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Study Techniques for the NCLEX

Updated on December 6, 2012

What you need to know to Pass the NCLEX Exam

I have taken the NCLEX-RN, the NCLEX-PN, and have been a nursing instructor who has helped hundreds of students pass the NCLEX exam. As a result, I think I have a pretty good idea of how to prepare for the nursing board exams. The purpose of this article is to share some of my insight on how to better help nursing students pass these seemingly difficult right-of-passage exams.

Content Knowledge

This first one probably goes without saying. Having a good grasp of the subject matter that is covered on the NCLEX is important. Knowing factoids such as knowing that a patient taking the drug Furosemide (Lasix) should be monitored for hypokalemia is vital on the exam. There are a few ways to ensure you have a good grasp of content knowledge. One is reading the text (sometimes boring, but necessary), and the other big one is doing oodles of practice questions.

Practice Questions

When I took the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN, I did about 5,000 questions. These questions consisted of multiple choice, select all that apply, ordering, drag and drop, listening (such as auscultating fake heart, lung and bowel sounds---yes, the NCLEX tests these—they give you a set of headphones to listen to stuff like this). Not only did I do all of the questions, I wrote out short, condensed rationales from each question. For example, if the question dealt with the signs and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, I would write: “Parkinson’s disease: signs and symptoms: shuffling gait, pill rolling tremors, etc.” Some people like to write these on flashcards, but I am flashcard averse. I like to be different. I would write the rationales out by hand, and then type them, and then I would even type them into Powerpoint presentations. This allowed me to have maximum contact with each important factoid. Answering questions will also let you know how a certain concept tends to be tested. For example, if you do about five or six questions on the adrenal disease “Pheochromocytoma,” then you know that you need to watch out for the fact that it releases catecholamines and causes hypertension. There are other ways that the disease can be tested, but those are the major things I have seen in review questions. By doing enough practice questions, there will be very few surprises on the actual NCLEX exam. I should also note that is important to practice select all that apply questions, as these do tend to show up on the NCLEX. However, also still keep in the back of your mind that most of the points will come from standard, multiple choice questions.

Realize you don’t have to score perfectly on the Exam.

The NCLEX is an exam of minimum competency. You do not have to answer all of the questions correctly. The test makers are pretty tight lipped about exactly what percentage of questions one must answer in order to get a passing score. However, many educators believe it is anywhere between 55-65% of the questions correct. Where else in school or otherwise in life can you get only about 65% of questions correct and get a passing score? Not many places. The bottom line is this: do not try to be a perfectionist. You don’t need to memorize the entire basic textbook of nursing that you had in school. You need to be familiar with the big concepts. If you don’t understand the intricacies of third-spacing, or you happen to forget if you should see gentle bubbling or a rise and fall of water in the suction control chamber of a chest tube drainage system, don’t worry. When I took the NCLEX, I saw a drug that I had never seen before. Did I wig out? Honestly, yes. However, it didn’t have any measurable impact on our score, as I got 75 questions on my NCLEX-RN exam, with over 20 of them being select all that apply questions. Stay calm. Cool and calm usually prevails. You can pass your board exams. If I can do it, you can do it. Trust me. Best of luck.



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    • NicktheNurse profile image

      NicktheNurse 5 years ago from Huntington Beach, CA

      Yes, its a different kind of test, for sure. I have taken the bar exam and its surely different than the NCLEX. Most students feel they failed after they come out. The topics are all over the place and don't follow any logical sequence. Thanks for viewing!

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      It must be nerve-wracking to take a test and you don't even know how many you need to pass. Voting this Up and Useful.