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What Is NCLEX? Your Complete Guide to the NCLEX Exam

As you inch closer to graduating from nursing school the chatter about the NCLEX exam amongst fellow nursing students and instructors turns way up. And that’s because the NCLEX is one of the most important exams you’ll take as a nurse. 

So what is the NCLEX exactly, and how can you prepare?

For starters, the NCLEX exam is taken between graduation and your first job as a nurse. But don’t worry, we’re going to explain all the basic information you need to know so you have a firm grasp on what the NCLEX is. There are even some study tips that can help you prepare for this unique exam. We’ll also show you how to register for the NCLEX exam so there are no surprises when that time comes.

What Is NCLEX and What Does NCLEX Stand For?

A group of student nurses studying together

NCLEX stands for National Council Licensure Examination. In order to be licensed as an entry-level registered nurse (RN) or licensed practical nurse (LPN), you have to take the NCLEX exam. The NCLEX-RN is for those wanting to be RNs and the NCLEX-PN is for those wanting to be LPNs. 

As you research the answers for “what is the NCLEX,” you come to learn that the reason the NCLEX exam is so important is because you cannot work as a nurse after graduating from nursing school without passing this exam. That’s right. Even after you graduate you still aren’t past the finish line just yet. You’ll need to register for the NCLEX exam and pass to become licensed by your state board of nursing.

But this isn’t just another test. It’s set up a bit differently than other tests you’ve taken. This is because the NCLEX doesn’t just want to see if you’ve memorized information. The NCLEX is different because it tests how you can apply what you know to many different types of clinical situations.

You see, nursing isn’t just based on hard science — nursing is also an art form. While a deep and thorough understanding of science and patient care is vitally important, so is being able to use that knowledge to think on your feet and care for your patients. And this is exactly what the NCLEX exam was designed to test for. When you become a licensed nurse, things aren’t laid out in front of you in black and white. You must be able to constantly reassess situations to make decisions that are in the best interest of the patients who trust you.   

The NCLEX Computerized Adaptive Testing Format

So how does the NCLEX do this? The test uses a special exam format called computerized adaptive testing (CAT). CAT uses computer technology to more precisely determine your nursing ability. As you go through the exam questions, the computer reassesses your knowledge level and gives you another question based on how you answered the previous questions. Every time you answer a question, the computer is able to more accurately determine if your ability is high enough to pass. 

Both the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN have a minimum and a maximum number of questions:

  • The NCLEX-RN has a minimum of 75 questions and a maximum of 265 questions
  • The NCLEX-PN has a minimum of 85 questions and a maximum of 205 questions

The exams are also timed. You’ll have six hours to take the NCLEX-RN or five hours for the NCLEX-PN. Therefore, it’s important to stay focused and be able to answer quickly. 

What Content Areas Are Covered On the NCLEX?

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) has put out test plans for test takers of the NCLEX-RN exam and the NCLEX-PN exam. These test plans are divided into four client needs categories and six subcategories:

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

These test plans help you to see the types of questions covered on the NCLEX exam. So if you’re wondering, “What is the NCLEX,” the answer is right here. The NCLEX brings together all that you’ve learned throughout nursing school and condenses it into one final exam to ensure you can provide safe patient care as an entry-level nurse.

How to Register for the NCLEX Exam

A student nurse registering for the NCLEX

Now that you don’t have to wonder what the NCLEX is, you can focus on the NCSBN steps to register in order to be eligible to sit for the NCLEX exam. 

  1. First, apply for licensure and registration to the nursing regulatory body where you want to be licensed. Doing this makes you qualified to take the NCLEX.
  2. Register with Pearson Vue with your program code. Pearson Vue is the name of the computer-based testing company that delivers the NCLEX exam.
  3. Pearson Vue emails you to let you know they received your registrations. Note: all communication from Pearson Vue will be via email. Be sure you input your email address correctly to avoid any delays.
  4. Your nursing regulatory body will make you eligible to take the NCLEX in the Pearson Vue system. 
  5. Pearson Vue sends you an authorization to test (ATT) through your email.
  6. Now you get to schedule your exam with Pearson Vue. Schedule this as soon after graduation as you can, while everything is still fresh in your mind. 

Once you’re registered and have a test date scheduled, there are a few things to have prepared for test day. Take a look at the 2020 NCLEX Examination Candidate Bulletin for a complete overview of NCLEX registration and requirements.

NCLEX Test Day Overview

So what is the NCLEX test day like? On exam day, you agree through a digital signature that you will adhere to all exam rules or be dismissed from the exam. All electronic devices must be kept in sealed plastic bags at the testing center. 

In addition, no testing or study materials are allowed in the testing center. Anything you bring to the exam is stored in a locker on-site. Space is limited, so plan appropriately. For this reason, a minimalist approach is best for exam day.

A photo ID is required to enter the exam room, so make sure the first and last name on that photo ID matches the first and last name you used to register. 

If you need to reschedule your exam, follow the process outlined in the Candidate Bulletin. If you don’t, be aware that there are no refunds on any NCLEX fees.

How to Study for the NCLEX

A group of student nurses studying for the NCLEX

We’ve put together a robust guide to helping you get ready for the NCLEX. And now that you have an answer to what the NCLEX is, you can set your sights on studying for this important exam. Studying is something that should start early and often because you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you have to cram. Cramming doesn’t help you retain information long-term and is a poor solution for preparing for a complex exam like the NCLEX.

Some key ways to study include:

  • Answer NCLEX practice test questions daily
  • Make a study plan and stick to it
  • Review all areas of nursing practice often
  • Utilize study guides, flashcards, or even audiobooks 
  • Create condensed study guides on common labs, medications, and nursing topics
  • Join a study group

When you’re deep in the studying hole and start to feel overwhelmed, don’t forget to take a rest day here and there. Burnout is real when prepping for the NCLEX, so try to avoid it by doing a little each day. This ensures you still feel in control of your studying instead of allowing it to control you.

Start Preparing for the NCLEX Today

Now that you have a firm grasp on the question, “What is the NCLEX?”, you can begin to prepare yourself for this important examination. If you’re lost on how to start or where to even begin, we’ve made the perfect studying tool just for you. It’s called the Daily NCLEX Challenge.

The challenge is designed with busy nursing students like you in mind. Once registered, you get a practice NCLEX question a day delivered to your email. This question helps you get into an NCLEX state of mind and increases your odds of passing the NCLEX exam the first time. 

Our premium version comes with detailed answer rationales, friendly competition amongst your friends, and the chance to win neat nursing-related prizes. Plus, you can see a complete bank of all the questions you’ve answered — perfect for the ultimate review session. Make the transition from wondering what the NCLEX is into studying with ease with the Daily NCLEX Challenge.

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