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6 Things to Know About the NCLEX Examination

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Aspiring nurses must pass the NCLEX exam before applying for licensure. Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), this complex test evaluates nursing candidates’ foundational knowledge and ensures they are qualified to work in hospitals and other healthcare facilities.

This page introduces six things to consider before taking the NCLEX exam. You may also be interested in a full nursing study guide to the NCLEX exam and information about nursing entrance exams.

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1. There Are Two Types of NCLEX Examinations

The NCLEX comes in two different forms. The NCLEX-PN evaluates aspiring practical nurses (also known as licensed practical nurses or licensed vocational nurses). The NCLEX-RN tests registered nursing candidates.

The two tests are similar in some regards, but they come with key differences. The RN exam emphasizes care management and assesses registered nurses’ advanced scope of practice. The PN exam includes more questions about care coordination.

2. The NCLEX Examination Focuses on Four Areas of Practice

The NCLEX exam is divided into four main areas of focus: providing a safe and effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. Those main categories break further down into specific topics. For instance, the safe and effective care category addresses clients’ rights and responsibilities.

To learn more, check out some nurses' tips on how to pass the NCLEX

3. NCLEX Examination Question Types

The NCLEX follows a variable question format. This means that the computer adapts the questions based on test takers’ performance, so the NCLEX-RN could consist of anywhere from 74-145 questions. This includes 15 pre-test questions that do not count toward test takers’ scores. The NCLEX-PN could deliver 85-205 questions, including 25 non-scored questions. Both exams come with a five-hour time limit.

The test offers questions in different formats, which you can learn how to master with our NCLEX study guide. These formats include multiple choice, fill in the blank, ordered response, and/or hot spot questions. About 80-90% are multiple choice questions.

4. How the NCLEX is Scored

Instead of offering a percentage-based grade, the NCLEX uses a pass-fail system. However, that system isn’t quite as simple as it might sound.

Not only does the NCLEX exam’s computerized adaptive testing tailor questions to test takers’ aptitudes, but it also determines the scoring process. The test uses questions to estimate candidates’ perceived abilities, then asks additional questions to test whether candidates meet that estimate. Candidates stop receiving questions when the computer analysis system reaches 95% certainty that test-takers pass or fail.

Keep in mind that the length of the exam does not indicate the likelihood of pass or fail results.

5. NCLEX Changes During COVID-19

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCSBN introduced changes in 2020 to make testing as safe as possible. By September, some of those changes — like the elimination of 15 practice questions — had expired.

However, others are still being upheld. All candidates must wear masks to the testing facilities and keep them on while taking the exam. Some testing centers have closed, and all must comply with social distancing guidelines. Since fewer testing spots are available, candidates may need to wait a longer time to schedule their exam.

These standards may continue indefinitely; perhaps until a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available.

6. How to Apply for the NCLEX

In order to register for the NCLEX, candidates must first apply for the proper nursing credential from their state boards of licensure and registration. Since each state sets its own licensure requirements, you should check with your state regulatory board before applying.

Candidates need to take the NCLEX within one year after registering for the exam. Test-takers must pay a $200 fee to take either the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN, which they can do online or over the phone.

Advertisement NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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