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Why Students Drop Out of Nursing School

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated March 23, 2023
    Nursing school is challenging. Discover the reasons students drop out of nursing school and tips from two nurses that reduce this risk.
    Credit: Wavebreakmedia / Getty Images
    • The nursing school dropout rate is significant. It is influenced by several factors, most of which you can control when you know how to prepare.
    • Some of the common reasons nurses drop out of nursing school include poor time management skills, overwhelming stress, bad study habits, and difficulty taking the new NCLEX-style questions on exams.
    • Experienced nurses recommend addressing these challenges head-on to develop strategies that raise your potential success to graduate and pass the NCLEX.

    For the 2020-2021 school year, the dropout rate for nursing schools in California hovered near 10%. Some schools reported rates as high as 39% and others reported a 0% attrition rate. These rates are an estimate of your potential to graduate if you are admitted to the program.

    The dropout rate is influenced by several factors, most of which you can control when you know how to prepare. Review the reasons nurses drop out and tips to avoid these pitfalls shared by two nurses.

    Common Reasons Students Drop Out of Nursing School

    If you’re concerned about what to expect during your first year of nursing school, understanding the common reasons why students drop out can help you avoid making these mistakes and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).

    Poor Time Management

    There is no doubt that nursing school is challenging. Nancy Mitchell, RN, has over 37 years of experience in geriatric nursing care, including as a director of nursing. She notes that many nurses choose the profession as a cheaper alternative to medical school.

    Yet, while less expensive than medical school, a nursing program can be challenging and time-consuming. Nurses must have a strong background in physiology and medicine to recognize when a physician’s orders are questionable. To achieve this foundation requires hours of study and clinical experience.

    Graduating from a nursing program requires students to pay close attention to their time management skills. They must finish coursework, study for exams, complete clinical experiences, and meet their personal responsibilities.

    Bad Study Habits

    The study habits that served you well in high school may not be adequate study habits for nursing school. Students shouldn’t wait until the last minute to complete assignments or read the required material.

    Other bad study habits include not using a study plan, getting distracted by social media or friends, cramming for tests the night before, and not asking for help when you need it. In high school, you may have studied to memorize for a test, but in your nursing program, you must study to understand the material to pass NCLEX-type test questions.

    Ignoring Self-Care

    Elizabeth Lubin, RN, has worked in many healthcare settings, including correctional centers. She stresses the need to look after yourself and pay attention to self-care. When you ignore caring for yourself, you increase the risk of experiencing nurse burnout.

    Burnout can make you feel helpless, increase the risk you’ll drop out of nursing school, and negatively impact your immune system. It is crucial to care for your mental and physical health, including selecting the right backpack for nurses or scrubs for nurses that make you feel good. When you don’t care for yourself, it reduces your productivity and can trigger mental and emotional distress.

    Mitchell agrees. “The irony of healthcare is that your mental and physical health tend to suffer through your passion to help others with their well-being,” she says.

    Feeling Overwhelmed

    It’s not uncommon for nursing students to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of a nursing program. It’s a significant reason why students drop out of nursing school. Lubin shares her struggles as a mother of five who entered nursing school after her children were born.

    “Every week, I would have to attend class twice a week, complete a 12-hour clinical in a hospital setting, complete group discussions, as well as demonstrate skills I learned. Not to mention preparing for exams every 2-3 weeks,” she says. “It became overwhelming and sometimes dropping out seemed like the best option.”

    Convert Raw Information Into Problem-Solving

    The National Council of State Boards of Nursing has planned changes on the NCLEX for spring 2023. Many nursing programs have altered their test questions in anticipation of these changes to help students adjust and prevent them from failing the NCLEX.

    The questions are different from the old style of questions that asked students to just repeat information. This has created a significant challenge for some students.

    Family Responsibilities

    The stability of the nursing profession and the rising nursing shortage has increased the interest of adult students or second-degree students who want to switch to nursing. These students often have started their families, or they are caring for elderly parents or guardians.

    The demands of nursing school do not stop with family responsibilities. Some students find they cannot juggle the demands of both and consider dropping out of nursing school.

    How to Avoid Failing/Dropping Out of Nursing School

    Nursing school can be costly and time-consuming. Dropping out of nursing school can create a void in your finances, leaving you with a partial education you can’t use to its full potential. Lubin and Mitchell recommend these tips to help students be successful at nursing school.

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      Remember Your Reason Why

      Lubin recalls times when the stress of nursing school caused her to want to drop out. She and her husband decided to live on one income while she completed her program.

      “I knew I wanted better for myself and my family. Whenever it crossed my mind, I would remember my reason for going back to school and push through,” she says.

      Identifying and remembering your reason “why” for attending nursing school can help fuel your motivation to continue the program. This may motivate you to seek help, create better study habits, and learn new time management skills.

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      Nursing School Is Temporary

      Through the stress of going to school and raising a family, Lubin kept reminding herself that nursing school is temporary. When you are in the middle of a stress-filled situation, it is easy to get tunnel vision. You begin to believe that what you’re experiencing will continue forever.

      Instead, it is crucial to remember that the time you spend in nursing school is temporary. When you pay attention to the tasks you must complete that day, it reduces the stress you experience when you look at the big picture.

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      Schedule Breaks

      Lubin recommends you schedule breaks during your nursing program. This is vital for self-care for nurses. She scheduled self-care days on the days of her exams.

      “I knew that was the most challenging day for me, so afterward I would just relax and focus on other things,” she says.

      Lubin spent her self-care days focused on things that made her happy. For example, you could spend time with family and friends, take a long walk outside, go to the movies, or go shopping. The idea is to take your mind off of school and other personal responsibilities, if just for several hours.

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      Get Help for Your Study Skills

      Most new nursing students do not begin their academic careers with strong study skills. If you find yourself falling behind in the first several weeks, do not hesitate to ask for help. Universities and colleges have programs designed especially for new students to help them get study habits that raise their level of success.

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      Develop Strong Time Management Skills

      It is important that new students also develop strong time management skills for nurses. This is another reason why students drop out of nursing school. Creating a plan each semester with dates to complete your coursework and study for exams is a good place to start.

      At the end of each week, plan your schedule for the following week. Block out time for your clinicals, classes, studying, and family responsibilities. Set up an accountability buddy to help you stay on track.

      Consider an app on your phone that limits your time on social media to designated hours. Each of these time management strategies can help you become more successful in your nursing program.

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      Get Help at Home

      While it’s important to address the stressors at school, it’s just as crucial to address your stressors at home. If you have children, consider asking someone to watch them when you need to study.

      Engage the help of your friends and family to spread your responsibilities. Remember that nursing school is temporary, and most of your friends and family are happy to lend an occasional hand to help you be successful.

    Meet Our Contributors

    Portrait of Elizabeth Lubin, RN

    Elizabeth Lubin, RN

    Elizabeth Lubin is of Haitian descent, born and raised in south Florida. She is a wife and mother to five children. As an LPN for 12 years, she worked in various healthcare settings, including correctional care. In 2020, she returned to school to further her career in nursing. Lubin earned her ADN in May 2022. In June 2022, she officially became an RN. She currently works at a level 2 trauma hospital in the emergency department while continuing her education to earn a BSN.

    Portrait of Nancy Mitchell, RN

    Nancy Mitchell, RN

    Nancy Mitchell is a registered nurse and contributing writer. She has over 37 years of experience in geriatric nursing care, both as a senior care nurse and director of nursing care.



    Accreditation, attrition, and on time completion rates. (2022). https://www.rn.ca.gov/education/attrition.shtml