Smiling African-American medical professional

How to Pass the NCLEX-RN® Exam

The Complete Study Guide to Help You Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam the First Time

Smiling African-American medical professional

If you’re a nursing student currently working on completing your educational program, you’ve no doubt heard the term NCLEX. You may already know that it’s the name of the nursing exam you will eventually need to take in order to work as a nurse. The exam ensures that you’ve mastered the material you’ve studied well enough to safely and effectively perform the duties of a nurse.

The idea of taking the NCLEX exam can be stressful to some. It’s the final result that signifies you’re ready to start working as a registered nurse—and find out if all your hard work and studying has paid off. One dad and his daughter Shannon had their emotional reaction to seeing that she had passed the NCLEX exam go viral. Even though she was convinced she had failed, it turned out she had indeed passed.

The NCLEX-RN is the specific exam a candidate takes to become a registered nurse. This guide introduces you to the NCLEX-RN exam and provides tips on how to study for the exam and how to pass the NCLEX-RN the first time. (Note: The NCLEX-PN is another version of the exam for practical nurses but is not the focus of this guide.)

If you’re not yet enrolled in a nursing program, but want to know more about getting on the path to a career as a registered nurse, click here to see our guide on how to become a Registered Nurse.

What Is the NCLEX-RN Exam?

NCLEX-RN is the abbreviation for National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. It’s the nurse licensure and certification exam that entry-level nurses must pass before working in nursing. The unique format of the exam tests candidates on the choices they would make—and how they would prioritize those choices—when presented with real-world circumstances.

The NCLEX is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc. (NCSBN). NCSBN is a not-for-profit organization whose U.S. members include the nursing regulatory bodies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. territories.

What Is the Format of the NCLEX-RN Exam?

NCLEX is the world’s premier licensure exam and uses computer adaptive testing (CAT) technology to deliver the exam. Each time you answer a question correctly, the next question will be more challenging. That’s because the computer re-estimates your ability each time you answer a question.

To help you become familiar with this type of exam software, the National Council State Boards of Nursing, Inc. provides a candidate tutorial with instructions on answering the different NCLEX item types you will encounter during the exam.

Is the NCLEX-RN Exam Hard?

A common question about the NCLEX is if the test is hard. The test is challenging but should not be “too hard.” Although the questions are designed to be progressively harder each time you correctly answer, the computer selects the next question that you should have a 50% chance of answering correctly.

Consequently, each question you are presented with should not be too easy or too hard. The computerized test format is designed to discover your true ability level. Therefore, you should expect to be challenged but not overwhelmed when taking this test.

What Score Do You Need to Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam?

NCLEX-RN exam requirements

The NCSBN Board of Directors reevaluates the passing standards every three years when the test plans are reviewed. Effective through March 31, 2023, the passing standard is 0.00 logits. This means that if you score a positive number, answering more questions correctly than incorrectly, you pass.

The 2021 NCLEX-RN pass rate for U.S. educated candidates taking the test for the first time was about 82.5%. Breaking down this category, those with a baccalaureate degree passed the exam approximately 86% of the time, while those with an associate degree almost 79% of the time. This statistic highlights how a bachelor’s program, such as the BSN Program at Brookline College, may significantly boost a candidate’s chances of passing the exam the first time.

Healthcare students reading textbooks

What Is On the NCLEX-RN Exam?

What does the NCLEX-RN exam consist of? The NCLEX-RN Exam includes questions for each Client Needs category and subcategory as outlined in the NCLEX-RN Test Plan. The percentage of questions from each category and subcategory can vary. Below are the Client Needs subjects and the percentage of questions from each category that may appear when you take the exam.

Client Needs Percentage of Items from Each Category/Subcategory
Safe and Effective Care Environment
• Management of Care

• Safety and Infection Control

17–23%

9–15%

Health Promotion and Maintenance 6–12%
Psychosocial Integrity 6–12%
Physiological Integrity
• Basic Care and Comfort

• Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies

• Reduction of Risk Potential

• Physiological Adaptation

6–12%

12–18%

9–15%

11–17%

How Many Questions Are On the NCLEX-RN Exam?

Because of the computer adaptive testing (CAT) format, the length of the exam can range from 75 to 145 items. Of these items, 15 are pretest items that are not scored. The time limit for taking the exam is five hours, regardless of how many questions are administered during the exam. When answering, you can consider your answer and change it. However, once you select the ‘Next’ button, you can no longer change your answer for that item, and the next question is chosen for you to answer.

NCLEX-RN Exam Sample Questions

The NCLEX-RN Test Plan provides an overview of the responsibilities and tasks a nurse performs in each Client Needs category. It also provides a sample question at the end of each of these overviews. This is helpful because it shows an example of how a question might be presented to ensure you have mastered the material in that category. Below are three NCLEX-RN exam sample questions provided in the plan:

Sample Item 1:

The nurse has been made aware of the following client situations. The nurse should first assess the client.

  1. with diverticulitis who is reporting left lower quadrant (LLQ) pain
  2. with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) who is reporting hemoptysis
  3. who had an evacuation of a subdural hematoma 8 hours ago and has become agitated
  4. who had a total knee replacement 8 hours ago and whose affected extremity is internally rotated

Sample Item 2:

The nurse is assigning unlicensed assistive personnel (UAP) to assist the following clients to ambulate. It would be most important for the nurse to review safety precautions with the UAP prior to ambulating the

  1. 44-year-old client with Ménière’s disease
  2. 59-year-old client with a unilateral cataract
  3. 62-year-old client with presbycusis
  4. 65-year-old client with sinusitis

Sample Item 3:

The nurse is teaching clients at a community health fair about risk factors for developing cancer. The nurse should recognize that at highest risk is the

  1. 30-year-old client who consumes a diet high in selenium and has a history of an ovarian cyst
  2. 49-year-old client who drinks 2 to 3 cups of coffee daily and has a family history of fibrocystic breast conditions
  3. 51-year-old client who has hypertension and teaches an aerobic exercise program
  4. 62-year-old client who consumes 5 to 6 alcoholic beverages daily and is an opera singer

Healthcare professional typing on a laptop

What’s the Best Way to Study for the NCLEX-RN Exam?

The best way to study is to create your own plan, review the topics and categories the exam will cover, and to avoid stressing yourself out. Here are some ideas that will help you prepare for exam day and give yourself the best chance of passing the first time.

1. Create Your NCLEX-RN Study Plan

When you think about your NCLEX-RN test prep, don’t let yourself feel like you have to tackle everything at once. Make a study plan and decide what your focus will be each day or week. Decide which topic(s) or study help you will review. Identify the blocks of time when you will study each day, and stick to that plan. You don’t always need to be studying, but spending quality, uninterrupted time each day will help you stay on track.

2. Get Familiar with The Exam Structure

Use the NCLEX Candidate Tutorial to help get yourself familiar with the Pearson VUE exam software. The tutorial will show you the types of questions that you may encounter, also referred to as “item types.” The examples are interactive, and you’ll be guided on how to interact and respond to each type of problem. For instance, you’ll learn how to answer multiple-choice questions, drag-and-drop, charts/exhibits, and hot spots.

3. Read Through the NCLEX-RN Test Plan

The test plans give you a foundation of the exam structure, informs you about the exam content, and details about the exam administration. It also includes item writing exercises you can complete for multiple case scenarios. To get started on this, just go to the Test Plans page and select the RN Test Plan.

4. If You Need It, Use Additional Study Resources

This step is optional. But if you feel you need more help in mastering some of the topics that may appear on the test, an online or in-person prep course might be a great help. This is an especially good option if you finished your program a while back and may not be as confident as you were right after graduation.

Additionally, several NCLEX study helps, and practice tests are available as apps for your smartphone or tablet. Using one or more of these apps can help you review important topics of study and practice with test questions similar to the actual exam format.

5. Take the NCLEX Practice Exams

Taking the NCLEX Practice Exam is perhaps the best way to prepare for test day. That’s because it’s put together from previously used exam questions. Plus, it gives you a good feel of the exam’s format, with 125 questions which you have five continuous hours to complete. There are two practice exams available, so you can take both of them within 45 days of your purchase date.

6. Don’t Let Test Stress Take You Off Your Game

Prepare diligently as you approach your test date, but don’t lose sleep or spend all of your time studying. Balance is good, and keeping healthy physically and mentally can do more for you than constantly cramming the week before your exam.

7. Stay Calm and Take Your Time

When test day arrives, one of the best NCLEX-RN test strategies is to stay calm and focused. Remember, you have plenty of time to answer the questions, so don’t spend the whole time worrying if you’ll finish or second-guessing your answers. Focus on the question you’re on, and solve it to the best of your ability. You’ve got this.

Medical team filling out paperwork

How Do You Register for the NCLEX-RN Exam?

The NCLEX-RN registration process consists of two parts when applying to nursing regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Canada.

  1. First, you need to contact your Nursing Regulatory Body (NRB) and request a licensure/registration application. You will need to pay the licensing/registration fee when you submit your application. Note that you must obtain your application in the state/province/territory where you are seeking licensure/registration.
  2. Next, you need to register with the Pearson VUE (testing vendor) online or by calling Pearson VUE Candidate Services at 866-496-2539. You will need to pay the exam fee at the time you register.

Where Can You Take the NCLEX-RN Exam?

Once you have completed the steps above and you are found eligible, you’ll receive an Authorization to Test (ATT) email. It’s important to watch for it because you’ll need this email in order to schedule an appointment to take the exam.

At this point, you can choose your testing location. The NCLEX is offered at both domestic and international locations, and you can locate a test center near you. Once you select a testing location, you can schedule your exam appointment through Pearson VUE Candidate Services using the site and phone number listed in step 2 above.

How Much Does It Cost to Take the NCLEX-RN Exam?

The cost of the NCLEX-RN exam is $200.00 in the U.S. and $360.00 in Canada. Additional NCLEX-RN fees may also apply for international scheduling, changing the nursing regulatory body, changing the exam type (RN/PN), or changing the exam language.

You’ll need to pay for your exam and complete your registration using a credit, debit, or prepaid card. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are all accepted. It’s important to keep in mind that refunds of registration fees are not offered for any reason.

How Many Times Can You Take the NCLEX-RN Exam?

NCLEX-RN Review

The NCSBN retake policy allows candidates to take the NCLEX-RN exam eight times a year, with 45 test-free days between each examination. However, some jurisdictions may have stricter limits on the number of exams a candidate can take annually.

To retake the exam, contact the NRB and let them know you plan to retake the exam. They will inform you of any additional fees or materials that will be required. They’ll also send you a new ATT email so you can review the NCLEX-RN test dates and schedule your exam again, as described earlier in this article.

Still Exploring a Career as a BSN?

We hope this NCLEX-RN study guide has provided valuable tips on how to pass the NCLEX-RN exam. But if you are still just considering a career as a registered nurse, you’ll want to enroll in a strong nursing program that will give you the foundation to prepare to pass the NCLEX-RN exam. Click here to learn more about the BSN Program and how to prepare for a successful nursing career at Brookline College. See below for some of the types of nursing jobs that pay the most.