Preceptorship Tips for Nursing Students: How to Make the Most of Your Experience

Experienced clinician reviewing chart with student nurse.

Your preceptorship is an exciting time and a rite of passage for all students in nursing school. This is where you begin the work in earnest. This is what you prepared for. Under the guidance of your preceptor, you’ll learn on the job how to put your education into practice.

It can also be a nerve-racking time—a time of uncertainty and even self-doubt. But it’s also your time with your own dedicated mentor, to absorb and learn in the field and graduate with the confidence. Don’t waste this time. Make the most of it.

But how? We’ll tell you.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the standard practices of what makes a good preceptorship, as well as some of the more case-by-case challenges and opportunities you might encounter. You’ll learn how to shine as a preceptee, how to maximize your learning, and also what not to do.

Every practicum experience is different, but beginning with confidence and knowledge is your best first step to success. Start here.

How to Be a Good Preceptee

When entering into your preceptorship and learning the role of a preceptee, remember The Four Cs: Be curious, be courteous, take cues, and communicate.

Creating a good relationship with your preceptor starts with your attitude and your work ethic. Keep an open mind and heart, and come ready to learn both academically and socially.

Want to be teacher’s pet? Be prepared. This, above all, will set you up for success.

“Preceptors appreciate preparation and initiative,” advises Chelsea Vandine, Manager of Clinical Education at West Coast University. “Come prepared. Take notes. Don’t make your preceptor repeat themselves. Be fully present.”

You can even go above and beyond and consider coming in early to prep what you can that’s on the schedule. (Of course, do only what you’ve been authorized to do on your own.) Be ready to adapt to a new culture and set of rules. Make sure you’re queued up to absorb.

Set Clear Expectations

In your first meeting with your preceptor at the beginning of your practicum, try to nail down expectations on both sides.

Start with what your process as preceptor/preceptee will be. Perhaps you’ll meet at the end of each week for a review and feedback session, or maybe your preceptor will prefer a daily powwow. An example of something you might want clarity on is whether you can ask questions during rounds, or whether you should hold them for the end of a rotation.

Basically, you’re asking your preceptor for house rules. Get all your initial questions answered, and then ask your preceptor if there is anything else you need to know that you haven’t already asked.

Also, let your preceptor know what you’re hoping to learn and accomplish through your clinical experience. They want to be a good preceptor as much as you want to be a good preceptee, so give them any useful information about your expectations and needs.

What to Expect on Week 1

It’s your first week. You’re eager to dive in and participate. Maybe you’re a little nervous, maybe you can’t wait to get started, maybe both. The truth is your first week is likely to be the most uneventful—at least when it comes to your role.

Every preceptor is different, and some may throw you into the deep end right away. However, the more likely scenario is that you’ll spend your first day, or even week, shadowing and observing.

Use this time to get used to get your feet wet and fully understand all the policies and protocols. You’ll get more out of your preceptorship by taking the time to absorb information, so try not to feel impatient or rush into work you’re not quite ready for.

Watch for Cues

Naturally, incidents will come up over the course of your practicum that you hadn’t thought to ask about, and this is where taking cues is important. Observe your preceptor for any clues for how to interact with patients and other nurses and doctors. Watch for any particular work habits your preceptor repeats and follow their lead.

Here’s an example: Perhaps you notice your preceptor becoming frustrated by all your questions during rounds. You don’t need to apologize for being inquisitive, but ask if it’s better for you to record all your questions and ask them at once, after rounds or at the end of a shift. Try to determine how much or little to interject or participate, especially early on—and if it’s not implicitly clear, just ask.

Don’t Take Anything Personally

You can enter your preceptorship as informed and prepared as possible, but you won’t be able to predict the culture and methodology of your assignment until you’re in it. Don’t be shocked if you hear a morbid joke or insensitive remark at the nursing station. Remember: You’re still a nursing student and many of these nurses have seen it all.

You might also discover that your preceptor is curt with you, looking over your shoulder more than you’d like, or coming off as judgmental. Again, don’t take this personally. This probably isn’t about you.

“Keep in mind providers are protective of patients,” Vandine advises. “If they seem harsh, remember that it’s not personal; they’re just being a good nurse.”

The same goes for the methodology you encounter when you arrive—every preceptor is different. A good example is if you’re assigned to a preceptor who is a medical doctor. A doctor, as opposed to a nurse, is often associated with a “rougher” method. Be ready to adjust to an all-business, demanding environment and be adaptable. It might not be as warm and fuzzy as you like, but you’re there to learn and it’s great training wheels for working with medical doctors throughout your career.

Of course, if discourse during your preceptorship wanders into the abusive, discriminatory, or medically unethical, you may feel compelled to speak up. If you’re a nursing student at West Coast University, this is a great time to consult with your clinical coordinator. They can listen to your concerns and help you determine how to respond. Discomfort when you’re in a subordinate position can be scary, and you don’t have to navigate these situations alone.

Remember That Your Preceptor Is Human

At the end of the day, your preceptor is just a person with a personal life who goes home and feeds their fish like anyone else. Don’t expect perfection, and don’t put them on a pedestal. Neither revere nor fear your preceptor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and make requests. Two-way communication is a path to mutual respect.

And remember that like any human, your preceptor is flawed. You may witness your preceptor make a mistake, or even be reprimanded by their superior. Don’t judge. This is a moment for empathy. You may be in a similar situation someday, so this is a great learning opportunity for you.

If your preceptor is harsh with you, or even punitive, it’s important to remember that as their preceptee, the buck stops with them. Your mistakes become their mistakes, and the consequences for them can be very real because their license is on the line. Mistakes are natural, but if you fail to follow HIPPA, break regulations, or make a major mistake, they’ll be held accountable. Be sensitive to this, and take that responsibility seriously.

Dropping or Swapping Preceptors

You may be wondering about the likelihood or circumstances that could lead to ending your preceptor relationship early. This is extremely rare. Even when the preceptor-preceptee dynamic is imperfect, be it bad chemistry or real difficulty working together, most preceptorships find their way to completion.

Exceptions occur in cases when a preceptorship cannot continue due impossible circumstances like illness or loss. Or occasionally, a preceptor may leave their job in the middle of your preceptorship, in which case you’ll likely be transferred to another preceptor. These circumstances are rare enough that you don’t need to think about them too much. Instead, be prepared to make your preceptorship work, and if you absolutely cannot, or circumstances beyond your control lead to a shortened preceptorship, work with your clinical coordinator to find a solution.

The Key Takeaway

In summation: Make the most of your preceptorship by showing up, being prepared, and making it work. Remember that everything about this time is meant to prepare you for more autonomous nursing, so every victory and every frustration is a learning opportunity.

Carry your anticipation and enthusiasm with you into the first day, and then enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience.

For more helpful tips, check out our recent post on how to find a nurse preceptor.

WCU provides career guidance and assistance but cannot guarantee employment. The views and opinions expressed are those of the individuals and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs or position of the school or of any instructor or student.