July 1, 2021 · 4 min read

Math Needed in Nursing School

When it comes to patient safety, math is an essential tool for nurses at all levels of practice.

sheila mickool

Written and reported by:

Sheila Mickool

Contributing Writer

two nurses studying at laptop
two nurses studying at laptop

In nursing, math isn’t just a prerequisite for admission to a college-level program or something you pass on a test for a license. It’s a core component of a nursing education and a skill set you’ll use every day throughout your career.

The safety of patients is the top priority in nursing—and math is an essential tool in accomplishing that at all levels of practice, says Donna R. Swope, an adjunct professor of nursing at Stevenson University.

Math skills are critical for nurses when they perform the basic yet important task of administering medication.

“Adopt the mindset that nurses and math are forever intertwined in the protection of the patient,” Swope says. “Don’t think of it as cramming for a test and then allowing the content to slip away.”

Math skills are critical for nurses when they perform the basic yet important task of administering medication. “In the process of testing, manufacturing, distribution, and prescription of medications, nurses stand as the last level of protection as they are the ones who actually administer the drug to the patient,” explains Swope.

Math calculations, measurement conversions, and data interpretation occur throughout the process, which includes:

  • Adhering to the “rights” of administering medication: the right patient, right medication, right dose, and right time.
  • Preparing a dose with a number of variables in mind, including the patient’s weight and the recommended dose per pound.
  • Preparing a dose according to patient ability; for example, considering whether a patient is only able to swallow the medication if it is crushed or in liquid form.
  • Adjusting dosage according to a patient’s response; for example, the flow rate of an intravenous drug is increased or decreased according to a patient’s blood pressure.

Nurses also use math in the creation and interpretation of research related to healthcare and nursing practice. That’s why undergraduate and graduate nursing programs require coursework in research and statistics.

“Nurses must be able read, analyze, and interpret research studies and make changes in procedures, protocols, and policies so that the standards of care that inform their practice are always up to date,” Swope says.

Practice Makes Perfect

You learned most of the math you’ll use in nursing in middle school and high school. If you don’t remember most of it, you’re not alone. Preparing to take a pre-assessment test like the PAX or TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills) for admission to a nursing program will help you review and solve math and algebra problems.

There are many practice guides and tests available. Community colleges also offer precollege-level math courses, should you need them.

Dosage Exams and Clinical Nursing Courses

In most programs, students generally take an introductory clinical class that includes a review of dosage and the math involved in handling medications. “Basics such as ratio/proportion, algebraic formulas, conversions, and apothecary measurements are reviewed and students are tested on their knowledge,” Swope says.

At the university where Swope teaches, “students have three tries to get 100% on the dosage exam at the completion of this review. They must withdraw from the clinical course if this score is not reached,” she says. “Every clinical course that follows includes a dosage exam on the first day of the course with the same standards: three tries to pass the exam.”

Students will find similar testing practices and policies at most nursing schools.

Nursing Program Math Requirements

Completion of two to three years of high school math is the prerequisite for admission to a nursing program at most colleges. However, some of the most competitive nursing programs prefer four years of high school math for Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs.

Here’s a rundown of the typical math prerequisites and courses required for graduation from nursing programs. These courses are in addition to the math tests that students take at the beginning of clinical courses.

Note: “One college-level math class” as cited below generally refers to undergraduate math classes such as an algebra, pre-calculus, or calculus class taken in the first two years of college.

Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

  • Prerequisites: Solid knowledge of basic math
  • Requirements for graduation: No additional math required

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)

  • Prerequisites: Two to three years of high school math, including intermediate algebra
  • Requirements for graduation: Varies from none to one year of college-level math

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

  • Prerequisites: Two to three years of high school math, including intermediate algebra
  • Requirements for graduation: One college-level math class

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

  • Prerequisites: Three to four years of high school math, including intermediate algebra
  • Requirements for graduation: One college-level math class and one introductory statistics course

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

  • Prerequisites: One college-level math class and one introductory statistics course
  • Requirements for graduation: Descriptive and inferential statistics or biostatistics courses

Doctor of Science in Nursing (DNP)

  • Prerequisites: Descriptive and inferential statistics or biostatistics courses
  • Requirements for graduation: Graduate-level courses in statistics and research design, evaluation, and outcomes 

Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD)

  • Prerequisites: One college-level math class and descriptive and inferential statistics or biostatistics
  • Requirements for graduation: Varies greatly but usually includes several graduate-level statistics and research methodology courses 

If Math Isn’t Your Strength, You Can Still Succeed

If you have math anxiety, you aren’t alone. Swope suggests students and experienced nurses take advantage of online practice programs, practice workbooks, and tutoring to hone their math skills.

“Nurses also have many resources in the clinical area that will be of help, like calculators on their phones, drug information websites, and built-in safety devices within computerized medication storage (such as allergy alerts),” she says. “And consulting with an experienced colleague is never a bad idea.”


donna swope

With professional insight from:

Donna R. Swope, MS, RN

Adjunct professor of nursing, Stevenson University



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