Everything Nurses Need to Know About the NCLEX Licensing Exam

hand and pen marking exam questions

The NCLEX exam, also known as the National Council Licensure Examination, is a standardized test that every state regulatory board uses to determine if a candidate is ready to become licensed as an entry-level nurse. There are 2 types of NCLEX exams and which test you take depends on the role that you seek.

NCLEX Eligibility & Registration

Before you can even register to take the NCLEX, you must first apply for a license through your state’s Board of Nursing. To do so, you must meet the education requirements for the license you seek.

LicenseEducation Needed
Licensed practical or vocational nurseAccredited LPN certificate program
Registered nurseAt least an accredited associate’s degree in nursing; preferably a bachelor’s

Once you’ve applied for a license, you’ll receive a Candidate Bulletin outlining the details for registering for the test. You’ll do so through Pearson VUE, but you won’t be able to schedule a time to take the test until your eligibility has been verified.

You’ll know you’re eligible when you receive an authorization to Test (ATT) via email. Your ATT will include a candidate number, validity dates (typically for a period of 90 days), and a list of local testing centers. At this point, you can schedule a day and time to take the test. Testing is available year-round almost every day of the week.

How Much Does the NCLEX Cost?

The base cost for taking either of the NCLEX exams is $200. In most cases, you’ll send this along with your registration to take the test. Depending on where you live, your state’s Board of Nursing may require additional fees for registration.

You might also be charged extra fees if you wish to make a change after you’ve submitted your registration. Changing your regulatory body—either to a board in a different state or a secondary board in your current state—costs an additional $50. Another $50 is required for those who registered to take the PN exam but want to take the RN instead.

NCLEX Exam Preparation

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) offers a NCLEX Practice Exam that’s designed to provide the look and feel of the real test. There are practice test packets for both the PN and RN-level exams, and each costs $150.

The practice packets contain 2 separate computerized tests with 125 questions each. You’ll need to complete each test in a continuous period of time, after which you’ll receive a score report with a percentage of the questions you answered correctly.

NCLEX Subject Matter

The topics covered on both exams are incredibly similar. The primary difference is that the RN-level test is tailored toward the management of care and the supervision of others, while the PN exam is more focused on assisting RNs and working under direction.

That said, each exam will cover 8 key content areas, with a selection of specific topics listed below. This list is by no means comprehensive, but you can visit the NCSBN website to find more in-depth test plans and sample questions.

Subject Area
Topics Covered
Management of Coordinated CareAdvocacy, client rights, confidentiality, continuity of care, ethical practice, informed consent, information technology, legal responsibilities, performance improvement
Basic Care and ComfortAssistive devices, elimination, mobility/immobility, nutrition and oral hydration, personal hygiene, rest and sleep
Health Promotion and MaintenanceAging process, developmental stages, disease prevention, health screening, high-risk behaviors, lifestyle choices, self-care
Psychosocial IntegrityAbuse/neglect, coping mechanisms, crisis intervention, cultural awareness, family dynamics, grief and loss, mental health, stress management, substance abuse
Physiological AdaptationFluid/electrolyte imbalances, illness management, medical emergencies, pathophysiology, unexpected response to therapies
Pharmacological and Parenteral TherapiesAdverse effects, blood products, dosage calculations, expected outcomes, medication administration, pharmacological pain management
Reduction of Risk PotentialChanges/abnormalities in vital signs, diagnostic tests, laboratory values, potential for complications, therapeutic procedures
Safety and Infection ControlAccident/injury prevention, emergency response plan, ergonomic principles, hazardous materials, home safety, safe use of equipment, security plan
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Exam Format

The NCLEX-RN and PN exams are computerized tests made mostly of multiple-choice questions, however there are others such as multiple-response, fill-in-the-blank, and drag-and-drop.

How many questions are there?

Each test has a minimum and maximum number of questions that it asks in order to determine your results.

  • NCLEX-PN: Minimum 85 questions, maximum 205
  • NCLEX-RN: Minimum 75 questions, maximum 265

Computer adaptive testing

The NCLEX exams are computer adaptive tests (CATs), meaning that the questions you receive are in direct response to the questions you previously answered. Each time you answer a question, the computer assesses your ability. If you get the answer wrong, the next question will be slightly easier. Get it right and it will be a little more difficult. With each question you answer, the computer’s estimate of your abilities gets more precise.

Length of the NCLEX Exam

How long it takes you to complete the NCLEX Exam will be based on the number of questions you answer or the maximum time you’re allowed.

If the computer can clearly assess your level of competence after the minimum number of questions, the test will be over and you’ll either pass or fail.

If you’re not clearly above or below the passing standard, the test will continue until a final assessment can be made.

LPNs have up to 5 hours to take the test, while RNs have 6. There will be 2 optional breaks over the course your exam.

NCLEX Exam Scoring

The NCLEX is scored using what are called logits, which are units of measurement that evaluate the relative difference between a candidate’s estimated ability and the difficulty of the questions that they answered. The passing standard for the NCLEX-RN is 0.00 logits, while the PN is -0.21.

The exams are first evaluated using the 95% Confidence Interval Rule. After you’ve answered the minimum number of questions, the computer will assess whether or not it’s at least 95% certain that your ability is above or below the passing standard. The test continues until the computer can reach at least 95% confidence in your result.

However, if you end up answering the maximum number of questions, then you’ll pass or fail based on the final estimate of your ability, regardless of the computer being at 95%. If you run out of time and have answered at least the minimum number of questions, this same alternative method is used. If you run out of time and haven’t answered the minimum number of questions, your exam automatically fails.

You won’t find out immediately whether you’ve passed or failed. Some candidates can purchase their unofficial results on the Pearson VUE website a few days after the test, but these results won’t authorize you to practice as nurse. You’ll receive your official results from your state’s regulatory board roughly 6 weeks after taking the exam.

Pass rates

The passing rates for the NCLEX exams vary by year, test type, and candidate. Overall, in 2019, U.S-educated first-time test-takers of both exams passed with an average rate of 88.18%. Comparatively, foreign-educated nurses taking the NCLEX exam for the first time had a pass rate 45.47%.

What Happens if You Don’t Pass the NCLEX?

If you don’t pass the exam, you’ll receive a Candidate Performance Report that breaks down the 8 different content areas of the test. The report will show you in which areas you were above, near, and below the passing standard. This can help you determine your strengths and weaknesses and the topics you should pay extra attention to if you choose to retake the exam.

While failing the NCLEX can be discouraging, you have many opportunities to retake the test. Though your state may limit this number, the NCSBN allows candidates to take the exam up to 8 times a year, with at least 45 days between tests.

Once You’ve Passed the NCLEX

If you passed the NCLEX, then congratulations—your final step to working in the nursing field is to complete your licensing with your state. Each state has a slightly different process, so make sure to check with your board to verify additional steps.

NCLEX is a registered trademark and/or servicemark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Inc.

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