When I started nursing school, we had a four-week summer class that we had to take prior to the official start of school, so that we could learn how to do a physical assessment, take vital signs, and learn some other basic lab skills. On the first day, we were told to buy a cheap stethoscope and blood pressure cuff to use in class. I went to the local nursing supply store, and bought a blood pressure cuff that cost about $25, drooled over the nice stethoscopes, and bought one that cost somewhere around $20.
When we went to lab the next day, I couldn't hear a thing when I used that stethoscope. I couldn't take an accurate blood pressure reading, because I couldn't hear the pulse, and couldn't take an accurate apical heart rate, either. After struggling with that for a few days, I became very nervous that I wasn't going to pass the class, because the final exam was to successfully take vital signs and do a physical assessment on someone. I'm not used to failure, and it really stressed me out.
One of my friends started lending me her stethoscope whenever we had to use them for something important, and I began perusing the websites of companies that sold quality stethoscopes. Also, it was one of the hot topics among the nursing students in my class. I decided that I wanted a Littman Classic II SE in red, but the cost was prohibitively high for me to just go out and buy one. My husband gave me one as a birthday present last September, and it made such a huge difference in what I was able to hear, both on real patients, and on the SimMan that we have in the lab.
I highly recommend that new nursing students get a good stethoscope right off the bat. Ask for one if you have a birthday or anniversary coming up, or try to get a part-time job to cover the cost. There's just no comparison, and it should last you your whole career.