Passing on the First Try: Why NCLEX Preparation Matters

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If you’re a nursing student, you’ve probably heard someone mention the NCLEX by now—and for good reason! Passing this examination is essentially the final step in your nursing education journey, and the stakes are high. You cannot practice as a nurse without obtaining state licensure, and passing either the NCLEX-RN (for registered nursing students) or the NCLEX-PN (for practical nursing students) is a non-negotiable part of the licensure process.

In this article we’ll help illustrate the importance of passing the NCLEX on the first try and provide you with some excellent resources and advice for making the most of your NCLEX test preparation time. Let’s dive right in!

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What is the NCLEX?

Before we get too far along, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. The National Council Licensure Examination is an exam used nationwide to ensure nurses have the knowledge, skills and abilities needed to safely practice as a new nurse. There are two variations of this exam—the NCLEX-PN is for Practical Nursing graduates looking to become licensed practical nurses and the NCLEX-RN is for Associate’s and Bachelor’s degree Nursing graduates who are looking to become registered nurses.

While the tests will differ in overall content to match the respective responsibilities of these types of nurses, questions will cover four primary categories:

  • Safe and Effective Care Environment
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Physiological Integrity

This test is typically administered on a computer at specified testing sites (though COVID-19 precautions may alter this). Questions are primarily multiple choice, but test takers will also encounter fill in the blank questions, questions that require you to place the steps of a process in the correct order, and questions where you’ll need to select all that apply. It should be noted that the specific questions asked in these tests will vary from person to person as the NCLEX uses a “computerized adaptive testing” format that adjusts to each test taker’s performance. In fact, the total number of questions you’ll be asked will vary from person to person as well. This format helps keep would-be nurses from passing solely on the strength of their ability to answer the “easy” questions or from lucky guesses. Remember, the goal here is to make sure you’re equipped with what’s needed to safely care for patients, not to make your life easier.

Why is it so important to do your best and pass on the first try?

While it’s true you’ll have the opportunity to take the NCLEX multiple times, there are some very good reasons for taking your preparation seriously and producing a passing effort on your first try:

You can avoid potentially lost wages: First and foremost, you cannot work as a nurse without passing the NCLEX. The sooner you receive a passing score and obtain licensure, the sooner you can land a job and start earning a nursing salary. Any delay can result in potentially losing out on a significant amount of money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2019 median annual salary for LPNs was $47,480, and $73,300 for RNs.1 While those figures do not reflect what you should expect to earn when just starting out, you can still see how failing to pass on the first try can put you behind your peers.

Avoiding extra licensing-related fees: Each time you take the NCLEX exam comes with a price tag, and that expense can be pretty substantial—particularly as you’re just getting yourself established professionally. The overall cost will vary depending on the state you’re applying in, and you may have to pay an application fee, a retake fee, a fee for a temporary permit, a transaction fee, a transcript fee, and a fee for fingerprinting and background checks. In total, these fees are over $100 in many states—so buckle down and seriously prepare if you’d like to keep more money in your pocket.

You’ll avoid “knowledge melt”: It’s no secret that the best time to take a test is while the information is still fresh in your memory. Your nursing coursework is obviously designed to equip you with what you need to pass, but skills and knowledge will fade if they’re not practiced. The further away from graduation that you take the NCLEX, the easier it is to forget things and fall out of good study habits. Your best bet is to strike while the iron is hot.

Tips for making the most of your NCLEX preparation

It’s understandable if reading the above makes you feel a little anxious—passing the NCLEX is a big deal. But here’s the good news: You’re not alone and will have a lot of help at your fingertips. Let’s dive into some of the tried-and-true tips and strategies for NCLEX success.

1. Don’t cram

We all procrastinate from time to time—but studying for the NCLEX should not be one of those moments. There’s a lot of material to cover, and getting an early start will only help. Even if you can only fit in a small study session once or twice per week, the long-term repetition and habit will benefit you. Set yourself up with a steady, long-term schedule early on and stick to it.

2. Form a study group

Any big task is much easier to tackle when you’ve got a group of people working together. Find a classmate or two and try to set a routine schedule for when you’ll meet to study. You’ll find it’s much easier to keep yourself accountable when other people are expecting you to show up. Another plus? Your study group can be a great resource for memorization tips or explanations of subjects you might find challenging.

3. Practice, practice, practice

While flashcards and focused notetaking are important pieces of the puzzle, one of the best ways to prepare for a test is to practice answering questions that actually reflect the format. The Library and Learning Services team at Rasmussen College offers students access to NCLEX practice tests that will help you get a feel for what to expect on the test.

Practice tests like these are an excellent way to gauge how your preparation is going. Once you have completed a practice test, take the time to note topics or areas you struggled with. Getting a good feel for where you stand with a practice test will help you focus your time and energy on the areas most in need of shoring up.

4. Make a plan for the day of the test

With an important test like the NCLEX, the last thing you want is to have your mind occupied and worrying about the relatively minor details of test day. Plan ahead, even if that’s not how you typically like to go through your daily life. If needed, do you have childcare arranged? Do you know how to get to the testing location? If not, give it a test run the day before. What are you going to have for breakfast? What time are you planning on getting to bed the night before?

It might seem a little over-the-top to get these things planned out, but the less potential distractions or surprises on exam day, the better. You want to be focused on the task at hand, not worrying about where to find parking five minutes before the start time.

5. Take advantage of study resources

There are a ton of NCLEX study resources out there, and the Rasmussen College Library and Learning Services team has put together an excellent collection to help you out. Here you will find:

  • How to access tutoring
  • NCLEX test plans
  • Practice exams
  • Study strategies
  • Testing strategies
  • Tips for dealing with test anxiety
  • Suggested study apps

And that’s just a sampling of what’s available. Students can access these resources at any time and are strongly encouraged to do so. There is a wealth of helpful information available to you, so make the most of it!

Make this step count

As a Nursing student, you’re investing a significant amount of time and money into your education because you have a plan for improving your life. Don’t let a misstep at the finish line derail your plans for the future. You have the resources—now make a plan so you can enter the testing center confident and ready to pass on the first try.

Looking for additional NCLEX review tips? Check out our article, “Nurses Share 13 NCLEX Exam Tips That Helped Them on Exam Day.”

1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, [career information accessed October, 2020] Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries. Employment conditions in your area may vary.

About the author

Will Erstad

Will is a Sr. Content Specialist at Collegis Education. He researches and writes student-focused articles on a variety of topics for Rasmussen University. He is passionate about learning and enjoys writing engaging content to help current and future students on their path to a rewarding education.


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