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NCLEX-RN Review & Study Guide

Essential Test Prep Tips to Help You Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam the First Time

Female graduate with diploma

You’ve reached the end of your nursing program and are ready to graduate. Congratulations!

But, before you can put on those scrubs and get to work, there’s one final challenge to overcome.

No matter where you attend nursing school or for how long, all nursing graduates must accomplish the same milestone at some point in their career: passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

Passing the NCLEX-RN exam is mandatory before you can be licensed to work as a nurse, so it’s easy to feel intimidated or stressed by the idea of taking it.

But don’t worry too much. Thousands of nurses take and pass the NCLEX-RN every year, many on the first try, and there’s no reason you can’t be among them.

To help, we’ve compiled some of the best advice on how to prepare for the NCLEX-RN, what you’ll need to know, and what you can expect inside the exam room.

NCLEX-RN Exam Table of Contents

  1. What is the NCLEX-RN?
  2. What is on the NCLEX-RN exam?
  3. How long is the NCLEX-RN exam?
  4. How do I study for the NCLEX-RN exam?
  5. What score do you need to pass the NCLEX-RN test?
  6. How hard is it to pass the NCLEX-RN test?
  7. How do I register for the NCLEX-RN exam?
  8. How much does it cost to take the NCLEX-RN?
  9. How many times can you take the NCLEX-RN?

1. What Is the NCLEX-RN?

For those unfamiliar with the name, the NCLEX-RN stands for National Council Licensure Exam for Registered Nurses. This one-day exam is the culmination of all your nursing classes and training and will determine whether you’re ready to start treating patients as a certified nurse.

The exam challenges future nurses, not just on their knowledge and recall of medical information, but on how well that knowledge can be applied to specific circumstances. In other words, the goal of the NCLEX-RN isn’t to see how well you memorize facts, but how well you can apply that knowledge to solve various problems.

2. What Is on the NCLEX-RN Exam?

The NCLEX-RN exam consists primarily of multiple-choice questions (four potential answers per question) on how to respond to different scenarios and medical situations.

In addition, there may also be questions that involve graphics or charts, fill-in-the-blank questions, “hot spots,” and drag-and-drop questions.

Topics covered on the NCLEX-RN include:

  • Physiological adaptation
  • Management of care
  • Reduction of Risk Potential
  • Safety and Infection Control
  • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
  • Basic Care and Comfort
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance

The exam is a CAT exam (Computerized Adaptive Testing), which means the test adapts to the person taking it, in order to discover just how well they understand a topic. For this reason, exams can range from a minimum of 75 questions to a maximum of 265 questions.

Curious as to what the questions look like? Take one of three practice NCLEX-RN exams here for a better idea of what to expect.

3. How long Is the NCLEX-RN exam?

Students taking the NCLEX-RN exam are given six hours to complete the test, during which they will answer anywhere between 75 to 265 questions (mostly multiple-choice).

A short video tutorial, shown at the beginning of the test, also counts towards the six-hour time limit. Test takers may spend as much time as they like per question but will not be allowed to answer additional questions after the six-hour time limit ends.

There are no mandatory breaks during the test, but optional breaks are available at the two hour and 3.5 hour marks.

4. How Do I Study for the NCLEX-RN Exam?

Woman studying with headphones

First of all, take a deep breath. You made it through nursing school, so making it through one final test is something you are more than capable of doing. That said, it’s important to prepare as best as possible before taking the exam.

  • Find Balance – Just as you had to find balance between classes, homework, and managing all your other responsibilities, you’ll need to find the same balance between leading your life and studying for the exam. Make sure to make time to take care of yourself, to get plenty of sleep, and to exercise.
  • Spread It Out – Cramming for a test is counterproductive, so begin your reviews as far in advance as possible. Set aside time each day to study, then stick to that schedule. This will help prevent a scenario where you need to cram for the test at the last moment.
  • Know Your Study Style – There are seven learning styles, and each works better for different people. If you know the study style that works best for you, tailor your study sessions around that approach.
    1. Visual – Pictures and images help ideas stick
    2. Aural – Hearing helps ideas make more sense; playing back recordings of lectures is one example.
    3. Verbal – Using words helps understanding; pretending to teach a class is one technique that works well for this style
    4. Physical – Props and sense of touch establish concepts
    5. Logical – Logic, reasoning, and systems make the most sense if this is your study style, and breaking down the “why” of each concept helps it stick.
    6. Social – Studying with a group is most effective
    7. Solitary – Studying alone is most effective
  • Buy a Study Kit – Investing in an NCLEX-RN study kit (book or online subscription) can help you prepare for the test with tailored study guides and pre-tests created to be as close to the actual exam as possible.
  • Trust the Textbooks – If you have real world experience, you may be tempted to lean on that for your exam answers. But the NCLEX-RN is built using textbook information, so be sure and study up on the textbook answers.

5. What score do I need to pass the NCLEX-RN?

Because the NCLEX-RN is an adaptive exam, the number of questions on the exam will vary from person to person (so there isn’t a set number of questions that must be answered correctly in order to pass). The exam itself is pass/fail, so there’s no grade curve—you either complete the test successfully or you don’t.

The purpose of the exam is to determine your level of proficiency, so the computer will keep asking you questions until the system is at least 95% confident that your ability is high enough to pass. Harder questions carry more weight than the easier questions, so if a question takes a little more consideration than others, don’t rush past it.

Your final score (or “logit”) is calculated by adding up the value of questions answered correctly and by subtracting the value of questions answered incorrectly. If the final number is zero or higher, you pass!

Just remember—one of the most common mistakes for exam takers is rushing through the questions. Take your time, read the questions and multiple-choice answers carefully, and make sure you understand exactly what’s being asked.

6. How Hard Is It to Pass the NCLEX-RN?

Group of people

If you’re still a little nervous about taking the exam, don’t worry! According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, a high majority of test takers pass the NCLEX-RN on the first attempt—88% to be exact.

Here is the exact breakdown of test-taking statistics from the NCSBN.

2019 NCLEX Examination Pass Rates By Type of Candidate

RNJan-Mar 2019Apr-Jun 2019Jul-Sep 2019Oct-Dec 2019Year to Date Total
Type of Candidate#%#%#%#%#%
First Time  
Diploma54788.85%60788.30%76789.57%32681.60%2,24787.89%
Bachelor’s Degree22,54692.80%26,35392.13%27,59790.62%7,80285.72%84,29891.22%
Associate Degree23,92087.30%26,97786.49%26,07685.67%7,82172.50%84,79485.17%
Special Program1855.56%988.89%955.56%1266.67%4864.58%
Total First Time47,03189.94%53,94689.27%54,44988.23%15,96179.14%171,38788.18%

In short, only about 1 in 10 test takers will fail the NCLEX-RN on their first attempt. So, study hard, make sure you understand all the major concepts, get plenty of rest before the test, and chances are you’re going to do great.

7. How Do I Register for the NCLEX-RN Exam?

Registering for the NCLEX-RN exam is a quick and simple process, all of which can be handled online.

First, visit the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website by clicking here.

On this page, you’ll be asked to complete two steps:

  • Step One – Register with the state regulatory body in the state where you’re planning to work as a nurse. You must have a successful registration before you’re eligible to take the exam.
  • Step Two – Register for the NCLEX-RN exam through Pearson VUE. You’ll need an active email address and a program code from your nursing school.

Once completed and your payment has been processed, you’ll receive an email with your ATT code (Authorization to Test). With this code, you can finally schedule your exam with a local computerized exam center.

8. How Much Does It Cost to Take the NCLEX-RN Exam?

It costs $200 to register for the NCLEX-RN exam, though there may be additional fees in some states.

If your state requires a background check before taking the NCLEX-RN exam, you may have an additional expense (a background check in New Jersey, for example, runs $65).

There may also be fees involved if you decide to reschedule your exam.

9. How Many Times Can You Take the NCLEX-RN?

Let’s say you successfully finish your nursing program, you register for the NCLEX-RN, you study for weeks, and then after a long day of testing… you learn you’ve failed.

Don’t panic. The journey isn’t over yet. Not by a long shot!

According to the NCSBN, you can retake the exam up to eight times within a year. You simply wait the required 45 days, re-register for a new test, and try again.

Individual states may have extra restrictions. For example, in states like Colorado, students can take the NCLEX-RN exam up to three times within three years of graduation. In states like Indiana, students who fail the exam three times are required to take a remedial course before attempting the test again.

Be sure to check the requirements of the state where you’re hoping to work.

Good Luck!

Woman wearing a mask

Hard work always pays off in the end. And if you’ve invested the time and effort into deciding to become a nurse, finding a nursing program, and completing your coursework, then you have a very high likelihood of passing the NCLEX-RN and beginning your career as a healthcare professional.

Good luck!