What Is the NCLEX? Nursing Pros Reveal What You Need to Know About This Key Nursing Exam

What is the NCLEX

You’ve always enjoyed caring for people and making a difference in others’ lives. Your friends and family can attest that you’re a quick thinker while being simultaneously empathetic, so they weren’t surprised when you mentioned your interest in pursuing a nursing career.

You probably already know that there’s a fair amount of schooling and clinical experience standing between you and your potential future career as a nurse. But what you may not know is earning your diploma isn’t actually the final step. There is one more item to check off your list before landing your dream nursing job.

You must obtain your nursing license in order to begin practicing, regardless of your location. If you’ve done any research into what it takes to become a licensed nurse, you have undoubtedly come across an unfamiliar acronym – NCLEX.

So what is the NCLEX? Simply put, it is a licensure test used to prove a would-be nurse’s competence. But that’s just scratching the surface. Keep reading as we tackle some of the biggest questions students have regarding this important exam.

What is the NCLEX? 

In order to become licensed, nursing hopefuls must have an approved nursing degree and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). It’s important that registered nurses are truly knowledgeable and can hold their own in a medical setting, so the National Council of State Boards of Nursing administers the NCLEX to provide legally defensible nursing licensure and certification consistent with current practice.

Who has to take the NCLEX?

The short answer is basically anyone who wants to work as a nurse will be required to take and pass the NCLEX exam. That said, there are two distinct forms of the NCLEX exam based on education level.

Those who hold a practical nursing diploma in hopes of becoming a licensed practical nurse (LPN) must pass the NCLEX-PN. Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree holders who wish to become a registered nurse (RN) must pass the NCLEX-RN.

What is the purpose of the NCLEX?

The main purpose of the NCLEX is to make sure that nursing candidates are prepared for entry-level nursing practice. Nursing programs and hands-on experience from working through clinicals do a great job of preparing you for what you may experience in a nursing career. But passing the NCLEX ensures you understand the protocol and possess the knowledge to back up your experience.

The NCLEX subject matter covers categories such as safety, effective care environments, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity and physiological integrity.

What types of questions are included on the NCLEX?

“NCLEX questions are written at the application or higher levels of cognitive ability to test the candidate’s complex thought processing,” says registered nurse and NCLEX success coach Kelly Beischel. “The questions can be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, hot-spot items, multiple response items and ordered response items.”

On any given question, there may be more than one right answer. But choosing the “most correct” answer for the given scenario will show that you’ll be able to think critically and make efficient decisions when you’re practicing as a nurse.

“The NCLEX makes you think [through] each situation presented,” explains RN Esfira Shakhmurova. “It confuses the reader by giving four or five different scenarios, but as a nurse you must do what's in your scope of practice and prioritize your care. There are questions that are like curve balls, but you’re only able to answer what the question is asking you.” Shakhmurova recommends taking each question bit by bit in order to understand what is being asked, as well as the initial care you should provide for the patient.

Other questions on the NCLEX require the typical basic memorization and knowledge of facts you’d find on any test, so you’ll need to dedicate a significant amount of time to studying and memorizing important nursing concepts as well.

How do you sign up for the NCLEX?

In order to take the NCLEX, you’ll first need to apply for a nursing license from your state board of nursing. If they determine that you meet the criteria for exam eligibility, you’ll then register to take the exam. Shortly after, you’ll receive an NCLEX Examination Candidate Bulletin in the mail, which includes an Authorization to Take the Test (ATT), a list of testing centers and instructions on how to register to take the test.

How is the NCLEX administered?

Once you get to the test center on the day of your exam, you’ll need to present a valid form of identification, read and sign paperwork, store personal belongings and proceed to the testing room. Here you’ll have up to six hours to complete the exam. If that seems like an inordinately long amount of time for a test, you can rest assured knowing that you’ll have ample time to think through each question. There are at least two predetermined breaks offered during the exam.

The NCLEX uses a testing method titled computerized adaptive testing (CAT) to administer the test. This means that each time you answer a question, the computer will re-estimate your nursing ability based on your answers and the difficulty of the questions. This system is designed to serve up questions that, according to your previous answers, are difficult enough to give you a 50 percent chance of answering correctly.

This testing format also means that the duration of the test can vary from candidate to candidate. If you’re on the edge of a passing score, you’ll continue to receive questions until you either run out of time or meet a confidence threshold by answering enough questions correctly.

How can I study for the NCLEX?

Feeling confident and prepared for the NCLEX is important, so knowing how to study properly for the exam is essential. First things first: Don’t cram. Put in the proper time, study the exam itself and how it works and make sure to take lots of practice tests.

It can also be helpful to get together with other nursing students in your program and hold study sessions. The NCLEX can be challenging, but working together with a group of like-minded individuals can be motivational and remind you why you decided to become a nurse in the first place.

It’s time to jump in

If the NCLEX sounds intimidating, keep in mind that you’ll be more prepared on the other side of nursing school than you are right now. If becoming a nurse is your end goal, the NCLEX will simply be another hurdle you’ll need to clear before crossing the finish line.

Now you know what the NCLEX is and what to expect from the exam. But before you can set your sights on conquering the test, you must first make it through nursing school. Learn more about the next steps in our article: Your Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Into Nursing School



This piece of ad content was created by Rasmussen College to support its educational programs. Rasmussen College may not prepare students for all positions featured within this content. Please visit www.rasmussen.edu/degrees for a list of programs offered. External links provided on rasmussen.edu are for reference only. Rasmussen College does not guarantee, approve, control, or specifically endorse the information or products available on websites linked to, and is not endorsed by website owners, authors and/or organizations referenced. Rasmussen College is a regionally accredited private college and Public Benefit Corporation.

Lauren is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. She enjoys helping current and potential students choose the path that helps them achieve their educational goals.

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