The NCLEX Examination

The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) developed the National Council Licensure Examinations (NCLEX, for short) to determine if someone has the knowledge, skills, and abilities essential to the safe and effective practice of nursing at the entry level. Each State Board of Nursing—the entities responsible for licensing nurses—uses these results when issuing RN and LPN licenses. Students should become familiar with the exam’s process and format, and use the available resources to help them pass the test.

Exam Preparation

Candidates who take the exam as soon as they are eligible have a better pass rate than those who delay. So plan your time accordingly and begin your NCLEX preparation early. You can study using a variety of methods.

Test Format – Computerized Adaptive Testing

Up until 1994, the NCLEX used a standardized pencil-and-paper format, with a score calculated from the number of right answers for a set number of total questions. In ‘94, the exam switched to a “Computerized Adaptive Test (CAT)” format. In adaptive testing, the computer finds the difficulty level at which a candidate answers half of the questions correctly. The computer holds a bank of over 3,000 potential multiple-choice questions, each of which has been assigned a difficulty level. If a correct answer is given, the computer gives a more difficult question next. If an incorrect answer is given, the next question will be simpler.

For this reason, the questions are different for each candidate. Each candidate will get 50% of the questions correct, but it’s the difficulty of the questions that determines whether or not the student passes the exam.

Since the test is given on a computer, results are tabulated along the way. Since one

question’s answer determines the next question offered, candidates cannot return to earlier questions to change the answer.

RN candidates must answer between 75-265 questions, and LPN candidates must answer between 85-205 questions. If the candidate has either a clear-cut pass or fail mark (with 95% statistical reliability) after the minimum number of questions, the exam will end at that point. Otherwise, the exam will continue until the judgment has been made. A five-hour time limit is given.

NCSBN statistics show that it takes first-time, U.S.-educated test-takers just under two hours to complete the PN exam, and that they answer an average of 110 questions. Those taking the RN exam take just over two hours, and answer an average of 120 questions.


Nationwide, first-time NCLEX test-takers have a pass rate of 87.1% for the PN exam, and 80.1% for the RN exam. The overall exam rate (including foreign-educated students and those re-taking the exam) is 79.5% for the PN exam, and 72.1% for the RN exam.

Because the Council reviews each test after the computer grades it, expect to get your official results from your State Board of Nursing a month after your test date.

Results are only given by mail, so most state boards request that you don’t call in for results.

If you don't pass the exam, you will be sent a Diagnostic Profile that will let you know the area(s) in which you were deficient. Most states allow you to retake the exam after 91 days. Find out the rules for your state, and then take the time to prepare, making sure you revisit problem areas.

Each state has different rules regarding when you may begin working. Many insist you have your license beforehand, but in some states you may begin a supervised period of work without an official license. Check your State Board of Nursing to see what is allowed in your state.

Becoming comfortable with the NCLEX exam—understanding the format and taking practice exams—will help you stay relaxed when the big day comes. With your license in hand, your prospects for the future look bright.

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