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5 NCLEX Test Taking Strategies


If you become a registered nurse in the United States, you’re required to pass the National Council Licensure Examination, better known as the NCLEX. The test touches a wide variety of topics. Anatomy, pharmacology, administration, best practices, and how to talk to patients are all covered. There are also different types of question formats, and the test changes every two years.

Studying all the material is hugely important, and knowing the different kinds of questions you’ll see is critical too, but you also need strategies to tackle the whole test. Here’s how to take the NCLEX strategically from start to finish.

Related resource: Ask an Expert: Guide to the NCLEX

1. Aim for 60 seconds.

When you take practice exams (and the NCLEX itself), try to spend about one minute on each question. Obviously, you may answer some questions quicker than that. But know it will take more time to answer others, so 60 seconds is a good goal to shoot for. Also, if it helps alleviate some pressure, remember that the NCLEX is set up so that you have a little more than one minute per question—1.3 minutes to be exact.

2. Stop after 2 minutes.

Similarly, you should avoid taking more than two minutes per question. If you’ve sped through a series of questions in under a minute, you’ll have accumulated enough extra time for harder questions—but even so you should set a limit. Two minutes is a long time, so if you can’t figure out the answer by then, you likely don’t know the answer, and strategically you just need to move on.

Related resource: Nursing Lab Values to Know

3. Avoid second-guessing your answers.

Sometimes, with a jolt of inspiration, you’ll remember the exact calculation or word you need to answer a question that has stumped you. If so, it’s great to change the answer you first put down as a guess. If you never feel so inspired with certainty, do not change an answer before you submit it. You’re going to second-guess yourself on questions where you never feel certainty. That’s common, but you need to have a reason for changing your answer that makes more sense to you than your first inclination. Otherwise, you will often switch to the wrong answer.

4. Remember it’s random.

The answer to each question is randomized by the computer, so your answer option strategy should be to abandon strategizing. Do not always guess option three if you don’t know the answer, and don’t avoid option three just because you chose it for the past two questions. It’s random, so focus on the options and choosing the correct one, not their order. Computer scientists and other people who work with random numbers like to say that randomness is clumpy. That is, sometimes it looks like there’s a pattern for things when there isn’t. Don’t let that lead you down the wrong path.

Related resource: 10 Common Types of NCLEX Questions

5. Remember you can’t go back.

When analyzing a question, eliminate all the options you can, choose the best answer, and then move on—emotionally and strategically. Even if you feel evenly split between two options, it’s wiser to keep going through the exam than to sit and worry over a single question, especially if it’s taking you more than two minutes. You can’t go back and change an answer you’ve already given, so forget about the question once you move past it. Worrying and obsessing over a question you didn’t know will only distract your focus from the rest of the exam.

For more NCLEX study strategies and advice, have a look at our NCLEX tips e-book. We also love feedback. Post to our Facebook page or give us a shout on Twitter with comments or requests for specific information you’d like to see in the series.

Happy studying!

– Cheryl Armstrong, MS, RN

– Britt Baer, RN, MSN-HCSM, SANE