15 things I wish I knew in Nursing School

nursing school

1. Record your lectures if you’re allowed to. And keep them. They may come in handy during senior practicum, your first nursing job, etc. I used to listen to neuro lectures every day on my commute to and from clinicals on a neuro unit. And if you’re wondering, yes, it helped a ton.

2. Don’t sell all your books. I know, they’re big. And heavy. And seemingly useless. And they’re worth $$$! But when you’re studying for NCLEX you might wish you still had that pharm book. Or health assessment. And when you’re in your first job and your patient has 15 comorbidities and you just don’t get what’s going on, you’ll want to look that up in a handy resource. So yes, sell your research book. And community health. And all those other random weird books like statistics and cultural shtuff. But keep the main books, just in case.

3. Get to know a few of your professors/instructors. Not all of them. But get in good with your clinical instructors. They’ll be the ones you call on when you need a recommendation letter for a job application. Make sure you stand out to them.

4. Don’t look at each clinical site as just “this semester’s drag.” Each site is a potential employer. Make a good first impression, get the unit manager’s business card, and follow up later. A quick email saying “I did a clinical rotation and really learned a lot from your nurses Jay and Kim, and I’d love to interview for any openings you might have” could get you in the door a lot faster than going the traditional apply-on-website way (though you’ll probably have to do that too).

5. Get a pocket-sized notebook. Write in it during clinicals. Cool tricks the nurses teach you. A list of the procedures you’ve done, things you hear from other nurses that you want to remember. I waited till the last semester to start my notebook, but now I carry it everywhere and I still write in it and read back through it.

6. Ask questions. Lots of questions. If you’re afraid it’s really a dumb question, feel free to preface it by saying, This is probably a dumb question, but..” and ask it. Every. single. time. It’s how you get better. And if you don’t understand something, don’t nod and pretend. Don’t hide that confused look. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to need some help connecting the dots on that one.” People really do appreciate that you’re humble enough to admit it, and willing to learn. (and if they aren’t nice about it, that keys you in that you might not want to work there…)

7. Your last semester is the time to look for jobs. Don’t wait till you graduate to start looking. The new grad job market is tough, and you want to apply early to any applicable openings.

8. Go to those silly career fairs. The ones for nursing students, that is. You won’t get anything out of the ones for experienced nurses. Or probably the generic ones for all students in any program. But if your school/city offers nursing student career fairs, that’s where magic happens. Eye contact, a firm handshake, and well-prepared question for the recruiter are priceless. “I really enjoyed my clinical rotations on your respiratory floor. What can I do to improve my chances of getting an interview for med-surg at your hospital?” And listen.

9. I know. You want to work in the ICU. Or in L&D. Or the ER. Or whatever your “passion” is. But unless you’ve been working in the hospital for ages as a tech or something of the sort, you really don’t know for sure that you’ll love that area any more than another. And in fact, the most important factors in job satisfaction are not staffing levels or if it’s the unit where your passion is. The most important thing is that you find a place where you enjoy being with your coworkers and you fit into the culture. Be flexible. Your first nursing job isn’t going to be your only nursing job.

10. The techs are not nursing assistants. Many people may think they are, but look again. They’ve been doing this a long time and there’s a lot you can learn from them. Yes, they take vitals and give baths. They also know your patients better than you do. They recognize the signs that someone is deteriorating. And they have tricks. Make friends with them, learn their tricks, and you’ll be a more effective nurse for it.

11. When we say teamwork, we’re not just talking about teamwork among nurses. This is the whole unit – nurses, techs, secretary, housekeeping, pharmacy, OT, PT, respiratory. They all have things you can learn from. I had a housekeeping staff member track me down one day to tell me “something just doesn’t seem right with the patient in 436.” Sure enough, he was having a mood swing and contemplating a suicide plan. Thanks to the housekeeper we got the right people involved, fixed his meds, and all before any harm was done. Don’t discount anyone’s input, and use your team members to their full capacity.

12. Bed baths are not drudgery. Neither are changing linens or other seemingly mundane tasks. Do those things and your techs will go the extra mile for you every time. Not only that, but those are some of the comfort measures we provide for patients – things that don’t cause them pain. Time-consuming activities that allow you extra time with your patient. Use it to get to know them, really talk to them. Give them dignity even in the most undignified situations. After all, one day you’ll be the one in the bed with continence issues. What goes around comes around, honey.

13. An hour after shift when you preceptor is finishing up charting and tells you to go on home, go. You’re not being paid to be there and no one expects you to stay. On the other hand, if it’s after shift and your patient is coding or something is really going on, stay and learn.

14. Be a whole person. You are not your GPA. When you go on interviews they’ll want to know about you. And if all you can do is recite your GPA and the fact that you volunteered with the Student Nurses Association, they won’t be highly impressed. Hospitals want real people. People who do activities and go places and have interests. Not robots with stellar GPAs.

15. Lastly, you can do this. You got this far. And if you lean on your fellow students, you’ll get the rest of the way through it. Lean on them when you need to, and be there for them to lean on when they need it. You’re in this together, and you’ll be going through your first nursing jobs together. Give yourself the gift of community.


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