NCLEX: What to Know Before Taking the Exam

what to know nclex

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX®), is used by all state nursing boards to determine whether or not a nurse is ready to practice at an entry-level. There are two NCLEX examinations, the NCLEX-PN®, for practical and vocational nurses, and the NCLEX-RN®, for registered nurses. Although many concepts are overlapping, this post will solely discuss the NCLEX-RN® for the sake of simplicity. The following are seven concepts you should know prior to taking the NCLEX®. 

What does NCLEX® stand for?

“NCLEX” is an acronym for The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX®). The NCLEX® determines whether a nurse can obtain licensure to practice. 

Who writes the NCLEX®?

The NCLEX® is developed and owned by the The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The NCSBN is a not-for-profit organization whose members include the nursing regulatory bodies (NRB) for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. 

Can you take the NCLEX® without a degree? 

No. You must have a degree in nursing to sit for the NCLEX® examination. Each state Nursing Regulatory Body (NRB) is allowed to have different requirements, but all require a nursing degree to take the NCLEX®. 

How is the NCLEX® scored?

The NCLEX® is a computerized, multiple choice exam. It includes alternate item format questions such as select-all-that-apply, fill-in-the-blank, and drag-and-drop ordering questions. The NCLEX® uses computerized adaptive testing (CAT) to administer and score the exam. CAT merges computer technology with modern measurement theory to create an algorithm to individualize and increase the efficiency of the exam. 

Scoring with CAT technology reduces item exposure and security risks. Next, it calculates the test taker’s ability based on the answer chosen for every question in an effort to provide a following question that matches the test taker’s ability. Therefore, each test taker should receive questions that she or he has a 50% chance of answering correctly. In other words, each question should not be too hard or too easy, individualizing the exam to each person’s ability. The computer will stop giving questions when it is 95% certain (95% Confidence Interval) the test taker is above or below that standard of passing. 

How many questions are on the NCLEX®?

The NCLEX® has 75 to 265 questions including 15 pretest items that are not scored. It has a time limit of 6 hours. However, as of March 25, 2020 the NCSBN has made the following modifications to the NCLEX® exams in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • The NCLEX® will have a minimum of 60 questions and up to 130 questions
  • Testing time will be a maximum of 4 hours
  • The 15 unscored pretest items have been removed

As mentioned above, the NCLEX® uses CAT technology to determine the number of questions. The test ending is dependent on how fast the test taker reaches the required zone of competency established by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The test ends when the test taker has answered enough questions to stay above the passing line with a 95% confidence interval, or alternatively when the test taker has failed enough questions to fall below the 95% confidence interval. Therefore, someone can pass or fail the test with anywhere between 75 and 265 questions. 

How hard is the NCLEX®? 

In 2019, 252,311 total people took the NCLEX® with an overall pass rate of 72.8%. Of the total test takers, 84,298 were first-time, U.S. educated test takers, and 91.22% passed. In other words, if the student has a U.S. education, is taking the exam for the first time, and has received a bachelor’s degree, her or his chances of passing are higher. The NCSBN publishes the pass rates and statistics of the NCLEX® annually which can be viewed here

With all licensure and certification exams, preparation is key. BoardVitals offers comprehensive online NCLEX-RN® question banks and NCLEX-PN® question banks that mirror the CAT technology used for the NCLEX® to help users combat test anxiety. With BoardVitals NCLEX® question banks, study with unlimited customizable practice exams, 3,500+ NCLEX-RN® practice questions which follows the exam content outline recommended by the NCSBN, plus a convenient mobile app. Finally, nursing test takers who used BoardVitals had an 11% higher pass rate and an 18% reduction in study time. 

What should I do if I can’t pass the NCLEX®? 

Detailed information regarding what to do if you did not pass the NCLEX® can be found here. However, the short answer is not to lose hope. Most state Boards of Nursing allow students to retest multiple times. Often, the student does not pass solely because she or he did not understand the format of the exam. A quick change in your study strategy can help you pass the next time around. So, most importantly, do not give up! 

Danielle LeVeck, DNP, Nurse Abnormalities

Danielle LeVeck, DNP is a cardiovascular surgical intensive care unit Nurse Practitioner in the Midwest and is the writer and creator behind Nurse Abnormalities blog and brand. She can be found at @nurseabnormalities on Instagram.