5 Insider Tips for Planning Your 2020 Nurse Practitioner (NP) School Experience

It’s hard to imagine what nurse practitioner school is like if you haven’t had the pleasure of attending yet. Maybe you were just accepted and are wondering what’s next. Maybe you are on the market for a program and need more information. Look no further!  Here are our insider tips for nurse practitioner school full of things to know and how to prepare for the adventure ahead!

Tip #1: When Considering your Program, Don’t Worry About What to Wear

A totally online or hybrid NP program like family nurse practitioner (FNP), pediatric nurse practitioner programs or other Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) programs offer the opportunity to do the coursework on your time. You may look forward to studying anemias in between binges of “Dawson’s Creek” (a nod to all you older Millennials) while in your PJs or athletic wear. If so, a flexible online or hybrid option can offer you this opportunity. However, many nurse practitioner students feel attending online courses essentially leads to teaching yourself the material. This may be the case for both online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs. It can also be difficult to find specifics about this when reviewing program admissions or skimming recruitment information. A good resource to ask about this is a program recruiter or current students enrolled in your program of interest. Understanding a program’s academic offerings, administrative faculty, facilitates and learning supports is a smart way to find a program worth attending.

Tip #2: Show Up for Socially-Distanced Class

Personally, I think hybrid programs are “radical” (a nod to all Boomers).  Many programs offering a BSN-DNP option may blend online courses with a once-a-week traditional classroom meet up.  There are many reasons why this option can lead to a good academic experience.  Meeting with your instructors face-to-face assists with understanding certain concepts through informal dialogue and questioning.  Also, being part of a classroom with your peers offers opportunity for lasting friendships and peer support through this stressful time. 

For many graduate nursing students, there are challenges in attending traditional classroom-based courses.  Competing employment demands, child care needs, sleep, self-care, health and wellness and other obligations all point to the value in greater flexibility offered with online or hybrid programs.

A healthy majority of us experienced the durability and shortcomings of online education during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020 whether from news stories, our children’s experiences, or maybe our own experience – like all you recent BSN and MSN grads! When considering “what will work for me,” many top programs like Yale, University of Washington, or John Hopkins require weekly to at least once a semester classroom attendance. This is a good barometer to measure other programs against. 

Finally, many previous hybrid or traditional programs may not have as many in-person opportunities this year anyway (thanks, COVID-19). These programs may rely on greater online delivery of coursework for the foreseeable future.  Consider this when searching for and inquiring about the right program for you.  

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Tip #3: Work the Net!  Or Not

Many schools require students to find their own clinical placements and preceptors. You may be left to your own devices, essentially cold-calling clinics to see if you can find a preceptor who will take you. This may require significant networking, and for many students, it could be a serious problem.

Additionally, clinical sites and preceptors often change the plan at a moment’s notice. For example, while attending my Family Practice II clinical rotation with a local clinic, a certain virus-who-must-not-be-named ceased all “normal” activity for the organization and barred all students except medical residents from tending their academic requirements. Now, this is a rather extreme example, but individual preceptors experience life events which require them to drop potential preceptees: job loss, injury or illness, or a taxing workload from their employer. Not to mention the majority of preceptors are not compensated for their additional efforts in training future APRN professionals.

So, what do you do? One strategy is to be a part of a professional nursing collaboration, such as the ENP Network.  NP students can empower themselves to not only find preceptors, but link with local professional organizations, attend sponsored events, search for jobs and more.  Students must register with the collaborative to participate, and for a nominal fee, exclusive options are accessed when searching for and communicating with potential preceptors. 

Another strategy is to forgo the entire “preceptor hunt,” and find a program that does this for you.  The program I attend dedicates a team of faculty to perform this function, and many of the faculty work in the same organizations where they network the preceptor pool.  An added bonus to this strategy is the vetting process. My program and faculty conduct regular and routine evaluations of both preceptors and clinical sites. This process ensures quality sites and personnel are retained for current and future classes.  Without such dedicated effort, many students may find themselves at risk for adverse learning conditions or compromised academic quality in their sites and preceptors. Have no fear! Just be aware of these conditions, and take your time when researching your potential programs.  

*BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE (for BSN-DNP students)!

I’d be doing all of you BSN-DNP students out there a disservice if I didn’t mention the magic associated with planning and coordinating your Capstone Project. Though my wonderful instructors and faculty assisted me with my clinical experience (a BIG thank you to them), my program hasn’t implemented a support program for finding and maintaining a network to support students’ DNP Capstone (or Quality Improvement) Projects. A quick refresher on this: the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (n.d.) proposes the “Final DNP Project” as an opportunity for integration of learned practice skills and demonstration of nursing scholarship principles and competencies into a change on the organizational or system level. Many of my peers and other students implement their projects with their current employers and respective departments. I think this is a good way to address needed changes in your organization, and a wonderful opportunity to initiate quality improvement.  I personally had the same opportunity, but I felt a greater calling to the role of a consultant working outside an organization to address problems they were encountering.  Yes, this was difficult, but there were many reasons why this was advantageous. 

First, it required me to see the problem more objectively. The problem did not directly affect me, so it allowed me to search for solutions with fresh eyes. Secondly, it broadened my network. If I needed an employer, this gave me an opportunity to make good first impressions and secure a position. Thirdly, I felt more open to possible quality improvement ideas as I was not locked into one.  

For anyone pursuing a DNP, I’d recommend the following:

  • When looking for programs, ask about how the DNP project is supported by administration and local clinical entities.
  • Ask if there is interest by local clinical sites in implementing students’ DNP Projects
  • Look at current and past DNP projects which are usually listed on the School of Nursing’s website, including where they were implemented.
  • Read about academic faculties’ research interests to better align a potential DNP Faculty Chair, who could guide you through the process.

Tip #4: Begin and Leave With A Good Impression

Remember Tip #3, about finding your own preceptor? If that’s the case, you’ll have to rub shoulders with anyone who can help you get a foot in the door. Think of every interaction you have inside and outside of school as an interview. For this reason, turn yourself into a networking butterfly, and embrace new relationships along the way.

It doesn’t end once you’ve landed a preceptor, though. The connections you are making could be the direct line to your next job, so make sure you are leaving good impressions everywhere you go. Preceptors make great references, so let them know how grateful you are to have the opportunity to be learning from them. Who doesn’t love chocolate and a “Thank You” card? Then, prove yourself worthy by working hard.

Tip #5: Revenge of the NURds!  

If you are considering nurse practitioner school, realize that this is the time to take every opportunity you have to learn, learn, learn. Ask as many questions as you can, and be prepared to supplement what you learn with extra research.

Now is the time to heartily embrace your inner nerd (or NURd for Nurse + Nerd, get it?). When you do this, you can have fun in an inherently stressful environment.  Dress up as a mock patient and deliver a case scenario. I dressed as Dwight Shoemaker, age 53, with herpetic encephalitis. Download a catalogue of clinical apps and incorporate them into your study sessions. My favorites are Picmonic, HumanDx, Epocrates, and eMurmur Primer. Purchase a white board and follow along with Armando Hasudungan as he draws out COVID-19 pathophysiology. Just. Make. It. FUN!

Graduate nursing education is hard enough. There will be a constant flow of new information, and your brain will feel it’s running a marathon (spoiler alert: you are). However, it doesn’t always need to feel this way, and finding ways to lighten the heaviness of it is one of the secrets to lasting until the end.

Picmonic for Nurse Practitioners happens to fall in line with this mantra! It’s engaging and fun, and the use of picture mnemonics or mnemonic flashcards creates fast and efficient study sessions. This facilitates extra time for much-needed R&R in your time off from school and clinicals.

Remember: you have a personal reason for all this stress and discomfort. Reflect on your why and share it with others.  Write it down and put it in your notebook or computer. Keep your head up, and know that the Picmonic team is here cheering you on!

We hope these insider tips for nurse practitioner school helped! And if you are ready, try Picmonic for free today and get a sense of what may lie on the journey ahead!

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I began my 14-year medical/ “Mursing” career as a Combat Medic for the Army Reserve. Shortly after completion of my BSN, I commissioned into the U.S. Army as an Army Nurse and began my tour of duty at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, TX. My adventures have brought forth a beautiful wife, three red-headed children, and two dogs (Whisky and Pancakes). We’ve lived in Arkansas, Texas, Kansas, Texas (yes, twice), Washington and Missouri. As of this captain’s log, I’m working on completion of my BSN-DNP program at Missouri State University to become a family nurse practitioner. My prior experience and friends in medical-surgical, outpatient primary/specialized care, nursing administration, and emergency/trauma nursing (MY FAVES) motivate me to guide, mentor, teach, learn from, share bread with, play dodgeball against, and be inspired by the next generation of not only nurses and APRNs, but the entire medical and allied health community.
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