Why is nursing school so hard?


Graduation is approaching–you have the finish line in sight and are SO ready to be done! Of course, most new grads still have the NCLEX to look forward to and to prepare for, but school is almost over!

Now, having made it through and done things you once thought were absolutely impossible, you know you are not the same person who entered nursing school so long ago. You are about to enter the workforce as a professional. No longer a student with an instructor watching over your shoulder, you’ll have your own license and will be responsible for what you do in your own right.

Responsibility is what having a license is all about. No one has the right to practice certain trades, drive a car or fly a plane without providing proof they can do it safely. Successful completion of a course of study from an accredited school is the first of the necessary steps to becoming a nurse (passing the NCLEX is the other).

Why then, should nursing school be so difficult? Hard to get in, even harder to make passing grades and to keep up with your clinical hours! You’re constantly evaluated, not only on tests but also on a personal level by those who observe the way you dress, speak, interact with others and carry yourself as a potential professional nurse. And a social life? Forget about it!

Nursing is a different discipline from any other degree program at a college or university. You are being prepared to literally hold another person’s life in your hands one day. You learn how to resuscitate a person, give drugs that can be very dangerous, perform a physical exam and develop critical thinking skills so you understand what you are doing and why. You learn to be an educator and advocate for patients, their families and other health care providers. Even doctors will learn things from you!

Nursing is not a good career choice for the faint at heart, nor is it a route to snagging a doctor to marry (aka getting an MRS degree). The soap opera depictions of romantic merry-go-rounds do not happen in real life. Nursing is extremely hard work that can be so profoundly exciting and unique, people actually get a high from it!

Is it fair for schools to weed out students who do not have the right stuff to do this kind of work? I happen to believe that it IS–because when all is said and done, it is not about US but about patients’ needs being met. We are not doing anyone a kindness by encouraging people who do not have what it takes to stand and deliver good patient care to stay in the profession.

In most schools, students who figure out that nursing is not for them after all usually drop out of the program. And many who stay in because of a false sense of job security from a recession-proof career and other such notions find themselves miserable and going from job to job, seeking the satisfaction and happiness which never was guaranteed in the first place.

So yes, nursing school is about teaching you critical thinking, meeting patient needs, and being an advocate. But it’s about making sure you’re ready for the truly difficult task ahead: Recognizing that you’ve entered more than a career…you’ve entered a calling. Even at times when things were truly bad and I desperately wanted to get OUT of the profession and prayed for guidance toward something else, the answer was a firm NO and I was steered back into nursing, whether I liked it or not at the time.

So, as you prepare to receive your diploma and school pin, be happy and proud that you are embarking on a journey into one of the toughest jobs you will ever love!

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

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Nurse Rene

Nurse Rene has been an RN since 1978; CCRN since 1989 and attained a BSN in 2010. She has worked in virtually every specialty from Neonatology to Neurosurgery and is a Member of Sigma Theta Tau International Nursing Honor Society with a particular interest in helping students and new grads develop to their full potential. She's been married for 33 years and has a keen interest in history and in current issues as nursing continues to develop as a Real Profession. When not spoiling the grandchildren, she enjoys sewing, cooking, kayaking, camping and travel. She likes all music which does not hurt her ears, watching NCIS, Leverage, Top Gear and Criminal Minds and reads books written by Clive Cussler, Miss Manners, Erma Bombeck and Tom Clancy. She enjoys collecting Quotations for use in her writings.

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13 Responses to Why is nursing school so hard?

  1. Sima

    Nothing worth having comes easy. :-)

  2. Abby

    But the question is whether there is a difference between hard, which is a good thing, and competitive and cutthroats, which in my opinion is unnecessary. Does the faculty really need to give stats at orientation about less than half passing? I mean we know it’s competitive; it was difficult enough to get in to the program. Do I really need to hear that there is a less than 50% chance of me passing? Do we need to hear, at every class, an update of how many students dropped? I think it just causes a fear that is unnecessary. Why wouldn’t they want us to all pass? Is there a limit to how many can graduate? We all made it this far, why shouldn’t we be able to see it through to the end?

    • I agree with Abby. I totally understand the severity and seriousness of the responsibility laid on our shoulders. One simple has to walk into the room of a critically ill patient to be reminded that lives hang in the balance in our work and it is our job to make sure that they stay on the right side of that line. However, some instructors are more of a hindrance than a help. Unfortunately Nursing is a very catty profession sometimes, and I’ve been chewed up by more than one instructor. The frustrating part of that for me is that every time I’ve been worked over by an instructor I didn’t do anything WRONG, I simply didn’t KNOW something. I think that instructors need to keep in mind that we are still new to this and will learn and grow as we progress. I think that no matter how well you do in school, on the first day as an R.N. you’re still going to feel like you know nothing. Some things can only be taught by experience and in my opinion, Nursing instructors aren’t doing us any favors by being unnecessarily harsh on us. After all, they were once exactly where we are, and for the majority of them, school was probably a bit easier because standards, protocols, and technologies have advanced since they’ve graduated. We’re not asking for a free ride — just cut us some slack sometimes! If we’re putting ourselves through hell to get that degree, we’re committed to the job and our patients, trust us!

      • therealcie

        Agreed. I don’t have a problem with being expected to behave in a professional manner, but I had one instructor who threatened to send us home if we made even minor mistakes. That is not a very helpful attitude for a teacher, in my opinion. It made me afraid to ask questions.
        I also don’t like the way the program is set up. Many of us HAVE to work. We don’t have a spouse or parents supporting us. We have rent or mortgages to pay. Why is there no option to take either day or evening classes, or possibly online classes. Most of the classes in my program, the instructor read straight out of the textbook. I could have been through the program in half the time if I’d been able to take the classes online. I could have done some of the work during my downtime at work. I understand that you have to take the clinicals in person, of course, but why not give options for taking the classes? The reality is that these days many students are working adults with families!

  3. Pingback: Why is Nursing School so Hard? « John Knowles

  4. hasan

    i agree with Abby, Lauren, and Therealcie. indeed the curriculum is not hard as the way the instructors explain it. i believe that instructors need to understand the fact that we are NOT attending a medical school and we dont have to know more what we are suppose to know. most of them have issues. if i knew that would happen to me, i would have studied different major. 2 of my friends one in engineering school and the other one in pharmacy school,,, i have books more than they both have. i have studying time more than each one has… i am glad i am making good grades, otherwise i would be a resident in a mantel hospital

  5. knightnurse14

    23 years in I can honestly say that Connors School of Nursing was pretty tough and it seemed some instructors took pride in how harshly they weeded out students. My class started with over 50, more transferred in at different points and we still graduated only 22. I can think of several who I think would have been great nurses had they gotten a little less grief and a little more support when it mattered

  6. pavlograd

    Dear Nurse Rene, my son is in his second semester of 2 year nursing school. He already got a 4 yr BS degree, but couldn’t find work that was rewarding. He scored pretty high in his pre-req classes (anatomy and microbiology) and he did very good in his first semester. He does great in clinicals too. But in his regular nursing course this semester, despite REALLY studying and using 3 top rated books to assist him, he has scored a 66 and 72 on his first two exams. He has 2 more exams plus a final to get his average up to 77 in order not to have to repeat the nursing course which would be a big ordeal since he is already 29 yrs old. It seems from what he tells me that there are a certain amount of ‘trick’ questions on the tests – by this, I mean questions purposefully intended to confuse the issue. Why is this done? Is there any ‘trick’ method to he can use to study and prepare for this? He has taken many typical tests in the books and done well. He is at Delgado in New Orleans. Any advice I can pass on to him? This is do or die for him!

    • nicoler3996@yahoo.com

      Sorry to say but they love those “trick” questions. Making sure you’re paying attention, that one they know will get thrown out, who knows why. I went to nursing school at 38, 2 year program (1 of the most competitive in the country) with a 50% repeat/drop-out rate. I repeated my second semester and graduate 12 days after turning 41. Will graduate with my BSN at 42. There is no shame in having to withdraw and repeat. It just means you care enough to make sure you learned that content. You didn’t give up and this is really what you want to do. No where on an application does it say how LONG did it take you to finish? it only asks have you taken and passed the NCLEX if not so then when is if scheduled for? No decent nurse manager will ask you- did you have to repeat, why, not smart enough? They have gone through the exact same thing and know just how hard it is to make it to the title of RN!!!!!

  7. luvdjashkatie

    provelograd, I also have a son who is in nursing and has told me about questions that are tricky and really have no common sense to them. I feel for him, he is a bright student but is struggling on his tests.

  8. ms-ellie

    My opinion will likely be unpopular, but nursing school NEEDS to be hard. Those “trick” questions are to cultivate critical thinking. Do y’all think that patients all present with a straightforward set of symptoms? It NEVER happens that way.

    Is the toughness of the instructors unnecessary? Maybe. But do you think that in the working world as a nurse you will be treated with kid gloves? If so, you are in for a VERY rude awakening. From patients to families to doctors to administrators, you WILL be treated like crap.

    The stress of being a nurse can be immeasurable, and the sources of that stress are just as immeasurable. It’s all designed to be very serious because the responsibilities you will bear are beyond serious. I guess my advice is to suck it up, Buttercup. It’s all part of getting you ready for the real world of nursing. Yes, school is beyond tough, but you will have even tougher days as a nurse.

    No, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer. I’m being realistic. I have been an RN for almost 30 years, all of it in critical care areas. Do I hate my job? Sometimes. Do I hate my career? NEVER. I would do it all again. In a heartbeat.

  9. hollylynn430

    I totally agree that nursing school is and should be difficult with only those who truly have what it takes making it however, i have been a nurse for 25 years, i have worked in various specialties throughout my career. My daughter is in her senior year of a 4 year BSN program which has a reputation for being tough but one of the best around. I have studied with her and see what she is learning. I have to say she has had her share of professors and teachers who make the content harder than it has to be. They are learning things that in my opinion are much less important than rhings they truly need to know. I realize most programs are geared towards passing state boards. The difficulty of the material is made worse by not taking thngs back to basics and building from there. I just dont understand what good a class is if most of the students fail or almost fail every test. This has become the norm. How is this beneficial to anyone? I must admit i am puzzled by this and always have been. Pretty disappointing