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Nursing school involves both theoretical and practical learning. You have to know how to care for patients in a variety of contexts before you can earn your license and work as a registered nurse. Your nursing school clinical rotations will be an important tool in putting your knowledge to the test and learning practical applications.

Most nursing students are excited to start their first clinical rotations, but the experience can also be a little scary. When you’ve never worked in a clinical setting before, it can be very intimidating to work with real patients.

Not sure what to expect? Here’s what you need to know before your first clinical assignment.

What are nursing school clinicals and how do they work?

Nursing school clinicals bring students out of the classroom and into a healthcare setting so they can work with actual patients. These rotations are designed so that students can apply what they have learned in the classroom.

In addition to creating a controlled learning environment for practicing skills and asking questions, nursing students can get a feel for clinical work and identify any gaps they may need to work on. Students will have the guidance of a designated, experienced nurse (sometimes known as a preceptor) to provide support when they need it and to help ensure high-quality patient care.

Practicing in clinical settings allows nurses to gain skills and confidence while they still have access to a dedicated mentor. It is also important for evaluating a nursing student’s readiness for unsupervised work in a clinical setting.

Steps to prepare for your clinicals

Once you’ve got your clinical rotation set up, you should take some time to prepare so you’re not scrambling to get ready on your first morning. Get a good night’s sleep so you can think clearly and arrive with a positive attitude.

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Get all of your supplies together the night before. Prepare a healthy snack or lunch in advance so you don’t get too hungry during your shift. Also, make sure to eat breakfast in the morning—you want to be fueled for the day ahead. It’s a good idea to write down any key information before your first rotation, such as what you should know about a patient before providing care. Plan to arrive early so you’re not worrying about being late!

What do I need to be successful?

You’ll need some basic supplies for your clinicals. Your school should tell you what kinds of scrubs you’ll need. It’s important to wear comfortable shoes as you’ll be on your feet all day, and consider compression socks to prevent blood clots and other issues.

There are various medical supplies you’ll need as a nurse, including a high-quality stethoscope and possibly a blood pressure cuff. You should also bring small items like scissors, hemostats, and a small flashlight.

You will also want to have a watch with a second hand, a small notebook and pen, a clipboard, a calculator, and a clip or holder for your ID badge. You might also want to bring in reference materials in case you need them. Don’t forget your water bottle to stay hydrated!

During your nursing school clinicals, the most important thing you can bring to the table is a good attitude. You will make mistakes, but try to look at them as learning experiences and maintain a positive, helpful attitude. Don’t forget to ask questions!

What will my daily routine be like?

Your routine will evolve as you go through your clinical experience. On your first day, some of the pressure will be off as you’re likely to start by doing more observation than direct patient care. Absorb as much as you can and be as helpful as possible.

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Once you’ve gained some experience and confidence, you’ll be assigned patients to care for. Your daily routine will depend on your patients’ needs and the requirements of the facility. Remember, each clinical setting is a little bit different, so expect that you’ll need a little time to get used to the routine.

What will I learn?

Initially, you’ll learn by watching an experienced nurse. It isn’t in patients’ best interests to be cared for by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing! However, you will get hands-on experience during your clinicals and you will learn from both observation and direct practice.

You will learn how to gather information on a patient, take vital signs, and provide miscellaneous care tasks, including giving medication and helping with general hygiene and comfort tasks. You will typically get a chance to work in several different clinical rotations to learn how a nurse functions in each department.

You will also learn about proper patient interactions. A big part of nursing is connecting with patients and helping to keep them calm so they can heal. You will get a chance to practice your bedside manner with patients and their families during your clinicals. Be a sponge during your clinical rotation. This is your chance to see what a nurse’s daily rounds look like. Ask questions and take in all that you can.

How will I be graded and evaluated?

The good news about clinical rotations is that you will have a lot of prior knowledge to draw on from your coursework and studying should be minimal. Generally, you will be evaluated and graded on criteria such as attendance, preparedness, and participation. You may also have some homework, but it is likely to relate to the work you’re doing, such as creating care plans.

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If you go into your rotation with a positive, receptive attitude, you should do just fine. Be on time, do your homework, and make sure you’re as prepared as possible for each day. If you do that, you should have no trouble passing your clinicals.

What happens next?

Clinical rotations are a core part of your nursing education. You will get the opportunity to spend many hours observing patient care and providing it yourself. Once you’ve satisfied the requirements for clinical hours and passed your classes, you can graduate.

Then, you will need to take the licensure exam so you can become an RN. There are many steps to becoming a nurse because safe patient care requires in-depth knowledge and practice. Take advantage of your clinicals to prepare you for your licensure exams and your first job as a registered nurse!

Sarah Daren
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