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What is NCLEX?

The National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) is a nursing exam developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). The purpose of the NCLEX is to test the skills and knowledge necessary for an entry-level nurse. The exam is designed to be taken by candidates who have already completed an accredited program for nursing. There are two variations of the NCLEX:

  • NCLEX RN is for individuals who have completed a registered nursing program.
  • NCLEX PN is for individuals who have completed a practical or vocational nursing program. The NCLEX PN is only valid for US licensure.

What is on the NCLEX exam?

The NCLEX exam measures a nursing candidate's entry-level ability to meet client needs across all settings. The categories of client need are similar on the NCLEX RN and NCLEX PN exams, with some variation in specific content. Each category of client need encompasses numerous topics. The percentage of each exam that assesses specific client needs is given in the following chart.

Client needs Percentage of exam - NCLEX RN Percentage of exam - NCLEX PN
Safe and Effective Care Environment:
Management of Care (RN)
Coordinated Care (PN)
7-23% 18-24%
Safe and Effective Care Environment: Safety and Infection Control 9-15% 10-16%
Health Promotion and Maintenance 6-12% 6-12%
Psychosocial Integrity 6-12% 9-15%
Physiological Integrity: Basic Care and Comfort 6-12% 7-13%
Physiological Integrity: Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies (RN) Pharmacological Therapies (PN) 12-18% 10-16%
Physiological Integrity: Reduction of Risk Potential 9-15% 9-15%
Physiological Integrity: Physiological Adaptation 11-17% 7-13%

How many NCLEX questions are on the exam?

As of October 2020, there are between 60 and 130 exam questions on the NCLEX exams. The test uses computer-adaptive testing, so a candidate's pattern of correct and incorrect answers will determine the number of questions they receive on the exam. The test also contains 15 pre-test questions, which are used to calibrate the computer-adaptive testing process.

At the end of the test, some testing candidates will be given the option to participate in answering research questions for the Next Generation NCLEX project. These questions are piloting new question types for a future version of the exam. These questions will be in addition to the pretest and regular exam questions and will not count toward the exam score.

What type of questions are on the exam?

There are a variety of question formats on the NCLEX exam.

  1. Candidates should be prepared to answer:

    • Multiple choice questions
    • Fill-in-the-blank questions — usually used to record the results of a calculation
    • Hot spots — questions that ask you to move the cursor over a diagram to indicate your response
    • Exhibits — questions that require you to interact with a multi-layer diagram before choosing an answer
    • Ordered response questions — requiring you to drag and drop response items into an ordered list
    • Audio questions
    • Graphic questions

Any question type may include multimedia elements such as audio, tables, graphics, and charts. There is an online tutorial available on the NCLEX website for experimentation with the various types of questions before the real exam.

How long is the NCLEX?

As of October 2020, the time allowed for the NCLEX is five hours. This includes an exam tutorial, two optional breaks, and the testing period. The first break is offered after the first two hours of the exam are complete. The second break is offered after three and a half hours of the exam are complete. Candidates will need to leave the testing room during all breaks.

NCLEX prep

Whether you are taking the NCLEX RN or the NCLEX PN, you'll want to prepare carefully for the exam. Determine how much time you have before the exam, and then consider how to utilize best study practices to prepare yourself for this important test.

How to study for NCLEX

A key part of your NCLEX study is understanding how the test works. Since the NCLEX exam is not simply a multiple-choice test, you will want to answer practice questions to help you get familiar with the question formats. There is an online tutorial on the NCLEX website where you can practice manipulating the different types of questions. As you begin your preparation, take an NCLEX practice test. This will give you a view of what the test is like and what you need to prepare for.

NCLEX study plan

Now that you're ready to study for your NCLEX, make a study plan!

Create a content map that lays out all the important topics covered on the test. This visual can help you organize your plan of study. Place high-priority topics, such as items that are less familiar to you or items that make up a large portion of the exam, at the top of the map, and lower priority topics near the bottom.

Make a study schedule. Choose days and times for study sessions. Make sure you will study regularly, but also leave time in your schedule for other things. A balanced approach will help you to give your best during each NCLEX study session.

Find study resources. There are numerous NCLEX study resources available. It may be helpful to start with a single study guide to format your study time, then add further resources for topics where you have the most need to review.

Create a study group. It always helps to have peers to share ideas, pool resources, and increase accountability!

Study smart. Do you know your learning style? What helps you remember information? When dealing with a high volume of information, memory helps such as graphics, songs, rhymes, mnemonics, flash cards, and pictures can be very useful. Review tips for how to answer questions on the NCLEX test. Utilizing good study practices will increase the effectiveness of your study.

Check out our most popular NCLEX prep courses!

NCLEX-specific preparation courses for every subject

NCLEX scoring

The NCLEX uses computer adaptive testing, which means the questions candidates receive on the exam are related to their answers to previous questions. NCLEX scoring is established in one of two ways. For most candidates, the computer will end the exam when it is 95% confident the candidate's abilities are either clearly above or clearly below the passing standard. This is called the 95% confidence interval rule. For candidates who are very close to the standard, the computer will use the maximum exam length, administering all 130 exam questions to reach a final ability estimate, which will be used to compare the candidate to the passing standard.

Note: You may have heard former nursing candidates talk about the Run-out-of-Time Rule. This rule was removed from the NCLEX exam scoring process in October 2020.

What score do you need to pass the NCLEX?

A designation of passing for the NCLEX is not based on the number of questions answered correctly or incorrectly. Rather, the computer adaptive testing compares the candidate's performance and the level of question difficulty with the passing standard. The passing standard is determined by the NCBSN board of directors to be the minimum ability level possible for a nurse to practice safely. The passing standard is updated every three years, and it is different for the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN.

NCLEX pass rates

NCLEX pass rates for the past several years are reflected in this chart, based on statistics from the NCSBN.

Year Total Pass Rate, NCLEX RN Total Pass Rate, NCLEX PN
First half of 2020 76.53% 72.59%
2019 72.80% 73.71%
2018 73.11% 73.44%
2017 72.11% 71.04%
2016 70.18% 70.59%
2015 69.87% 69.04%

How long does it take to get NCLEX results?

Candidates will receive their official NCLEX results through their NRB (nursing regulatory body) approximately six weeks after the test. Some NRBs also participate in the Quick Results Service, which allows candidates to get unofficial results in two days for a fee of $7.95.

Individuals who did not pass the NCLEX will receive a Candidate Performance Report showing how they performed on each section of the test. This information can be used to study for a retake.

NCLEX registration

In order to register for the NCLEX, you need to have approval from a nursing regulatory body (NRB). This NRB will eventually provide your nursing licensure once you have passed your NCLEX exam.

How to register for the NCLEX

If you're ready to take the exam, follow these steps to complete your NCLEX registration:

  1. Apply for licensure with a nursing regulatory body (NRB).
  2. Register with Pearson VUE and pay the exam fee. This can be done online or by phone.
  3. Receive Pearson VUE's email acknowledging they received your registration.
  4. Be declared eligible to test. Your NRB lets Pearson VUE know that you may test. They must do this within 365 days of your registration with Pearson VUE.
  5. Receive Authorization to Test (ATT) from Pearson VUE via email. Your ATT includes validity dates, usually 90 days, and you must test within those dates.
  6. Schedule your appointment with Pearson VUE online or by phone.

NCLEX exam dates

Pearson VUE testing centers offer the NCLEX year-round. You are permitted to schedule your NCLEX exam date once you receive your Authorization to Test (ATT). Your ATT expires after a designated time period, usually 90 days. Once you receive your ATT, it is wise to go online or call to schedule your appointment as soon as possible. You should be offered a testing appointment within 30 days (or 45 days for a test retake) of your scheduling attempt.

How much does the NCLEX cost?

The registration fee for the NCLEX is $200 USD for candidates seeking US licensure. Those seeking Canadian licensure will be charged $360 CAD. Additional costs can include:

  • International scheduling fee - $150, plus tax if applicable
  • Fee to change nursing regulatory body after registration - $50
  • Fee to change exam type (RN/PN) after registration (for US licensure) - $50
  • Fee to change testing language (English/French) after registration (for Canadian licensure) - $50
  • Licensure fee - varies depending on your chosen NRB (nursing regulatory body)
  • Preparation materials - costs vary

Note: There are no refunds for NCLEX exams, so plan your registration and scheduling carefully.

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How many times can you take the NCLEX?

Candidates who do not pass are permitted to retake the NCLEX exam. You must wait 45 days to retake the NCLEX. The NCSBN allows candidates to retest up to eight times in a single year, with 45 days between each testing date. It is important to note that some states or nursing regulatory bodies (NRB) may impose further limitations on retesting, so check with your NRB to confirm their retake policy.

Is the NCLEX changing?

In October 2020, changes went into effect regarding number of test items and testing time for the NCLEX. The NCLEX Next Generation project is currently developing new test items but does not expect to release a new version of the exam until at least 2023.

Can you take the NCLEX without a degree?

The NCLEX exams are taken at the end of a nursing program as part of the application for nursing licensure. Candidates need to have a degree in licensed practical nursing or licensed vocational nursing to take the NCLEX PN. To take the NCLEX RN, it is necessary to have either an associate's or bachelor's degree in nursing.

What do you bring to the NCLEX?

On your NCLEX exam day, be sure to bring the required items. Note that many objects are prohibited by the testing center. Personal electronics, such as your cell phone, may be placed into a sealed bag provided by Pearson VUE. The sealed bag must be handed to the testing staff at the end of your exam. If the seal has been broken, your test results will be invalidated. Other items can be stored in a locker outside the testing room. You will be permitted to access a few items during an exam break.

Items to bring to the testing center: Items to store or leave home that you will be unable to access during the exam: Items that you may access during a break in the exam:
  • Acceptable identification (current, government issued, with a recent photograph, a name matching the name on your registration, and your signature)
  • Test prep materials of any kind
  • Any type of electronics
  • Weapons
  • Coats/scarves/hats
  • Lip balm
  • Gum/food/drink
  • Medical aids
  • Bag/purse/wallet

Are there testing accommodations for the NCLEX?

Individuals who require testing accommodations for the NCLEX must get the approval of their nursing regulatory body (NRB) and follow their procedures for requesting accommodations. Once candidates have received approval from their NRB, they may schedule their testing appointment. Note that testing appointments must be scheduled via phone (NOT online) by talking directly to Pearson VUE's NCLEX Accommodations Coordinator.

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