Written by Lisa M. Davila, BSN, MS
Lisa M. Davila, BSN, MSLisa received her bachelor's degree in nursing and spent the first fifteen years of her professional career as a registered nurse. Her main specialty area was critical care. She also worked in a busy medical practice and as a visiting nurse for home intravenous therapy patients.

So you’ve decided to be a nurse. Congratulations! You have chosen a growing field with excellent job prospects.

But first you have to get through nursing school. Knowing what to expect that first year can prepare you for success both in class and on the job.

The academic curriculum may vary somewhat, depending on which degree you’re pursuing—whether it’s a baccalaureate program, associate’s degree or one of the (increasingly rare) hospital-based diploma programs.

Regardless of which program you choose, most have some things in common. You will first have to plow through prerequisites such as English, basic life sciences, and math. Some of these may seem unrelated to nursing. But taking an English class, for instance, will help you write clear and concise notes in a medical record. Solid math skills will enable you to calculate drug doses and at the very least, ensure your patient’s safety by double-checking a dosage already worked out by a pharmacist or doctor.

Still Looking for a Nursing Program?

Here are some of the most popular nursing programs. On each page you will find a detailed writeup of the program, specific courses, and even schools that offer that program that are currently accepting applicants.

Common Coursework to Expect

Once you’ve completed prerequisites, you will take specialized courses—common examples are microbiology, pathophysiology, nutrition, and pharmacology—that are directly related to the practice of nursing.

2 Year Nursing Program (first-year courses)

First Semester Second Semester
Anatomy and Physiology II Microbiology
Fundamentals of Nursing Medical-Surgical Nursing
Human Development Across the Life Span Mental Health Nursing
  Contemporary Issues in Nursing
  Fitness Elective

You’ll move on to practical classes and learn fundamental skills such as starting IVs, inserting catheters, and making beds.

Making beds? That’s right—this isn’t home economics class but don’t discount skills that seem easy. Learning how to properly make a bed will help your patients feel more comfortable, and may spare them from pressure sores and other wounds that may be caused by even small wrinkles in the sheets.

You’ll also focus on how to do a physical assessment, and take classes that combine nursing theory with clinical rotations.

All first-year classes will prepare you for your second year, which will have an intensive clinical focus in multiple settings as well as advanced classes such as nursing leadership and ethics.

“Minimize the chaos by keeping your ultimate goal (to be a nurse!) at the front of your mind.”

Seem tough? Many (if not most) first-year nursing students feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work and the associated time commitment. A review of nursing program descriptions including an ADN program at Shasta College in Redding, Ca., and a BSN program at University of Missouri in Kansas City shows that you can expect to spend three hours outside of class for every hour spent in the classroom. So a typical 12-credit semester load would mean you’re dedicating a minimum of 36 hours a week to your nursing studies—the equivalent of a full-time job.

4 Year Nursing Program (junior year courses)

First Semester Second Semester
Professional Nursing I Nursing Practice II: Adult Health
Alterations in Health Nursing Practice III: Childbearing Families
Pharmacotherapeutic Agents Health Care: An Interdisciplinary Approach
OR Cultural Diversity in Health Care
Technology and Therapeutic Interventions Basic Statistics, Biostatistics OR Behavioral
Health Assesment Across the Life Span  
Nursing Practice I: Health Promotion
Across the Life Span

Minimize the chaos by keeping your ultimate goal (to be a nurse!) at the front of your mind. Be organized. Work hard but pace yourself. Ask for tips from others who have gone through the program. Remind your family, friends, and coworkers that you’ll need extra support and understanding while you’re in school. And remember to eat right, get enough sleep, and take some “me time” to do something you enjoy.

You’ll get through that first year just fine.