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6 Things to Know About the NCLEX Examination

Aspiring nurses must pass the NCLEX exam before applying for registered nurse (RN) licensure. Administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), this test evaluates nursing candidates' foundational knowledge and ensures they are qualified to work in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Find out the six things to consider before taking the NCLEX exam.


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 focus areas:

  1. Providing a safe and effective care environment

  2. Health promotion and maintenance

  3. Psychosocial integrity

  4. Physiological integrity

The safe and effective care category has two subcategories:

  1. Management of care and safety and infection control for the NCLEX-RN

  2. Coordinated care and safety and infection control for the NCLEX-PN

The physiological integrity category has four subcategories:

For both the RN and PN exams:

  1. Basic care and comfort

  2. Reduction of risk potential

  3. Physiological adaptation

Pharmacological therapy for the NCLEX-PN and pharmacological and parenteral therapies for the NCLEX-RN

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. The NCLEX-RN consists of 74-145 questions. This includes 15 pre-test questions that do not count toward test takers' scores. The NCLEX-PN consists of 85-205 questions, including 25 non-scored questions. Both exams come with a five-hour time limit.

The test offers questions in different formats. Use our NCLEX study guide to master all the question types on the NCLEX. These formats include:

  1. Multiple choice

  2. Fill in the blank

  3. Ordered response

  4. Hot spot questions

About 80-90% of the NCLEX are multiple choice questions. For students who will take the NCLEX in 2023 or later, the Next Generation 2023 NCLEX updated its question formats and added two new ones: matrix or grid and Cloze.

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.

The NCLEX uses Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) to personalize each test-taker's scores. Each time a question is answered, the computer bases the next question on whether you answered the previous questions correctly. The computer chooses questions that you will have a 50% chance of getting right.

You will keep answering questions until the computer decides whether you've passed or failed, using one of these three rules:

  1. The 95% Confidence Interval Rule: The computer stops the test when it is 95% sure that you've passed or failed.

  2. Maximum Length Exam Rule: The computer employs this rule if you are close to passing and requires you to complete the maximum number of questions. Once you complete the exam, the computer makes a pass or fail final ability estimate.

  3. The Run-Out-of-Time Rule: If time runs out and it is not clear to the computer whether you've passed or failed with 95% certainty, one of these things will happen:

  • The computer will fail you if you haven't answered the minimum number of questions

  • If you've answered the minimum number of questions, the computer will use the final ability estimate for the questions you answered to determine if you pass or fail.

Keep in mind that the exam length does not indicate the likelihood of passing or failing. To learn more, check out some nurses' tips on how to pass the NCLEX.

5 | License Registration Varies by State

To register for the NCLEX, candidates must first apply for a nursing credential from their state licensing board. Since each state sets its nursing licensure requirements, you should check with your state regulatory board before applying.

6 | How to Apply for the NCLEX

  1. Apply for your RN or LPN license with the nursing board in the state where you plan to practice.

  2. Register for the NCLEX on the Pearson VUE website. You will need to provide a program code for the nursing school you attended and your email address. You can register and pay the $200 fee online or by phone.

  3. When your state nursing board deems you eligible, Pearson VUE will email your Authorization to Test (ATT).

  4. Schedule your exam through Pearson VUE and complete your NCLEX within the validity dates listed on your ATT.


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