Is the NCLEX-RN Harder than the NCLEX-PN?

You’ve just finished nursing school, and it’s now time to become official—by passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). The NCLEX exam is how the U.S. makes sure all nurses meet the same standards for safe practice, no matter where you received your education.
There are two versions of the NCLEX exam: the NCLEX-RN, for prospective registered nurses, and the NCLEX-PN, for prospective practical/vocational nurses. The question often arises as to which exam is easier to pass.
If you’ve taken and failed the NCLEX-RN, you may be tempted to try your luck with the NCLEX-PN, instead. But think again. Here’s how the two tests compare to help you decide:

What do the numbers say?

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing publishes data about who passes the NCLEX and who does not. On the website, you can see how U.S.-educated students perform compared to internally-educated students and how first-timers perform compared to repeat test-takers. Or you can just compare all the students who took the test in a given year.
Let’s take a look at some previous passage rates:
  • 2015 (through June):
  • NCLEX-RN: 73 percent passed
  • NCLEX-PN: 67 percent passed
  • 2014:
  • NCLEX-RN: 69 percent passed
  • NCLEX-PN: 70 percent passed
  • 2013:
  • NCLEX-RN: 71 percent passed
  • NCLEX-PN: 74 percent passed

As you can see, the numbers are pretty close for both the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN; although, they vary from year to year. If one test was easier than the other, you might expect a higher pass rate for the easier one.

How do the tests compare?

Both exams are the same in many ways.
Each is taken on a computer at a Pearson VUE test center, and they’re the same in terms of structure (you choose among four multiple choice answers for each question). Both are computer-adaptive—that is, they take into account your answers and adjust the questions in difficulty accordingly.
The NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN differ in the number of questions you have to answer and the amount of time you have to complete each test.
Number of questions:
NCLEX-RN: minimum is 75 questions, max is 265
NCLEX-PN: minimum is 85 questions, max is 205
Hours to complete the exam:
NCLEX-RN: six hours
NCLEX-PN: five hours
As for content, both require a basic understanding of nursing practice and knowledge. But since the purpose of the test is to apply your knowledge to specific work scenarios, the types of questions are aimed at the specific duties of each nursing profession.
A majority of NCLEX-RN questions center around creating care plans and evaluating patients, whereas NCLEX-PN questions focus on the duties of collecting patient information and supporting care plans.

What are some tips to help you pass the NCLEX?

Great news: The vast majority of students pass the first time they take it, which is true for both exams.
Repeat test-takers face a higher challenge. In 2014, just 46 percent of U.S.-educated repeat test-takers passed the NCLEX-RN, and only 31 percent passed the NCLEX-PN.
Regardless of where you stand in the process, here are some tips for success:

  • Don’t cram. Start preparing two or three months before the exam.
  • Create a daily study routine.
  • Learn test-taking strategies.
  • Review your problem areas to get the most bang for your study buck.
  • Don’t study on test day, and show up early. Arrive 30 to 40 minutes beforehand to get settled in.