Choose the right nursing school: 8 factors to consider before picking a program

woman doing research on laptop computer
woman doing research on laptop computer

Choosing a nursing school is a big decision. Whether you’re just starting your nursing career or you’re looking to go back to school, there’s a lot of things to consider. Factors such as curriculum, cost, time commitment and campus location will all be things that go into helping you pick a program that can start your career off right.

When you’re comparing schools, it can be helpful to have a clear sense of want you want out of your program and which aspects are more important to you than others.

Using these 8 steps, you’ll be on the way to feeling confident that you’re choosing a school that meets your needs.

  • Step 1:

Determine what you want in a program

Different nursing programs offer different benefits to different kinds of students, so it’s important to take your time and consider what it is you need to succeed. Factors such as your learning style, your future goals and any other commitments you have can all play a part in defining your needs. Ask yourself the following questions.

How long will the program take?

Your own time frame and goals will be major factors when you’re looking at programs. Do you want to enter the field as soon as possible, or do you want to earn an advanced degree before you begin working? Various programs will have different outcomes and lengths. Some typical commitments for new nursing students are:

Your timeline might look a little different if you’re already a nurse who wants to go back to school. There are many schools that allow nurses with ADNs to earn a bachelor’s in as little as 1 year, or those with bachelor’s to get a master’s in 18 months.

What’s the classroom structure like?

The classroom structure of your program can have a big impact on your studies. Some students find they learn best in large lecture settings, while others prefer the individual attention of small classes or the self-pacing ability of online courses.

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to look into the average number of students per class in the programs you’re considering. You could even ask to observe a class while you’re visiting the school, which can give you a feel for what kind of classroom setting might suit you.

What specialties are offered?

Do you already know you’re interested in a particular nursing specialty? Depending on your goals, you might want to pick a program that offers extra classes and clinical time in areas such as acute care, cardiovascular, neonatal, pediatric, or surgical nursing. If you don’t know what your interests are, a program with a broad range of choices might be your best bet.

Specialties are especially important for students who are earning advanced-level degrees. Many types of advanced practice nurses require specific degrees or a certain number of classes before they can be licensed.

How much time is spent in clinical rotations?

You’ll need to complete clinical rotations no matter what type of degree you earn. The time and type of these rotations can vary depending on your program. For example, some schools might offer evening clinical rotation hours for students who have day jobs while they’re attending school. Some important considerations for clinicals include:

  • What hospitals does my program work with?
  • What types of units can I do clinicals in?
  • How much total clinical time is part of this program?
  • What days of the week are clinicals held on?
  • Can I do my clinical rotation hours with a part-time schedule?
  • Step 2:

Determine what you want in a school

Your school will be a big part of your life while you attend your nursing program, so take your time to decide if it’s the right fit. Beyond the nursing program itself, there are a few things you might want to ask yourself before selecting a school.

Where is the school?

Whether you plan to live on campus or make the commute, location is an important detail. If you’ll be commuting, you’ll need to consider how far the campus is from your home, job and other commitments. Make sure you factor in drive time, available parking on campus and traffic when considering a school.

If you’ll be living on campus, consider the city, town, or neighborhood the school is in. For many schools, the surrounding area is part of the experience of attending, so you’ll want to make sure it’s one you’ll enjoy.

What is life on-campus like?

Living on campus might mean living in a dorm room with multiple roommates. Think about your own studying, sleeping and other lifestyle patterns when deciding if this option is good for you. At many schools, you’ll need to be prepared to pay more if you want a single room or off-campus apartment.

However, there are other factors beyond dorms to consider when thinking about daily life on campus. For example:

  • How far apart are classroom buildings from the dorms or apartments?
  • Is there a shuttle or other transportation available to students?
  • What dining options are available?
  • Are there library and lounge spaces for students?

What social and recreational options are there for students?

Interaction with other students can make your school experience a lot more enjoyable and space to relax can help keep your studies from feeling too overwhelming. You should consider what type of experiences are important to you while looking at schools. The activities available to you might depend on the size of your school, but common options include:

  • Intramural sports teams
  • Student committees
  • Interest-related clubs
  • Honor Societies
  • Fraternities or sororities
  • Arts or media activities such as student theater
  • On-campus coffee shops
  • Fairs and festivals
  • Gyms or fitness centers
  • Open parks or green spaces
  • Nearby nightlife or entertainment choices

Are there job opportunities on campus or nearby?

Many students need to work while they attend school. If you don’t already have a job but plan to get one, look at the available opportunities. Some schools offer on-campus jobs and work-study placements, but those spots might be limited or restricted to students with financial aid. Look at the surrounding area to see if many businesses hire students. As a nursing student, be on the lookout for nearby hospitals, nursing homes, or other medical facilities with openings for aspiring nurses.

What kind of technology is available on campus?

Pay attention to the technology being used when you’re touring a school’s libraries, labs and classrooms. This goes beyond computers. Some nursing schools have high-tech simulations in labs that allow students to practice clinical skills on campus.

  • Step 3:

Consult nursing school rankings

Nursing school rankings can be informative, but they’re not necessarily a deciding factor. That’s because these rankings are guidelines based on data and statistics, not individual student experience. Rankings don’t take into account things like campus life or the instruction style of professors, so their evaluations might not be a match. That said, if you’re struggling to decide between two different programs, rankings could help you make that choice.

  • Step 4:

Visit plenty of schools

One of the best ways to figure out the answers to your questions about a school is to visit it. You can take time on campus to see classrooms, dorm rooms, libraries, dining spaces and more. If you can, visit when classes are in session to see what it’s actually like to attend the program. A campus visit is a great time to meet faculty and staff and get your questions answered. You can also talk to current students about life on campus, clinical experiences and more.

  • Step 5:

Verify state approval & accreditation

The school you choose must be approved by your state’s Board of Nursing if you want to get your license. You can verify Board approval by searching the database on each Board’s website.

Beyond that, you should strongly consider attending a program that’s accredited. Though not a requirement for licensing, accreditation verifies that your program meets the quality standards laid out by the U.S. Department of Education. What’s more, if your school’s not accredited, you could find it hard to get financial aid, have trouble transferring credits to an advanced degree, or limit your opportunities for employment.

An important thing to note is that school accreditation and program accreditation aren’t the same thing. Your overall school may be accredited, but that doesn’t guarantee that your program is. For nursing, you want to look for a program that’s been approved by at least 1 of the following:

  • Step 6:

Ask about NCLEX exam first-time pass rates

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is required of all nurses in every state. Taking the NCLEX will cost at least $200 and there might be additional fees depending on where you live, so passing it on your first try can be financially important. Ask your top-choice schools about their pass rate for the exam. Schools with pass rates on the NCLEX have proven to be successful in preparing their students for nursing practice. 

  • Step 7:

Consider college career placement programs

An important resource to consider is what, if any, type of career placement or job connections your school has. Some schools have close relationships with local hospitals and medical centers to help students line up jobs after they graduate. Other schools might get exclusive job listings that only program graduates can apply for.

  • Step 8:

Factor in tuition costs

While tuition shouldn’t be the No. 1 deciding factor in the program you choose, the cost of nursing education is undoubtedly on students’ minds. What you might pay can vary widely based on the kind of program, the type of institution, the location of the school and more.

Thankfully, most students don’t pay their tuition completely out of pocket. There are many options out there to help, including federal financial aid, work-study programs and lots of scholarships. You’ll need to weigh any assistance you receive, what you can personally afford and the amount of debt you’re willing to take on.

Student loan forgiveness

One thing to keep in mind is where you think you may end up working after you graduate. If you find employment in a government agency, nonprofit organization, educational institution, or a location with a critical shortage of nurses, you may qualify for student loan forgiveness. If you know you intend to go into one of these areas, you may find that your tuition could end up being less in the end.