What to Expect in Your First Year of Nursing School

Joelle Y. Jean, FNP-C, BSN, RN
Updated March 22, 2023
    Want to know what to expect in your first year of nursing school? Use this guide to discover what you will learn in nursing school and what nursing school is like. It will also give you some tips to survive the first year.
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    A pair of nursing students (one male and one female) are chatting while walking to class together on campus.Credit: Courtney Hale | E+ | Getty Images

    It’s perfectly normal to have the first day of nursing school jitters. Hey, it may even last a full year! Nursing school is a full-time commitment. You’ll have to manage your nursing courses, attend lectures, participate in small group projects, attend clinicals, and pass exams.

    There will come a time when you’ll decline a few social outings, pull all-nighters, or feel stressed out. At the end of the day, you’ve made the right decision to become a nurse. You will join a community voted most trusted profession, year after year.

    This guide will prepare you for your first year of nursing school. It discusses what to expect in the first semester, what you will learn, and what you will need. It also discusses how classes are structured, the level of difficulty, and when your clinical rotations will begin.

    Your First Semester of Nursing School

    There’s nothing quite like your first semester of nursing school. It’s like learning a new language combined with art and science. You’ll learn new medical terms and phrases. You’ll learn the art of caring for patients while studying the human body, science, and pharmacology (the use and effects of drugs on the body).

    Depending on the school you attend, most likely a general orientation will be held for first-year and second-degree nursing students. Orientation will include a detailed introduction to what to expect in nursing school.

    In your first semester, you’ll have a more focused orientation. You will meet your professors and other nursing students. Professors will:

    • Review the curriculum
    • Review the syllabus
    • Discuss expectations
    • Discuss required uniform for clinicals and simulation labs
    • Review needed supplies and required textbooks

    Buddying up with one or a group of first-year nursing students is a great idea! Sometimes it happens unexpectedly. Your first buddy may even be sitting next to you on your first day of orientation!

    Having a study buddy can make the semester and first year of nursing school less daunting. A buddy provides:

    • A safety net where students can bounce off ideas, or even let off steam
    • A support system
    • Accountability
    • Lasting friendships

    Other major takeaways you may experience during the first semester of nursing school:

    • Changing the way you study: It may come easy for some, but nursing school is filled with memorization and learning new medical terms and phrases. Adding index cards or a few extra hours of studying can make for a successful semester.
    • Thinking outside the box: Everyone has different styles of learning. Lectures typically provide Powerpoint slides with a lot of information. You may need to add supplemental study tools like videos or spending more time in the simulation lab. This will help absorb and better understand the information.
    • Mental and physical challenges: Let’s be honest: Nursing school is no walk in the park. Many students find it very stressful. It can weigh on your mental and physical health. It’s important to recognize this early. Seek out professors, nursing faculty, or your school’s mental health department for help.

    What to Buy Before Starting Nursing School

    Keep it simple when buying supplies for your first year. You’re a student so money may not be readily available. Here are 10 must-have items to prepare for your first semester:

    • Stethoscope: You will need one for skills labs and clinicals. Don’t leave home without it.
    • Scrubs and Shoes: Your school may provide you with the required scrubs and shoes. If not, you will have to purchase a pair. Purchase two scrub tops and bottoms and a pair of sneakers or shoes recommended by your professors.
    • Planner: Use Google calendar or buy a planner at your local convenience store. Write down when assignments and projects are due and the dates of scheduled exams.
    • Textbooks: Some students like to buy textbooks but that can get expensive. Look for alternative ways to purchase textbooks either through rental services or audiobooks.
    • Index Cards: You can never have enough! Use these as an extra study aid.
    • School Bag: Purchase a sturdy school bag that will last the entire school year.
    • Pens, Pencils, Highlighters, and Notebooks: These can keep you prepared and organized.
    • Supplemental Studying Materials: Some nursing students go overboard with purchasing nursing study guides. If you have to purchase them, stick with ones recommended by other nursing students or your professor. Remember, a lot of this information is free on the internet.
    • Compression Stockings: You will be standing and sitting a lot throughout nursing school. Investing in a pair of compression stockings can improve blood flow and swelling in your legs.
    • Masks and Hand Sanitizer: Although your school and clinical locations may provide masks and hand sanitizer, it’s still good practice to carry your own.

    Visit our new nursing student toolkit for a more comprehensive list of supplies to prepare for your first year of nursing school.

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    What Do You Learn in the First Year of Nursing School?

    Your first-year curriculum will vary based on your institution or whether you’re entering as a two-year or four-year nursing student. Some students enter the program with or without prerequisites. In general, here is an example of first-year nursing core classes:

    First semester:

    • Fundamentals of nursing
    • Anatomy and physiology I
    • Health assessment

    Second semester:

    • Pathophysiology and pharmacology
    • Psychology
    • Anatomy and physiology II

    The first year of nursing school is science heavy. It is structured this way so students can gain baseline knowledge of caring for patients. The great news is that a simulation lab accompanies these classes. Simulation labs provide time to practice your newfound nursing skills before caring for a real patient.

    How Are Classes Structured?

    Depending on the school, you may attend large lecture classes with 60 plus students. Some classes may be much smaller in size. Virtual lectures are also a possibility.

    Lectures are typically taught by a professor. There will come a time toward midsemester when students have group projects. You will either present alone or with a group in front of the class.

    Skills or simulation labs are usually smaller. This is intentional. Here, students practice on mannequins the skills they need to care for real patients. Simulation labs are meant to encourage you to:

    • Ask questions
    • Have hands-on experience
    • Apply what you’re learning in lecture

    Along with a stethoscope and a notepad, you should bring a positive attitude and a general curiosity to the simulation lab. It’s the best place to catch mistakes. Mistakes will happen, and that’s okay. Lastly, remember you will not know everything. Even seasoned nurses learn something new every day.

    When Do You Start Clinicals in Nursing School?

    Generally, you will start your clinical rotations in the second semester of nursing school. This depends on your institution. Clinicals will be the first time you care for patients as a nursing student.

    How and where you are placed for clinicals depends on a few factors. Some schools give students a choice on which hospital they want to attend. This is based on their preferred location. Some schools place students where there is availability.

    Clinical rotations can be once a week, half or full days. This also depends on the school. Overall, the required clinical hours are 300-700 hours for a bachelor of science in nursing.

    How Hard Is the First Year of Nursing School?

    The first year of nursing school can be easy for some students and harder for others. There are many factors that play a role in the amount of difficulty. It depends on:

    • The experience of the professor
    • The mixture of lecture/in-person learning
    • The experience of the student
    • The amount of time and studying a student puts in

    Nursing programs might be more difficult than other programs because classes are science heavy. Harder courses like anatomy and physiology and pharmacology require ample study time. Nursing programs also require a basic understanding of math like calculating intravenous drugs and medications.

    The first year of nursing school is like a roller coaster ride. You have some highs and some lows. It requires good time management and a realistic work-life balance. It’s important to also remember the first year may be difficult, but with support from your study buddy, and putting in some extra study time, you will get through the first year.

    Tips for Your First Year of Nursing School

    Here are five tips guaranteed to help you survive your first year:

    Sleep is absolutely essential. Experts say you need about 7-8 hours of sleep every night. Invest in a great pillow and eye covers.

    It is recommended to exercise at least 150 minutes a week. Yoga, swimming, running, walking, dancing, or jogging are all great ways to exercise.

    Balanced meals full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and plant-based foods give you that energy boost for long lectures.

    Managing your time must be intentional. Analyze your day and find out when you’re most productive. Use time management apps to help organize your day.

    Self-care is absolutely essential as well. Make sure to take time for yourself. Meditation, taking a leisurely walk, bubble baths, lighting your favorite candle, or reading a good book are all examples of self-care.

    Related Resources

    Featured Image: Courtney Hale / E+ / Getty Images

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