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What Is the NCLEX Exam for Nurses?

By the OnlineU team | Updated 6/7/2022

As a prospective student interested in an online nursing program to become a nurse, you may have several questions about taking and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). The exam can seem daunting, but understanding more about the expectations and how to best prepare can help demystify the NCLEX process.

By the OnlineU team | Updated 6/7/2022

As a prospective student interested in an online nursing program to become a nurse, you may have several questions about taking and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). The exam can seem daunting, but understanding more about the expectations and how to best prepare can help demystify the NCLEX process.

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What Is the NCLEX Exam?

The NCLEX exam was developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) to test a nursing program graduate's competency. Passing the exam is also a requirement of state boards of nursing to apply for a nursing license. The NCLEX measures a prospective nurse's ability to deliver safe and effective care and perform the skills for which they train. The NCSBN reevaluates the NCLEX every three years to make sure it's up to date and tests for the most current standards of nursing practice.

The NCLEX measures a prospective nurse's ability to deliver safe and effective care and perform the skills for which they train.

What Does the NCLEX Exam Test For?

Students who take the NCLEX exam are completing a practice analysis and a knowledge, skills, and abilities survey (KSA). The test is composed of questions and writing exercises to demonstrate competency. The NCLEX is created based on a test plan that measures competency in four major categories of client needs, several subcategories, and students' knowledge in the social and biological sciences. The distribution of test content for both the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN is as follows:

Safe and Effective Care Environment 

  • Coordinated Care: 18-24%
  • Safety and Infection Control: 10-16%

Health Promotion and Maintenance 

  • 6-12%

Psychosocial Integrity 

  • 9-15%

Physiological Integrity 

  • Basic Care and Comfort: 7-13%
  • Pharmacological Therapies: 10-16%
  • Reduction of Risk Potential: 9-15%
  • Physiological Adaptation: 7-13%

Within each category, testers have the opportunity to apply the concepts they developed in their nursing program, including:

  • Clinical problem solving
  • Caring
  • Communications and documentation
  • Teaching and learning
  • Culture and spirituality

What Are The Different Types of NCLEX Exams?

There are two different types of NCLEX exams nurses can take in the U.S.: the NCLEX-RN exam and the NCLEX-PN exam. Which exam you take depends on your level of education and career goals.


The NCLEX-RN is the exam students who choose an RN career path must take. Eligibility requires completion of an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or bachelor's of nursing (BSN) degree program at a minimum. Passing the NCLEX-RN is also required for students enrolling in a master's of nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) graduate program. Passing enables prospective RNs to apply for state licensure.


The NCLEX-PN is the exam students choose to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN). Eligibility requires the completion of an ADN degree program. The NCLEX-PN includes a test plan similar to that of the NCLEX-RN and tests in the same four general categories as mentioned earlier on this page.

What Programs Can Prepare You For the NCLEX Exam?

ADN, BSN, MSN, DNP, and nurse practitioner programs accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) can prepare you to take the NCLEX and are required for state licensure. CCNE and ACEN accreditation ensures that the instruction you receive meets industry standards and that the program curriculum supports the most current NCLEX test plan.

It's essential to check if a school posts its pass rate for graduates taking the test for the first time — a high pass rate may reflect how well the program prepares its students for the NCLEX.

When Can You Take the NCLEX Exam?

Each state may have its own schedule of when you can take the NCLEX. However, the earliest you can take the NCLEX is 45 days after nursing school graduation.

NCLEX Exam Eligibility

Nursing Regulatory Bodies (NRB) in each state determine eligibility to take the NCLEX and apply for licensure. Nursing schools help students meet state-specific eligibility requirements. For example, each state may require the completion of different coursework and a different number of supervised clinical hours. In general, however, students need the following to be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN or PN:

  • A completed application
  • Fingerprints
  • Exam registration fees
  • A Request for Accommodation of Disabilities, if applicable
  • Nursing school transcripts

How Do You Register To Take the NCLEX Exam?

Registering for the NCLEX is a three-step process:

  1.   Contact the NRB in the state you wish to practice nursing to request a licensure application. You'll pay your licensing fee to the NRB and submit the required application materials.
  2. Wait to receive your Authorization To Test (ATT) via email from the NRB which indicates your request was received and processed.
  3. Once you receive your ATT, register with Pearson VUE to take the exam and pay the exam fee either online or over the phone. You'll need a program code to register. You must register with Pearson VUE within 90 days of receiving the ATT.

If you need to change your registration, contact the NRB to make the changes. If you are still waiting to hear from the NRB about your application, contact Pearson VUE with the changes directly.

What Is Pearson VUE?

Pearson VUE is the testing service that administers the NCLEX. They provide test takers with the resources they'll need to study, practice, and take the exam. Pearson VUE also partners with local businesses to build a network of testing locations around the country where you'll be taking your exam.

How Much Does Taking the NCLEX Cost?

It costs $200 to register to take either NCLEX, which is nonrefundable. If you need to reschedule your exam or make other registration changes, it's critical to do so at least 24 hours before the exam to ensure you don't lose your money. In addition, you'll need to check with your NRB to determine licensing fees, which vary by state.

What Can You Expect When Taking the NCLEX Exam?

It can be stressful anticipating what it will be like on the exam day, but having a better idea of what to expect can help alleviate some anxiety. The NCSBN suggests arriving 30 minutes early at the testing center to situate yourself and get familiar with the surroundings. If you arrive more than 30 minutes late, you'll be asked to forfeit taking the exam and won't get your money back. Once you arrive, you can expect the following:

  • The temperature can fluctuate in the room — or based on your stress level — so dress comfortably and in layers. Be prepared to be asked to leave hats, scarves, gloves, and coats outside of the testing room.
  • You'll be asked to show your ID that reflects your name as it appears on your ATT and to provide your biometrics including your signature, a photograph, and a palm vein scan.
  • You'll be given an on-screen calculator, a marker, and an erasable board to use during the exam because you aren't allowed to bring your own paper, writing instruments, or calculators.
  • You'll have to raise your hand and wait to be dismissed once you finish the exam.

How Long Is the NCLEX Exam?

There is a five-hour time limit to complete either NCLEX for RN or PN, answering approximately 85 questions and possibly more to gauge your competency. The test includes fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, and drag-and-drop questions. The time to take the exam includes two optional preprogrammed breaks and any unscheduled breaks you may need to take. However, these breaks count against the time you have to take the exam.

How Do You Prepare For the NCLEX Exam?

There are several steps you can take to prepare for the NCLEX:

  • Schedule the exam as soon as you can after you graduate so your lessons are still fresh in mind.

  • Study the text plan to familiarize yourself with the exam and know what to expect.

  • Gather resources such as study guides, tutorials, and practice tests with examples of test questions. NCSBN offers great resources including the NCLEX Candidate Bulletin and Information Flyer, tutorials, video presentations, and Twitter and Facebook social media accounts where students can submit questions.

  • Join or form a study group so you can prepare with your peers.

  • Speak with others who have passed the exam to gain information from their experience.

  • Reach out to your program advisor or course instructors for help.

What Is the Best Way To Study For the NCLEX Exam?

The best way to study for the NCLEX is going to be the best way that works for you and your learning style. However, it helps to keep several things in mind when preparing to study for the exam:

  • Be organized and use all the study tools you can as mentioned above.

  • Set aside time to study daily in order to make sure you adhere to a structured schedule.

  • Set up a space where you can study uninterrupted and comfortably with the tools you need at your fingertips.

  • Anticipate spending approximately three to four hours a day studying for the exam.

  • Manage your stress level and remember to get plenty of rest, eat, and stay hydrated.

When Will You Get Your NCLEX Results?

Even though the exam is scored as you complete each item, your final score will not be available to the test center staff. Test results are released by your NRB and may take up to six weeks — if you don't hear anything after six weeks, you can contact your NRB. However, some states allow for quick access that may have results ready within 48 hours after taking the exam.

What Is a Good NCLEX Score?

The NCSBN uses a system of logits to score tests. Logits measure a nursing candidate's abilities versus how difficult a question is. For the NCLEX-RN, the current passing standard is 0.0 logits which means you've answered enough questions correctly to apply for your license. The current passing standard is -0.18 logits for the NCLEX-PN. Nursing practice standards are always changing and the passing criteria for the NCLEX changes periodically. The standards will be reevaluated in 2023.

For the NCLEX-RN, the current passing standard is 0.0 logits. The current passing standard is -0.18 logits for the NCLEX-PN.

Retaking the NCLEX Exam

If you don't pass and need to retake the NCLEX, you can do so 45 days after the initial exam; you can take the exam up to eight times in a year as long as you wait 45 days between each exam. However, each NRB may impose its limits as to how many times you can take the test, and you'll have to pay exam fees each time.

NCLEX Resources

Several resources offer test prep, including tutorials, practice tests to get familiar with the types of questions that are asked on the NCLEX, and other study aids. However, it's important to note that there are costs associated with accessing these materials, so it's essential to include the fees of preparing for the NCLEX in your budget if you decide to use one of these sources.

Hurst Review

Hurst helps students prepare for the NCLEX-RN and PN exams through reviews, challenges, information sessions, and core testing information.


  • $109 for 30-day access
  • $249 for 90-day access
  • $339 for 120-day access
  • $399 for interactive streaming

Kaplan Nursing

Kaplan offers free practice questions and tests along with resources available at a fee, including self-paced and live test preparation courses.


  • $425-$525 for course packages

NCLEX Mastery Apps

NCLEX Mastery has several apps to download to a mobile device to help prepare for the NCLEX.


  • $19/month NCLEX-PN
  • $29/month NCLEX-RN


The NCSBN offers online publications, courses, videos, brochures, toolkits, newsletters, and practice techniques.


  • Free has a program called SIMCLEX which simulates the NCLEX testing experience for practice.


  • $99 for one attempt
  • $199 for three attempts
  • $249 for five attempts

UWorld Nursing

UWorld offers practice questions, customizable study tools, self-assessment tests, and performance tracking tools.


  • $139-$299 depending on length of access

You can also search YouTube for videos where others may vlog about their experience with the NCLEX and offer their unique perspective. If you like to read, check out Amazon or your local library for books such as Saunders Comprehensive Review for tips on taking the NCLEX, practice questions, and detailed rationales.

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