Study Tips

How Hard is the NCLEX®? 5 Tips to Make it Easier!

Lisa Miklush
Published on Jan 7, 2021. Updated on Jan 7, 2021.

Congratulations on graduating from nursing school! Now, your next order of business is to prepare for and pass the NCLEX® exam. You might be wondering: “Is the NCLEX hard?” Well, it depends on how well you’ve prepared. Here are a few tips to help you approach the exam with confidence and pass the first time!

After your hard work in nursing school, preparing for this next milestone in your career can seem a little overwhelming at first. And like many of your fellow new graduates, you may be wondering, how hard is the NCLEX exam anyway? When you think about it, the public puts their trust in the care they receive from nurses every day, so the NCLEX needs to be just hard enough so each test taker meets the minimum standards to practice nursing and to protect the public from unsafe nursing care. Even so, approximately 90% of test takers pass the NCLEX the first time, and you can be one of them! 

So, how hard is the NCLEX? It all depends on how hard you study. Follow these five tips to help build your confidence to meet the NCLEX challenge.

Tip #1: Create a study plan as unique as you are!

Nurses who have taken the NCLEX exam often comment that they spent too much time studying on topics like memorizing names of drugs, for example, but not enough focus on other topics like principles of basic nursing care. Others say they avoided topics they didn’t like while in nursing school, only to find questions on those topics on the test. The worst time to realize your NCLEX prep was lopsided is while you're taking the NCLEX exam! 

To avoid this, use a variety of study materials to strategically identify your strengths as well as your weak areas that require more focus. Use this information to map out a study plan to guide you while you are studying for the exam. Developing your own unique study plan will help you approach your NCLEX prep in an organized, confident way! 

Osmosis illustration of someone finding how how hard the NCLEX-RN can be without proper preparation.

Tip #2: Practice, practice, practice!

Now that you have your study plan in place, use your prep resources to review and answer lots and lots of practice questions. As you answer more and more questions you’ll develop a comfort level with the various ways a question can be asked. 

Most of the questions you’ll see on the NCLEX exam are multiple-choice questions, composed of a statement, question or problem (called the stem) and four possible options, three of which are incorrect (appropriately called distractors) and one correct or best answer. You’ll be very familiar with these types of questions from nursing school, and on Osmosis!

In addition to multiple-choice questions, be sure to spend some time answering some alternate item format questions, too, so you’re not thrown off during the exam if one pops up on your screen! Alternate item format questions may include fill-in-the-blank, ordered response, hot spot, and multiple response, among others. 

Osmosis illustration of NCLEX-RN question structure.

Tip #3: Cozy up to the CAT (Computer Adaptive Testing) 

Once upon a time, the NCLEX exam (previously called the nursing boards) was offered just twice each year, and on exam day, hundreds or even thousands of nursing graduates would gather in huge rooms or even sports areas! Everyone was given the exact same paper-and-pencil exam. It’s hard to imagine just how stressful that must have been!

Luckily for you, the NCLEX exam now uses computer adaptive testing (CAT), which administers a unique exam to every test taker. Each time you answer a question, the computer will estimate your ability, or the entry-level nursing knowledge, skills and abilities, based on your answer. The next question you are given will be close to that estimate, so the question will not be too hard or too easy.

As you go through the test, your ability is continually estimated. You will stop receiving questions when there is a 95% confidence that your ability is either above or below the minimum passing standard, which is the minimum ability required to safely and effectively practice nursing at the entry-level. All in all, you’ll end up answering somewhere between 75 and 265 questions.

Osmosis illustration showing how the NCLEX-RN provides questions during the exam using an algorithm.

Tip #4: Avoid these Test-Taking Mistakes

Here’s another tip: avoid answering questions based on your personal experiences during your clinical rotations in nursing school. Although these experiences are essential and valuable, the clinical variables are unique to that situation. For testing purposes, use only the information provided in the question stem.

If you are unsure of the answer to a question, don’t worry, don’t give up, and especially do not guess! If you guess, there’s a good chance the answer will be wrong, which means your next question will be easier and your calculated ability will be estimated downward - something you want to avoid! Instead of guessing, take time to find out what the question is really asking you so you can make a reasonable choice. 

Asking yourself these questions can help:

  • Does rephrasing the question help clarify the question?

  • Which step in the nursing process is involved - making judgments about outcomes (evaluation) or establishing priorities (planning)?

  • Do all the options look plausible? If so, which is best? Which action should be done first?

Finally, no matter how much adrenaline is pumping through your body during the test, don’t rush through the questions. Instead, remind yourself to take your time with each question. On average, you should spend about 2 minutes per question. Some questions take a little more, some a little less.

Osmosis illustration of Common NCLEX test-taking mistakes.

Tip #5: Remember the Basics

You’ve finally arrived at the end of your NCLEX prep. Now it’s time to take the test. As you sit down to begin the exam, remember the NCLEX exam does not test your ability to be a nursing rockstar, it tests how you think! In other words, it determines whether you are able to use basic nursing principles to make appropriate nursing judgments. 

Recall some of the key principles you learned in nursing school:

  • Establish priorities

  • Promote safety

  • Remember the ABCs (airway, breathing, circulation)

  • Apply the nursing process - always assess the client first

  • Use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

  • Identify expected outcomes and unexpected outcomes

  • Acute or actual problems have a higher priority than chronic or potential problems

You can count on these basic principles coming in handy during the exam.

Osmosis illustration of key nursing principles for the NCLEX.

Final Thoughts

You will be putting a lot of effort into your NCLEX prep, and part of that effort should be directed towards self-care. Remember, according to the Code of Ethics for Nurses, the care you extend to others extends to yourself as well. 

Basic self care—adequate quality and quantity sleep (this helps with memory!), healthy diet (you know what that means!), regular physical activity, and keeping friends and family close are essential ingredients to success. And remember, you have qualified to sit for this exam. Keeping this in mind will increase your confidence in your ability to pass the NCLEX the first time!

About Lisa Miklush PhD, RN, CNS

Dr. Lisa Miklush (PhD, RN, CNS) is a Faculty Reviewer for Osmosis. Before working for Osmosis, she helped create educational materials for Khan Academy Medicine. After graduating from the University of San Diego, Lisa devoted herself full-time to her love of teaching undergraduate and graduate nursing students. Currently, Lisa lives with her husband in the beautiful state of Montana.


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