Ask a Nurse: How Hard Is Nursing School?

Elizabeth Morrill, MHS, RN
Updated August 29, 2023
Edited by
    Experienced nurses, Glenda Hargrove and Karen Furr, provide guidance, advice, and pro tips on successfully balancing work and study.
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    • Nursing school can be challenging, but with a little preparation, it’s possible to excel in school.
    • The hardest parts about nursing school involve demanding coursework, long days of classes and clinical hours, and a lot of memorization.
    • Despite these challenges, most nursing students successfully complete their degrees and go on to a nursing position within a few months of graduation.

    It was the end of the first semester of nursing school, and I was preparing to take my final skills check to move on to the next semester. Most of the skills were a piece of cake — giving a bed bath, having a proper handwashing technique, and administering an injection. But for some reason, I struggled to put on sterile gloves before inserting a urinary catheter into the pretend patient (a mannequin in the skills lab).

    It wasn’t the technique. It wasn’t trying to remember all the steps. No — the problem was that I was so nervous, and my hands were so sweaty that the gloves kept ripping every time I tried to put them on, ruining the sterile field.

    I spent hours practicing this at home and in the nursing school lab, but the nerves just wouldn’t go away. But like any good nursing student, I got creative — I started keeping a tiny bottle of baby powder in my scrub pocket, and I was sure to dust my hands right before beginning the procedure. When it came time for my skills check, the gloves went on smoothly, and I passed with flying colors.

    Nursing school can be challenging, but smart nurses are always ready to find a solution. With practice, preparation — and maybe a few sprinkles of baby powder — it’s possible to thrive in nursing school.

    Is Nursing School Hard?

    The short answer is: yes.

    Nursing school involves rigorous study, frequent exams, long days at the hospital or in the skills lab, and extremely high expectations. This is after completing the rigorous prerequisites to apply for nursing school.

    In a typical bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program, many nursing students must pass a math exam in their first semester to show they can convert units and correctly calculate medication dosages. In my nursing school, the only passing grade was 100%. That meant if you made even one mistake, you failed not just the test but the entire semester.

    It sounds harsh, but the reality is that nurses must be this accurate when they’re working with patients. After all, giving the wrong medication — even once — can have catastrophic consequences.

    Unlike some degree programs, nursing school isn’t a place where you can memorize information for the test and forget it as soon as the class is over. Each class in nursing school builds on previous coursework. If you don’t master how the heart works in pathophysiology, you won’t understand cardiac disease processes when it’s time for medical-surgical nursing or how cardiac medications work in pharmacology.

    On the other hand, nurses (and by extension, nursing professors) are some of the smartest, most compassionate, and most supportive people in medicine. An incredible amount of resources are also available to help students memorize important facts, practice essential skills, and prepare for big exams (like the NCLEX).

    Some of the most challenging parts of nursing school include:

    • Grueling schedules that involve early clinical hours (often requiring students to arrive at the hospital or clinical site at 6:30 a.m. for a 7 a.m. shift). By senior year, you may even have overnight clinical practicums in addition to your regular daytime class schedule.
    • Full course loads that often involve 4-6 classes per semester, all of which include lectures, substantial reading, research papers or reports, exams, and skills checks.
    • A great deal of memorization, some of which can be tricky — like when you need to memorize all the different medications that are prescribed for epilepsy, their individual side effects, how they work, and their dosages (and next week, you have to memorize all the medications for diabetes…).
    • Fast-paced schedules require you to learn detailed information about how the body works quickly and completely to move on to the next unit.

    Many nursing students say that pharmacology and pathophysiology are the hardest classes in nursing school. In some schools, nursing students take the same pathophysiology coursework as pre-med students, so the standard for nursing students is quite high.

    Bottom line? The next time you hear someone described as “just” a nurse, remember how much education and training they’ve been through to practice nursing.

    Despite these challenges, the vast majority of nursing students complete their degrees and obtain their nursing licenses. According to UnivStats, about 90% of nursing students in top nursing schools successfully graduate.

    Better yet, nursing is an incredibly secure career choice due to the nursing shortage. The AANC reports that 93% of BSN graduates have a job offer just 4-6 months after graduating.

    How to Succeed In Nursing School

    The key to succeeding in nursing school is planning. Due to the rigorous schedule and how each class builds on previous coursework, staying on top of deadlines is important so you don’t have to play catchup (which can be almost impossible during finals or other extra-busy periods).

    • Use a digital or paper planner to keep track of due dates and exams.
    • Break projects into smaller pieces and schedule them on your calendar.
    • Avoid staying up late to cram whenever possible — your brain needs rest to really retain information.
    • Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

    Make sure you build in regular time for study and review. It’s also helpful to be specific about your study plans. Instead of saying that you’ll study for a pharmacology exam this week, write down what that actually looks like.

    For example:

    • Read the chapter on endocrinology drugs and take notes.
    • Review slides from the lecture.
    • Make flashcards for important medications.
    • Drill flashcards for 30 minutes a day until memorized.
    • Take the practice test at the end of the chapter.

    Then, plan out each baby step on your schedule to ensure you have enough time to prepare.

    Frequently Asked Questions About Nursing School

    How hard is nursing school?

    Nursing school is challenging — there’s no doubt about it. Due to the sheer quantity of information to learn and the fast pace, nursing students must rely on solid study skills and top-notch organization to stay on top of their coursework.

    What’s the hardest part of nursing school?

    While there are a few especially challenging courses — hello, pharmacology — some of the most difficult parts of nursing school are the fast pace and heavy course load, which is why organization, planning, and preparation are so important.

    Is nursing school worth it?

    Nursing can be a rewarding career choice for people who enjoy helping others. It’s also a very secure field, with many opportunities for nurses who want to try new areas or specialties.

    What’s the best way to prepare for nursing school?

    Preparation is the key to success in nursing school. Familiarize yourself with common nursing school courses and brush up on any prerequisite areas that might need work (especially anatomy and physiology). Make sure that you have strong study skills, and seek help from your school’s student resource center or counseling center if you need help.

    I’m in nursing school, and I’m struggling — help!

    First, don’t panic. Nearly every nursing student feels overwhelmed at some point in their program. Second, try to understand what’s causing the issue. Is it a particular topic area that needs more study? Are you feeling behind in your coursework in general? Or are you struggling with the emotional burden of caring for very sick people?

    These are all legitimate reasons to feel overwhelmed. Talk to your counselor, a favorite professor, or a clinical preceptor about what’s going on. They’ll point you in the right direction to get the resources and support you need.

    Nursing School: Hard, But Worth It

    If you’re interested in nursing school, don’t let the challenges scare you away. While nursing school can be difficult, thousands of successful BSN students graduate every year.

    Getting your BSN is also a smart career move. The average salary for nurses is $77,600 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There is a lot of room for growth as healthcare demands grow. Additionally, 28% of healthcare employers require new hires to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and 72% of employers strongly prefer BSN-prepared nurses — yet another reason to get your BSN.

    Perhaps more importantly, nursing is a rewarding career that allows for critical thinking, autonomy, career mobility, and the opportunity to help people who need it.

    Are you thinking about getting your BSN? Learn more about what it takes to succeed in nursing school.