How Do I Prepare for My Nurse Practitioner Certification Exam?

Daniel Bal
Updated April 1, 2024
Find self-study resources to help you prepare for your nurse practitioner certification exam.
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Nursing students wearing scrubs and taking notes in classCredit: Fly View Production / E+ / Getty Images

Getting nurse practitioner (NP) board certification is the final step in the progression from registered nurse (RN) to becoming an NP. In fact, the title of nurse practitioner applies only to those with a valid NP credential. You can earn that credential by passing the NP board-certification exam in your specialty area.

The certification exam is the culminating step in a journey that takes years of schooling and clinical experience. Passing allows nurses to step into their specialized position to the benefit of their patients.

Understanding the contents of the certification exam you will be taking and how to prepare for it is a crucial part of an NP’s education.

This guide contains information and resources to aid nurses in their preparation for the certification exam. Taking advantage of these resources can provide the help needed to pass the exam on the first attempt.

What Information Will Be on the Nurse Practitioner Certification Exam?

The board administering the exam will depend on the specialty. In most cases, only one board certifies a particular NP specialty, but there are some cases (pediatric primary care NP, emergency nurse practitioner, and adult-gerontology primary care NP, for example) where a nurse practitioner may seek certification from one board or more.

Students should check their certifying board’s website for an examination content outline. It might also have other test preparation materials like books, practice exams, and seminars.

Find your certifying board and its website by locating your chosen NP specialization in the list below.

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Nurse Practitioner Board-Certification Exam Outlines

There are six different exams provided by the five main certification boards. Each exam consists of 150 questions. A set of pretest questions that do not impact the test-taker’s final score is also a part of the exam. The exams must be completed within 3-3.5 hours.

Exam costs typically range between $300-$400. However, most certification agencies provide a discount for nurses who are paying members of the organization.

The majority of exams are multiple choice and broken down into 4-5 sections. Understanding these sections can provide you with the ability to focus on specific areas.

Outlines to some of the most popular certification exams can be found below.

  • AANPCB – FNP Exam Outline

    AANPCB’s family nurse practitioner (FNP) certification exam consists of four sections including assessment, diagnosis, treatment plans, and evaluation. The FNP exam costs $240 for AANPCB members. Nonmembers pay $315.
  • AANPCB – ENP Exam Outline

    The emergency nurse practitioner (ENP) certification exam offered by the AANPCB assesses nursing knowledge in five areas including medical screening, medical decision-making, patient management, patient disposition, and ethical practices. The ENP exam also costs $240 for members.
  • ANCC – FNP Exam Outline

    ANCC’s FNP certification exam tests a nurse’s knowledge of skills within four areas: assessment, diagnosis, clinical management, and professional role. The exam costs $295 for members of the ANCC, while nonmembers pay $395.
  • ANCC – PMHNP Exam Outline

    The PMHNP exam focuses on a nurse’s understanding of scientific foundations, advanced practice skills, and diagnosis and treatments. Psychotherapy and related theories and ethical and legal principles are also tested. The exam costs $295 for ANCC members. Nonmembers pay $395.
  • PNCB – CPNP-PC Exam Outline

    Nurses who take the certified pediatric NP-primary care (CPNP-PC) certification exam must be well-versed in health maintenance and promotion, assessment and diagnosis, management, and roles and responsibilities. PNCB charges nurses $395 to take the CPNP-PC exam.
  • NCC – NNP Exam Outline

    The neonatal NP exam focuses on general assessment, general management, and pharmacology. Other subjects include embryology, physiology, and pathophysiology. Expect to be tested on systems management and professional issues too. The exam costs $260 for NCC members; nonmembers pay $370.
  • AACN – ACNPC-AG Exam Outline

    AACN’s acute care adult-gerontology NP exam tests a nurse’s knowledge of patient care problems, skills and procedures, and competencies like clinical judgment, advocacy, and diversity. The exam costs $260 for members of the AACN, while nonmembers pay $370.

How to Prepare for the Nurse Practitioner Board-Certification Exam

You should develop a plan that allows you to prepare for your specific certification exam. Regardless of your chosen specialty, exam preparation can be quite an undertaking.

Creating a strategy by organizing what and when to study becomes necessary for test-takers to pass on their first attempt. The more you prepare for the certification exam, the more likely you are to succeed.

  1. 1

    Gather Study Resources and Review Materials

    Using study resources and review materials can help you prepare for the certification exam. Each certifying body provides official exam review materials that help nurses understand not only the content but also the structure of the test. These materials provide practice questions, allowing students to become comfortable with its format.

    Online resources such as practice tests, flashcards, study guides, and videos are also available. Using these materials can help relieve test anxiety. Practice tests specifically provide not only a review of the content but also the chance for you to experience the length of the exam, so you can practice time management.

    When searching for resources, make sure the material is accurate. To do so, resources should either be provided or endorsed by appropriate sources, such as reputable academic institutions and nursing organizations.

    The best place to start is with the organization that offers the exams, as their materials will closely resemble what is on the test.

  2. 2

    Create a Study Plan

    After gathering the necessary study resources, develop a plan of attack to prepare for studying. Use the exam content outline to determine areas of focus. While it is important to review all aspects of the test, you can use your time effectively by focusing on content areas you may need to work on more.

    After figuring out which content needs the most study time, establish how much time you will spend on each topic. Setting target dates for the completion of each aspect will help you stay on schedule.

    It is recommended that nurses spend 6-12 weeks in preparation for their certification exam.

    Stick to your preset study schedule. Creating a study plan can help prevent burnout, anxiety, and cramming.

    Incorporating a personal reward system each time a goal is met can help maintain motivation. However, make sure there is some fluidity in the schedule that allows for changes to be made without negatively impacting the study plan.

    The development of a schedule does not need to only include personal study time. Forming study groups or enrolling in review courses can also help you perform well on the exam.

  3. 3

    Join a Study Group

    Working with other nurses in preparing for the certification exam can also be quite beneficial. Whether in person or online, participating in a study group can be valuable as long as each participant is committed to the review sessions. Creating a set schedule and specific outcomes for meetings can make sure the objectives for each session are met.

    Study groups also work well when each member is in charge of researching and presenting information on specific topics for each session. The presentation could be followed by a discussion and a question-and-answer. Spreading the responsibility can help reduce the overwhelming nature of reviewing all of the content individually.

    It is crucial that each individual within the study group is accountable and dedicated to helping everyone. Through this group dynamic, each member can bring their strengths while using the skills of others to enhance their own weaknesses.

  4. 4

    Complete Online Practice Tests

    Completing online practice tests is a good way to become more aware of the structure of the exam. However, they should not be solely used as a resource for studying. They are not a good method to build knowledge. Instead, they can help you accomplish the following:

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    Identify gaps in knowledge.

    Taking practice tests can aid you in identifying areas of weakness, letting you know the content you should focus on.

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    Track study strategies.

    While practice tests can help you identify gaps in knowledge, it also can help determine which study strategies are successful.

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    Reduce anxiety.

    Completing practice exams can provide insight into the form and structure of the test. Becoming familiar with the exam can help in reducing test anxiety.

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    Apply Knowledge

    Nurses are more likely to retain the content they studied if they can apply it to the practice questions found on the exam.

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    Manage Time

    Since each certification exam is timed, practice tests allow you to develop pacing strategies, thereby allowing you to manage your time more effectively.

    Practice tests can be found for purchase on the certifying board’s website, which typically also provide some free exam questions. They are also available for purchase from various test preparation companies such as Barron’s, Mometrix Media, Ascencia, and Trivium Test Prep.

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    Register for Review Courses

    There are a variety of review courses available to help nurses prepare for their specific certification exam. When deciding if a course is appropriate, it is best to register for one that has been approved by the certifying body or other reputable nursing organizations.

    Most courses are available online and can provide either live or prerecorded lessons, workbooks and practice exams, and several self-study products.

    Review courses provide an in-depth study on information specific to the nurse’s upcoming certification exam. The course may offer information that focuses more specifically on content specific to the test.

    Despite the benefit of taking a course that directly involves exam prep, the costs of some of these programs may deter some nurses.

    Three specific organizations that can provide suitable AANP-accredited review courses that help nurses prepare for the certification exams include Advanced Practice Education Associates, Barkley & Associates, and Fitzgerald Health Education Associates.

  • minusAdvanced Practice Education Associates

    Advanced Practice Education Associates is a nurse practitioner-founded company that offers certification preparation resources, continuing education, books, and an online clinical reference library. Throughout the year, they conduct live courses across the United States.

    Their books include pocket references, clinical practice guidelines, and certification practice questions. They offer certification preparation materials for the following specialties: family, adult-gerontology, and adult.

  • minusBerkley and Associates

    Barkley & Associates is another company designed to provide education specifically for nurse practitioners. They provide certification preparation, review books, and continuing education.

    Barkley & Associates offers their courses online, in person, or via audio CDs. Their faculty includes expert nurse practitioners across many different specialties. They provide certification preparation materials for the following: family, adult-gerontology primary care, pediatric, adult-gerontology acute care, psychiatric mental health, and women’s health.

  • minusFitzgerald Health Education Associates

    Fitzgerald Health Education Associates is a well known and trusted source of nurse practitioner continuing education and certification preparation. The company was founded by an NP, and its faculty includes nationally renowned NP experts. They provide certification preparation materials for the following specialties: family, adult-gerontology primary care, adult, adult-gerontology acute care, psychiatric mental health, women’s health, and pediatric primary care.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Nurse Practitioner Board Certification Exam

How much time should I dedicate to studying for the NP certification exam?

It is recommended that you should commit anywhere between 6-12 weeks in preparation for your certification exam. Breaking up your review into 3-4 hour chunks 5-6 days a week will help you avoid burnout. Pacing yourself provides more of a likelihood of understanding and applying the material too.

What is the difference between the ANCC or AANPCB-FNP board certification exam?

The exam itself differs with regard to the question types. The AANPCB exam contains only multiple-choice questions, whereas the ANCC exam is made up of multiple-choice, multiple-response, drop-and-drag, and hotspot questions.

The focus of the questions also differs. The ANCC focuses on clinical information and decision-making, while the AANPCB includes questions on commonly performed minor procedures.

How hard are the NP board certification exams?

The difficulty of each exam varies depending on the certification and your testing style. Insight into the difficulty of each exam can be determined based on the most recent pass rates.

The following lists the 2020 NP board certification pass rate for each exam along with the total number of test-takers:

How many times can you take the AANP certification board exam?

The AANP provides certification candidates with two attempts to pass the exam per year, which runs from January 1st to December 31st regardless of the date of completion.

If a nurse fails to pass the exam, they are required to complete a minimum of 15 continuing education hours in the areas of weakness, which AANP identifies on the score report. The test cannot be retaken after a failure until these continuing education hours are completed.

Page last reviewed March 13, 2022

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