NCLEX Exam Guide

Find out how and where you’ll take the NCLEX—plus, what’s on it, how it’s scored, and more.

student taking test on computer
student taking test on computer

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 a nurse. Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, there are two types of NCLEX exams, and which test you take depends on the role you seek.

  • NCLEX-PN: For practical or vocational nurses (LPNs/LVNs—the terms are used interchangeably in different states), the most entry-level of the licensed nursing positions
  • NCLEX-RN: For registered nurses (RNs), who have additional education and greater responsibility

Steps to Taking the NCLEX and Getting Licensed

  1. Complete an accredited nursing program
  2.  Apply for a license with your state board
  3.  Register for the NCLEX exam you wish to take
  4.  Take and pass the NCLEX
  5. Complete any additional state requirements and get licensed

NCLEX Registration and Eligibility

Before you can register to take the NCLEX, you must meet the education requirements for the license you want and apply for that license through your state’s board of nursing.

Required Education for a Nursing License

Licensed practical or vocational nurse

Accredited LPN certificate program

Registered nurse

Usually at least an accredited associate’s degree in nursing; preferably a bachelor’s degree

If you’ve got a busy schedule, you’ll be happy to know that testing is available year-round almost every day of the week.

  • Prepare for the NCLEX

When you’re ready to apply for your license, download the current NCLEX Candidate Bulletin, a comprehensive resource that’s useful before and after you take your test. It includes contact information and details on test registration, NCLEX candidate rules, and test results.

  • Register for the Test

You’ll register for the NCLEX through Pearson VUE, the computer-based testing organization that administers the NCLEX, but you won’t be able to schedule a time to take the test until your eligibility has been verified. You must register for the test online or over the phone.

  • Wait for Eligibility Notice and Schedule Test

You’ll know you’re eligible when you receive an Authorization to Test (ATT) via email. Your ATT will include a candidate number, dates that you are eligible to take the test (typically valid for 90 days), and a list of local testing centers. At this point, you can schedule a day and time to take the test. Those with busy schedules will be happy to know that testing is available year-round almost every day of the week.

You Might Be Wondering:
Do Certified Nurse Assistants Need to Take a Test?

Yes! If you’re still debating whether to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), LPN or RN, know that while CNAs don’t take the NCLEX, they must pass the CNA certification exam required by their state and meet other specified requirements.

How Much Does the NCLEX Cost?

The base cost for taking either of the NCLEX exams is $200 if you’re seeking a license in the U.S. You’ll pay this fee to PearsonVue with a credit or debit card when you register. Depending on where you live, your state’s board of nursing may require additional registration fees.

The base cost for taking either of the NCLEX exams is $200 if you’re seeking a license in the U.S.

Potential Extra Fees

You might be charged extra fees if you want to change the specifications of your test after you’ve registered. For example, changing the regulatory body you’ll be working under—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 register to take the PN exam but want to take the RN instead. There is an additional fee of $150 (plus value-added tax) to add international scheduling for an exam.

NCLEX Exam Preparation

Several test-prep organizations offer programs to help you prepare to take the NCLEX exam. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), the organization that develops the NCLEX, offers a 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 two computerized tests with 125 questions each. You’ll need to complete both tests during the same sitting. Afterward, 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 similar. The primary difference is that the RN test is tailored for the management of care and the supervision of others, while the PN exam is focused more on assisting RNs and working under direction.

That said, each exam will cover eight key areas of care, with a selection of topics. 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 Care/ Coordinated Care

Advocacy, client rights, confidentiality, continuity of care, ethical practice, informed consent, information technology, legal responsibilities, performance improvement

Basic Care and Comfort

Assistive devices, elimination, mobility/immobility, nutrition and oral hydration, rest and sleep, personal hygiene

Health Promotion and Maintenance

Aging, developmental stages, disease prevention, health screening, high-risk behaviors, lifestyle choices, self-care

Psychosocial Integrity

Abuse/neglect, coping mechanisms, crisis intervention, cultural awareness, family dynamics, grief and loss, mental health, stress management, substance abuse

Physiological Adaptation

Fluid/electrolyte imbalances, illness management, medical emergencies, pathophysiology, unexpected response to therapies

Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies

Adverse effects, blood products, dosage calculations, expected outcomes, medication administration, pharmacological pain management

Reduction of Risk Potential

Changes/abnormalities in vital signs, diagnostic tests, laboratory values, potential for complications, therapeutic procedures

Safety and Infection Control

Accident/injury prevention, emergency response plans, ergonomic principles, hazardous materials, home safety, safe use of equipment, security plans

Exam Format

The NCLEX-RN and PN exams are computerized tests, made up mostly of multiple-choice questions, plus some multiple-response, fill-in-the-blank, and drag-and-drop questions.

Number of Questions

In a typical year, there are a minimum of 85 questions on the PN test and a maximum of 205. The RN exam usually has a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 265.

Computer Adaptive Testing

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

Time Allotted to Complete the 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.

In a typical year, LPNs have five hours and RNs have six hours. There are scheduled breaks after two hours and 3½ hours, and test takers can take additional breaks if they want. All breaks count against total testing time.

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.

NCLEX Exam Scoring and What You Need to Pass

woman studying on laptop

The NCLEX is scored using what are called logits. These are units of measurement that evaluate the relative difference between a candidate’s estimated ability and the difficulty of the questions they answer. The passing standard for the NCLEX-RN is 0.00 logits, while the PN is -0.18.

The NCLEX is scored using what are called logits. These are units of measurement that evaluate the relative difference between a candidate’s estimated ability and the difficulty of the questions they answer. The passing standard for the NCLEX-RN is 0.00 logits, while the PN is -0.18.

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 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, you’ll pass or fail based on the final estimate of your ability, regardless of whether the computer can estimate your result at 95%. You pass if your ability estimate is above the passing standard, and you fail if your ability is at or below the passing standard.

If you run out of time and have answered at least the minimum number of questions and the computer has not been able to determine whether you pass or fail with 95% certainty, an alternate rule applies based on your last 60 ability estimates. If your last 60 ability estimates are above the passing standard, you pass; if you drop below the passing standard even once in your last 60 ability estimates, you fail. If you run out of time and haven’t answered the minimum number of questions, you also fail.

You’ll receive your official results from your state’s regulatory board roughly six weeks after you take the exam.

You won’t find out immediately whether you’ve passed or failed. Candidates in some locations 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 a nurse.

You’ll receive your official results from your state’s regulatory board roughly six weeks after you take the exam.

Current Pass Rates

The passing rates for the NCLEX exams vary by year, test type, and candidate. In the first half of 2020, U.S.-educated, first-time test-takers of the NCLEX-RN passed at an average rate of 86.5%, while the average NCLEX-PN pass rate was 85.32%. Comparatively, foreign-educated nurses taking the RN exam for the first time had a pass rate of 45.27%, and those taking the NCLEX-PN had a pass rate of 53.24%.

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 eight areas of the test and shows where you were above, near, and below the passing standard. This can help you determine 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 the number, the NCSBN allows candidates to take the exam up to eight times a year, with at least 45 days between tests.

Once You’ve Passed the NCLEX

If you pass the NCLEX, 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 state board to verify any additional steps.

If you become licensed as an RN, you can consider specializing in one area of nursing. Many nursing specialties offer certifications and earning one can be a good way to advance your career.

anna giorgi

Written and reported by:

Anna Giorgi

Contributing Writer