April 8, 2021

How to Pass the NCLEX the First Time: 11 Tips from Real Nurses

Happy student looking at laptop and taking notes in journal
Brittany Hamstra
By: Brittany Hamstra BSN, RN, CPN

You did it! You've graduated nursing school and now you're one step closer to becoming a registered nurse. Now, there’s just one small hurdle to overcome before you can officially become a registered nurse: passing the NCLEX-RN.

You've studied hard in nursing school and you know your stuff, but that doesn't mean you can't learn some tips and tricks to help pass the NCLEX on your first try. We've put together our top tips for passing the NCLEX the first time.

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11 Tips to Pass the NCLEX the First Time

1. Understand the NCLEX Format

The NCLEX uses a 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 your performance from previous questions. The test bank is comprehensive and includes different question styles and topics of content. 

How the NCLEX is Graded

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 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 at any point when this determination is made, between questions 75 – 265, or at the maximum time allowance (6 hours). 


2. Don't Self-Evaluate During the Test

There's no use trying to self-evaluate while you test. Don’t assume that because you got a few “easy” questions in a row that you are below pass level. Just focus on the questions at hand. What seems easy to you, might be challenging to someone else. Every question is as important as the next. 

This exam is all about endurance. Prepare to sit the full time and then you won’t stress in the chance that you need to. 

3. Find Ways to Manage Your Test Stress 

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 just 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 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! By keeping a balance, your mind won’t build up the test moment to anything bigger than it actually is. 
  • Also, when it comes time to actually take the NCLEX, do not study or cram information the day of. 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. 

4. Know Your NLCEX Study Style

We all have slightly different learning styles, and you probably know yours by now. Make sure you tailor your studying to what works for you!

  • If you understand concepts well with visuals, draw out rough sketches of cardiac chambers, color-coded medication classes, etc.
  • If you are an auditory learner, there are plenty of YouTube lectures online and podcasts that cover NCLEX.
  • If you learn best through discussion, be sure to 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 clinical experiences you had in school. 

5. 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.

6. 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 clinicals, 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. 

7. Hone Your Test-Taking Skills

The NCLEX is just as much about knowing how the test is written as it is knowing the right answers. Utilize test-taking strategies to eliminate wrong answers, avoid “extremes” like ALL or NONE answers, and remember to always put patient safety first. 

With practice, you will notice some 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. 

8. Invest in Test Prep Resources

It is definitely worthwhile to invest in practice exam books or enroll in a classroom review course. Some examples are Kaplan, UWorld, and* 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. 

*Affiliate link. If you decide to use, may receive a commission.

>> Related: Top 5 NCLEX Review Courses (With Cost)


9. Go Beyond the 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, as well as outlining the particular content topic it falls under. 
  • Jot down notes of which concepts you want to revisit, so with your next study session, you can focus on problem areas. 
  • Practice, practice, practice. It is especially useful to take at least 1 or 2 full online mock NCLEX exams so you are used to the experience of computer testing. Go through as much of the question bank as you can before exam day and you will be miles ahead. 

10. Prepare for Exam Day 

  • Be sure to sleep well the week before the exam. 
  • Bring snacks to the center to keep in your locker in case 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 to 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.

11. Believe in Yourself

Most importantly, believe in yourself. You deserve to pass and you have already proven your potential as a nurse by graduating nursing school. This is only the final step on your exciting and new journey to being a Registered Nurse – so congratulations!


What is the NCLEX?

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. 

How Hard is the NCLEX?

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 straight A’s or 4.0 GPA in nursing school does not predict success on the NCLEX. 

How Many Questions Are on the NCLEX?

The test will produce a minimum of 75 questions, and a maximum of 265 questions. 

How Long Should You Study for the NCLEX?

To pass the NCLEX, students should plan to spend a minimum of 1-2 months studying.

What Do You Do If You Fail the NCLEX?

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 by passing the first time.

What Percentage Do You Have to Get on the NCLEX to Pass?

There is not a specific number or percentage that you need to answer correctly to pass the NCEX. The exam’s computational algorithm evaluates correct answers within the context of their difficulty and variety of topic knowledge. The adaptive test will determine that you are at a sufficient level to pass in each subject area using a 95% confidence rule, or a decision will be made at the maximum time (6-hour mark) or maximum question allowance (265).  

What Percentage of Candidates Pass the NCLEX?

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) shares all exam statistics publically each year. Based on the results from 2020, the total percentage of first-time test candidates in the US to pass was 86.57%. First-time test takers who earned a Baccalaureate Degree averaged a 90% pass rate. 

How Do You Find Out If You Passed the NCLEX?

As stated on the NCSBN website, “If your board of nursing participates in the ‘Quick Results Service’ you can receive your unofficial results 2 business days after the exam for $7.95. Official results are ONLY available through your board of nursing/regulatory body and will be sent to you by mail and/or posted on their website. If you did not pass, you will receive a Candidate Performance Report which shows individualized performance by content area so you can better prepare for your next NCLEX attempt.”

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