the nursing profession is, how hard is nursing school? 

Whether you are a high school graduate or a seasoned nurse looking for advanced nursing education, you need to understand what you're getting into to make that next move. 

We dug into a variety of nursing programs to help you understand the kind of commitment each one will require, as well as tips for how to succeed in nursing school!

This article will review why nursing school is hard, several factors that can impact how hard it is, and break down what you can expect in the different types of nursing programs.

We will also provide tips from nursing students who made it through and why nursing school is still worth it, despite how challenging it can be. 

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What Makes Nursing School Hard

Nursing students know that tackling nursing school involves dissecting and comprehending complex medical and nursing concepts. But it is also vital to grasp the lifestyle changes one must take to create the necessary learning space. What makes nursing school hard goes well beyond memorizing anatomy, learning practical nursing skills, and improving critical thinking. Here are a few things to consider:

How Much You’ll Need to Study 

Most undergraduate nursing programs request that their students work very little or not at all during their program. The reasoning is valid. There is such vast information to consume - via textbooks, lectures, and in-person clinical rotations - that there is almost no time left to work a regular job.

Often, nursing students temporarily move back in with parents or other family members and friends to make ends meet during their nursing programs. 

Balancing Nursing Classes and Your Life

Maintaining a work-life balance in nursing school requires a learn-as-you-go attitude. Once you feel like you have some control over your daily activities, classes, and study times, your schedules change again. It can start to mess with your head over time. 

Nursing school may disrupt your life in ways you didn’t expect. For example, your papers may take hours longer to research and write than expected, or your clinical work schedule may change with no notification. And that doesn't even consider how our personal lives can be filled with unexpected drama from time to time. It is essential to consistently remember that this is only a moment of time, and eventually, nursing school, too, will end.  

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Having Little Social Life

Nursing students should consider letting their family and friends know that they will be MIA for the duration of their nursing program. But not to worry! As soon as they graduate with their new nursing degree, not only will they have a rewarding career with significantly more income potential, but they will also get their social life back too.

A lack of social connection during nursing school can be very hard for stressed-out students who need human social contact more than ever. Instead of meeting friends out for drinks, nursing students may find that quick coffee dates or meeting friends for a quick jog or exercise class helps them stay connected. You may find that multitasking social connection along with physical exercise provides enough serotonin to get you through.

Lack of Sleep 

Many nursing students struggle with a lack of sleep during their studies. But the fact is that nurses must provide patient care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. So nursing students need to understand that even despite their best efforts to get enough rest, there will be times when they are tired. 

Some nursing students who work night shift clinical rotations find that staying up all night is too hard to handle. If that is the case, that is good information to have when you start interviewing for your first nursing job. You may have fewer employment options to choose from, but if staying awake for 24-hour periods is non-negotiable, you can interview for jobs that don’t require that.

Time Management 

Nursing students often struggle because their school and home workloads seem like a mountain of impossible-to-complete tasks. Schedules start to feel out of control, and students may feel defeated by the lack of boxes checked off their “to-do” list. If you are in or have completed a nursing program, you understand how frustrating and stressful this feels.

One of your first goals as a nursing student must be to figure out the most effective way to manage your time. Because if you don’t, your time will manage you, which is a recipe for nursing school failure.

A few ways to help you manage your time as a nursing student include:

  • Utilize a calendar system that works for you - either paper or digital
  • Time-block your day into specific tasks, and try to follow them as closely as possible. You can start by dedicating each hour to one particular activity - reading, paper writing, group studying, yoga, and even a nap!
  • Batch your tasks. For example, review all your emails in one sitting once a day for 30-45 minutes. Batching involves completing similar tasks in one sitting versus spreading them throughout the day.
  • Prioritize your “to-do” list. You are probably not going to complete every single thing every single day. But you can complete the most important tasks every day. They are less likely to get done without prioritizing them as the most important.
  • Plan your meals, and rest schedule. Your health and overall wellness may not feel like top priorities during nursing school. But on the contrary, they are the most critical priority. If you get sick or have an accident due to sleep deprivation, time management won’t matter because you won’t be able to work anyway.

Factors That Can Impact How Hard Nursing School Is 

The Type of Nursing Program

College is hard, no matter what you study. However, the type of school and the level of education you are trying to achieve does matter when it comes to nursing programs. One prominent example is that a BSN is an entry-level RN education versus a CRNA school for experienced nurses earning an advanced practice RN degree.

The good news is that you don't start from scratch as you earn higher-level degrees. Instead, you continue to build on the foundation of knowledge that you’ve already learned.

The Length of the Nursing Program

Many students choose to complete nursing programs part-time, so they can continue to work and maintain family or other personal responsibilities during their studies. Going to school full-time will be more intensive because you will have more work to do in less time. 

However, some BSN programs are accelerated, meaning you complete them in nearly half the time as a typical four-year BSN program. These programs are generally for students with a non-nursing bachelor's degree. Accelerated programs are known for being incredibly intensive, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming due to how much material is covered quickly. Students in accelerated programs often say that their programs are very stressful. However, they also add that the programs were a good choice for them in the long run because they finished school much faster.

Your Life, Family, and Work 

The more personal responsibilities you have outside nursing school, the more challenging school may be. For example, there are benefits to completing as much school as possible before starting a family; you won’t have as many outside responsibilities to focus on during your studies. 

But people with new families or those caring for aging parents can still find a way to tackle school successfully. However, nursing students must understand that the more complex their personal life is, the more challenging it may be to complete nursing school. Not impossible, but harder.

Your Learning Style 

Self-awareness about how you learn is an essential factor in how hard nursing school will be for you. Here are a few examples to consider:

  • Do you learn better by listening to lectures? 
  • Do you need visual images to make connections between concepts?  
  • Or do you prefer auditory learning, where you can listen to information and talk through concepts out loud in a group?
  • Are you a self-starter who enjoys being autonomous about how or where you study? 
  • Or do you prefer having a set time where people (or an in-person class) are waiting for you on a more set schedule?

Understanding how you learn best is important because many nursing programs are offered in online or hybrid formats. If you know that will not provide the best learning style for you, consider only looking at brick-and-mortar nursing programs that can provide in-person education.

Is it Easier To Do Online or In-Person Nursing Programs?

Achieving an online degree is now easier than ever before. However, it is essential to understand that while much of the classroom education and testing can be done online, simulation labs and clinical hours still need to be done in person in the medical setting. 

Some students have found that online nursing education is easier than in a classroom setting because they can do their studies at any time of the day or night. There is no need to spend time driving to and from class. Online education, therefore, often fits into an already busy schedule better than a brick-and-mortar program does. 

However, some people learn better in a classroom or group setting than in an online environment. If you are the type of person who learns best in an in-person group, that is something to take into consideration when choosing a nursing program. 

Can You Work While in Nursing School?

Many universities recommend that you either not work or work as few hours as possible while achieving a full-time ADN or BSN degree. The reasoning is that you will not have enough time to focus on your studies. If you need to work during nursing school, you may want to consider a part-time or at-your-pace program that will fit your needs. 

However, with the flexibility of online education, many students have also found it easier to balance work, school, and personal life during their studies than ever before.

For an MSN or higher, many universities offer part-time programs so that those who work full-time are still able to manage their studies. As most students at that point have already been working as a nurse for several years, the expectation is that you can still work at least part-time while in school.

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Tips on Getting Through Nursing School from Nurses Who Did It 

#1.  Take Care of Your Health

As a nursing student, your #1 priority should be to take care of yourself first. No matter what degree you are earning, it is an extremely stressful time, even for the best students. Getting sick will keep you from moving forward with your studies.

There will be times where you will have to stay up late to cram for exams or write papers - and you may even have to work graveyard clinical hour shifts, which will mean catching up on sleep during the day.

Make sure that you are drinking enough water, nourishing your body with healthy food, and sleeping appropriately when time permits. That way, when you do find yourself burning the midnight oil to prepare for a big test, you will still have energy reserves to get you through and prevent yourself from getting sick.

“Don’t skip the gym! It’s necessary time for your body and a mental break” -- @cptncavegirl

#2.  Manage Your Time Wisely

Nursing school, whether it be for an ADN or DNP, will be some of the busiest years of your entire life. It is essential that you pre-plan as much as you can so that your education and personal life get the attention they need.

Keep a planner to organize everything from school work to clinical hours, as well as family time and meals. Otherwise, your nursing program will manage your time for you, and you will feel constant overwhelm that may negatively affect your studies.

“Don’t wait to study last minute and you got this !!” -- @iamndhillon

#3.  Nursing School is Exhausting, But it’s Temporary!

Nursing school is a moment in time. You will have to make sacrifices for the greater good of your education; however, once you graduate, you will get your time back. Let family and friends know that you may be MIA for a while and that your education needs to take center-stage until you graduate. It won't be long before you get your social life back, along with so many more career opportunities ahead of you.

 #4.  Have the Right Attitude

Attitude is everything when it comes to handling the stress and challenges of nursing school.   Write down the reasons why nursing school is important to you and how it will impact your life in the long term. When you start feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, it is a great way to remember all the reasons why you are doing this in the first place and reach out to your support system for help!

“Don’t wait until the last minute to reach out for help if you’re struggling” -- @nurse_britty

#5. Understand What Study Habits Work Best for You

Initially, nursing school might seem like an impossible mountain to climb. But a proactive way to tackle this negative belief is to experiment with different study habits to find the most effective for you. 

For example, are you a better visual or auditory learner? Does reading coursework or lectures help sink information in more clearly?  Or do you learn better working in a study group? 

Another consideration is writing your notes by hand instead of typing everything on your laptop. One study suggests that writing lecture notes in longhand versus keyboard notetaking is superior in terms of learning outcomes. The study also found that drawing by hand activates larger brain networks than typing on a keyboard. That is insightful information for nursing students learning anatomy by drawing and color-coding with colored pencils!

“If you have a hard time remembering anatomy for a test,  try using colored pencils to color code notes and drawings. It helped me so much! – Jana, pediatrics nurse in Los Angeles

Why Nursing School is Worth it, Despite the Challenges

The employment outlook for the nursing profession is very bright!

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual income for registered nurses as of 2022 is $81,220 or $39.05/hr. The BLS notes that the typical entry-level education for RNs is a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree; however, you can be a registered nurse with an associate degree in nursing (ADN). However, it is important to keep in mind that hiring managers often prefer candidates with a BSN in most cases.

The BLS expects the job growth for RNs from 2022-2032 to be about 6%, which will mean there will be an additional 177,400 RN jobs created over the next ten years than there are today.

The future for nurses with a master of science in nursing (MSN) also looks fantastic! According to the BLS, nurses who take on upper management positions requiring an MSN, such as health service managers or unit directors, earn an annual median income of $104,830 or $50.40/hr.

The expected job growth for these positions is 28%, which is much faster than average professions. An additional 144,700 health manager positions will become available between 2022 and 2032.

In 2022, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), such as an NP, nurse midwives, or CRNAs, earned a median annual income of $125,900 or $60.53/hr per the BLS. The BLS also projects a 38% increase in available jobs, translating to 123,600 more positions than there are now.

You Got This

There is no doubt that nursing school will be hard. But after you finish and start your new career, you will see that the madness was all worth your while. 

By maintaining high nursing education standards, we continue to elevate the nursing profession with the most competent and skilled professionals. Best of luck to you in your nursing journey!

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Sarah Jividen
RN, BSN
Sarah Jividen
Nurse.org Contributor

Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a trained neuro/trauma and emergency room nurse turned freelance healthcare writer/editor. As a journalism major, she combined her love for writing with her passion for high-level patient care. Sarah is the creator of Health Writing Solutions, LLC, specializing in writing about healthcare topics, including health journalism, education, and evidence-based health and wellness trends. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. 

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