What Is the NCLEX Nursing Exam?

Professionals who want to become a nurse (either a Licensed Professional Nurse or a Registered Nurse) must attend an accredited nursing school for either two or four years, depending upon which type of nurse they are. Once they have successfully completed the program, then they must attain their LPN or RN license.

The path to do so is by taking the NCLEX nursing examination. If you pass the NCLEX exam successfully, you are then licensed as an LPN or RN.

What Is Licensure?

Licensure is the process by which a nursing board gives you permission to engage in practices as a nurse. This is allowed after they have determined that you have the necessary nursing competencies that you need to perform the duties needed as an RN or LPN.

The basic requirements of nursing licensure are:

  • Verification that you have graduated from an accredited RN or LPN education program.
  • Verification that you passed your NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN examination.
  • A criminal background check in some cases.

Overview of the NCLEX Exam

The NCLEX examination is also known as the National Council Licensure Examination. It is a standardized exam that every state board of nursing uses to determine if you are qualified to work as an RN or LPN.

To be eligible to take either NCLEX exam, you must apply for your nursing license from your state nursing board. The board determines if you meet the criteria to be eligible to take the examination. Essentially, this means that they will verify that you have graduated from an associate’s or bachelor’s program of nursing before allowing you to sit for the exam.

After you apply for your LPN or RN license from your state nursing board, you then receive your NCLEX Examination Candidate Bulletin via US mail or by email. At that time, you can then register for your examination online.

Once your state nursing board verifies your eligibility to take the exam, you will get your Authorization to Take the Test. They also will provide you with a list of centers that administer the test. The cost of the NCLEX exam is $200.

NCLEX Exam Subject Matter

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing states that the NCLEX examination for RNs and LPNs covers these critical areas:

  • Safe, Effective Care Environment – management of care; safety and infection control.
  • Psychosocial Integrity – coping and adaption; psychosocial adaptation.
  • Health Promotion and Maintenance – growth and development through the lifespan; prevention and early detection of disease.
  • Physiological Integrity – basic care and comfort; pharmacological and parenteral therapies; reduction of risk potential; and physiological adaptation.

Length of the Exam

The NCLEX exam is a multiple choice test that utilizes an interactive software system called the Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT) to check your level of competence.

RN test takers must answer at least 75 test questions, and LPN test takers must answer at least 85 test questions. After you have answered the minimum number, the computer will then assess your competence level.

If you are obviously above the passing standard after that number of questions, you will pass the exam. If you are below the standard, you fail. If you are too close to the minimum standard for the program to give a result, it will keep asking you questions until it can make a determination.

RN candidates can be asked a maximum of 265 questions, and LPN candidates can be asked a maximum of 205. You have a maximum of five hours to take the exam. This includes time that is set aside for a computer tutorial to show you how to take the test. You also have time for two, 10 minute breaks.


The NCLEX exam is scored one time by the computer, and then another time by the National Council. It takes approximately one month for your state nursing board to mail you your test results.

If you do not pass the exam, your nursing board will send you a profile that will show you the areas where your performance was not good enough to pass. You can retake the test as many times as needed to pass. However, you must wait at least 91 days before you retake it.

Test Preparation

There are many excellent online companies that offer test preparation for a set fee. Some of the best regarded companies include Kaplan and National Council’s Learning Extension.

You also may buy review books and sample tests if you prefer to work on paper. Another option is to take an NCLEX exam prep class in person. These courses tend to last for one to four weeks. Some of the companies offering these classes are:

Tips for Passing the NCLEX Examination

The most important tip to pass the NCLEX-RN or NCLEX-PN examination is to study all of the concepts principles and theories of nursing that will be on the test – over many weeks. Cramming for this exam never works.

Other than studying the material at length, you should have a strategic approach to answering NCLEX exam questions. Keep these tips at top of mind:

  • An NCLEX exam question has a stem, which is the part that asks the question; the case, which is the patient’s condition/scenario; the answer; and distractor answers that look right but are wrong. Answering the question properly is easier if you identify these parts of the question.
  • Watch for keywords: No matter how long the question may be, there is usually one or two words that are most significant. Key words may be related to the patient, the problem or specific aspects of a condition.
  • Words are repeated: Same words may appear in the question and answer. It could be the same word or a synonym.
  • Answers that are opposite. If two of the choices are opposites, odds are one of them is the answer, such as increased heart rate and decreased heart rate.
  • Odd answer: The answer that appears to be different from the others is often the right one.