Student’s Guide to Surviving Nursing Clinicals

Keith Carlson, RN, NC-BC
Updated November 15, 2022
Student nursing clinicals are a crucial aspect of nursing education where you learn very important skills. Find out how to maximize your clinical experiences.
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What are clinicals in nursing school? Nursing clinicals are where you learn the important hands-on skills that you’ll need to provide safe, effective, high-quality patient care for the rest of your career. It’s also an opportunity to learn how to communicate and collaborate with patients, their families, and other members of the healthcare team.

Many students find nursing clinicals intimidating. It’s never easy to be the novice on the unit, and fear about making mistakes as a new nursing student is normal. However, you can overcome these feelings and have great learning experiences.

Review what to expect during nursing clinicals, nurses’ real-life tips for surviving them (and maybe even thriving), and how to conquer this all-important experience with confidence.

What to Expect During Nursing Clinicals

The purpose of nursing clinicals is to give nursing students the chance and confidence to practice skills in real-life situations. These skills may include:

  • check-circleInserting catheters
  • check-circleAdministering medications
  • check-circleUsing electronic medical records
  • check-circleGiving bed baths
  • check-circleGetting vital signs
  • check-circleTaking patient histories
  • check-circleChanging intravenous lines and making patients’ beds
  • check-circleAssisting patients with toileting, walking, and transferring

Nursing students also need to get used to speaking with doctors and other healthcare professionals. Likewise, they may feel shy about talking with patients and their families. One way to learn how to educate and coach patients is through direct experience.

Critical thinking for registered nurses (RNs) and decision-making are two other areas where student nurses can sharpen their skills.

A clinical instructor is always on hand during clinical assignments, and each student nurse is paired with a nurse preceptor who works in that setting.

Some nursing clinicals such as the operating room, involve more observation than actual skill building. But these experiences are still great exposure to what can happen during patient care.

Having a preconference with the clinical instructor and fellow students provides time to plan for the day, review patient assignments, and answer questions. Postconferences are a chance to discuss what went well and what could have been better.

When Do Nursing Clinicals Take Place?

Student nurse clinicals begin during the first or second semester of the first year of nursing school, depending on the program.

Where Do Nursing Clinicals Take Place?

Student nursing clinicals can take place in many settings to provide a variety of experience. Clinical sites may include hospitals, clinics, home health agencies, community health centers, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes.

How Are Nursing Clinicals Assessed?

Nursing clinicals are usually assessed in terms of:

  • check-circleAttendance
  • check-circleParticipation
  • check-circleDress, hygiene, and conduct
  • check-circlePreparation
  • check-circleCollaboration and cooperation
  • check-circleAttitude
  • check-circleCommunication
  • check-circleSkill building

The Most Common Mistakes Nursing Students Make During Clinicals

There are common mistakes that many nursing students can avoid, and there is plenty of advice for students who want to put their best foot forward.

Beth Hawkes, nurse author of the book “Your Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job,” is a true expert. Hawkes shares that medication errors by nurses, giving incomplete reports, and falling prey to stress are three of the most common mistakes made by nursing students during clinical assignments.

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D., is a nurse educator, author, and editor. She shares that not getting enough sleep is a big problem for many nursing students. Keeping “under the radar” and “hiding” from clinical instructors is also common. Finally, not asking for help can also have a negative impact on nursing students’ clinical experiences and learning.

  1. 1

    Medication Errors

    “Medication errors have been linked to nursing fatigue in addition to mistakes made by nursing students,” shares Hawkes. “By checking medications five times before delivering them, you can reduce the risk of medication mistakes. Don’t haste while giving medications. Check the chart and see the doctor if you have any questions.”

  2. 2

    Giving incomplete reports

    “In nursing school, you were taught how to present information, but guess what? Once you are on the floor, reporting is not the same thing,” cautions Hawkes. “A well-thought-out nursing report is one that you properly communicated to the patient’s doctors and other team members. Watching and learning from experience as they present their reports can help you get the swing of it.”

  3. 3

    Falling prey to stress

    Hawkes advises, “One of the most stressful professions in the world is nursing, and you must develop coping mechanisms to be ready for daily crises, even death. You need to find a good stress management strategy right now or you’ll burn out far earlier than necessary.”

    “Healthy stress management strategies for nurses include eating well, exercising frequently, and practicing meditation,” continues Hawkes.

  4. 4

    Avoiding the clinical instructor

    Rhoads describes a common but unfortunate scenario: “Some nursing students think that if they avoid being seen by the clinical instructor they can simply slide under the radar and won’t have to work as hard. Clinical instructors can very easily see through this tactic and do not look kindly upon it. Instead, try to stay busy by answering call lights and asking questions.”

  5. 5

    Not asking for help

    “Nothing is scarier than a nursing student (or nurse!) who doesn’t ask for help when they truly need it, or those who are scared to admit they don’t know the answer to something,” says Rhoads. “The ‘fake it until you make it’ mentality is dangerous.”

    Rhoads continues, “Please always ask for help from the clinical instructor, fellow student, or assigned RN when you need it or don’t know the answer. Clinical instructors love to answer questions and would much rather help you find the answer than have a dangerous situation occur.”

  6. 6

    Not getting enough sleep

    Rhoads shares, “Clinicals can be a nerve-wracking experience and many nursing students stay up late the night before clinical trying to ‘cram.’ However, because nursing clinicals are much more than simply rote memorization, ‘cramming’ before clinical does not help, and getting more sleep would be more beneficial.”

Is It Normal to Feel Anxious About Nursing Clinicals?

Rhoads’ advice is straightforward: “Be kind to yourself, and remember that it is impossible to know everything and that you are still learning! Also, find a clinical buddy to help be your support system during clinical and have an open dialogue with your clinical instructor about your feelings.””Clinical instructors were nursing students once too, and they will likely understand and have their own tips,” adds Rhoads.

Conquering Your Nursing Clinicals

Nursing clinicals are a key part of your nursing education, so giving clinical experiences your all is advisable. Be kind and helpful. Be prepared, enthusiastic, and curious. Remember that there are no stupid questions, except for the ones that never get asked. It’s all about learning, so absorb everything you can while you have the chance.

Advice shared by Rhoads applies to any student nurse seeking to conquer their nursing clinicals:

“Actively find new experiences and volunteer to help! Clinical instructors are spread very thin and do not always notice a great learning opportunity right away. If you note a procedure or test that is going to happen for a patient, don’t be shy to ask the RN and clinical instructor if you can observe. Also, if you have squared-away your patients, ask your fellow classmates if they need any help.”

Rhoads concludes, “Nursing school clinicals can be very stressful, but they really are where the ‘magic’ happens. Clinical is where all of the classroom and lab learning comes together to make you a nurse!”

Meet Our Contributors

Portrait of Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D.

Jenna Liphart Rhoads, Ph.D.

Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a nurse educator, freelance author, and editor. Her clinical background includes surgical-trauma adult critical care, interventional radiology procedures, and conscious sedation in adult and pediatric populations. Liphart Rhoads has taught in traditional BSN, RN-BSN, and graduate nursing programs in Illinois, Texas, and Wisconsin.

Portrait of Beth Hawkes, MSN, RN-BC

Beth Hawkes, MSN, RN-BC

As a speaker and writer, Beth Hawkes helps nurses at every step in their careers through her award-winning blog, Nurse Code, freelance writing, and as a career columnist at She authored the book “Your Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job” to give nurses the ultimate insider guide to landing the job of their dreams.

She also has extensive experience developing content for organizations such as Lippincott, HealthStream, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and others. She coauthored the Association of Nursing Professional Development’s Certification Preparation book and is an experienced certification review presenter and expert.

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