GUIDE
November 2, 2021
What is the NCLEX?  Everything You Need to Know & How to Prepare

Part One What is the NCLEX?

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is an exam used to determine if recently graduated nursing students are safe to practice.

Graduates from an accredited Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN) program are required to pass the NCLEX-RN to earn licensure and legally practice nursing in the United States.

Graduates from a licensed practical nursing (LPN) or licensed vocational nursing (LVN) program are required to take the NCLEX-PN (practical nurse) exam.

The NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN test critical thinking skills using information students learned in their registered nursing or vocational nursing school. The goal of the NCLEX is to ensure that graduates can make quality nursing judgments and provide safe patient care. 

If you're preparing to take the NCLEX, or will need to at some point, keep reading for everything you need to know about this important exam including what's on it, how to pass, what happens if you don't pass, and more.

Part Two Who Has to Take the NCLEX?

Every nurse who graduates from an ADN or BSN program must pass the NCLEX-RN to earn licensure and legally practice nursing in the United States. Also, every practical or vocational nurse who graduates from an LPN or LVN program must pass the NCLEX-PN to earn licensure and practice legally in the U.S.

Eligibility to take the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN depends on your state’s requirements. Check with your state’s nursing board to ensure you have met all the criteria.

You'll also want to check up on the latest NCLEX requirements. There is a new version of the NCLEX called the Next Generation NCLEX (NGN) that is slated to begin in 2023 that will have some changes to the current format. 

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Part Three NCLEX RN vs. NCLEX PN

The NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN are both computerized exams. There are often several correct answers to each question. However, the test-taker is required to use their critical thinking skills to determine which one is the “most correct.”

Both the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN focus on the following topics:

  • Providing a safe and effective environment
    • Management of Care
    • Safety and Infection Control
  • Health promotion and maintenance
  • Psychosocial integrity
  • Psychological integrity
    • Basic Care and Comfort
    • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
    • Reduction of Risk Potential
    • Physiological Adaptation

Types of questions on both exams include:

  • Multiple-choice with four possible answer choices
  • Multiple-response
  • Fill in the blank
  • Hot spots
  • Chart/exhibit and drag and drop

NCLEX-RN Exam Details

The NLCEX-RN has anywhere from 75 to 265 questions on the exam. The exam continues until the test taker has demonstrated competency as an RN. In short, the more answers you get right, the faster you will finish the exam. 

If you are not performing as well at the beginning of the exam, the test will take longer to give you more opportunities to answer more questions correctly. But if you answer more questions at the beginning of the exam correctly, your test will take less time, and you will need to answer fewer questions.

NCLEX-PN Exam Details 

The NCLEX-PN is similar to the NLCEX-RN. However, it has anywhere between 85 and 205 test questions on the exam. This exam will also continue until the test-taker has demonstrated competency as an LPN. The more questions answered correctly, the faster you finish the exam. But the fewer questions you answer correctly, the more questions you will have to answer.

Exam takers will stop receiving questions when the program determines they will pass with 95% certainty of competency. The exam can take anywhere from two to five hours. A longer exam may not necessarily mean that the candidate will not pass.

Part Four NCLEX Eligibility

NCLEX-RN candidates must have graduated from an accredited ADN or BSN program, and NCLEX-PN candidates must have graduated from an accredited LVN program.

To be eligible to take an NCLEX exam, candidates must have graduated from a program accredited by one of the following two bodies:

  1. The Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN)
  2. The Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)

Accreditation is also essential if you decide to go back to school to advance your nursing education later. Acceptance into a higher-level nursing program requires a degree or certificate from an accredited program.

Part Five How to Register for the NCLEX

There is a two-step process to register for the NCLEX:

  1. First, submit an application for licensure and registration to the nursing regulatory body (NRB) where you want to practice.
  2. Second, register for the NCLEX through Pearson VUE and pay the exam fee.

Candidates may register online or over the phone (although it is much quicker to do so online). There is a 365-day time limit for your NCLEX registration. If the NRB denies you eligibility, you forfeit your exam fee and NCLEX registration. However, you can re-register again at a later date.

Part Six How is the NCLEX Administered?

Exam takers have up to five hours to complete NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN. However, candidates may complete the test in a shorter time frame depending on how quickly they answer questions and how many correct or incorrect answers they have. 

It is essential to take your time to answer as accurately as you can because once you submit an answer, you cannot go back and change it.

Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT)

The NCLEX uses Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT), which means that for every answer you give, the computer estimates your ability based on:

  1. Your previous answers
  2. The difficulty of the question

The CAT then determines what our next question should be. The goal is to give you a 50% chance of answering correctly.  The CAT aims to get as much information about your nursing level as possible. As you answer more questions, the program can estimate your nursing ability more accurately.

Part Seven How to Prepare for the NCLEX

It is a good idea to start preparing for the NCLEX during your nursing program. Here are a few tips for success:

  1. Understand how the test works and how much time you have so you are not caught off guard during the exam
  2. Work in study groups and practice explaining your studies out loud to help you remember
  3. Take practice exams
  4. Take study breaks
  5. Use online or in-person NCLEX review course
  6. Establish an NCLEX study routine

For the top NCLEX tips from real nurses, check out 11 Tips to Pass the NCLEX the First Time!

Part Eight How is the NCLEX Scored?

The NCLEX CAT program determines if you passed or failed based on the following rules:

95% Confidence Interval Rule

This rule is the most common. The computer stops giving a candidate questions after it determines with 95% certainty that you have a safe and competent level of knowledge. In this scenario, you have answered enough questions correctly and clearly above a passing nursing knowledge level.

Maximum-Length Exam Rule

At this point, the computer disregards the 95% Confidence Rule. When you are close but not exceeding the passing standard, the computer continues asking more questions and determines whether you pass or fail based on the final ability estimate. If the candidate’s final ability meets or is below the passing standard, they do not pass.

Run Out-of-Time (R.O.O.T) Rule

This happens when a candidate runs out of time before the program can decide whether the candidate passed or failed with 95% certainty. Without answering the minimum number of questions needed, the candidate will have a failing exam.

Part Nine How to Find Out if You Passed the NCLEX

Students can get their “unofficial results” and see if they passed the exam within two business days if their NRB uses the Quick Results Service. However, candidates must wait until they receive their final results before they can begin practicing. 

Official results are given through your NRB and take approximately six weeks to be delivered by mail.

Part Ten What Happens if You Don’t Pass the NCLEX?

If you don’t pass the NCLEX, you will get an NCLEX Candidate Performance Report (CPR).

This report will give you more information about how you performed and what you need to work on to pass the exam later. 

If you don’t pass the NCLEX on the first try, don’t fret. You can retake the exam within 45 days from your first test date. Graduates must pass the NCLEX within three years of graduation.

To retake the NCLEX, take the following steps or check out our article on what to do if you did fail the NCLEX:

  1. Contact your NRB and tell them you will retake the exam.
  2. Re-register to take the NCLEX through Pearson VUE. You will need to pay $200 for the exam and other fees associated with your state’s nursing board.
  3. Schedule your next exam date.

Part Eleven What’s Next After You’ve Passed the NCLEX?

First of all, congratulations! It’s time to celebrate your hard work and determination. Here's what you need to do next:

Find Your First Nursing Job

Many medical institutions will proactively hire nurses with the contingency that they pass the NCLEX before beginning employment. If that is the case, you can start working once you receive your official results in the mail. If not, now is the time to start applying for your first nursing job.

It may take several hours to fill out a single application, so plan accordingly. You will also need several letters of recommendation and as many as five references. You can start gathering this information during your nursing program, so you don’t have to complete it after passing the NCLEX.

Don't Toss All Those Study Materials

You may want to get rid of all your college textbooks, notes, and papers. Consider keeping them for now, as you may wish to refer to them throughout your career. Now that you are putting all of your hard-earned nursing skills into action for the first time, it may be nice to refer back to your books at some point.

Consider Advancing Your Education

Hopefully, you have a nursing specialty in mind that you want to pursue. It is a great idea to look at what institutions offer new graduate nursing programs in your area and their hiring specialties. These programs have dedicated training programs designed for novice nurses. Most usually involve assigning an experienced RN preceptor who will work with you for at least the first several months until you can work independently.

Your education does not stop after you pass the NCLEX and start practicing. Nurses are constantly learning new skills and technologies every shift. It is essential to dive into your specialty and strive to be an expert nurse in your field. 

Many nurses achieve this by earning certifications in their specialty. Becoming certified in your specialty shows your patients, administrators, and peers that you have a high level of nursing knowledge and are an expert in your nursing field. Many nurses obtain two or more certifications and cross over into new specialties to keep learning and developing new skills.

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Part Twelve Frequently Asked Questions About the NCLEX

  • How Long is the NCLEX?

    • Exam takers will stop receiving questions when the program determines they will pass with 95% certainty of competency. The exam can take anywhere from two to five hours. A longer exam may not necessarily mean that the candidate will not pass.
  • How Much Does the NCLEX Cost?

    • The cost to take the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN is $200. Each state nursing board also determines additional registration fees. Contact your nursing board for added NCLEX costs in your state.
  • What Does NCLEX Stand For?

    • NCLEX stands for National Council Licensure Examination, and it is a test used to determine if recently graduated nursing students are safe to practice.
  • How Hard is the NCLEX?

    • According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), in 2020, 86.57% of NCLEX exam takers passed the exam on their first attempt. Graduates with a BSN had an even higher passing success rate of 90%.

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