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How to Study for the NCLEX

Staff Writer
Reviewed by Dr. Clancey Sollis
Mar 19, 2024

After completing your clinical rotations, courses, and graduating from nursing school, there is one final test to pass before becoming a registered nurse (RN): the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Passing this exam proves that you are qualified to enter the nursing profession.

As an accredited nursing school, Joyce University prepares students with the specialized knowledge and foundations needed to pass the NCLEX and start a career in nursing.

Read on to learn how to create a solid NCLEX study plan, including what to study, how much time it takes to prepare, and how hard you need to study, so you can go into the test with the confidence, ready to become an RN.

What to Study for the NCLEX

In order to know what to study for the NCLEX, it’s important to understand the format of the test. The NCLEX is administered with computerized adaptive testing (CAT), meaning that you will take the exam on a computer.

The test consists of multiple choice and alternate format questions. The variable length of the exam ranges from 75 to 265 questions, instead of one set number that all test-takers must answer. RN candidates will continue to be administered questions until enough information is gathered to determine on a pass or fail. Regardless of the amount of questions asked, students have five hours to complete the exam.

The test is structured into major client needs categories: safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. An RN candidate will pass or fail the NCLEX depending on three scenarios:

1. The 95% Confidence Interval Rule

The computer stops administering questions when it is 95% certain that the candidate’s ability is either clearly above or below the passing standard.

2. Maximum-Length Exam

The computer continues to administer prompts until it reaches the max 265 questions. If the candidate answers enough correctly, they will pass. If not, they will fail.

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

When the RN candidate runs out of time and has not met the 95% certainty rule, they will fail if they have not answered the minimum required items. Conversely, they will pass if they have answered the minimum required questions and the score is above passing.

Become Familiar with Different Question Formats

The NCLEX contains a variety of question formats to challenge potential RNs and test their skills as they would on the job. Seven types of alternate format questions that can appear in random order when taking the test include:

  • Audio
    Listen to an audio clip to answer the question.
  • Chart/Exhibit
    Read the chart/exhibit to find the information needed to answer the question.
  • Graphic
    Select the appropriate graphic to answer the question.
  • Hot Spot
    Identify an area on a photo or graphic.
  • Multiple Response
    Select more than one correct answer.
  • Ordered Response
    Prioritize or rank option choices accordingly.
  • Fill-in-the-Blank
    Reserved for calculations, the answer must be typed into the box provided.

Practice With Common NCLEX Questions

When studying for the NCLEX, practice using NCLEX-style questions to prepare yourself for the test. Utilizing questions in the same style as the NCLEX will help create confidence and reduce test-taking anxiety on test day. Analyzing your answers and rationales will improve your critical thinking skills and increase your ability to retain information.

Common questions for the NCLEX can include diagnosis, people skills, and treatment plans. By familiarizing yourself with the questions asked, you will be completing a crucial part of NCLEX preparation.

Invest in NCLEX Resources and Guides

Having the right resources is instrumental in preparing for and passing the NCLEX for RN candidates. There are free online resources, from practice tests to study guides, to get you ready for the test. Practice tests familiarize you with the exam structure and provide insights into your strengths and weaknesses.

Take NCLEX Prep Courses

Test-takers who struggle to set aside time to study on their own might prefer the format of a prep course. If you learn better in a structured environment, there are options for prep courses both online and in classrooms. A NCLEX prep course adds additional costs, yet for many students, the price is worth it for the assurance that a structured learning environment can bring. Some nursing programs, like those at Joyce University, include NCLEX prep as part of the  curriculum offerings, ensuring students are confident and prepared before take the boards exam.

Prep courses also serve as an option for students who didn’t take the test immediately after graduation and need a refresher on the material. A prep course will help you bring the knowledge to the forefront of your mind if it’s been a while since graduation. With a structured prep course, you can save yourself the time you would have spent sorting out study materials and old notes.

Consider How You Should Prepare for the NCLEX

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to preparing for the NCLEX. Factors such as the strength of your nursing school’s NCLEX review courses, graduation rates, and your study habits can affect the length of time you need to prepare.

Test registration is typically available starting six weeks before your program ends. Once you decide you’re ready to test, sign up and pay your exam and licensure fees — around $300.

Developing your NCLEX study guide, reviewing materials consistently, taking practice tests, and practicing mindfulness techniques should all be taken into consideration when planning the length of time needed to prepare for the exam.

Think About How Many Hours You Should Study for the NCLEX

Considering the cost of the NCLEX, give yourself plenty of time to study to ensure passing the first time you take it. Rather than cramming all of your studying into an impossible timeframe, pace yourself and take care of your mind and body as you’re preparing. Allocate a specific amount of time each day, for at least a month, to study and itemize the topics you need to cover during each session.

Know How Hard You Need to Study for NCLEX

How hard you study for the NCLEX is not about the hours you put in, but how you use them. Nursing students and graduates preparing for the test should be aware that this is not like the tests you took in nursing school, and cramming will not yield the results you want. By avoiding these common mistakes, you will be on a successful path to passing the NCLEX no matter how hard you study.

When studying for the NCLEX, it is important to create an environment similar to the one you will encounter on exam day. Taking practice tests under timed conditions will help you create a test-like environment, identify your weaknesses, and allow you to focus on these categories for further improvement.

Create a Testing Plan

Now that you know what the NCLEX is, how to understand the types of questions that you will be tested on, and how long you will need to set aside to study, it’s time to create a testing plan.

An effective plan will include timelines and goals for tackling different content areas of the test. Studying for the NCLEX with a group of friends can also help ensure your exam success. Exam preparation is hard work, but it can be rewarding and beneficial to study with someone else.

Utilizing resources, time management, and simulating the testing environment are all keys for effective NCLEX preparation. With your NCLEX study plan in place, you will be ready to pass the test and begin a fulfilling career as an RN.
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