You may have heard about how hard the NCLEX exam is. But how difficult is it really?

Nursing school isn’t easy – the tons of information you have to learn and all the note-taking, quizzes, exams, and clinical. After all that, you should be a pro at test-taking, right?

Well if it was just another final exam, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Sure you need to pass the NCLEX exam to even start working as a nurse, so that’s a little pressure, but another test?

That’s no problem. But the NCLEX exam isn’t just another test. It’s a test unlike any other you’ve taken up to now.


What Kind Of Test Is The NCLEX?


The NCLEX exam isn’t like a regular nursing school test, except that it’s on a computer and time – you get 6 hours. It’s a CAT. Not as in meow, as in CAT (computer adaptive testing).

This smart algorithm adapts to the answers you give it. Answer questions wrong – it gives you easier questions. Get a lot of questions correct – your questions get harder.

Doesn’t sound right, does it? Well, it does if you consider what the computer is doing. The computer is trying to gauge your competency level.

It not only wants to test your knowledge and what you’ve memorized; the NCLEX exam is testing your ability to think logically and make informed decisions applying what you’ve learned.


What Kind Of Questions Are On The NCLEX?


Most of the questions (about 90%) on the NCLEX exam are going to be multiple choice. There are different types of multiple-choice questions and you’ll also see some of these types:

  • Drag and drop
  • Fill-in-the-blank
  • Multiple responses (SATA or select all that apply)
  • Steps in a sequence
  • Identifying the correct body part, or system
  • Answering questions about a chart, graph, or audio/video clip
  • Mathematical questions involving medication calculations and lab values


How Many Questions Are On The NCLEX?


How many questions you’ll see on the NCLEX exam depends on two things:

  • Are you taking the RN or PN exam?
  • How many questions do you get right or wrong?

If you’re taking the NCLEX-RN exam, you’ll get between 75 – 265 questions.

If you’re taking the NCLEX-PN exam, you’ll get between 65 – 205 questions.

Why range? Because the number of questions you get also depends on how many questions you get right or wrong. If you just crush it with correct answers across the board you might make it out in around 75.

On the flip side, if you just can’t remember anything and bomb you may also get around 75 (or fewer) questions. The test will keep giving you questions until it has determined a 95% competency level. But the average has been reported to be around 120 questions.

The average time spent on the test ranges from 45 minutes to two and a half hours. Because there are so many questions and material to cover, one of the best ways to study is using NCLEX study cards like these here.


How Is The NCLEX Scored?


There’s not a certain number of questions you need to get right to pass the NCLEX exam. You have to reach a 95% competency level. Your results are scored based on logits measuring your estimated ability against the difficulty of the questions you answered.

The first standard assesses your score using the 95% Confidence Interval Rule, this means the computer calculates whether or not your ability is within 95% certainty is above or below the passing average.

You will be asked to continue to answer questions until this has been determined.


What’s The NCLEX Exam Pass Rate?


The numbers from the NCSBN (National Council Of State Boards Of Nursing) as of 2020 are:

  • First-time pass rate: 87.5%
  • Repeat pass rate: 42.2%

At first, glance that 87% sounds like good news – maybe the test isn’t so hard after all. But the second number shows you how difficult it is to pass the NCLEX after a failed first attempt.

Want to know how to pass the NCLEX exam the first time and be part of that 87% pass rate? Find out here.


How Do You Fail The NCLEX?


There are a few ways to fail the NCLEX – what? What do you mean there is more than one way to fail? Well, there are. Here’s what will get you a non-passing score:

  • Not answering a minimum of 75 questions in the 6 hours
  • A 95% competency level hasn’t been reached in 265 questions
  • You’ve answered so many questions wrong early in the test to recover your score


Can You Take The NCLEX Exam More Than Once?


Yes, you can take the NCLEX exam more than once if you fail the first time. Here are the general requirements for retaking the NCLEX:

  • You can take the NCLEX 8 times a year
  • You must wait 45 days between tests
  • You can take the test however many times you want

However – you should check with the licensing board of the state you’re getting licensed in. Different states have different rules, for example: In Texas, you can continue testing without a passing grade for four years – after that time, you’re required to go back to school.

What really makes the NCLEX exam so difficult is the adaptive part of the test. It’s going to keep turning up the heat to see how much you can take until you get to that 95% competency level.

A subcategory of that difficulty is just the plain fact that it covers literally EVERYTHING you learned in nursing school and it’s likely going to ask you questions you don’t know the answer to.

Don’t worry – it’s not as hard as you think. Sure, it’s difficult. But if you’ve studied, know the material, and have prepared – you’re going to show the NCLEX that you’re competent, prepared, and ready to enter the world of nursing.

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