10 Tips to Pass the NCLEX


1. Passing the NCLEX is a marathon, not a sprint.

Just like running a marathon, preparing to pass the NCLEX is all about endurance. You’ve spent many years in school studying to become a nurse. Like in many other marathons, many of the people you’ve seen start haven’t finished. If you’re preparing for the NCLEX, you are just approaching the finish line…but it isn’t time to let up yet. Give this final leg of your journey the time and energy it deserves.

Unlike other tests you may have taken, the NCLEX isn’t a test you can cram for. Over many years of providing NCLEX Test Prep, Kaplan has found that students who pass the NCLEX the first time have spent several weeks to months in daily review and preparation.

How much time you can spend studying each day depends on you and your personal lifestyle, but it’s important to remember that the NCLEX is a test of SAFE PRACTICE covering ALL AREAS of patient care and health/disease management. 

The NCLEX is part of the “marathon” of becoming a nurse not only in preparation, but in the actual exam itself. Please remember that the NCLEX itself might take you up to six hours. That’s a long time to focus. Take progressively longer practice tests so you can train your brain, as well as your backside, to successfully sit AND focus for the duration of your NCLEX experience.

2. The NCLEX is a very different test from tests you’ve taken in the past.

The NCLEX format is a computerized adaptive testing (CAT). This means that now two exams are identical. The NCLEX you take will adapt to your answers and be different than any other individual’s NCLEX. While the NCLEX will provide you with a minimum of 75 questions, and a maximum of 265 questions, the NCLEX uses an algorithm to produce each new question based on your performance on previous questions. Some questions are multiple choice while some are multiple answer (Select All That Apply). There are other question formats such as Ordered Response, “Hot Spot,” and calculations. Images and graphs may also appear on the NCLEX.

The NCLEX ends when a candidate either passes the test after correctly answering enough questions to stay above the passing line with 95% confidence interval, OR the candidate fails the test by not staying above the passing line with 95% confidence.

Sometimes NCLEX candidates try to self-evaluate and guess how they are doing as they go along…but the NCLEX doesn’t work that way. It is best to simply focus on the questions at hand. Also, what is easy for you might be a real challenge to someone else. Each NCLEX question is important as the next.

3. Manage the test experience.

Do you have test anxiety? We are all a bit nervous from the pressure of such an important milestone exam. Just remember that you made it through nursing school. What strategies did you use to overcome anxiety on past exams and experiences?

You learned about stress management with patients in nursing school. It helps to apply those principles to yourself now as you prepare.

Remember these essential methods to minimize stress:

  • Keep a balance between study, work, personal life.
  • Sleep regularly. Sleep is the master antioxidant and restorative healer.
  • Exercise daily. Regular exercise is good for your body, but it also changes the brain to improve memory, and thinking skills.
  • Study a bit every day, but don’t let study consume your life. Build it into your daily routine like any other task.
  • Take a trip to the testing center where you will actually be taking the NCLEX. Know the route and traffic patterns so you don’t get lost or caught in unexpected traffic snarls. Locate the right parking spaces and building. Find the lockers where you will be dropping your belongings and meet the proctors. Ask them if what you are wearing and the ID you will bring are acceptable (remember, there are NCLEX RULES about this!).
  • The night before the exam make sure you have gas in your car, you get adequate sleep, wear the proper clothing, bring the proper ID documents.

Ultimately, the best way to alleviate anxiety is to study properly. The NCLEX won’t seem so scary when you feel prepared and confident!

4. Create a study plan.

It is important to be resolute in your preparation for the NCLEX. You’ve come this far… don’t quit now! Here are some things you can do to create and stick to a great study plan:

  • Plan to study a bit every day.
  • Set goals for each study session. Is it completion of a Practice Test? Completion of a certain number of practice or QBank Questions?
  • Remediate every question. Know why you got a certain question right or wrong. Content? Strategy? Understand the rationale for every answer. Kaplan provides you with rationales for each answer choice, right or wrong. Remember, you may see this same question presented differently on NCLEX.

5. Assess yourself.

Know the kind of test taker you are. Kaplan Nursing has found that Successful NCLEX-RN® Exam Test Takers:

  • Have a good understanding of nursing content.
  • Have the ability to tackle each test question with confidence because they assume that they can figure out the right answer.
  • Don’t give up if they are unsure of the answer. They are not afraid to think about the question, and the possible choices, in order to select the correct answer.
  • Possess the know-how to correctly identify the answer.
  • Stay focused on the question.

Unsuccessful NCLEX-RN® Exam Test Takers

  • Assume that they either know or don’t know the answer to the question.
  • Memorize facts to answer questions by recall or recognition.
  • Read the question, read the answers, read the question again, and pick an answer.
  • Choose answer choices based on a hunch or a feeling instead of thinking carefully.
  • Answer questions based on personal experience rather than nursing theory.
  • Give up too soon, because they aren’t willing to think hard about questions and answers.
  • Don’t stay focused on the question.

6. Know what kind of learner you are.

Do you learn best by listening to videos and lectures, or reading books? Are you a good note taker? Have you used NCLEX Qbanks successfully? Are you better at a Self-Paced program or do you need an instructor for guidance? All of these are critical components to preparation and study.

Your NCLEX prep should provide you with a comprehensive variety of videos, written review, strategies, and practice materials to best suit your complex learning style.

7. Know the difference between NCLEX knowledge and real-world experience.

The NCLEX is based on evidence-based practice. If you have worked in healthcare you may notice that different facilities each may have slightly different ways of doing things that they deem safe and effective. However, do not assume that this applies to the NCLEX. For the NCLEX, you must assume that you have a perfect situation, with ample time and resources to perform your duties. Choose your answers to the NCLEX based on this “perfect world” scenario.

8. Know what strategies do NOT work on the NCLEX.

During nursing school, you may have noticed that tests and correct answers varied by teacher and were mostly driven by content. On the NCLEX, this isn’t the case. Massive research and testing has gone into each NCLEX question. And while you may get all of your content questions correct, this doesn’t mean you’ll pass the NCLEX. The NCLEX is a test of Critical Thinking and you must APPLY content to a scenario in order to pass the NCLEX.

Here are some strategies that might have worked in nursing school, but DON’T work on NCLEX:

  • “Cramming” in hundreds of facts about disease processes and nursing care
  • Recognizing and recalling facts rather than understanding the pathophysiology and the needs of a client with an illness
  • Knowing who wrote the question and what is important to that instructor
  • Predicting answers based on what you remember or who wrote the test question
  • Selecting the response that is a different length compared to the other choices
  • Selecting the answer choice that is grammatically correct
  • When in doubt, choosing answer choice (C) or (D).

Here are some strategies that DO work on NCLEX:

  • Visualization: create an image in your mind about the scenario you are reading on NCLEX. See the patient they are describing and place yourself in that situation.
  • Reword the Question: NCLEX has a topic in mind they want to know if YOU know the answer to. The first step to correctly answering NCLEX questions is to find out what each question is really asking.
  • Use the answer choices for clues about the topic: Yes, the topic is THAT important. If you are clueless about the topic after reading the question stem, then look for a pattern in the answer choices to help you determine the topic.
  • Eliminate obviously wrong answer choices: One of the major problems of unsuccessful test takers is that they do not thoughtfully consider each answer choice. They react to questions using feelings and hunches. Unsuccessful test takers look for a specific answer choice and select an answer too quickly and without thinking.
  • Recognize expected vs. unexpected outcomes: Expected outcomes are the behaviors and changes you think are going to occur as a result of nursing care. These outcomes allow the nurse to evaluate whether goals have been met.

Remember, the NCLEX is testing your ability to make safe, competent decisions based on evidence-based knowledge. Use information from your approved nursing text books or a summary review of them such as the Kaplan Review of Essential Content.

9. Know what is covered on the NCLEX.

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) is the organization that develops the NCLEX. They do this in conjunction with a wide variety of stakeholders and educational testing experts, nursing experts and other. Each test question goes through rigorous analysis and beta-testing to ensure its validity as part of the question test pool.

The NCSBN has developed a detailed test plan which you can download from their website.

On this document you will see a comprehensive list of the areas tested, and the content under each area. You will also see the percentage range of questions you can expect to encounter when you take the NCLEX.

Use this document to check yourself and your knowledge base. Make sure you prepare fully for each area.

10. Use prep resources.

A quick look at the NCSBN statistics will show you that the first time NCLEX pass rate in 2018 was about 88%, while the pass rate for repeat test takers was about 43%. Kaplan has a variety of options to help prepare you to pass the NCLEX, so spend some time browsing options to identify the prep style that fits you best.

Susan Benesh, AGNP-C, MS, FN, FAWM is one of our 600 nurses working to help you pass the NCLEX.