10 Ways to Excel as a Nursing Student

Content creator standing in front of green trees smiling for camera
Written by Morganne Skinner, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
Professional woman smiling while outdoors
Reviewed by Marie Hasty, BSN, RN Content Writer, IntelyCare
A nursing student talks to his friends in the hallway.

The journey to becoming a nurse is rewarding and nerve-wracking at the same time. It’s no secret that nursing school is grueling, stressful, and demanding. As a nursing student, you may find yourself on a roller coaster of emotions, from the application process to big exams to potentially taking a personal time-out in the supply closet during your first clinical rotation.

This is completely and totally normal, but there are a number of tips and strategies you can implement to excel — academically and individually — as a nursing student.

Top Tips for Excelling as a Nursing Student

1. Be Flexible

Nursing is a dynamic, constantly changing field. It’s highly likely you’ll run into unexpected challenges — from last-minute clinical rotation scheduling adjustments to unpredictable changes in a patient’s status. If you can learn to adapt and adjust, you will not only shine in school but will be well-prepared for the realities of nursing and healthcare.

2. Join a Study Group

Maybe one of your classmates has a witty way of remembering the side effects of a certain drug class. Perhaps you didn’t take detailed notes and missed parts of the lecture. Maybe you cannot figure out drug calculations to save your life, but your classmate does.

Study and learn from each other. You can hold each other accountable and encourage studying, while also socializing and developing strong friendships. These study skills can also help down the road when you prepare for the NCLEX exams.

3. Set Boundaries

A sad fact of attending nursing school is the need to decline social outings in order to study and be well-rested for clinicals. You’ll need to practice saying “no” and choosing some engagements over others.

It can feel like you don’t really have a life outside of school. You might need to miss out on parties or trips your friends go to, and it’s no fun to feel like you’re missing out. But remember — this isn’t forever. By being disciplined now, you’ll enjoy a rewarding nursing career with a great deal of flexibility in the future.

4. Prioritize Attendance

This one goes without saying, but we’re going to say it anyway. Do your best not to miss clinicals, nursing classes, or labs. Missing a day in nursing school can be much harder to make up than in other programs.

For example, if you missed a clinical rotation in the intensive care unit where a patient was being prepared for organ donation, you missed a rare opportunity that may not come up again during the remainder of your rotations. Additionally, you can only miss a limited number of rotations as part of the clinical practice hours required to sit for the NCLEX exam.

5. Have a Consistent Self-Care Practice

We likely aren’t the first to tell you that nursing school will be stressful. To manage that stress and maintain your well-being, you absolutely need to continue taking care of yourself. Self-care practices are nonnegotiable.

Remember — being a standout nursing student doesn’t just mean having stellar grades. It also includes thriving as the whole, unique human being that you are. Attending school is not an excuse (or permission) to run on fumes. You don’t get more points or become more worthy by sacrificing your health for your education.

6. Rest Often

You already know that you can only do so much — there comes a time when your brain just needs a break. The saying “less is more” certainly applies here. Scheduling regular breaks in your study time might even help you retain the information better. Research shows purposeful study breaks improve focus and productivity.

7. Reduce Your Work Hours

You probably didn’t expect us to say this one — but it’s highly likely that you won’t have the time in your schedule to excel in nursing school and work full time. Especially when your clinical rotations begin, you’ll need to be flexible enough to make last-minute changes in your schedule to accommodate your clinical placements. Some jobs won’t allow that type of flexibility.

As a student nurse, jobs will likely take up too much of your time. You may need to make sacrifices in your work schedule to allow yourself the dedicated time to study. It’s likely that work will interfere with this, even if it’s financially beneficial.

8. Practice Your Note-Taking Skills

Learn to understand, not memorize. Of course you want to succeed in your nursing school program and get good grades — but the end goal is comprehension, application, and critical thinking. You’ll need to apply this knowledge and these skills. This might mean that certain study habits that got you through high school or college will no longer suffice for nursing school.

You may have to implement new forms of studying — flashcards may have their place, but you’ll also have to truly read your textbook, listen and take notes during lectures, participate in your lab, attend study groups, answer questions at the end of your chapters, and practice teaching others the topic you are learning about.

Learning in nursing school can feel like trying to drink from a fire hydrant, and you’ll need to pace yourself to absorb information. Instead of procrastinating to cram the night before an exam, try studying consistently for a few hours a day. You’ll likely notice your test scores and comprehension improve.

9. Make Connections

Take time to get to know your clinical instructors and professors. Introduce yourself to the charge nurse and manager during your clinical rotations. You never know when you’ll be applying to those very same units or need a letter of recommendation down the road.

10. Ask Questions

Although this comes last on our list, it might be the most important tip. Question everything: Why is it important to assess first? Why does this medication cause that side effect? Why does this disease cause that symptom?

Asking questions will help you develop critical thinking skills, develop safe nursing practices and habits, and will ensure that you are really learning (not merely memorizing). You are about to become a highly valuable and trusted healthcare professional — you need to be able to ask questions and not simply do as you are told.

Nursing Student FAQ

In addition to learning how to be an exemplary student nurse, you might have lingering questions about what nursing school will be like. Check out these common questions to help you prepare.

What is a nursing school, exactly?

You likely already have some concept of what a nursing school is. Basically, it’s a postsecondary educational institution that prepares you to be a nurse. A nursing school may be found at a hospital, community college, technical school, or university. You can attend nursing school online or in person, although entry-to-nursing programs will have in-person requirements for the clinicals and laboratory components.

What are clinicals for nursing students?

A clinical is the portion of your nursing education that accompanies in-class lecture and is carried out in a clinical setting. This is when you apply your knowledge and get to practice in real-life settings, such as a hospital, doctor’s office, or other facility (depending on your class).

You are paired with a RN and are overseen by your clinical instructor. For example, you may shadow the nurse or have more autonomy, where you get to perform physical assessments, administer medications, hang IV fluids, and insert IVs.

When do nursing students start clinicals?

For some nursing programs, you’ll start clinicals in your first or second semester. However, it also depends on how you are defining “nursing student.” For students intending to become a registered nurse, clinicals start later than those in shorter programs, such as those for licensed practical nurses.

Are there scholarships for nursing students?

Yes! There are plenty of scholarship options depending on your school choice, financial situation, military status, and the specific degrees in nursing you are pursuing. Many nursing school applications will invite you to apply for the scholarships their institution offers, whereas other scholarship opportunities have a separate application process.

How do I create a nursing student resume?

Many of the same rules for writing other types of resumes apply for making your nursing student resume. You’ll want to include an objective statement, key qualifications, education, professional experience, skills, licenses, and certifications. Even if you don’t have professional nursing experience, you can still discuss your clinical rotations and other relevant experiences in your resume.

What are the typical nursing school requirements?

The requirements will vary depending on the school you apply to, whether or not you already have a degree, and the type of nurse you are hoping to become. Check out this article that can teach you more about requirements.

How much does my school choice matter?

Not as much as you’d think. You do want to select an accredited nursing school program that will prepare you for the NCLEX exam. However, it’s unlikely that future employers will place much weight on your university, like they may in other professions. So take a breath and relax — even if you don’t attend one of the best nursing schools, you can still get a great job and have a fulfilling nursing career.

Bonus Tip: Start Working in Healthcare Now

One of the best ways to excel as a nursing student is to actively engage in clinical experiences. Developing real-life experience with diseases and conditions you’re learning about will help you take your nursing education to the next level — and not all roles require a nursing license.

Need support finding a good fit that can accommodate your nursing school schedule? IntelyCare can help. Get started by applying today and put your skills and knowledge into practice.