What Is the NCLEX?

Before graduate nurses can practice, they must pass the NCLEX licensure exam. What is the NCLEX? This exam tests nurses on their nursing practice acumen. It is thorough, intensive, and difficult.

Whether students choose the RN or LVN career path, they first have to tackle the NCLEX. 

Here’s what you need to know.

Why Is the Exam So Important?

Nurses feel immense pride and relief once they have passed the exam. That’s because it marks the beginning of their careers, and it validates their hard work. In many cases, their new jobs are contingent upon passing the exam. So when it comes to the NCLEX, the exam looms large as the test date approaches.

About the NCLEX and State Boards of Nursing

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) manages the exam

The NCBSN is not a nursing association. Instead, it is made up of state nursing boards. Boards of nursing have an interest in making sure that nurses are well trained in patient care and safety as a matter of public health. 

In fact, studies show that the more highly trained the nurse, the better are patient outcomes


Education and testing center company Pearson VUE administers the NCLEX. They run the testing centers, score the exam, and issue the results. 

There are two versions of the NCLEX: the NCLEX-RN, for registered nurse candidates, and the NCLEX-PN, for practical nurse or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) candidates. The exams cover much of the same information. However, the RN exam focuses on care management, and the PN version concentrates on vocational nursing skills.

Both the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN require the same test-taking skills and strategies.

Why the NCLEX Matters

Here’s why the NCLEX is important, and why it’s so important to start thinking about it well in advance:

  • Nurses must pass this test to get their RN or LVN license. 
  • The NCLEX tests nursing grads on how well they “think like a nurse.”
  • The exam confirms that new nurses have the knowledge, skills, and critical thinking capabilities to be competent nurses.
  • State boards of nursing use pass rates to evaluate nursing programs.
  • Nursing schools use their NCLEX success to market to prospective students.
Preparing for the NCLEX starts in the classroom and in nursing training labs.

How to Pass the NCLEX

Students entering the nursing profession have a vast assortment of resources for passing the exam. As a result, students have many options for finding the right study materials for them. Study guides, practice questions, tips, and best practices are just some of the materials out there.

Additionally, many online articles talk about the necessity of starting to study months in advance of the test date. They advise setting a study schedule and having a plan for the day of the test.

By the time a nursing student walks into the test center, they should know how to pass the NCLEX. 

How is the Exam Structured?

In 2023 the NCSBN updated the NCLEX to its latest version, the NCLEX NGN. The biggest change in the NCLEX NGN is that students now get partial credit for multi-answer questions. However, the test still requires nurses to apply critical thinking skills and practical application of their nursing knowledge. 

Here are some of the features of the NCLEX.

  • Computerized adaptive testing (CAT). The computer will deliver the next question to a test-taker based on their performance on the previous question.
  • 95% rules. The computer calculates the likelihood of the student passing or failing and will stop the test once it reaches that conclusion.
  • Maximum length and run out of time rules. If the computer can’t determine pass/fail with 95% confidence, it will use these other criteria.

The NCLEX consists of 145 questions total. However, due to adaptive testing, students can potentially pass or fail after only 60 to 75 questions. Once the computer has determined the pass/fail likelihood, it will stop the test. 

The NCLEX NGN includes a variety of question types:  Drag and drop, multiple choice, drop down tables, highlight options, and more. 

Students have five hours to complete the test, including breaks. As a result, students have to be focused and not take too much time on each question.

What’s on the Exam?

Both the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN cover the same areas of nursing competencies, but from a different angle. RN questions tackle topics from a care management perspective. PN questions look at care coordination. General topics include:

  • Medical-surgical nursing
  • Nursing interventions
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Pediatric care
  • Psychiatric care
  • Geriatric care

Questions will test students on their understanding of medical-surgical conditions, children’s growth and development milestones. In addition, questions will cover the specific needs of geriatric patients, such as end-of-life care, psychiatric disorders and patient communication. Equally as important, students will face questions on how to manage patient care with limited information.

In all cases, students must understand the role that nurses play in patient care and health. 

How to Study for the NCLEX

Austin Community College faculty offer the following advice for studying for the NCLEX. It starts with being prepared for class.

Be Prepared

Write out a calendar for the semester, and don’t just note down class times. Instead, fill in class prep times, homework, study, and review. Most importantly, add in work, family, and rest. “Sleep is required – not optional.”

Be an Attentive Student

  • Go to lectures.
  • Complete reading assignments before the class. 
  • Review content after the lectures.
  • Meet with your professors.

Form a Study Group

Meet with other students to go over lectures and do practice tests. This way, you’re likely to be more successful in preparing for the exam. “Students in study groups typically score higher on exams.”

Schedule Short Study Sessions

It might be tempting to spend six to eight hours studying but it’s not effective. Instead, schedule shorter study sessions throughout the week.

Find Balance

Nursing school is hard, so it’s important to make sure you build in time for rest and relaxation. Remember your calendar? Make time for family, friends, work, church, and hobbies, and make sure that you commit to taking a break. Don’t forget to exercise. “This is key to keeping your stress down.”

Ask for Help

ACC has free mental health counseling, food pantries, and other support, so students don’t have to struggle alone. If a crisis comes up with you or your family, reach out to your instructors. If you need a learning accommodation, then ACC can help with that too.

Tips to Pass the NCLEX

It is standard practice for hospitals and other employers to start new employees several weeks to a few months after they graduate from their nursing programs. This gives graduates time to study and take the exam.

Some students need to start work right away, or may be already working. If that’s the case for you, then whatever your schedule, make sure you schedule time to study and take practice tests. 

Test Questions and Practice Tests

ACC nursing students said that practice was important to their success. Even more importantly, they have found that the best study resources are ATI and NCLEX practice questions.

  • “The NGN quiz tickets to each exam helped me get used to the NextGen questions.”
  • “I took two full-time ATI exams. … I spent all four hours to take them.”
  • “ATI live review helped to go over the topics briefly.”

Don’t Wait to Take the NCLEX

ACC Nursing faculty say, “We have found that students who take the NCLEX soon after finishing the program perform better than those students who wait several months to take it.”

The Austin Community College ADN (Associate Degree in Nursing) program prepares graduate nurses to take the NCLEX. Typically they like students to take the NCLEX as soon as possible, since delaying the exam can result in lower pass rates.

All students in the ACC ADN program will have access to virtual ATI, which will give some assurance to students that they are ready to take the NCLEX exam.

If students get a “green light” on the virtual ATI, then they have a 95% chance of passing the NCLEX within three weeks of completing the program.  

NCLEX and the Job Search

Many ACC students start their job search and interviews in the final semester. Some have job offers prior to taking the NCLEX exam, and their job offer is contingent on them passing the exam.  

ACC’s Student Nurse Intern (SNI) program lets students start working in the final semester of the program. This way SNI students are able to start training in the department where they will be working before they graduate.

Once the SNI passes the NCLEX,  the employer will move their job status from nurse intern to registered nurse.  

The Most Important NCLEX Tip of All

You’ve studied. You’ve aced practice tests. You’ve done all you can. So the day before the test, close the laptop. Put away the study materials. Rest. Be with friends and family. Get some fresh air. Exercise, eat right, and celebrate a job well done. When you walk into the test center, you’ll know that you’ve prepared as best you can.

a row of graduate nurses wearing white coats celebrate their accomplishments at their graduation ceremony.
Nurses who complete their associate degree in nursing can celebrate their accomplishments. Next steps: pass the NCLEX and officially become RNs.

ACC’s Nursing Program Prepares Students for NCLEX

ACC’s affordable tuition, excellent faculty, and state-of-the-art facilities make it a great program for aspiring nurses. Explore all our nursing programs, including our RN-to-BSN, and find out why ACC could be where you start your nursing career.

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