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Ask a Nurse: How Hard is Nursing School?

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Answering the question “how hard is nursing school?” requires several considerations, including a student’s strengths, motivation, and preparation. This guide explores the educational experiences of two nurses to help answer the question, though there is no way to objectively measure the difficulty of a nursing program. Compassionate, determined students who devote themselves to the field can thrive as nurses.

Glenda Hargrove earned a nursing diploma and, a few years later, completed an online RN-to-BSN program. Karen Furr obtained her MSN in nursing education.

On this page, Hargrove and Furr offer advice to prospective nursing students on classroom and clinical learning, the most challenging aspects of their programs, expected coursework, and balancing work and study. Both Hargrove and Furr indicate that nursing is an all-or-nothing endeavor. As Furr puts it, “I was working/studying nonstop.” Hargrove echoes that sentiment, telling enrollees to prepare “to immerse yourself in nursing because it will consume your life.”

Challenges of BSN Programs

A bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program prepares graduates to work as a registered nurse (RN) and is required to obtain nursing employment in some states. Earning a BSN also opens doors to career advancement and higher salaries in places that do not require the degree.

According to Hargrove, who also earned her nursing diploma, “there is no ‘easy’ nursing program, but preparation is key.” After working all week, she would rather have gone out with friends than spend the weekend writing a paper, understanding that she would have to prioritize her nursing education over personal time helped her stay on track.

“I stayed motivated knowing that the short-term pain would lead to long-term gain. I would graduate on a specific date and be a practicing nurse.”

  • Curriculum Expectations

    A typical BSN program includes courses in health assessment, pathophysiology, and pharmacology, along with clinical internships and exams. Hargrove’s online program required her to post responses to discussion questions, research papers, and final projects but did not include clinicals or tests.

    Students need competency in math and science. Hargrove explains that “if you can understand basic formulas, then you can plug in the numbers to determine your nursing dosages, drip factors, and so on. With science, the human body doesn’t change in terms of anatomy, so if you understand the basics, you will continue to build upon it.”

  • Workload Expectations

    Traditional BSN programs span about four years of full-time study. Because most RN-to-BSN students work while completing their degrees, the time to graduation varies, depending on how many hours students can devote to school, but the average totals around two years.

    Hargrove dedicated 10 hours a week to schoolwork, which generally involved reading and writing papers. Her online program provided flexibility while working full time. “Self-care is important,” she offers. “Get proper sleep, maintain hydration, exercise, and study.”

    Furr adds that “time management skills are critical for managing a master’s program. In addition, organization and self-motivation are key to success.”

Challenges of MSN Programs

A master of science in nursing (MSN) program prepares students for careers as advanced practice registered nurses, which include roles as nurse anesthetists, nurse administrators, and nurse practitioners, who work with a specific patient population, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP) or adult-gerontology. An MSN also serves as the gateway to a doctoral degree.

Students enter the program ready to pursue studies in their specialty area. “One of the most challenging aspects of my program was that many of my classes were offered to students in two different specialties (FNP and nursing education). Even though the content of the class was the same for both groups, the examples and application of the content varied, and so it was difficult to follow along sometimes and apply the teaching appropriately,” Furr explains.

  • Curriculum Expectations

    An MSN program usually starts by reviewing and building upon the BSN curriculum. The latter part of the program focuses on a student’s chosen specialty, such as advanced practice, nurse midwifery, or, as in Furr’s case, nursing education. Clinical and/or classroom practicums prepare graduates to enter careers in advanced nursing fields.

    As in a BSN program, nursing students should have basic skills in math and science to apply in the workplace. Furr recommends that students find mentors in their specialty areas who can help understand advanced content and application.

  • Workload Expectations

    MSN programs usually take two years to complete. Furr worked 36 hours per week and took three credits (two classes) each semester. “Master’s-level classes require more reading, research, and case studies than bachelor’s level classes, so more time is required,” she says. Her specialty, nursing education, also included clinical and classroom practicums.

    Furr recommends that students work as a nurse for a few years before starting an MSN program. “I found that those who had real-world experience were able to grasp and apply advanced concepts much more easily and quickly than those who transitioned directly from a BSN-to-MSN program,” she says.

Skills For Success

In addition to the skills mentioned by Hargrove and Furr — math and science competency, time-management, and organization — nursing students need to become critical thinkers. As Hargrove puts it, her program prepared her to “think beyond bedside nursing in terms of public health, administration, and research.”

Advanced critical thinking in these areas can carry over into students’ current jobs, along with their future careers and further education.

Hargrove and Furr also emphasize the importance of knowing what lies ahead and preparing for it. “It’s important to prioritize your time and even relationships to be successful,” Hargrove advises.

Meet Our Experts

Glenda Hargrove
Expert Reviewer: Glenda Hargrove

Glenda Hargrove has worked as an RN for the past ten years, practicing in several clinical settings, including acute care, long-term care, ambulatory care, and corrections. She entered the profession with a diploma earned at a hospital-based program. Several years later, Glenda went back to school and obtained a BSN through an online program. Her motto is “nursing saved my life so I can save lives.” Glenda owns Pill Apparel, based in Atlanta, Georgia.

Karen Furr
Expert Reviewer: Karen Furr

Karen Furr founded The Resilient Nurse Project, where she helps nurses overcome burnout and compassion fatigue. She makes a significant impact on nursing by helping nurses keep their passion without sacrificing themselves.

Karen is an RN with a master’s degree in nursing education. She holds over 14 years of experience as a nurse and has taught in clinical and classroom settings. Additionally, Karen maintains membership in the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing.

Karen lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband, her three daughters, and her dachshund named Champion. Find out more about The Resilient Nurse Project and connect with Karen on Facebook @theresilientnurseproject or at www.rnproject.org.

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