Graduating from nursing school is an enormous accomplishment. Nursing students have proven their competency in the classroom and clinical setting. They are on the verge of beginning a lifelong career in nursing. There’s just one small hurdle to overcome before officially becoming a Registered Nurse.
To earn licensure as a Registered Nurse, nursing school graduates must pass the NCLEX-RN (National Council Licensure Examination-Registered Nurse). This standardized, computer-based test is offered year-round in the US and Canada. The state in which you choose to sit for your test determines which nursing board will issue your first active RN license upon passing.
With the right preparation, passing the NCLEX is absolutely attainable for every nursing school graduate. That being said, the test should be taken seriously. Earning a straight A’s or 4.0 GPA in nursing school does not predict success on the NCLEX.
To pass the NCLEX, students should plan to spend a minimum of 1-2 months studying – effective and targeted studying. If, for whatever reason, the test-taker does not pass, it is possible to retake the NCLEX after a 45 day waiting period. Each exam attempt costs $200, so it’s in the best interest of nursing graduates to make their time and money worthwhile bypassing the first time.
10 tips to pass on your first attempt:
1. UNDERSTAND THE NCLEX FORMAT
The NCLEX uses CAT format or computerized adaptive testing. Meaning that no single exam is identical. During the course of the exam, the computer algorithm produces each new question based on the performance from previous questions. The test bank is comprehensive and comprises of different question styles and topic content.
The test will produce a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 265 questions. A candidate passes the test when the tester has answered enough questions correctly to stay above the pass line with a 95% confidence interval. The candidate will fail the test when they do not rise about the pass line with 95% confidence.
Think of it this way – there is a horizontal line on an axis, and we will call it the “pass line.” Anything above it is passing, and anything below it is not passing. You start exactly on the line at question zero, and with each correct and incorrect answer, you get bumped up a notch and down a notch, respectively. With each correct answer, the computer will give progressively harder questions to determine your peak knowledge. To pass, you must ultimately rise to a point above the pass line that demonstrates competency with marginal doubt. The test can end when this determination is made, between questions 75 – 265 or at the maximum time allowance (6 hours).
2. STRESS MANAGEMENT
For all of the nervous test-takers out there, don’t worry. There are ways to manage your stress. Test anxiety is a real thing, but you made it through nursing school, so continue to prepare in whatever way worked for you in the past. Even if you don’t typically have test anxiety, there is a chance that you will be nervous just from the pressure of such an important test.
There are a couple of key ways to keep stress at a minimum.
- First, prepare for the exam seriously but don’t make studying your life. It’s important to still keep a balance in the weeks and months leading up to the exam.
- Allot time in your days for exercise, proper sleep, and whatever you do for fun! Your mind won’t build up the test moment to anything bigger than it actually is by keeping a balance.
- When it comes time to take the NCLEX, do not study or cram information the day. Take the morning before the test to calm your mind. Focus on something that helps you stay grounded – cooking a nice breakfast, listening to music, going on a run, whatever works for you.
Ultimately, the best way to abate your nerves is to study appropriately. When you feel confident and prepared, the NCLEX doesn’t seem all that scary.
3. KNOW YOUR STUDY STYLE
We all have slightly different learning styles, and you probably know yours by now. If you understand concepts well with the visual representation of information, it might behoove you to draw out rough sketches of cardiac chambers, colour-coded medication classes, etc. If you are an auditory learner, there are plenty of YouTube lectures online and podcasts covering NCLEX. If you learn best through discussion, create a study group to talk through concepts together.
As a general rule, using mnemonic devices help most students with harder-to-learn concepts. Don’t just reread, rewrite, and copy old notes. Try connecting concepts. Think about what you are learning from a holistic approach and relate it to your school’s clinical experiences.
4. MAKE A STUDY PLAN
Commit to the preparation that the test deserves. Go into studying with a plan, here is an example:
- Plan days to study. Set a schedule including which days of the week you will study, which days you will take off, and which you will use to take practice exams.
- Make a goal before each study session. Maybe it’s to do x amount of practice questions or master x specific content topic but be intentional.
Studying without a plan is a waste of your time and won’t ultimately help you pass the NCLEX. It’s not about the hours you put in; it’s about how you use them. This is one exam you can absolutely not cram for – the NCLEX is a holistic test model that aims to test knowledge gained over the course of years, not days.
5. DON’T DRAW FROM PAST CLINICAL OR WORK EXPERIENCES
Unfortunately, for those of you who have previous experience working in hospitals as nursing techs or aides, the experience can cloud your ability to answer test questions. Even just from what you observed as student nurses in clinical, it is usually apparent that many topics or clinical skills are different between textbooks and real-life healthcare.
The NCLEX is based on proven, researched-based, evidence-based practice. Even if your previous facility does something in a different way that is just as safe or just as correct, do not assume that this applies to the NCLEX. It’s important to answer NCLEX questions as if you don’t have any real-life constraints as a nurse.
Assume you have ample time and resources to perform each answer choice.
6. TEST-TAKING SKILLS
The NCLEX is just about knowing how the test is written as it is what knowledge it tests. Utilize test-taking strategies to eliminate wrong answers, avoid “extremes” like ALL or NONE answers, and remember always to put patient safety first.
With practice, you will notice themes in answers:
- Always assess the patient first; calling the doctor right away isn’t usually the best first step,
- Use Airway-Breathing-Circulation approach, etc.
- Use deductive reasoning even if you have no idea about the concepts behind the topic.
If all else fails, rely on that budding feeling that we like to call “nurse intuition.”
- You will no doubt encounter the dreaded select-all-that-apply questions. Use the same systematic approach to eliminate incorrect answer choices based on knowledge and wording of answers.
7. INVEST IN RESOURCES
It is definitely worthwhile to invest in practice exam books or enroll in a classroom review course. Some examples are Kaplan and UWorld. Usually, people choose their study material based on reviews, peer references, or personal preference.
All exam resource companies produce exceptional guides to prepare you for the NCLEX exam, so spend some time browsing reviews to see which guidebook style fits you best.
8. PRACTICE QUESTIONS
Practice exams are absolutely the best and most important way to prepare – HOWEVER – simply taking the practice exam questions is only half of the process.
It is just as important to:
- Look up questions that you answered incorrectly. Practice question banks provide explanations as to why each answer choice is correct or incorrect and outline the particular content topic it falls under.
- Jot down notes of which concepts you want to revisit so that you can focus on problem areas with your next study session.
- Practice, practice, practice. It is instrumental in taking at least 1 or 2 full online mock NCLEX exams so that you can use computer testing experience. Go through as much of the question bank as you can before exam day, and you will be miles ahead.
9. TIPS TO PREPARE FOR EXAM DAY
- Be sure to sleep well the week before the exam.
- Bring snacks to the center to keep in your locker if you choose to take a break during the exam.
- Arrive early to the testing center, prepared with necessary documents for testing.
- Put gas in your car the night before.
- Set a reliable alarm.
- Bring clothes you can layer in case you tend to get cold. If you try to control your environment as much as possible, it will help you feel comfortable and prepared for the exam itself.
- Schedule your exam time with your usual preference for testing. If you are a morning person, schedule a morning test. If you enjoy slow mornings and sleeping in, then schedule an afternoon exam.
10. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF
Most importantly, believe in yourself. You deserve to pass, and you have already proven your potential as a nurse by graduating from nursing school. This is only the final step on your exciting and new journey to being a Registered Nurse – so congratulations!