For High School Students: How to Prepare for Nursing School

Snapshot: This article describes how high school students interested in pursuing a nursing career can best prepare themselves, academically and otherwise, and some important education and career-related questions to explore.

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Is Nursing Right for You? Academic Preparation Choose Your Degree Caveats & Planning

Is Nursing Right for You?

  • Nursing is challenging but rewarding. Nursing demands a lot of those who join the profession, mentally, emotionally, physically, and even spiritually – and it can give you a lot back too. Those interested in nursing should be prepared to ‘go the distance.’ It takes a lot of hard work to become a nurse, and more hard work to practice as a nurse.
  • Nursing is a values-driven discipline. Nursing is not simply a job; it is a profession, and really, a sort of calling. How do you know if nursing is right for you? There’s no one way, but here are some values and qualities essential to being a successful nurse:
    • Compassion. Nursing is a caring profession; compassion and the desire to help others is central to the values of nursing. Nursing follows a bio-psycho-social model; it demands that its practitioners integrate physical health with other roots of human wellbeing.
    • A desire to keep learning. Nursing, like healthcare generally, is always changing; a willingness and desire to keep learning throughout your career is important.
    • An aptitude for science. Nursing is academically rigorous, and requires a deep understanding of how the human body works, and consequently, how the body can also fail. Science is central to that understanding.
    • The ability to handle stress. Nurses often work in fast-paced environments, and shoulder great responsibilities. An ability and desire to be cool under pressure is important.
  • Get some experience. Even though you’re still in school, you can nonetheless get some hands-on experience to see if nursing might be right for you. Here are a few ways to do it:
    • Volunteer in a hospital or clinic. Many healthcare settings welcome volunteers; this is a great way to see how you feel about being in a clinical environment, and around sick or injured people. If you can, try to get training or experience that allows you to work directly with patients in some way.
    • Get a healthcare-related part-time job. That volunteer position (see above), could turn into something more. You could also get a job in a clinic or physician’s office. Again, the important thing is to get some ‘real world’ experience.
    • Become an EMT or paramedic. You can become an EMT or paramedic while still in high school. This is especially useful for those who think they may be interested in trauma, critical care, or emergency room nursing.

Academic Preparation

  • Nursing is academically rigorous. Nursing demands mastery of a wide body of academic and clinical knowledge. As is true for many fields, what you learn in high school (and beyond) is less important than how you learn to think, and the work ethic you develop along the way. Take courses that develop your reasoning and critical thinking skills, and you’ll be well prepared to pursue nursing in college.
  • Build the right academic foundation. While nursing is a health-related career, the best-prepared nurses are well grounded in a range of academic subjects. The following high school coursework will lay a solid foundation for college-level nursing courses:
    • English: 4 years
    • Math: 3 – 4 years (including algebra and geometry)
    • Science: 3 – 4 years, including biology and chemistry, preferably with labs; physics and computer science are also recommended
    • Social Studies: 2 – 4 years
    • Foreign Language: 2 years
  • Don’t worry about specific nursing pre-requisites. Most nursing programs have pre-requisite courses, that is courses you’re required to take before you can declare a major in nursing. These may include courses like anatomy and physiology, microbiology, psychology, and sometimes classes in subjects like philosophy, ethics, or religious studies. If you pursue nursing in college, you’ll likely enroll in these classes during your freshman or sophomore year. You don’t need to take them in high school, and even if you do, your college or university may require you to take them again anyway unless they were Advanced Placement (AP) courses, or otherwise at a college level.

Choose Your Degree

There are several degree options to become a Registered Nurse (RN). You can find more detailed information about various nursing degrees by exploring the article ‘Nursing Degree Options.’ Below is a brief description of the degree options of greatest interest to high school age students:

  • Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN). This is a 2 – 3 year program, offered at many community colleges. This degree will prepare you to take the nursing licensing examination (the NCLEX-RN) to become a Registered Nurse (RN). This can be a cost-effective option for many students. However, because it is not a 4 year degree, it will not prepare you as well to assume management or leadership positions later in your career. (RN to BSN “bridge” programs, for RN’s who hold an Associates Degree in Nursing and wish to earn a Bachelors of Science in Nursing, are also available, and may be attractive to RN’s already in the workforce).
  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). This is a 4 year undergraduate degree, offered at many public and private colleges and universities. It will prepare you to take the nursing licensing examination (the NCLEX-RN), to become a Registered Nurse, and to assume management and leadership positions later in your career, if you so choose. This is a longer, and usually more expensive, route to becoming an RN, albeit one that affords greater long-term opportunities. While many RN’s do not hold a BSN, for younger nurses the BSN is becoming a national standard, and RN’s without a BSN may find their career opportunities more limited both employer preference and possibly by future regulation.
  • Licensed Practical Nurse/Licensed Vocational Nurse (LPN/LVN). This is a 1 – 2 year program, offered at many community colleges and technical schools. (There is meaningful difference between the term LPN and LVN; California and Texas tend to use the term LVN, most other states use LPN). This degree will prepare you to take nursing licensing examination for LPN’s/LVN’s (the NCLEX-PN). This is an attractive option for students who wish to pursue more limited higher education, and/or to begin working sooner after high school. The disadvantages of this degree include a more limited scope of practice in comparison with RN’s, lower pay, and perhaps a shrinking number of jobs due to increases in healthcare educational standards and ongoing changes in healthcare regulation.

 Caveats & Planning

  • Consider nursing program waiting lists. Many schools, especially some community colleges and some public universities too, have waiting lists for their nursing programs. This means that even if enrolled students meet GPA requirements for their school’s nursing major, they may not be able to secure a place in that school’s nursing program; nursing departments in such schools may be referred to as “impacted” or “over-subscribed.” This is much less likely to be a problem at well-funded public universities, and at private colleges and universities. Check out this page on the “Discover Nursing” website for a list of nursing programs with no waiting lists: http://www.discovernursing.com/schools#no-filters.
  • Research nursing major admission requirements. Nursing is a rigorous field, and most colleges and universities establish criteria for admission to their nursing major. This is usually based on the student’s undergraduate GPA during the freshman and sophomore years, with special consideration given to grades earned in key nursing pre-requisite courses such as anatomy and physiology. Just because a particular college or university has a nursing department, don’t assume that you’re automatically “in.” You’ll have to earn your place as a nursing major.
  • Research NCLEX pass rates. All Registered Nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, to practice as RN’s. While most schools ensure their students are well prepared for this exam (the average pass rate for first-time test-takers nationally is about 88%), in some cases, especially at less academically rigorous institutions, pass rates can be significantly lower. You can Google the name of the college or university you’re interested in and type in ‘NCLEX pass rate,’ or other similar key words, to find this information; most state boards of nursing publish schools’ pass rates online. This is important, because without passing the NCLEX, you can’t practice as an RN.
  • Factor in the career office and your alumni network. The career office and alumni network at your college or university are always important, and that’s as true for new nurses as anyone else. While it’s true there’s a long-term nursing shortage, it can be surprisingly difficult to land your first job as a nurse, primarily because it’s so expensive for employers to train new RN’s. You want to get support from career experts at your school, and from those who have gone before you, especially when you’re first starting out.
  • Weigh your options for financial aid. Financial aid is a key factor in your financial planning for college. Some nursing students may be able to obtain reductions or deferrals for their loans, or even loan forgiveness under certain state and federal programs. Ask your high school college advisor for more information, or research these programs for your particular state.