After all their hard work, nursing students graduate with one final test standing between them and their first nursing job: the National Council Licensure Examination, commonly called the NCLEX.
If you graduated from a nursing school that prepared you well, you’ve already learned the foundations and the specialized knowledge you’ll need to become an incredible nurse at the top of your field. Rather than being intimidated by the official nature of the NCLEX, see it as a chance to prove to yourself and the official licensing body for nurses that you’re ready for anything.
With the right NCLEX study plan and test-taking strategies, you can approach the exam with the confidence that you’re ready to become a registered nurse.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all best time to take the NCLEX. Every nurse will have a different NCLEX success story. It’s a matter of finding the time that’s best for you. If your nursing program included a strong NCLEX review course, you might schedule your test just as you graduate. If it didn’t, you might choose to take some extra weeks or months to study and review. 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 — typically around $300.
Considering those costs, you should give yourself plenty of time to study to ensure you’re ready to pass the NCLEX the first time you take it. Rather than cramming all of your studying into an impossible timeframe, take care of your mind and body as you’re preparing. Find a comfortable study space where you actually enjoy learning and take frequent short and long breaks to keep your brain limber and to allow the information to soak in.
Of course, you still have to think like a nurse. You’ll still need to push yourself and tend to all the other spinning plates in your day-to-day life. Your NCLEX study plan shouldn’t be unpleasant or rushed, but everything about it should be challenging, including the timeline. Give yourself the study hours you need, but schedule the exam as soon as possible so you can pass and get to work as a nurse right away.
We highly recommend allocating a specific amount of time each day to itemize the topics you need to cover during each session. Every student studies differently, but many nursing forums contain posts by past exam takers with schedules that worked for them.
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If your program prepared you well for the NCLEX, skip over this part. If not, and the whole process can seem rather murky and it’s important you know how the test is structured.
This outline from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing contains percentage ranges for each category on which you’ll be tested. As you read through the categories, it’s a good idea to determine which areas you believe to be your strengths, as well as the areas you’ll need to study thoroughly in preparation for the exam.
It’s also useful to know that the NCLEX is administered with computerized adaptive testing, or CAT. That means that you won’t be needing to sharpen any No. 2 pencils and should expect to take the test in front of a screen. Questions will be of four major types: drag-and-drop, multiple choice, hot spots, and chart/exhibit.
Another unique factor in the NCLEX is that the length of it depends on the test taker. Registered nurse candidates must answer at least 75 questions correctly, which is the shortest possible test length. However, incorrect answers lead to a longer test, with 265 being the highest possible number of questions contained within the exam. The NCLEX can take up to six hours, but the majority of test takers require less than the maximum time allocation.
If your test ends up being over 75 questions, remember to stay positive. A longer test doesn’t mean you failed, and anyway, it’s rare for anyone to reach that maximum number of questions. As long as you’re still in the running for a passing score, the computer will continue administering new questions until enough information is gathered to settle on a pass or fail. This system is helpful in that it helps test takers focus on the questions in front of them one at a time — if the test is still going, it’s still possible to pass!
Related Resource: The Eight Steps of Question Analysis for the NCLEX
One of the best ways to ensure that you ace the NCLEX is to take a few practice tests in preparation. The Internet has plenty of reputable resources when it comes to study guides and example NCLEX test questions. Once you have a nice collection of resources both online and in print, consider crafting a routine for your study days with a good balance of practice tests, reading materials, and enough downtime between to give you the brainpower you need to absorb the most possible information. Some test candidates like to study in intense, short bursts while others prefer to make studying an interwoven part of their everyday routines.
Whatever your NCLEX study plan may be, it can be wise to buddy up with a friend from your cohort who’s also preparing to take the exam. Although preparation is hard work, it can be rewarding — and even fun — to study with someone else. Even though you can’t take the test together, you’ll memorize more with two heads instead of one, and your individual strengths can help each other’s weaknesses.
Think of fun ways to study with a friend or group, like taking breaks to grab an ice cream or plan to watch a favorite movie together after your study session. Building these sorts of rewards into your exam planning reinforces positive associations with the test material and keeps stress levels lower — which in turn means that information retention will go up.
Related Resource: The Best of the Best Books for Passing the NCLEX
Some graduates might need a little extra oomph when they begin studying apart from their nursing instructors. The structured delivery of an NCLEX prep course can be helpful to those who struggle setting aside time to study between other activities. If you’re someone who learns better in a structured environment, there are many options for prep courses both online and in classrooms. NCLEX prep courses do cost a significant amount of money, yet for many students, the price is worth it for the assurance that a structured learning environment can bring.
Prep courses also serve as a fantastic option for the students who didn’t take or schedule the test immediately after graduation. If you are newly graduated from your nursing program, much of the material covered in the NCLEX may still be fresh in your brain. However, a prep course will help you bring the knowledge to the forefront of your mind if it’s been awhile since graduation. With a structured prep course, you can save yourself the time you would have spent sorting out study materials and old notes. Prep courses aren’t for everyone, but they can benefit a lot of nursing students.
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As NCLEX day draws near, give yourself the day before to stay far away from test-related materials. At this point, you’ve put in the effort needed to prepare yourself for this pivotal moment in your nursing career, so enjoy a relaxing break before you put your knowledge to the test.
A day of rest can set you up for success, preparing you to take the exam from a calm and thoughtful state of mind, using the knowledge you’ve already gained and recently reviewed to the fullest extent. Cramming the night before will only result in a hectic and forgetful mind. Get a full night’s sleep and eat healthy, well-balanced meals leading up to the exam.
On exam day, all you need to do preparedness-wise is to be confident and do your best. Your aim should be to cut out distractions so you can focus on the NCLEX itself. Arrive at the testing site in loose, comfortable clothing, so you aren’t distracted by tight or itchy materials. Layering can also help in case there are changes in temperature — you can make adjustments mid-exam without missing a beat.
You’ll want to be poised and relaxed in the moments before the test, so try to arrive about a half-hour early to the exam location. Don’t show up too hungry or too full either, and make sure to hydrate often so your memory and critical thinking skills can perform at optimum levels.
Related Resource: NCLEX Test-Taking Strategies
NCLEX results are usually sent by mail roughly six weeks after the exam day. That may seem like an eternity, and luckily some approved services will reveal your results to you within 48 hours for a small fee. You can retake the NCLEX in 45 days if your exam is unsuccessful. However, if you’ve studied diligently, you’ll probably do better than you imagine. When you get your scores, make sure to pat yourself on the back for the effort it took to reach such a major milestone.