How Hard Is Nursing School? Tips for Success

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Is nursing school difficult? This guide will discuss nursing school, how hard it is, and the training needed to become a nurse.

[Featured Image]:  A nursing learner, wearing a blue uniform and with a stethoscope around her neck is standing in a classroom at nursing school

Nursing school is competitive to get into and challenging to get through. Because programs require many credit hours, nursing students sometimes end up taking multiple difficult courses in one semester. Think of late nights studying for exams in addition to clinicals where you'll gain hands-on nursing experience.

But the rigor is worth it, if you want to become a nurse. The curriculum prepares you for a rich, fulfilling career. You'll be motivated to navigate and succeed in your nursing education. 

Nursing school admission

An extensive review process will begin upon your application, with many other qualified applicants facing the same review. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US projects 194,500 open registered nurse jobs available, on average, between 2021 and 2031, making it more in demand than any other profession [1].

That demand has also created a surge of prospective nurses, making the competition to get into nursing school fierce. According to data from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, more than 250,000 nursing students are studying for their bachelor's in nursing [2].

As a nurse, you’ll have the well-being of your patients in your hands. Given the level of trust and responsibility associated with this role, admissions to nursing school are notoriously rigorous and selective.

You can expect the school to evaluate you in various ways. It determines if you have the academics and the ethics to meet the high standards associated with this profession. 

Read more: How to Get Into Nursing School: Your Guide to a Degree

GPA requirements

Your grade point average (GPA) is one of the first things many schools evaluate. It’s essential to keep in mind that each school and program sets its GPA requirement, but the average minimum GPAs, according to data from [3], are as follows: 

  • Associate degree programs: Range from 2.0 to 2.8 

  • Bachelor's degree programs: 3.0 on average

  • Early admission programs may have higher GPA requirements (3.8 or higher)

Prerequisite courses

Prerequisites are important because they give you a good foundation for your courses in nursing school. Although they vary from school to school, most nursing school prerequisites include science and general education courses such as:

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • College-level English

  • Math/statistics

  • Psychology

TEAS scores 

The Test of Essential Academic Skills (TEAS) is a standardized test, much like the SATs, but specific to nursing school candidates. Many nursing schools use it to try and predict your success in nursing school. It's a multiple-choice exam with 170 questions that you'll need to complete within three hours and 29 minutes. The exam tests your English and language usage, science, reading, and mathematics skills.

Application and essay 

Like many other colleges and universities, nursing schools require you to complete an application and include several additional documents, including a personal essay. This is an opportunity to set yourself apart from other candidates and demonstrate why the admissions team should select you.

Writing about experiences that have shaped you, your goals, and your ultimate "why" for attending can help get you started. Use the essay to highlight the qualities that make you unique and your commitment to nursing. Other details to consider adding to your essay include:

  • Reasons you chose that program or school

  • Examples that illustrate why you're interested in going into nursing

  • Previous medically related experiences, including volunteering

  • Personal accomplishments

Nursing school curriculum

One of the factors contributing to how hard nursing school is compared to other degrees is the intensity of the curriculum and the amount of work you will have to put in. During your education, you can expect to have a full schedule that requires you to prioritize studying, memorization, and focusing on the large volume of information you'll be learning.

Read more: How to Become a Nurse: Resources to Help You Get Started


While in nursing school, you’ll be engaged in a great deal of learning. Your courses are designed to help you learn terminology, concepts, and the skills you'll need once you put nursing into practice.

You will be required to do a lot of studying to learn everything you need to be prepared to provide safe patient care and cope with the profession's stresses. Some of the challenging courses you’ll likely take include: 

  • Pathophysiology, in which you'll learn about how diseases and injuries affect the different systems of the body

  • Medical-surgical, in which you'll learn about some of the most common health issues in adults

  • Pharmacology, in which you'll learn about medications, including their names, uses, and side effects

  • Evidence-based practice, in which you'll learn about interdisciplinary research, science, new health care research, and best-practices

Critical thinking skills 

As you progress through your nursing school program, you'll continue building your critical thinking skills. You’ll likely be pushed outside your comfort zone and may be faced with scenarios with multiple correct answers, but only one that's the "most right." Real-life patient care isn't black and white either. You'll need to be able to flex sharp critical thinking skills and, eventually, trust your instincts. 



While you're in nursing labs, you'll be in a controlled setting, but you'll most likely feel overwhelmed, particularly at first. Labs will put you in realistic patient care simulations, tasking you with drawing blood, giving injections, performing catheterization, and doing full-body assessments on the lab's mannequins, designed to behave and look like real-life patients. The goal is to prepare you for hands-on nursing and allow you to practice what you’ve been learning.

Clinical rotations 

Many nursing school students consider clinicals the most stressful part of their schooling. While in clinicals, you'll be working with live patients, applying the skills you've built in the classroom and your labs.

This hands-on part of your schooling will have you working under the supervision of a nursing instructor to gain hands-on learning experience. You'll shadow a nurse and help with small tasks. As you progress, you may be able to work more independently.

Nursing exams

In addition to being prepared for how hard nursing school is to get into, you’ll also need to be prepared to pass your program successfully. The requirements for graduating from your program will be specific to the nursing school you choose.

Going into nursing schools with a strong willingness to learn, initiative, and an understanding that it will be challenging can help you navigate the new workload you'll face.

Exam preparation

Preparation is vital throughout your nursing school career. You will need to study every day, at least a little bit. Try using mnemonics to help you remember information. For example, if you're trying to remember the treatment you might give to someone having a heart attack, you might use MOAN, which stands for morphine, oxygen, aspirin, and nitrates. Practice questions are another helpful tool because these questions help you figure out the areas you need to pay more attention to during your studies.

Passing exams 

Once you’ve graduated, you will still have one major exam left to pass: the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX). The earlier you start preparing, the better. You’ll want ample time to become comfortable with the testing style and the types of questions you’ll face. Give yourself as much time as possible, ideally at least five to six months, to review the large volume of information covered by the exam.

The NCLEX is a standardized test given by the nursing board. It measures your knowledge of the nursing process, assessment skills, and critical thinking skills. You need to pass this exam to get licensed as a registered nurse.

Tips for success while earning your degree

If you’re wondering how hard nursing school is compared to medical school, know that neither is easy. Both are in the health care field, and both have high levels of personal responsibility. Nursing school takes less time to complete, but it's known for its rigorous curriculum. 

1. Take advantage of university resources.

Your professors and peers will be invaluable assets throughout your time in nursing school. Getting to know your instructors can open the door to gaining insight into their experiences. They may also mentor you, give you advice for taking exams, suggest clubs that might be good for you to join, write you letters of recommendation in the future, and be a resource for internships.

Consider joining or starting a study group, which will connect you with other students and help deepen your understanding of different perspectives and issues or subjects you’re struggling with. Your institution may also have resources like Academic Success Centers, which often offer tutoring, workshops, and other resources. 

2. Build your study skills. 

Good studying habits are essential to your success in the classroom, lab, and clinicals. Avoid cramming and doing work at the last minute. Instead, create a regular studying schedule, doing at least a little bit every day so you can stay on track and avoid getting overwhelmed.

Becoming familiar with your learning style can also help. Consider how you've studied in the past and how you're studying now. Think about the tests you've done well on and how you studied for them.

3. Lean on your support system.  

Your peers are also a valuable source of support. They'll understand what you're going through and are working to achieve the same goal. Beyond your peers, be sure to ask for help when you need it from your professors, your family, and your romantic partner.

Not only can your support system offer solutions to challenges you're facing and encouragement to help keep you moving forward, but they can also help support your mental and emotional health.

4. Avoid burnout by finding balance.

Time management, taking breaks, and engaging in self-care are all essential to avoid burning out in nursing school. Your coursework and exam prep can feel like a full-time job. Taking breaks can help keep you refreshed.

Taking care of yourself by eating meals regularly, limiting caffeine, staying active, and getting plenty of sleep are ways to keep your health on track and cope more effectively with stress.

5. Have a plan for examination prep. 

Like your study plan, your plan for exam prep should avoid cramming. Set up a regular study schedule and rely on your professors and study groups to help answer questions you may have. Find creative ways to remember critical information. Make flashcards to help with memorization.

Next steps 

In preparation for nursing school, consider an online health care course through Coursera. The University of Michigan’s Anatomy Specialization takes advantage of a multimedia library of accurate anatomical models and materials to help you better understand the human body.

Article sources


US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Registered Nurses,” Accessed October 25, 2022. 

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