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School survival skills

By: Debra A. Hrelic, PhD, RNC

You’ve decided to return to school to get your bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree, but you’re nervous about how you’ll manage. Here are a few strategies to help you not just survive but also thrive in school.


  • You can’t add more hours to the day, but you can find your own rhythm; learn to work with what you have.
  • Be an active learner.
  • Tap into available resources to maximize success.

Manage your time

Time-management skills are essential for the RN returning to school. Setting priorities, planning, and organizing your daily activities are key to your successful academic journey. Here are a few suggestions.

Balance family needs. As an RN-BSN student, you’re probably employed full-time and you may have a family to care for. Childrearing and childcare can be challenging for adults returning to school; you want to carve out time for studies in your busy routine, while not ignoring your children or family. Ideally, another adult caretaker can help with childcare and schedule adjustments, but if that’s not possible, a babysitter or other assistant is your next best option. You might also want to have a backup for last-minute sitter cancellations so you don’t have to miss class. You may have to study after your children go to bed or during work breaks. Remember, you can’t add more hours to the day, but you can find your own rhythm—learn to work with what you have.

Organize study time. You’ll have minimal study time, so use it wisely. As soon as you get your course schedule, highlight the important dates for each assignment, quiz, exam, and project on your syllabus. Then develop a system that lets you see dates at a glance so you don’t miss any deadlines.

Many RN-BSN students miss due dates, fall behind in reading and assignments, procrastinate, or let life get in the way of their education goals. Best practice is to make school and studying part of your daily routine. You may experience some trial and error as you work to find a time and place that best fit into your schedule and family life, but be persistent. Good study habits include a quiet place with no distractions, a flat surface for writing, good lighting, being rested and well-fed, and a positive attitude.

This is an important journey you’re on. With your family’s support, plan for your study time, schedule it, and stick with it. You’ll be surprised how much it will become a part of your daily routine.

Hone your note-taking and questioning skills

Don’t fall behind in your assigned readings. They will help you know what’s important to take note of during lectures, presentations, or webinars.

Be an active learner. Make sure you understand everything that’s bolded or italicized in the text, as well as anything that’s further explained with a picture, diagram, or chart. If the authors have displayed information in a different color or size print, it’s important to know. If questions are presented at the end of the chapter, make sure you can verbally explain the answers. Talking through the answers to these questions is a great way to test your knowledge.

Use note cards. Taking notes using index cards (writing questions or terms on one side and the answers or definitions of the other) can be helpful. These cards can easily be carried in your pockets or purse and pulled out whenever you have a few minutes to review; they’re an excellent use of time while waiting in line or during a work break.

Ask questions. If you’re attending a face-to-face class, read class material before attending, write down any questions you have, and ask them in class so the instructor can provide answers. If you’re an online student, keep up with your readings and don’t hesitate to email faculty with your questions.

Leverage your strengths

If you’re a student with plenty of real-life nursing practice under your belt, you may find it helpful to put learning in terms of actual patient experiences. For example, when learning about hypercalcemia in a pathophysiology class, a nurse who’s cared for a patient with this condition might find it easier to relate that patient’s clinical presentation to what’s being taught. For example:

  • The patient had muscle weakness, decreased muscle tone, and lethargy.
  • He had GI upset, was nauseated, had little appetite, and suffered from constipation.
  • He had polyuria and cardiac arrhythmias with ECG changes.
  • He showed classic signs and symptoms of hypercalcemia.

Reviewing a disease process in terms of a real-life patient can help solidify the information in your mind.

Tap into resources

Your school likely offers a variety of free resources to assist you in achieving your academic goals.

Technology assistance center. The technology assistance center (help desk or computer help desk) can help you with computer issues related to your classes, required programs, and learning management systems needed for taking online classes.

Advisors. Your advisor, who will be assigned to you by the school, can help you plan your schedule and register for classes. Meet with your advisor regularly (in person, on the phone, or via a remote meeting app) to gain invaluable advice and guidance.

Tutoring and study groups. Schools usually have tutoring services available for most if not all liberal arts courses, as well as for many nursing courses. Take advantage of this help if you need it. Frequently, study groups form within individual classes. Studying in a group brings different perspectives and provides support.

Writing assistance. You’ll have to complete many writing assignments in nursing school. If writing isn’t your strong suit, see if your school has a writing center, where you can take advantage of one-on-one help with your writing skills and learn American Psychological Association writing style, which is preferred in most nursing programs.

Counseling. All colleges offer free counseling and support for students. If you need emotional help, encouragement, or support, seek out these resources.

Faculty and teaching assistants. Don’t hesitate to contact faculty with any questions or concerns. Your course syllabus is a “contract” with your instructor. Dates and times, expectations, and assignments typically are non-negotiable. You’re responsible for meeting deadlines. If for some reason you can’t meet an assignment date or need to miss a class, contact the instructor before the due date, not after. The instructor will appreciate that effort and will be more likely to accommodate a request for extension, if possible.

Faculty post their contact information and office hours and location on the course syllabus. Keep that information in your phone or other easily accessed location. If your class has a teaching assistant, have that person’s contact information readily available also. Your instructor and teaching assistant want you to be successful and to help you in any way possible.

Be realistic

Be realistic in your expectations of yourself, your school, your job, and your family. But if you find the right school for you and follow this advice, you’ll enjoy a successful experience that helps you grow in your career.

Debra A. Hrelic is the RN-BSN program coordinator at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.


Hrelic DA. How to be a success in nursing school. Am Nurse Today. 2018. myamericannurse.com/Digital/EducationGuide18-19/#p=22

1 Comment. Leave new

  • If you update this article or write another, please include the library in the “Tap Into Resources” section. Libraries and librarians are also great sources of resources to help students be successful!
    Beth Smith, Librarian


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