If you’re considering a career in healthcare, you may be debating between surgical technology and nursing. Both are rewarding careers that allow you to help patients in operating rooms or hospital settings. But which program is more difficult – surgical tech or nursing school?

Here’s a quick answer: Surgical tech school requires less schooling overall, but nursing school covers a broader range of medical topics which some find more challenging. Read on as we dive into the details.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll compare the difficulty of earning an associate’s degree or certificate in surgical technology versus a nursing degree at various levels. We’ll look at differences in admission requirements, course load, hands-on clinical training, and certification exams.

With info on each program’s challenges and rewards, you’ll get a well-rounded perspective on how surgical techs and nurses are educated for their vital roles on the healthcare team.

Comparing Admission Requirements

Surgical Tech Admission Requirements

When it comes to admission requirements, surgical tech programs typically have their own set of criteria that aspiring students must meet. These requirements may vary slightly from one school to another, but there are some common prerequisites that most programs share.

First and foremost, prospective surgical tech students are usually required to have a high school diploma or GED equivalent. Additionally, many programs will expect students to have completed courses in subjects such as biology, chemistry, and mathematics.

These foundational courses help provide students with a solid understanding of the scientific principles that are essential in the field of surgical technology.

In addition to academic qualifications, some surgical tech programs may require applicants to have relevant work experience or complete a certain number of observation hours in a healthcare setting. This hands-on experience provides students with a glimpse into the daily responsibilities of a surgical tech and helps them determine if this career path is right for them.

Furthermore, prospective students may need to submit letters of recommendation, write an essay explaining their interest in the field, and pass a background check and drug screening. These additional requirements ensure that only committed and qualified individuals are admitted into the program.

Nursing Admission Requirements

On the other hand, nursing programs have their own set of admission requirements that are distinct from those of surgical tech programs. While some of the prerequisites may overlap, nursing programs often have more rigorous criteria due to the demanding nature of the profession.

Similar to surgical tech programs, most nursing schools require applicants to have a high school diploma or GED equivalent. However, nursing programs typically place a greater emphasis on academic performance and may require higher grades in science and math courses.

This is because nursing students need to have a strong foundation in these subjects to succeed in their coursework.

In addition to strong academic qualifications, nursing programs often require applicants to pass entrance exams such as the TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills) or the HESI (Health Education Systems Incorporated) exam.

These exams assess a student’s knowledge in areas such as reading comprehension, math, and science and help determine their readiness for the rigorous nursing curriculum.

Furthermore, nursing programs often require applicants to have completed prerequisite courses in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, and microbiology. These courses provide students with a solid understanding of the human body and its functions, which is crucial for nursing practice.

Additionally, nursing programs may require applicants to have relevant healthcare experience, such as working as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) or completing volunteer hours in a healthcare setting.

This firsthand experience allows students to gain exposure to the healthcare field and develop essential skills before entering the nursing program.

Coursework and Clinicals

Surgical Tech Courses and Clinical Rotations

When comparing the coursework and clinical rotations of surgical tech school and nursing school, it’s important to note that both programs require dedication, hard work, and a commitment to learning. In surgical tech courses, students learn about anatomy, physiology, patient care, surgical procedures, and sterile techniques.

They also receive hands-on training in surgical labs and participate in clinical rotations where they assist in actual surgeries under the supervision of experienced surgical technologists. These rotations provide invaluable real-world experience and help students develop the necessary skills to excel in the operating room.

Nursing Courses and Clinical Rotations

Nursing school coursework is focused on building a strong foundation in the sciences, including biology, chemistry, and anatomy. Additionally, nursing students take courses in patient care, pharmacology, medical-surgical nursing, pediatric nursing, and more.

Clinical rotations are an integral part of nursing education, where students work alongside registered nurses in hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare settings. During these rotations, nursing students gain hands-on experience in various aspects of patient care, such as administering medications, monitoring vital signs, and providing emotional support to patients and their families.

It is worth mentioning that the coursework and clinical rotations in both surgical tech school and nursing school are demanding and require a significant time commitment. However, the specific challenges and workload can vary between the two programs.

Certification Exams

Both surgical techs and nurses must pass certification exams to become licensed professionals in their respective fields. These exams are designed to test the knowledge and skills acquired during their education and training.

While the difficulty level of these exams can vary from person to person, let’s take a closer look at the certification exams for surgical techs and nurses.

Surgical Tech Certification Exam

The certification exam for surgical techs is administered by the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (NBSTSA). This exam, known as the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) exam, consists of a written portion and a practical portion.

The written portion of the exam assesses the candidate’s understanding of surgical procedures, patient care, and surgical equipment. It includes multiple-choice questions and may also include case studies or scenarios.

The practical portion of the exam evaluates the candidate’s ability to perform various surgical tasks, such as setting up the operating room, handling surgical instruments, and assisting the surgical team during procedures.

Passing the CST exam demonstrates that a surgical tech has the knowledge and skills necessary to provide safe and efficient care in the operating room.

Nursing Certification Exams

Nurses, on the other hand, must pass a different set of certification exams based on their specialization. For example, a registered nurse (RN) may choose to pursue certification in areas such as pediatrics, critical care, or geriatrics.

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) offers certification exams for various nursing specialties. These exams typically consist of multiple-choice questions and cover topics specific to the chosen specialty.

Passing a nursing certification exam demonstrates a nurse’s expertise in a particular area of practice. It not only validates their knowledge and skills but also enhances their professional credibility and job prospects.

It’s worth noting that the difficulty of these certification exams may vary depending on individual factors such as prior education, experience, and study habits. Some individuals may find the surgical tech exam more challenging, while others may struggle with nursing certification exams.

Ultimately, the level of difficulty is subjective and can vary from person to person.

If you’re considering a career as a surgical tech or a nurse, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the specific certification requirements and exams for each profession. Doing so will help you prepare effectively and increase your chances of success in your chosen field.

Key Differences in Difficulty

Shorter Program for Surgical Techs

One of the key differences in difficulty between surgical tech school and nursing school is the length of the program. Surgical tech programs typically last between 9 months to 2 years, while nursing programs can take anywhere from 2 to 4 years to complete.

The shorter duration of the surgical tech program can make it more intense and fast-paced, with a greater focus on hands-on training and technical skills.

However, it is important to note that the shorter program does not necessarily mean that it is easier. Surgical techs still need to learn and master a wide range of surgical procedures, instruments, and sterile techniques.

They must also be able to handle the pressure and stress of working in the operating room, where split-second decisions can have life-or-death consequences.

More In-Depth Knowledge Needed for Nurses

Nursing school, on the other hand, requires a more in-depth understanding of medical concepts and a broader scope of practice. Nurses are responsible for providing comprehensive patient care, including assessing patients, administering medications, coordinating treatments, and educating patients and their families.

Nursing programs typically include coursework in anatomy and physiology, pharmacology, pathophysiology, and other advanced medical topics. Nurses also have to complete clinical rotations in various healthcare settings, which further adds to the complexity of their training.

While surgical techs focus mainly on the technical aspects of surgical procedures, nurses have a more holistic approach to patient care. They not only assist in surgeries but also provide emotional support to patients and their families.

This requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills, as well as the ability to handle emotionally challenging situations.

It is important to recognize that both professions require dedication, hard work, and a commitment to lifelong learning. The difficulty of each program may vary depending on personal strengths and preferences.

Some individuals may find the technical aspects of surgical tech school more challenging, while others may thrive in the comprehensive and diverse nature of nursing school.


In summary, surgical tech school requires less total time in school but intensive hands-on training for the operating room. Nursing school covers a broader range of knowledge and skills for various healthcare settings. Surgical techs gain expertise in surgical procedures working alongside surgeons.

Nurses need a strong scientific foundation and critical thinking skills to provide complete patient care.

If you’re eager to get hands-on in the OR, surgical tech training may be the quicker path. Those wanting to build advanced clinical knowledge to serve patients’ full needs may find nursing more engaging. Whichever path you take, you’ll be an important part of the healthcare team.

With passion and hard work, a rewarding career in service to patients is within your reach.

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