How to Prepare for the NCLEX: 8 Tips for Success

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Passing the NCLEX can be challenging, but knowing how to prepare for the NCLEX helps. Follow time-tested NCLEX tips, such as starting to prepare as early as your first semester in nursing school, creating a study schedule, using active study techniques and joining study groups.

student reviewing textbook

Nursing is a calling as much as a career. Transitioning to the health care field could be one of the most meaningful and rewarding decisions you’ll ever make. However, becoming a registered nurse has challenges including passing the National Council Licensure Exam. The NCLEX-RN is the national licensure exam that all aspiring RNs must pass.

The NCLEX is a rigorous, challenging exam, so thoroughly preparing is a must. Fortunately, Harding University’s accelerated Bachelor of Science in nursing program prepares students with the nursing competencies and skills to confidently take the NCLEX.

The first step to preparing for the NCLEX is becoming familiar with the exam including its format and the types of questions you can expect.

Understanding the NCLEX Exam

While each state’s board of nursing establishes its own set of licensure requirements for RNs, one universal requirement is passing the NCLEX; this applies to nurses in the U.S. and Canada. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing develops and administers the exam.

Every aspiring RN takes the NCLEX after graduating from nursing school before working as a nurse. Exactly when you take the exam depends on your state’s regulations and your preferences.

In most states, nursing candidates apply to take the exam before graduation and sit for the exam 45 days after their graduation date. In Arkansas, nurse candidates submit the NCLEX application about 60 days before graduating.

Next Generation NCLEX Format

In nursing school, you might hear references to the new NCLEX format or the Next Generation NCLEX. The NCSBN periodically updates the exam making the NGN the latest version of the NCLEX and the most significant update in recent years. It rolled out in April of 2023, which means any nursing student graduating after that time must take this new test version.

nursing students holding books walking down the hall

The NGN more accurately assesses a nursing candidate’s ability to exercise appropriate judgment and decision-making in clinical situations. The structure of the exam is as follows:

  • Safe and Effective Care Environment
    • Management of Care
    • Safety and Infection Control
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance
  • Psychosocial Integrity
  • Physiological Integrity
    • Basic Care and Comfort
    • Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies
    • Reduction of Risk Potential
    • Physiological Adaptation

Within these sections, you’ll answer types of questions like:

  • Matrix Grid: Candidates choose multiple possible answers within a table.
  • Cloze (drop-down): Candidates select answers after reading a narrative case study.
  • Extended Drag-and-Drop: Candidates pair answers from two different columns.

How Is the NCLEX Scored?

Unlike most exams, you do not receive a numerical score for your efforts. Instead the NCLEX is pass or fail. Various factors influence whether your efforts will be scored above or below the passing standard:

  • Difficulty level of answered questions
  • Number of questions answered correctly
  • Performance on previous attempts to pass the NCLEX

NCLEX Exam Requirements

Before diving into NCLEX tips for passing the exam, it’s worth looking at the eligibility requirements to sit for the exam including:

  • A nursing degree from an accredited program
  • A minimum number of clinical hours (varies by state)
  • Criminal background check
  • Acceptable proof of identity
  • Other requirements as determined by your state board of nursing

How to Pass the NCLEX: 8 Key Tips

Now that you’re more familiar with the Next Generation NCLEX, let’s take a closer look at how to prepare for the exam to increase your chances of passing on the first try.

Nursing holding patient chart for patient

What can you do with a BSN? Read more to learn about 10 nursing careers here.

1. Start Preparing Early

One of the most essential NCLEX tips is to begin your preparation as early as possible. It’s best to start during your first semester of nursing school. Last-minute cramming won’t help you pass the exam, but learning how to prepare for the NCLEX from the beginning definitely can. Plus early preparation can make you feel more confident when you sit for the exam.

2. Create a Study Schedule

It’s always helpful to create a study schedule so your NCLEX prep and nursing school studies are not put on the back burner. Get into the habit of sitting down on the weekends to develop a schedule for the week ahead. In addition to designating set times for studying, it’s ideal to decide ahead of time what you’ll be reviewing during each session.

3. Join a Study Group

Even if you prefer to study alone, consider joining a study group. They are a great way to get to know your nursing cohort and build camaraderie while benefiting from others’ perspectives on nursing topics.

harding nursing students in class

4. Use Active Study Techniques

Reading through the material a few times during study sessions might be tempting. Yet this passive study method doesn’t lend itself well to knowledge retention or deep learning. Instead try active study techniques like these:

  • Develop and write down questions as you read.
  • Relate nursing theories to actual examples (e.g., case studies).
  • After reviewing the material, rephrase it and speak it aloud in your own words.
  • As a variation of the above technique, try rephrasing a concept in simple terms so a child can understand it.

5. Answer Practice Questions Daily

Even if you’ve just begun nursing school, it can be helpful to start answering practice NCLEX questions. Try to answer a few every day. Even if you don’t know the answers, this can be helpful because it:

  1. Allows you to become familiar with NCLEX-style questions.
  2. Introduces you to the reasoning behind the correct answer. (Always read the explanation thoroughly after answering a question.)

Many NCLEX prep apps send you a “question of the day.” Check the app store to find one or two NCLEX prep apps that appeal to you.

6. Take Full-Length Practice Exams

Although answering a few practice questions daily is an excellent way to start preparing for the NCLEX, go a step further and take a few full-length practice exams available online.

Consider taking at least one full-length practice exam during each semester of nursing school. During your final semester and the days leading up to the exam, increase your efforts by taking a few extra exams.

It’s best to simulate testing conditions as much as possible when taking practice exams. Ask your fellow household members to avoid interrupting you and keep to the official time limits. After each retake, focus your next few study sessions on reviewing your results paying particular attention to the questions you answered incorrectly.

Looking for more tips for success? Check out this guide on how to pass nursing school.

nurse with stethoscope

7. Learn Nursing Mnemonics

Nursing mnemonics are mental tricks that help you remember tricky or lengthy concepts. You can find nursing mnemonics online; however, here are a few examples:

  • CATS: Convulsions, arrhythmias, tetany, spasms and stridor are the symptoms of hypocalcemia.
  • SALT LOSS: Stupor/coma, anorexia, lethargy, tendon reflexes decreased, limp muscles, orthostatic hypotension, seizures/headaches and stomach cramping are the symptoms of hyponatremia.
  • IDEA: A patient’s intake of isoproterenol, dopamine, epinephrine and atropine sulfate should be evaluated in instances of bradycardia.

8. Practice Stress Management and Self-Care

harding nursing student practicing with fluid bags

Nursing school is tough, and preparing for the NCLEX can be exhausting. Keep your eyes on the prize and remind yourself why you want to become a nurse. It’s also important to strive for balance in life. Do your best to minimize stress responses and practice self-care such as:

  • Prioritizing sleep
  • Choosing healthy, nutritious meals
  • Drinking enough water and skipping sugary beverages
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol
  • Exercising regularly, even if only for short, high-intensity bursts
  • Spending some time with friends
  • Talking to a mental health counselor if you feel overwhelmed or depressed

Prepare for Nursing Success at Harding University

The first step toward passing the NCLEX is choosing a nursing school with a solid academic foundation for success. At Harding University, the Carr College of Nursing provides extensive student support services and features a faculty of dedicated, knowledgeable instructors.

With Harding’s ABSN program, you can earn your nursing degree in as few as 16 months by leveraging your prior non-nursing college education. Contact an admissions counselor today to find out if our Christian nursing school in Arkansas could be the right fit for you.