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Your last year of nursing school can be overwhelming, with classes, fieldwork, planning for the NCLEX-RN, and searching for your first job as a registered nurse (RN). At the same time, it is an exciting time. These tips from experienced nurses can help you maintain your well-being, explore your career options, and prepare for a successful job hunt.
Learn how to maximize your final year of nursing school with this expert advice.
10 Things to Do in Your Last Year of Nursing School
Your goals are to graduate with the best grades possible, prepare for and pass the NCLEX-RN, and to take on a personally and financially rewarding position in a new role. While demand for nurses is high, jobs at top employers are still competitive. Preparation can make the difference between your dream job and a less ideal choice. Similarly, exploring different roles ensures you find your best fit. Lastly, you must maintain your mental and emotional well-being during this busy time.
Taylor Sadarananda (MSN, RN), Nidhi Avichal (BSN, RN), and Courtney Cioka (MS, RN) shared their expertise on how to succeed in your last year.
Avichal's overall advice for your final year: "Be confident in your education and the skills you have practiced. Embrace and enjoy every minute of it."
Save Your Nursing Notes to Study for the NCLEX
The right timing can help you pass the NCLEX-RN. You want to give yourself a break to refresh mentally and physically, but not so long that you might forget anything. Sadarananda suggests, "Do not delay in taking the NCLEX. Rest for two weeks and then start studying for two or three weeks with the goal of you taking it no later than a month and a half after graduation."
Sadarananda also recommends saving "all your medical/surgical/adult health notes to use for studying for the NCLEX, to help you remember everything."
Explore all Your Options When Considering Possible Career Pathways
During your schooling, you have likely gotten at least a glimpse at most major types of employers and careers. However, you may find the right career for you is off the beaten path. Talk to career counselors, look at Facebook or LinkedIn nursing groups, or explore your school's alumni networks to see what recent graduates are doing. School alumni, especially, may well be open to sharing information and experiences, and even helping you network.
Avichal states, "There are many pathways one can take with a nursing degree. Be open and shadow various different specialties. You never know what may surprise you."
Research Different Hospitals or Employers
The ideal job consists of the right role, environment, and culture, one that positions you for your next career move. The more you know about different types of hospitals and settings, the better you can decide what kind of organization and role will suit you.
Sadarananda advises, "Think about which unit/type of nursing would benefit you the most. Critical care nurses are limited in their scope. Medical surgical nurses receive a great foundation that can be utilized in many different facets down the road."
Be diligent in checking out individual employers. Talk to alumni and teachers, use websites like Glassdoor.com, and network with as many people as you can to get a sense of the culture and how the organization supports its nurses.
Accept as Many Shadow Experiences as Possible
Shadowing lets you explore different types of roles, settings, and cultures. The more you sample, the better choices you can make. If you can, shadow even roles and employers you do not immediately feel drawn toward, since shadowing can either confirm your impression or open new opportunities you hadn't considered.
"Take those shadow experiences seriously. Really observe how the team interacts and how challenges on the unit are handled, and talk to as many staff members as possible. Look beyond the surfaces of what people say. This will allow you to determine where you can really find yourself being happy," Cioka states.
Take on a CNA or Student Nurse Role Before Graduating
Working as a CNA or student nurse can provide professional experience, build your network, and give you a valuable reference from your supervisor or colleagues.
Sadarananda recommends this because "you will come out stronger when it comes to simple patient care (bathing, toileting, communicating with patients, feeling comfortable in hospital settings)."
Cioka cautions, "Even as a student nurse or CNA, you are an employee. Your actions and behaviors as a student nurse or CNA frame your professional persona and leader perceptions."
If you pace yourself and make a good impression, this experience can be invaluable.
Create a Personal Portfolio to Help You Stand Out from Other Candidates
Even though the job market for nurses remains strong, the best jobs are still highly competitive. To stand out from other candidates, Avichai advises creating a portfolio that can stand out even more than a resume, stating, "My personal portfolio includes pictures of community service involvement, nominations by patients, and samples of educational PowerPoints, flyers, and projects I spearheaded and created."
A portfolio that shows your dedication, leadership potential, and results you have contributed to for patients can set you apart. Be selective about what you include and make sure it is relevant to the role and organization, customizing it the same way you would a resume.
Prepare for Your Interviews
Research the employer first and have questions ready. Most career centers offer mock interviews and will give you honest feedback. If they don't, perform mock interviews with peers or others in your network and videotape yourself, so you can review later. If you get nervous, consider learning relaxation techniques.
Cioka offers a valuable reminder: "Remember, most managers just want to have a conversation. Be honest, be you, and try not to be nervous."
Keep in mind that the goal is to find the right match, not just to get an offer.
Remember to Ask Questions
Never be afraid to ask questions in class. If you are confused, you are very unlikely to be the only one. Even if you are, it is better to ask questions now and be sure you understand, rather than have the wrong answer on an exam or in a real situation with a patient.
This pertains to more than just the classroom setting. Asking questions shows that you are interested and engaged and have prepared for your shadowing experience or interview. Make sure, though, that the questions you ask are not already answered on the website or in any preparatory materials you have received.
Don't Overextend Yourself
The final year of nursing school can be overwhelming. You have classes and examinations, you are planning for the NCLEX-RN, researching jobs and employers, attending fieldwork, and shadowing or gaining work experience. Pace your studies so you do not have to cram at the last minute, and do not skimp on sleep, healthy eating, or exercise. While these may seem like they take time, they fuel you, so you can use your time efficiently.
Cioka advises, "Make sure that you have a stable work-life balance. If you are working as a student nurse, do not overextend yourself. You do not want to burn out and/or jeopardize your ability to be hired as an RN in the future."
Take Care of Mental Health and Don't Compare Yourself to Others
Everybody progresses at their own pace and brings their own experience and background to nursing school. Looking at others' successes, especially if filtered through their social media personas, can be like watching their highlight reel and comparing it to your blooper reel. Remember that you never have the full picture of somebody else's situation and struggles.
Cioka advises, "Comparing yourself to others can make you criticize yourself unfairly. Make your own path — you may surprise yourself at the end of your journey."
If you do find yourself in psychological distress, make sure that you take advantage of your school's counseling and mental health resources.
Featured Online RN-to-BSN in Nursing Programs
Most Common Mistakes Students Make in Their Final Year of Nursing School
Some nursing students plan ahead only for the next year or semester, without putting that semester or year in the context of their career.
Sadarananda warns that some students try to enter critical care too soon, either in their practicums or as their first job. "I see new grads fail in critical care settings more often right out of school." Instead, she urges nurses to consider medical-surgical nursing for their first job. "Medical-surgical nurses are more marketable as medical surgery creates a solid foundation."
Avichai advises building your network early and mindfully. "A common mistake nursing students make in their final year is not utilizing their resources and networking. Networking is so important, and it is never too early to start networking. One day, your clinical instructors and alumni will become your colleagues."
Cioka advises students to be careful about over-extending themselves and having too many competing priorities. She also advises students who are working as a student nurse or CNA to discuss their career plans with their manager or leader, if they want to stay on as an RN.
What Nurses Wish They Had Known Before Finishing Nursing School
Nursing school is difficult, and Sadarananda advises that the challenges will continue. "Nursing will be one of the hardest things you will ever do in life. Nursing needs strong, courageous nurses to care and advocate for patients, but the reward is priceless."
Avichai recommends earning a bachelor of nursing (BSN) degree early on. She notes this step helped her earn promotions and later enroll in an MSN-to-DNP program. "Obtaining my BSN degree opened many windows of opportunities that I am very grateful for."
Cioka advises students to plan, but also be flexible. "Your career path and plans will change as life happens, and that is okay. I did not finish nursing school wanting to be a manager. I wanted to continue through the clinical path and become a family nurse practitioner. Allow your experiences and passions to guide you." She also urges nurses to interview for multiple positions before accepting the first offer they receive. "You may be surprised by what you find. Do not settle for the first offer that comes along."
Making the Most of Your Final Year of Nursing School
While the final year of nursing school is challenging, it can also bring joy.
Sadarananda reminds students to enjoy their last year and make lifelong friends. She also recommends thinking holistically about job offers. "Money is not everything; go to where you will have the greatest opportunities and best chances for growth."
Avichai also advises students to enjoy this time. "It is very normal to be nervous and scared, but this is a time when you are turning to a new chapter in your life."
Cioka closes her advice by recommending developing a support system and having a plan and a backup plan for when nursing presents challenges. To get ready to work, she recommends taking a break between passing the NCLEX-RN and starting a job, ideally, even traveling on a short trip. "Give yourself time to recover from nursing school prior to entering another full-time routine."
Their advice, as well as the advice of your own mentors and peers, can make this final year of nursing school the foundation for an exciting and rewarding career. We wish you luck.
Meet Our Contributors
Taylor Sadarananda, MSN, RN
Taylor Sadarananda graduated from the University of Maryland, School of Nursing's Clinical Nurse Leader program with her master's in nursing in 2017. She began her nursing career at UMMC - Midtown campus as a new graduate nurse on a med-surg-tele unit. Shortly after, wanting to experience critical care, she transitioned to the intensive care unit in 2019, where she worked throughout the COVID-19 pandemic as a senior bedside nurse.
Sadarananda acted as the chair of the ICU quality council, took part in the nurse residency program as a residency facilitator, and worked to uphold safety standards by serving as a unit based safety champion. In January 2022, she accepted the role of assistant nurse manager for an IMC/med-surg-tele at the Midtown campus.
Nidhi Avichal, BSN, RN
Nidhi Avichal has nine years of experience in the nursing field and five years of experience as a registered nurse. She is currently the clinical nurse educator for the emergency department at the University of Maryland Medical Center - Midtown campus.
Avichal is pursuing her doctoral degree in nursing practice, with the goal of practicing as a nurse practitioner and teaching nursing students at the master's level in the future.
Courtney Cioka, MS, RN
Courtney Cioka works at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center as the nurse manager of the Multi Trauma IMC6, Orthopedic Acute Care and Shock Trauma Acute Care Units. She began her nursing career at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, in December 2009 after graduating from Towson University with a bachelor of science in nursing.
In 2016, Cioka obtained her master of science in nursing from the University of Maryland School of Nursing. In 2018, she became the assistant nurse manager of multi trauma IMC6, orthopedic acute care, and shock trauma acute care. Then, in 2019, she took on the role of nurse manager.
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