Is the NCLEX Hard? Let’s Look at the Actual Test Difficulty

Written by: Kristine Thorndyke

Nursing school is one of the most rewarding paths you can consider for your future. You have the ability to enter the medical field, a high-paying and emotionally rewarding career, all without the same rigors involved in becoming a licensed physician. The NCLEX is the test you’ll take to become certified as a nursing professional. But how hard is the NCLEX? If you understand the difficulty of the test, you’ll have a better idea of the rigors associated with nursing school and the challenges you’re likely to face. We’re going to answer your question “Is the NCLEX hard?” and hopefully share some more helpful details along the way! 

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Is the NCLEX Hard? Let’s Look at Pass Rates…

It’s common for studying potential nurses to become discouraged when they don’t pass the NCLEX on the first try. Different states have different standards for the time in which you must pass the NCLEX. Some jurisdictions also have a maximum number of times that you’re allowed to take the test, so your individual restrictions will vary depending on the Board of Nursing in your area. See more details on how many times you can take the NCLEX

With that said, a person is allowed to take the NCLEX up to eight times each year. There must be a rest period of 45 days between each test, which allows you more time to study for the exam. It’s easier to examine the pass rates of people than to question the number of times you’re able to take the NCLEX. Even if you fail the first time, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect when you take the test for the second time, making the NCLEX less hard. 

If you’re considering a career in nursing, the first-time pass rate for the NCLEX might surprise you. Despite how hard the NCLEX exam is, test takers who are educated in the United States had a pass rate of 89% in 2018 when taking the NCLEX-RN exam. Meanwhile, the NCLEX-PN exam had a pass rate of around 84% for the same demographic. That means the answer to is the NCLEX hard is more like a response “it’s hard, but you will pass the first time if you study.” 

For people who had been educated in the United States, the pass rate for a test retake was lower. When taking the test for the second time, the NCLEX-RN had a pass rate of 45% and the NCLEX-PN had a pass rate of 35%. This can be largely attributed to the fact that a first-time fail indicates that the knowledge might not have been as deeply ingrained as it should be. If you fail the NCLEX for the first time and study hard for the second test, you’ll have a better chance of passing.

If you’re educated outside the United States, the chances of passing the NCLEX lower, at least according to the statistics. Internationally educated students had a pass rate of about 44% when taking the NCLEX-RN and about 51% when taking the NCLEX-PN. Part of this might be because United States nursing schools focus more heavily on the subjects that will come up during the official test.

See more data on the 2018 pass rates here.
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How Hard is the NCLEX – Actual Test Difficulty

The NCLEX isn’t like the standardized tests you’re probably used to. Many standardized tests use a series of static test questions and then give you a score based on the percentage of questions answered correctly. You’ll be given results that outline the percentile range you rank in compared to the other test takers. But the NCLEX isn’t structured like this. Instead, it’s graded exclusively on a pass/fail basis. Percentile ranges aren’t calculated and don’t matter; the only thing that matters is proving you’re competent enough to practice as a nurse. Find out more about what’s a passing NCLEX score.

The NCLEX is designed with the use of computer adaptive testing (CAT). This is a testing method which scales the questions to your skill level. When you answer questions correctly, the testing software assumes that you understand the base knowledge associated with questions at that level. It will then ask you more difficult questions. When you answer questions incorrectly, the test will ask you less difficult questions.

So is the NCLEX hard? It really depends on your level of knowledge. The software scores your test based on whether you have enough solid knowledge for responsible practicing as a nurse. The number of questions you get right versus wrong doesn’t matter; what matters far more is the difficulty level that you’re able to answer questions at. For this reason, the number of questions you’ll be asked varies widely. There’s a minimum of seventy-five questions, but you might also be asked more than two hundred.

There are only a few ways in which you can fail the NCLEX:

  • You answer the maximum number of test questions, and the test has not yet ascertained that you meet the minimum competency standards for a nurse
  • You run out of time before you have answered the minimum number of test questions
  • You run out of time, and the past sixty answers you have given do not demonstrate that you meet the competency requirements for a nurse

Tips for Being Ready for the NCLEX

  1. Don’t cram. You should begin studying for the test at least three months in advance. This gives you time to review all of the sections that will be featured in the test itself. Cramming means that you’ll have a too-short time to stuff too much knowledge into your brain. Don’t have 3 months? Try out this 5-week NCLEX study plan
  2. Prepare with a vetted NCLEX book. There are multiple books published regarding the exact questions you might see on the NCLEX. You should use one of these to study. It will give you a better sense of what to expect on the test and help to target your studying.
  3. Utilize online question banks like BoardVitals: These question banks and practice tests give you a real time sense of the knowledge that will be required. Receive a 10% off discount on BoardVitals with our promo code: NERDS. Read our In-Depth BoardVitals Review.
  4. Focus on problem areas. You can use the previously mentioned materials to understand where your knowledge gaps lie. Perhaps you just discovered that you are still having trouble differentiating between subjective vs. objective data. Then this will help you target your study materials to the information where your performance is weakest.
  5. Arrive early on test day. Early arrival gives you a better chance to become familiar with the testing environment. Triple check what to bring to the NCLEX and what items need to stay at home. 

Did you take the NCLEX already? How hard was the NCLEX for you? Let us know by commenting below.