Nursing School: How to Prepare for Clinical

I remember my first clinical day of nursing school like it was yesterday. I was so nervous that I was sure I would forget how to simply introduce myself and say hello to my patient. Our clinical instructor was thoughtful enough to pair us up with another student so that we wouldn't feel overwhelmed. It helped a bit, but I still felt anxious and a bit lost. In order to help the up and coming nurses of the world, I've written this blog post on how to prepare for clinical. I even included a link to a few tools you can use at the bottom of the post to help you feel more organized. The tips in this post can be applied to a student at any point in their nursing school journey. This advice is not just for your first clinical rotation ever. There will be useful hints throughout to help any clinical experience go along more smoothly.

1. Get in the right state of mind.

No matter what I tell you, you're going to be nervous. Being a nursing student floating around a unit of experienced nurses and techs is intimidating. It's only natural to be nervous, so embrace that feeling, take the adrenaline, and let it fuel your learning. Your state of mind does not have to be at peace. All you have to do with that excited energy is be open minded and ready to learn, and you'll have a great experience. All the nurses and other staff will know you're a student. They're well aware that you're there to practice and learn. You'll be able to explain to them, "I'm a ____ year nursing student, and this is what I'm comfortable/uncomfortable doing." Nobody expects you to know everything, so don't worry if you have a lot of questions and uncertainties. So, get in that open state of mind and be ready to learn!

2. Know what skills you need to practice.

In order to have a good experience with your nurse-preceptor, you have to know what you're showing up to do. Knowing the skills you need to practice at clinical will make your experience more enriching and goal-directed. You will feel so much more comfortable heading into clinical if you have a list of tasks that you hope to accomplish. Before you go to clinical, you should write down a list of the skills you need to practice that week. You might even have a list provided by your course director. Each clinical week, you can refer to that list by adding skills or marking off skills that you've built competency in. Make sure you bring in a short list of maybe 2 or 3 main skills you'd like to accomplish in the clinical day. That way, you can be focused each day on checking off a few skills from the larger list.

Once you're on the unit, make sure you make your nurse-preceptor aware of the skills you're seeking out. They will be able to ask around the unit to find the learning opportunities you seek. Don't be afraid to do this! If your specific patient doesn't have much going on, this will help to get more hands on experience around the unit with different patients and nurses. You might not be able to practice your more advanced skills until you're working as an RN, so seek out these opportunities to learn while you can. If you want to get way ahead of the game, you can even email your preceptor days before to request patients who may have certain things like drains, wounds, trachs, chest tubes, etc... That way, you can really get the practice you want.

3. Print a report sheet tool.

There are many different report sheets available online to help you organize your patient information. Some examples are included in the links at the bottom of this post. Print a few report sheets and keep them in your clinical folder so that you can write down this information while getting report on your patient(s). This information will help you have a clear picture of what's going on with your patient and what you need to do to care for them. Once you start handing off patients to other nurses later in your nursing school career, you'll find these tools to be especially helpful. If you notice that the nurses on your unit use a different report sheet format, ask them if you can get a few copies so you can give report the way they do it.

4. Prepare the night before.

Prepare everything you need for your clinical days the night before. You don't ever want to be rushed on the way to clinical, so use this checklist to make sure you have everything you need. Make sure you check Google Maps on a similar day of the week at the time of your commute to see what traffic is like at the time you'll be heading out. Iron or steam your uniform the night before so you don't look like you just rolled out of bed in your scrubs. Set however many alarms you need to make sure you wake up on time. It's only going to stress you out and throw you off for the day if you're running late, so give yourself ample time to get ready. Below, you'll find my checklist along with a few links to report sheets and useful clinical tools!

Pre-Clinical Checklist

  • Clinical instructor phone number in your phone

  • Address/location of clinical

  • Double check start & end time

  • Lunch/Snack

  • Water bottle

  • Report sheet

  • Skills checklist (you can jot a brief checklist down on your report sheet)

  • Stethoscope

  • Pen light

  • Watch with a second hand

  • Pen or pencil

  • Notebook or clipboard w/ paper

  • Ponytail holder (never get caught without one in an ISO room)

  • Sweatshirt or scrub jacket (it's usually freezing in hospitals)

  • Any clinical-specific assignments or instructions you may need

  • Anything else I forgot! But don't go overboard... you don't want to bring a giant backpack full of stuff onto your clinical unit.

Report sheets:

Normal values: