Mastering Nursing School Exams: A Guide for First-Year Nursing Students

Nursing students must navigate a demanding workload, from mastering complex medical concepts to honing practical clinical skills. To succeed, they must develop effective study strategies, practice repetition, and engineer a plan to retain everything a nurse is expected to know. The transition can be particularly overwhelming in the first year, where productive study habits become essential for success.

Whether a nursing student is starting their first semester or looking for study tips to enhance their learning, this guide provides the tools and insights aspiring nurses need to thrive in their educational journey. 

Students should be realistic about how they learn and absorb information to succeed. Take Allorah Foote, ICU registered nurse, founder of Nurse Well Versed, and online educator based in New Jersey, as an example. She told that she spent her first few months of nursing school reading and rewriting notes from her textbook for hours. But she performed poorly on tests. After spiraling, she evaluated how she learned best, and then created a system that played to her strengths. 

“I highly recommend any student going into nursing school to set a solid foundation for themselves before they dive in; it might seem like extra work up front, but it pays dividends with the amount of time, effort, and energy it will save in the future,” says Foote.

This guide will outline how to master the successful study habits necessary to become a nurse.

How Nursing Students Can Understand Their Unique Learning Style

One size doesn’t fit all, especially when it comes to learning. People tend to process and retain information differently, and so nursing students should take the time to understand their unique learning styles to craft a personalized and effective study strategy. This section provides an overview of the primary learning styles—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic—and offers tips tailored to each.

1. Visual Learning Style

Visual learners thrive when they can see information.

  • Methods: Visual learners benefit from looking at information. Diagrams, charts, and illustrations can enhance their understanding and retention of complex subjects.
  • Tips: Visual learners should use color-coded notes, flashcards with images, and educational videos that represent concepts visually. Sketching diagrams or flow charts can help solidify understanding for visual learners. 

2. Auditory Learning Style

Auditory learners comprehend best through hearing and speaking.

  • Methods: Auditory learners should embrace that listening to and discussing information will be central to their learning process.
  • Tips: Auditory learners benefit from attending study groups where they can discuss material, listen to recorded lectures, and use audiobooks to go deeper on a topic. They can also take advantage of listening to nursing and medical podcasts while they exercise or do chores. Auditory learners should repeat information aloud or teach concepts to a peer to reinforce learning.

3. Kinesthetic Learning Style

Kinesthetic learners understand best through physical actions and experiences.

  • Methods: Moving and doing are vital for a kinesthetic learner’s comprehension of the material. Hands-on practice will resonate with these types of learners more than reading or listening alone.
  • Tips: Kinesthetic learners should engage in lab work, simulations, or practical demonstrations as much as possible. They may benefit from using physical gestures when studying, and turning lessons into physical activities or games.

Harnessing Technology for Effective Studying

In our digital age, technology is an invaluable asset for students in every field, and nursing is no exception. Various study apps and online resources can enhance the learning experience, from note-taking and time management to knowledge retention. Here’s an overview of how students can harness technology for effective studying in their nursing education.

1. Study Apps and Online Resources

Several applications and platforms cater specifically to the needs of nursing students. Here’s a glimpse of how they can be of assistance: 

  • Quizlet: Customize digital flashcards and quizzes on medical terminology and concepts. The free version offers limited features; for $36 a year, Quizlet Plus offers access to Quizlet Learn, which incorporates data from millions of anonymous study sessions to provide study plans with ideas proven by cognitive science.
  • Evernote: A powerful note-taking app that syncs across devices, allowing students to have their notes with them wherever they go. The free version should provide students with all the features they need.
  • Anki: Utilizes spaced repetition, a scientifically proven method for efficient memorization. Anki is free on every platform except iOS, which costs $25.
  • Khan Academy: Offers free tutorials on various medical subjects, perfect for visual and auditory learners. Check out Khanmigo, an AI chatbot that acts like a tutor to encourage students to understand concepts, not just get quick answers.

2. Note-Taking Enhanced by Technology

Digital note-taking offers advantages that traditional methods might lack:

  • Searchability: Students can quickly search for keywords or phrases in their digital notes, saving time.
  • Organization: They can use apps to categorize their notes by subjects, dates, or importance.
  • Accessibility: Students can access their notes from any device, ensuring they can study whenever possible.
  • Multimedia integration: This allows embedding images, videos, and links directly into existing notes to create a rich study resource.

3. Time Management Tools

Managing time effectively is vital for any student, and technology provides several tools to assist:

  • Google Calendar: Sync a study schedule, appointments, and deadlines across devices.
  • Trello: Organize study tasks and assignments in a visually appealing way.
  • Pomodoro technique apps: Break up study sessions into focused intervals with regular breaks, promoting productivity.

4. Knowledge Retention Through Technology

In addition to note-taking and time management, technology offers methods to reinforce what a student has learned:

  • Interactive quizzes: Use platforms like Quizlet to self-test.
  • Spaced repetition: Anki and similar apps employ this method, ensuring students can review material optimally to aid memory retention.
  • Video tutorials: Platforms like Khan Academy present information in engaging ways, catering to different learning styles.

Effective Study Techniques

Knowing how to study can often be as crucial as what to study. This section provides effective study techniques that can make a nursing student’s learning experience more engaging and efficient.

1. Study a Little Each Day

Consistency is key to absorbing and retaining complex information over time. By studying a little daily, nursing students can create a continuous learning loop that gradually reinforces previous knowledge and introduces new concepts.

2. The Power of Active Learning

Nursing isn’t about memorizing facts; it’s about applying knowledge. Active learning encourages students to think critically, ask questions, and visualize how to use the information in real-life scenarios. This approach makes the material more relevant and easier to recall.

3. Take Note of the Most Important Stuff

Foote eventually created a note-taking system that saved her hours of mental energy and improved her grades by 20 points. Once her peers learned of her one-page study sheet method, they asked her for copies of them. “I got really good at filtering only the most important information needed for exams and how to group it in a way that was easiest to understand and remember,” she says. 

Here’s how she created her one-page study sheets:

  1. Pre-study: What are the questions I want answered as I learn this new information? This will help students target the most important material.
  2. Learn: Students should highlight key points emphasized in their class lectures. Don’t take verbatim notes.
  3. Organize: Students will benefit from filtering information from their textbooks and highlights from class lectures and grouping them into categories on one page per topic. Example categories can include:
    1. What is it?
    2. Body functions
    3. Causes
    4. Diagnoses
    5. Symptoms: acute vs. chronic
  4. Revise: The one-pager from step three can become even more concise. Consider: What symptoms and meds can be grouped together? What information can be simplified? 
  5. Recall: The day after a student creates their initial page, they can create another one-page about the disease on a blank page, recalling everything they can without looking at any of their notes to see what they know and don’t know. 

4. The Benefits of Group Study

Group study can be an excellent way to access diverse perspectives and insights. Collaboration with peers allows students to challenge and support each other, fill in gaps, and reinforce what they’ve learned.

5. The Art of Skim-Reading

With vast amounts of information to digest, learning how to skim-read effectively is essential. Focus on headings, subheadings, and summary sections to identify key points, and then delve deeper as needed. This skill helps students navigate through large texts efficiently.

6. Augmenting Class Materials with Reliable Online Sources

Supplementing class materials with reliable online resources can deepen a student’s understanding and offer different explanations or viewpoints. Websites like or medical journals can provide valuable additional insights.

7. Memory Retention Tricks

Mnemonics are memory aids that can simplify complex concepts. Whether using acronyms, visual imagery, or rhymes, mnemonics can make information more digestible and fun to remember.

8. Maximizing Concentration and Retention

The 45-15 study strategy involves studying intensely for 45 minutes and then taking a 15-minute break. This rhythm aligns with natural concentration cycles and can improve both focus and retention.

Time Management and Organization

Time is one of the most valuable resources for nursing students. By creating a systematic approach, they can make the most of their time without feeling too overwhelmed. Let’s explore how.

1. Setting Realistic Goals

Students should set realistic, achievable goals to act as stepping stones to gauge their progress and stay focused. They can achieve more by breaking down large tasks into smaller, manageable ones, and set both short-term and long-term goals that align with their overall vision.

2. Calendar Usage for Better Time Management

A well-structured calendar or planner can be a student’s best ally in managing their time effectively.

  • Students should outline their daily, weekly, and monthly tasks, including class schedules, assignments, and personal commitments.
  • Then, they can identify what’s most urgent and important, and organize their schedule accordingly. Visual learners can color code the appointments on their calendar.
  • It’s important to allow some buffer time for unexpected events or opportunities for relaxation.

3. Downtime vs. Study Time

Downtime doesn’t necessarily mean wasted time. Here’s how students can leverage it:

  • Micro-study sessions: If students have 10 to 15 minutes between classes or appointments, they can use that time to review flashcards or read a few pages of a chapter.
  • Audiobooks and podcasts: It’s helpful to listen to educational content during commutes or while doing household chores.
  • Reflect and connect: Students can use idle moments to reflect on what they’ve learned, making connections between different concepts.
  • Do-nothing time: Every student’s brain needs to rest, just like their body. A nursing student in particular needs to carve out some time once a week to enjoy time with family or friends, or alone time, without stressing about studying.

4. Study Environment Organization

An organized study space can greatly enhance productivity.

  • Decluttering: Students will do better if they keep their study area neat and free from distractions. They should consider giving their phone to their roommate and putting it in a locked box if they can’t help but check it every five minutes.
  • Essentials: A great study space has readily available materials, so a student doesn’t waste time searching for them.
  • Personalization: Students can make their space inviting and conducive to learning by adding personal touches that inspire them, such as plants, candles, or a white noise machine.

Preparing for the NCLEX Exam

The NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) is a standardized examination that nursing graduates must take to obtain licensure as a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse in the United States and Canada. The NCLEX is developed and administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

“Having a plan is key. I highly recommend committing to a structured plan and separating your days into which topics you study and commit to a certain amount of practice questions each day,” advises Foote. 

Application of Nursing School Knowledge

As nursing students refresh their knowledge of the basics, they should ask themselves how they’d apply what they know in a clinical setting. Critical thinking is crucial not only to passing the exam, but also on the job. “When you get answers wrong while practicing, make sure you read the rationales. The NCLEX is a test to make sure you can use your judgment to practice safely; knowing the reasoning behind the answer to the questions is key,” says Foote.

Aligning Studies With the NCLEX Test

The NCLEX tests nurses’ ability to think critically and apply their nursing knowledge in various scenarios. To prepare effectively:

  • Exam format: Nursing students should get familiar with the types of questions, time constraints, and content areas covered in the NCLEX.
  • Coursework: They should coordinate their regular study with NCLEX-specific content, integrating NCLEX-style questions into their routine.
  • Application: The NCLEX emphasizes the practical application of knowledge, so students should focus on understanding concepts rather than rote memorization.

Effective Use of Study Guides

Study guides and review books tailored to the NCLEX can be valuable tools.

  • Guide quality: Select up-to-date guides that align with the current NCLEX test plan.
  • Study plan: Students should use the guide to systematically structure a study schedule, focusing on different content areas.
  • Other resources: Integrating the guide with lectures, notes, and online resources is helpful for a comprehensive review.

Weak Spot Identification

Practice questions are an essential component of NCLEX preparation, and can help students know what they need to spend more time understanding. Here are tips for leveraging practice questions:

  • Simulating real exam conditions: Students can practice answering questions under timed conditions to get used to the exam’s pace.
  • Identifying weak areas: They should analyze their performance to pinpoint areas where they may need additional focus and review.
  • Building confidence: Students may benefit from gradually increasing the difficulty level of practice questions to challenge themselves and grow more comfortable with the exam’s demands.
  • Using reputable sources: It’s important to use recognized platforms and review books that provide detailed explanations for both correct and incorrect answers, enhancing one’s understanding of the material.

Effective Communication with Instructors

Before nurses start to build relationships with their patients and their families as practicing RNs, they can start developing good communication skills with their nursing school instructors. Students should be prepared and research before visiting instructors during office hours, and identify the problems they’d like their help solving before they approach them. This will not only leave a good impression but also motivate a student’s professors to do their best to provide support.

“Nursing professors value honesty; if you don’t understand something, tell them! They want to help you succeed. If they see you are trying your best, they are going to support you as much as they can,” says Foote. 

Maximize Clinical Experiences

Clinical experiences are the bridge between theoretical learning and real-world nursing practice. They provide a unique opportunity to apply classroom knowledge, develop critical thinking skills, and gain hands-on experience that’s invaluable to a nursing career. Here’s how students can maximize them to build a strong foundation for their future as a nurse.

1. The Importance of Hands-On Experience

  • Real-world application: Clinical placements enable nursing students to see how theories translate into practice, enhancing their understanding of nursing concepts.
  • Skill development: From basic care to complex procedures, hands-on experience helps students master essential nursing skills.
  • Professional growth: Interaction with patients, families, and healthcare teams allows students to develop communication, teamwork, and leadership skills.
  • Emotional preparedness: By dealing with real-life scenarios, students cultivate empathy, resilience, and adaptability—essential traits for a successful nursing career.

2. How to Make the Most of Clinical Experiences

It takes a proactive and reflective approach for nursing students to maximize their clinical experiences.

  1. Setting clear goals: Before each clinical rotation, it’s important for students to identify what they want to learn and achieve. They should share these goals with their instructor to align expectations.
  2. Being engaged and proactive: Students should actively participate, ask questions, and seek opportunities to practice different skills. It pays to show enthusiasm and take initiative.
  3. Reflection and evaluation: After each experience, students should reflect on what went well and what could be improved. This self-assessment fosters continuous learning and growth.
  4. Relationship building: Students should look for ways to network with professionals, mentors, and peers. These connections can offer guidance, support, and potential career opportunities.
  5. Embracing feedback: Constructive criticism from instructors, peers, and other healthcare professionals can make a world of difference for nursing students. It’s a valuable tool for improvement.
  6. Integration of theory and practice: Students should connect their clinical experiences with their coursework. This integration reinforces both their theoretical knowledge and practical skills.
  7. Professionalism: Nursing students should treat everyone with respect and maintain high professionalism. Their attitude and behavior reflect their commitment to the nursing profession.

Transitioning From School to Work

Transitioning from nursing school to practice can be challenging.

“No matter how well you did in nursing school, it is completely natural to feel like you don’t know anything when you’re first starting out. Patience and acceptance is essential; learned knowledge becomes wisdom with time and experience,” advises Foote.

Foote recalls struggling from imposter syndrome as she transitioned from student to full-time nurse. “It’s a big change going from ‘let me ask your nurse’ to being that nurse,” says Foote. 

Practice helped build Foote’s confidence. The more time she put in, the more experiences she could refer back to when making clinical decisions. Foote spent the last year of nursing school as a nursing assistant, which helped her become more comfortable with patients in a clinical environment. 

“One of the best skills I learned during this time was learning how to communicate effectively with patients and their families and becoming comfortable with it. I highly recommend if possible to get as much experience in the field as you can,” says Foote.

When in doubt, new nurses should ask questions. If they adapt a learning mindset early on, nurses early in their careers will learn faster and become more adaptable. 

“Even as a seasoned nurse, you will still be met with clinical situations you may have never encountered before,” says Foote. “Feeling comfortable enough to ask for help or another perspective is vital to your development.”

Personal Health Considerations

Nursing school is an exciting yet demanding journey, filled with opportunities for growth, learning, and transformation. As nurses navigate this path, it’s essential that they recognize that their well-being, both mental and physical, plays a vital role in their success. 

Here’s how nursing students can ensure that they thrive in pursuit of a rewarding nursing career:

  • Taking breaks and using relaxation techniques: Nursing students should give themselves permission to rest and rejuvenate. Whether short breaks during study sessions or engaging in hobbies they love, relaxation helps students stay focused and energized. Meditation and breathwork can promote calmness and focus.
  • Finding support: Nurses in training should rely on friends, family, and fellow nursing students. Sharing experiences, seeking advice, and offering encouragement creates a supportive network that fosters resilience.
  • Quality rest: Consistent, quality sleep is crucial for concentration, memory retention, and overall health. Nursing students should establish a consistent sleep routine to help their body and mind perform at their best.
  • Healthy eating and exercise: Students should nourish their body with balanced meals, and engage in regular physical activities. These habits can help students boost their energy levels, enhance their mood, and contribute to long-term wellness.

Students will benefit from embracing their nursing school journey with passion, perseverance, and purpose. Challenges will arise, but these are stepping stones, not stumbling blocks. Nursing students have a lot to learn and practice in a relatively short period, so they should employ strategic study skills, use the right tools, and personalize their learning plan to suit their style. 

Nursing students are not merely studying to become a nurse; they’re growing into compassionate, skilled, and resilient healthcare professionals.

Sabrina Tillman

Sabrina Tillman

Guest Contributor

Sabrina Tillman has more than 20 years of experience writing, editing, and leading content teams in health, fitness, nutrition, and wellness. She’s led digital content strategy and creation for companies such as MyFitnesPal, MapMyFitness, Under Armour, Primal Kitchen, Beachbody,,, Rodale (Running Times), and Hearst magazines.