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The NCLEX is an important part of any nurse’s or future nurse’s career. It is a test that determines whether or not you will receive your nursing licensure, making adequate preparation vital.

However, there are many different question types in the NCLEX, and some will be harder than others. Students studying for the NCLEX should not only review key content, but familiarize themselves with the question and answer format, as well as the overall structure of the test to prepare for the exam. There are several NCLEX study strategies that nurses who have taken the exam and Peterson’s test prep experts recommend.

1. Don’t wait too long after nursing school to take the test

When Kirsten Skov graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Samford University, she knew she wanted to give herself time to study for the NCLEX, but also wanted to ensure she didn’t put her test off for too long after finishing school. Skov decided to give herself a month between graduation and taking the NCLEX. She focused on studying for the entirety of the month, studying for three to four hours per day.

While this was a method that worked well for Skov, your optimal study plan may be different. Use your knowledge of how you have studied for big exams in the past, and factor in other commitments you may have to develop a schedule that works best for you.

Note that Peterson’s online NCLEX test prep products, such as the online learning course or practice tests, allow you to build a customizable study plan to keep you on track.

2. Get in the minds of the test makers

The NCLEX can be tricky because you have to read the questions very carefully to ensure you’re actually answering the question.

“A lot of the answers that they give you [for multiple choice] are right, but they’re not necessarily the best answer or of the most priority. The study books that I used helped me use critical thinking and think about how the test makers write the test,” said Skov.

Finding the best answer involves analyzing the answer choices as well as the specific words used in the question.

“NCLEX questions are written very specifically and there are sometimes indicators in the question that are kind of hidden, they give you a hint as to what the answers are, you just have to look very carefully at how the question is written. So, if you’re able to study and analyze how the question is written, you can better understand how you’re supposed to answer,” said Skov.

When Katarzyna Wolanska, now a Technology QA Engineer at Peterson’s, moved from Poland to the United States, she took the NCLEX so she could continue practicing as a nurse. Wolanska said when she was studying questions of the NCLEX, she focused on keywords the test makers use, particularly what she called “extreme keywords” like “always” or “never”. These keywords can help you differentiate the right answer from a related answer choice. She said she learned the “language of the test” by consistently working through practice questions, which goes to our next strategy.

3. Work through practice questions and tests

“For me, what helped the most was that I did a lot of practice questions and practice tests. When you do practice questions a lot, you start understanding what the test makers expect you to answer,” said Wolanska.

Wolanska said that reviewing the content is helpful in re-establishing your base knowledge, but taking practice tests and answering test questions is what will really help you understand the test style and format.

“You can read something, but that’s not how you’re going to pass the exam. Answering the practice questions and learning from the questions you miss will prepare you for the test,” said Wolanska.

Visit Petersons.com/testprep/nclex for Peterson’s NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN practice tests.

4. Use your study guides, tests, and other materials from nursing school

Keep in mind that earning your nursing degree was largely preparation for the NCLEX, as the exam tests the knowledge you retained from your education. You will probably have a few study materials from school that will be helpful to review before taking the NCLEX.

“During school, I had made study guides to prepare for each test. Then, when I was ready to take the NCLEX, I would pile up the study guides together and go over them to spark my memory,” said Skov.

5. Take a prep course if you can

Spending some time reviewing the base content in a focused way can help improve your quality of studying. This will allow you to develop a study base that you can continue using throughout your study period.

“I would highly recommend taking a prep course to fully review every body system,” said Skov.

Skov recalled focusing on creative methods, such as mnemonics, to spark your memory of key concepts or terms. If you don’t have the time or money to take a prep course, you can replicate some of these strategies on your own by coming up with ways to remember test topics.

There are both in-person and online prep courses available. Peterson’s provides an NCLEX-PN online learning course to allow for flexibility with your schedule.

“Cramming for exams is traditionally a tedious, repetitive task, but Peterson’s NCLEX-PN test prep course provides an interactive studying experience to keep you engaged while prepping for your exam. The lessons contain photographs and graphics so you can visualize the topics being reviewed, and making those visual connections helps to retain the lesson information. There are also a variety of different interactive components throughout the lessons to test your knowledge. The variety of question types and interactivity challenges your brain to look at the content in a different light and allows you to absorb the material in various ways,” said Kris Michaelson, Senior Instructional Designer at Peterson’s.

See also: The Best Study Tips from the Dean Vaughn Total Retention System

6. Focus on tough question types

The NCLEX tests your knowledge in four major areas: safe effective care environment, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, and physiological integrity. However, the questions are presented in a random order as the exam is computer-administered. There are many standard multiple choice questions, but there are also different question types that you may find more difficult. Question types are: multiple choice, multiple response, fill-in-the-blank, hot spot, exhibit, drag-and-drop/ordered response, and audio.

Both Wolanska and Skov agreed that one of these tricky question types came with the instruction, “check all that apply”.

“A big thing that I worked hard on when studying was the “check all that apply” questions. Those questions are tough because you have to get the exact right answer. If you click one answer choice that is wrong, even if the other answers you chose were right, you get the whole answer wrong. So that’s a big thing I would recommend people practice. The more of those that you can practice and get in the gear of feeling more comfortable with the question type, the better, because they can really hurt your score,” said Skov.

Wolanska also recalled having difficulty with a question type that asked her to put the steps of procedures in order. She said this was another question type that called for a more thorough review.

7. Pay attention to your timing and understand the structure

While you want to do your best when answering test questions, you don’t want to spend too much time on any one question. During your practice tests, dial in your pacing.

Keep in mind that you have approximately five hours to complete the exam, but the amount of questions you are given may vary. Those taking the NCLEX-RN test will start by answering 75 questions, while NCLEX-PN test takers will start by answering 85 questions. After the test taker has reached either of these points, the computer will determine if you are clearly above or below the passing standard. If you are clearly above the passing standard, you will pass and be done with the test, and vice versa for if you are clearly below passing standard. If you are near but not clearly above or below the passing standard, you will continue to answer up to 265 questions for the NCLEX-RN test or 205 questions for the NCLEX-PN test.

This excerpt from Peterson’s Master the NCLEX-PN explains why you should not blindly guess at answers:

“If you run out of time, don’t guess at answers. The NCSBN® recommends against guessing when pressed for time. Unlike paper-and-pencil tests in which guessing may help your score, guessing on a computer-adaptive test (CAT), such as the NCLEX-PN®, may actually lower your score.”

While the format of the NCLEX takes some getting used to and preparation for such an important test is necessary, remember that you’ve been preparing for this test the whole time you’ve been in nursing school. Stick to a study plan that will help you adequately prepare for the test, but don’t stress so much over the test that it becomes an inhibitor. Following these NCLEX study strategies as well as your own personal study strategies will help you feel confident on test day–and on your way to becoming a licensed nurse!