September 10, 2020

How Hard is Nursing School?

One of the most common questions people ask when they consider entering into the nursing profession is, how hard is nursing school? 

Whether you are a high school graduate or a seasoned nurse who is looking for advanced nursing education, you need to understand what you're getting into in order to make that next move. 

We dug into a variety of nursing programs to help you understand the kind of commitment each one will require, as well as tips for how to succeed in nursing school!

How Hard is a CNA Program?

Certified Nursing Assistants, or CNAs, are vital members of the nursing staff that perform primary patient care services. You can find CNAs working in hospitals, nursing homes, and other residential settings. As with all nursing programs, CNA education requirements vary from state to state. However, they generally include classroom and laboratory hours, as well as clinical training in the field.  

CNA programs usually take between 4 to 10 weeks to complete, which is considerably shorter than any other nursing program. Many RNs start their careers as a CNA, which helps to introduce them to the medical field, as well as give them an up-close look at what it is like to work in the patient care setting.

Requirements to apply to a CNA program include a high school degree or GEN.  

Upon graduation from a certified CNA training program, students must pass their state's CNA certification exam to become officially licensed. The exam generally includes both a written test and a clinical portion where students have the opportunity to demonstrate their clinical skills. 

What to Expect in a CNA Program

You should expect to prepare for any topics covered within your program which include, but are not limited to:

  • Taking and recording vital signs
  • Patient safety
  • Personal care/hygiene
  • Ambulation
  • Infection control issues
  • Activities of daily living
  • Anatomy and physiology

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How Hard is an ADN Program?

An Associates Degree of Nursing (ADN) is typically a two-year RN program, although it can take up to three years to complete depending on how fast you complete your classes. It is usually completed at a community college and is the minimum amount of nursing education required to earn RN credentials.  

Many nurses choose to get an ADN because it is the shortest, quickest route to obtaining an RN credential. It is also significantly less expensive than obtaining a bachelor's degree. But it is important to note that in recent years many hospitals require new graduates to be bachelor's degree trained for employment. For that reason, many nurses who complete an ADN eventually go on to complete a bachelor's degree at a later time anyway.

Despite the shorter education, ADN programs are still extremely challenging and have a competitive curriculum. Most ADN programs expect students to earn a minimum of a C grade or higher, although some ADN programs require higher grades (such as a B-, or above 80%, for example). 

What to Expect in an ADN Program

ADN programs include classroom learning, hands-on simulation and clinical hours. The clinical hours required include preceptorship within the various hospital settings, including med/surg, intensive care, postpartum, psych, pediatric, and sometimes emergency department.

Courses students usually take within the ADN program include:

  • Nursing Foundations
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing
  • Nursing Assessments
  • Women's Health Nursing
  • Community Health
  • Psychiatric Nursing 
  • Pharmacology
  • Women's Health
  • Pediatric Care

*Each ADN program has a slightly different requirement; it is essential to review each school's requirements beforehand.

Upon graduation, students must pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination- Registered Nurse) examination before they can begin working as a registered nurse. 

ADN graduates also often take additional NCLEX preparation courses to help them prepare. The NCLEX exam contains between 75 and 265 questions (the more you get correct, the shorter the exam), and students have up to 6 hours to take it.

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How Hard is a BSN Program?

A Bachelor's Degree in Nursing, or BSN, is a four-year nursing degree program. Although an ADN and a BSN both ultimately prepare nursing students to pass the NCLEX, a BSN offers two more years of undergraduate and nursing education. (A BSN generally is also significantly more expensive than an ADN.)

Many people wonder why a nurse would earn a 4-year BSN if they can earn their RN credentials by completing the two-year ADN. 

That is a great question!

Although both degrees prepare RNs to take the NCLEX, earning a BSN offers more education in nursing theory, research, and information. Also, many hospitals now lean towards BSN-preferred or BSN-only new graduates. A BSN will provide more career opportunities and upward mobility then an ADN will. 

Magnet hospitals (hospitals with the highest nursing excellence per the American Nurses Credentialing Center) also require that they employ a higher level of BSN nurses and rarely consider new graduate ADNs for employment. For that reason, it may be worthwhile to get your BSN from the start.

What to Expect in a BSN Program

Some of the prerequisite classes required to be eligible for BSN school include:

  • Human Anatomy and physiology (classroom and lab)
  • Microbiology
  • Biomedical statistics
  • Nutrition
  • Chemistry
  • Sociology

Additional studies that a BSN student will have (in addition to the ADN courses mentioned about) include:

  • Nursing theory
  • Nursing informatics
  • Management and leadership
  • Public health
  • Critical thinking

*Each BSN program has a slightly different requirement, it is important to review your school's requirements.

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How Hard are MSN Programs?

There are several different types of MSN programs available, and each offers a wide range of nursing career opportunities. These are advanced nursing programs and usually require a minimum GPA (usually a 3.0, but it depends on the school) as well as 1-2 years of clinical experience working as a nurse.   

A minimum of an RN credential is required to apply for an MSN program. Many MSN programs options are available depending on your experience and choice of school. For example, you might consider an RN to MSN program (3 years, full time), or a BSN to MSN (2 years full-time).  Some, but not all, MSN programs also require you to take the GRE to be considered for the program.

What to Expect in an MSN Program

Like earning an ADN or BSN, the difficulty of obtaining an MSN depends on how determined you are to work hard and be successful in your studies. It would be best if you made school a number #1 priority.

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How Hard is a Nurse Practitioner Program?

Getting an education to become a Nurse Practitioner (NP) is very specialized, depending on which area of medicine you want to focus on. Some of the specialties you can choose from before you start NP school include:

What to Expect in a Nurse Practitioner Program

NP programs are tailored to the specialty that you want to practice in, and your coursework will represent your specialty of study. In addition to the required specialty-focused classes, here is additional coursework that an NP will study while in school.

  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Health Ethics
  • Nursing Theory and Practice
  • Health Care Policy

Nurse Practitioners also must complete direct patient care clinical rotations within their specialty. Nurse Practitioner school takes a minimum of 2 years if attending full-time; however, it may take up to four years, depending on how quickly you can complete your classes. 

Following graduation, NP graduates also need to take and pass a certification exam within their specialty before they begin working with patients.

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How Hard is a CRNA Program?

A Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, or CRNA, administers anesthesia before medical procedures (such as surgery) as well as follows up with post-procedure patient care. CRNA programs are incredibly challenging and intensive, and students must work very hard to succeed in the coursework.

Starting in 2025, CRNAs will need a Doctorate degree meaning that in 2022 all CRNA programs will be doctorate level programs. They can take anywhere from 2 to 4 years, depending on how fast you can complete classes and clinical hours (full-time students can complete their programs in closer to two years).

To apply for CRNA school, you must have a valid RN license and a minimum of a BSN. In addition, you must also have at least one or two years of experience in a critical care setting, such as ER or ICU. If you are a new nurse, and considering a CRNA program at some point in your career, you may want to move into a more critical care nursing role out of nursing school if possible. Otherwise, you will need to gain that experience before you can apply to a CRNA program.

As of 2019, there are only 121 accredited CRNA programs in the United States. CRNA programs are highly competitive and very challenging for those who are accepted.

What to Expect in a CRNA Program

Coursework included in a CRNA program generally includes:

  • Chemistry, Biochemistry
  • Physics
  • Anatomy, Physiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Anesthesia Pharmacology
  • Statistics
  • Research
  • Legal aspects for a CRNA
  • Anesthesia technology

CRNA programs also require clinical hours with a preceptor. This is where you can practice your skills and techniques in various procedures, such as in orthopedic surgery, or an epidural for childbirth. Most CRNA's obtain their clinical hours in large teaching institutions or busy hospital settings.

Upon completion of a CRNA program, candidates are eligible to sit for the National Board Of Certification and Recertification for Nurse Anesthetists (NBCRNA). The test has 100 to 170 questions and can take around 3 hours to complete.

*All MSN and DNP programs have varying levels of requirements, it is essential to review each school to have a complete understanding of expectations within the program.

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How Hard is a DNP Program?

A DNP, or Doctorate of Nursing Practice, is a terminal degree and the highest level of practicing nurse. Some students earn their DNP at the same time that they are completing their masters nursing programs. You can expect to complete the same coursework as in masters or NP degree, before completing additional coursework in your DNP program.

What to Expect in a DNP Program

  • Additional coursework to earn your DNP will include:
  • Health Economics, Policy and Regulations
  • Leadership and Organizational Behavior
  • Clinical Data Management for the DNP
  • Epidemiology
  • Project Management for Systems Innovation
  • Health Policy Development
  • Interprofessional Partnerships

In addition to classroom studies, DNP students must also simultaneously complete many clinical practice hours in the field. A DNP education is generally another three years of education after completing an MSN.

DNP students must already have a national certification within their specialty area before they complete their doctoral project as a part of their program.

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Is it Easier To Do Online or In-person Nursing Programs?

Achieving an online degree is now easier than ever before. However, it is essential to understand that while much of the classroom education and testing can be done online, simulation labs and clinical hours still need to be done in person in the medical setting. 

Some students have found that online nursing education is easier than in a classroom setting because they can do their studies at any time of the day or night. There is no need to spend time driving to and from class. Online education, therefore, often fits into an already busy schedule better than a brick and mortar program does. 

However, some people learn better in a classroom or group setting than in an online environment. If you are the type of person who learns best in an in-person group, that is something to take into consideration when choosing a nursing program. 

Can You Work While in Nursing School?

Many universities recommend that you either do not work or work as few hours as possible while achieving a full-time ADN or BSN degree. The reasoning is that you will not have enough time to focus on your studies. If you need to work during nursing school, you may want to consider a part-time or at-your-pace program that will fit your needs. 

However, with the flexibility of online education, many students have also found it easier to balance work, school, and personal life during their studies than ever before.

For an MSN or higher, many universities offer part-time programs so that those who work full-time are still able to manage their studies. As most students at that point have already been working as a nurse for several years, the expectation is that you can still work at least part-time while in school.

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Tips on Getting Through Nursing School from Nurses Who Did It 

#1.  Take Care of Your Health

As a nursing student, your #1 priority should be to take care of yourself first. No matter what degree you are earning, it is an extremely stressful time, even for the best students. Getting sick will keep you from moving forward with your studies.

There will be times where you will have to stay up late to cram for exams or write papers - and you may even have to work graveyard clinical hour shifts, which will mean catching up on sleep during the day.

Make sure that you are drinking enough water, nourishing your body with healthy food, and sleeping appropriately when time permits. That way, when you do find yourself burning the midnight oil to prepare for a big test, you will still have energy reserves to get you through and prevent yourself from getting sick.

“Don’t skip the gym! It’s necessary time for your body and a mental break” -- @cptncavegirl

#2.  Manage Your Time Wisely

Nursing school, whether it be for an ADN or DNP, will be some of the busiest years of your entire life. It is essential that you pre-plan as much as you can so that your education and personal life get the attention they need.

Keep a planner to organize everything from school work to clinical hours, as well as family time and meals. Otherwise, your nursing program will manage your time for you, and you will feel constant overwhelm that may negatively affect your studies.

“Don’t wait to study last minute and you got this !!” -- @iamndhillon

#3.  Nursing School is Exhausting, But it’s Temporary!

Nursing school is a moment in time. You will have to make sacrifices for the greater good of your education; however, once you graduate, you will get your time back. Let family and friends know that you may be MIA for a while and that your education needs to take center-stage until you graduate. It won't be long before you get your social life back, along with so many more career opportunities ahead of you.

 #4.  Have the Right Attitude

Attitude is everything when it comes to handling the stress and challenges of nursing school.   Write down the reasons why nursing school is important to you and how it will impact your life in the long term. When you start feeling overwhelmed or frustrated, it is a great way to remember all the reasons why you are doing this in the first place and reach out to your support system for help!

“Don’t wait until the last minute to reach out for help if you’re struggling” -- @nurse_britty

You Got This

There is no doubt that nursing school will be hard. But after you finish and start your new career, you will see that the madness was all worth your while. 

By maintaining high nursing education standards, we continue to elevate the nursing profession with the most competent and skilled professionals. Best of luck to you in your nursing journey!

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