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Nursing is a highly in-demand career that offers job stability, competitive pay and many opportunities for advancement. But before aspiring registered nurses in the U.S. can dig in and help their first patients, they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).
A passing score on the NCLEX is required to qualify for nursing licensure—and over 40% of nursing candidates who took the exam in early 2023 did not pass, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). Fortunately, to boost your chances of passing, many companies and organizations in the U.S. offer resources like NCLEX review courses, study guides and practice tests.
Knowing where to start on your NCLEX journey can be intimidating, so let’s begin with the basics. Read on to learn the answers to common questions about this critical exam.
What Is the NCLEX?
The NCLEX is the test all prospective registered nurses must pass before earning licensure. Administered by NCSBN, this exam tests the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to practice nursing at the entry level. Test takers must demonstrate strong judgment and decision-making skills as they apply in the nursing profession.
NCLEX questions revolve around patient needs, covering the following categories:
- Health promotion and maintenance
- Physiological integrity
- Psychosocial integrity
- Safe and effective care environment
The NCLEX contains between 85 and 150 questions—every test is different. The exam is not offered in handwritten or oral formats, but through Computer Adaptive Testing (CAT), a model of computerized testing that reacts to answers in real time. Test items use detailed scenarios so candidates can apply their nursing knowledge to real-world situations.
The NCLEX was revamped in early 2023, and the current iteration of the exam is known as the Next Generation NCLEX (NGN).
How Is the NCLEX Scored?
The NCLEX is a pass-fail test. Because the nursing field is constantly changing, NCSBN reevaluates passing standards every three years as it reviews test plans.
CAT exams are interactive. As you progress through the test, the exam software chooses questions for you based on the ability level you’ve demonstrated with your previous answers. In other words, if you’re performing well on the NCLEX, you’ll see harder questions earlier on; if you’re struggling, the exam software may continue to give you easier questions.
The test continues until you’ve answered enough questions to demonstrate your ability level; you have five hours to do so.
Candidates who fail the NCLEX receive a report indicating areas of weakness on which they should focus to improve. They must wait 45 days to retake the test and can only take the NCLEX eight times per year. Candidates who pass are permitted to apply for their nursing license.
Studying for the NCLEX
There are several common methods of studying for the nursing exam, plus a selection of online resources to help you develop your own NCLEX study plan. Below we dive into some frequently asked questions about preparing for the NCLEX.
Which NCLEX review course should you take?
NCSBN does not endorse any particular NCLEX prep course, but you can find courses offered by providers like the Princeton Review, Kaplan Nursing and NursingExams.com. Many also offer practice exams that simulate the CAT test-taking experience, including personalized feedback on improvement areas. Several well-reviewed audio options exist, as well, including audio study guides, practice questions and curricula review.
Does NCSBN offer NCLEX practice tests?
NCSBN offers sample questions and exam previews, but no full practice test. You can turn to several other online resources to find full-length practice tests that comply with NGN standards.
How much time do you need for NCLEX prep?
This depends on several factors, such as how recently you attended nursing school and how well you perform on tests. Some prep courses aim to prepare you for the exam in 30 days, but study times vary drastically. Some candidates only need two weeks; others study for as long as six months.
What’s the best way to prepare for the NCLEX?
There’s no one right way to prepare for the NCLEX, but in general, more preparation is better. Once you choose your exam date, it’s time to devise a study plan. You might break down the exam’s various content areas into manageable chunks. Your plan should also include practice questions and practice tests. Those simulating the CAT-model testing process will best prepare you for the actual exam experience.
Once you have a plan, stick to it and plug away. Remember to give yourself a break on the day before the test to rest and restore focus. Get lots of sleep the night before.
Taking the NCLEX
What are the NCLEX eligibility requirements?
To take the NCLEX, a nursing candidate must first be deemed eligible by the Nursing Regulatory Body (NRB) in the state where they intend to practice. NRBs set different eligibility standards, but common requirements include being 18 years old, having “good moral character” and completing a board-approved nursing school program. To learn your state’s eligibility requirements, contact its NRB.
How do you register to take the NCLEX?
The NCLEX involves a detailed registration process. Get ready to follow these steps:
- First, you must apply for registration and licensure with the NRB of the state where you intend to practice.
- Next, you must register with Pearson VUE, the company that administers the NCLEX, and pay the $200 registration fee ($360 in Canada).
- After Pearson acknowledges receiving your registration and fee, you will be made eligible in the Pearson VUE system.
If approved, Pearson will email you authorizing you to test, and you’ll be allowed to schedule an exam appointment online. You’ll receive your results within six weeks after the exam; exact timelines vary by state.
Can You Skip Questions on the NCLEX?
No, you have to answer each question before moving on to the next.
What is the NCLEX passing standard?
NCSBN determines the passing standard, which reflects the nursing ability required to practice competently at the entry level. An NCSBN panel sets the passing standard with several factors in mind, including the historical record of candidate performance and the educational readiness of high school graduates.
Why do you only get a performance report if you fail?
The NCLEX screens candidates to identify those who demonstrate sufficient ability to competently practice as a nurse. Candidates who fail receive detailed feedback to help them address weaknesses as they prepare to retake the test. Feedback for passing candidates is not considered necessary; the information could potentially be misused in employment decisions by candidates or employers.
Next Generation NCLEX
Why did the NCLEX change?
As of April 2023, NCSBN implemented a major revision of the NCLEX based on a thorough review of research from the past two decades. The Next Generation NCLEX reflects changes in the nursing practice, including an increase in acutely ill clients. Nurses, including new RNs, are now responsible for a larger proportion of complex healthcare decisions about patients, making it more important than ever for incoming nurses to demonstrate high competency levels.
NCSBN’s review found an unacceptably high number of nursing errors as a result of poor decision-making, and 80% of employers reported dissatisfaction with the decision-making skills of entry-level nurses. The NGN aims to address these issues by raising relevant standards for incoming nurses.
How is the NGN different from the old NCLEX?
The Next Generation NCLEX focuses more on problem-solving and critical thinking, also prominently featuring clinical judgment among the test’s integrated processes.
How did the scoring method change?
Unlike in previous versions of the NCLEX, new scoring methods award credit for partial knowledge. Previous versions of the exam scored answers as either correct or incorrect. Now, test takers can earn points for demonstrating partial understanding.
Did NCSBN change the NCLEX cost?
No. The Next Generation NCLEX does not cost more than previous versions.