The Path to an Advanced Nursing Career: How to Study for the NCLEX

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Nursing student studying for NCLEX exam
The U.S. nursing shortage is projected to last until 2030, which means there are numerous opportunities for skilled nurses within the health care field. Individuals who want to pursue this career path should know that the journey toward becoming a licensed RN begins with the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). The purpose of the NCLEX is to determine whether someone has the knowledge to safely begin practice as an entry-level nurse. All states require that nurses be licensed, which means that all nurse candidates must pass the NCLEX licensing exam prior to employment.

Passing the NCLEX is a decisive step forward for anyone who aspires to build a career in nursing. From there, those who are eager to explore more advanced nursing roles in the future can look forward to other educational and professional milestones, such as earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Choosing an Advanced Nursing Career Path

Professionals who are at the beginning of their nursing careers may be interested in pursuing an advanced nursing education in the future. For example, a licensed practical nurse (LPN) or licensed vocational nurse (LVN) who has completed a certification program may choose to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree to become a registered nurse (RN). Registered nurses who wish for more professional autonomy and the ability to diagnose patients and prescribe care might consider an online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program as a means of earning their DNP credential.

Although the roles and responsibilities of LPNs, LVNs, RNs, and DNPs vary substantially, all nursing professionals are required to pass the NCLEX at the start of their nursing careers.

Two Types of NCLEX Exams

There are two types of NCLEX exams available: the NCLEX-PN, which is for aspiring practical or vocational nurses (LPNs/LVNs), and the NCLEX-RN, which is for candidates who want to become a licensed registered nurse (RN). The latter can be taken by those with either an associate or bachelor’s RN degree.

These computerized tests consist mostly of multiple-choice questions and are graded on a pass/fail format. Aspiring nurses who wonder how to study for the NCLEX should know that while the tests are similar, they differ in two key ways: the number of questions administered and the amount of time given to complete each exam.

For example, the NCLEX-PN has no fewer than 85 questions with a maximum of 205 questions. It must be completed in five hours. On the other hand, the NCLEX-RN has at least 75 questions with a maximum of 265 questions. This exam must be completed in six hours.

Data from the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) indicates that to register for the NCLEX, associate degree RNs and BSN RNs must first submit an application for licensure/registration to the nursing regulatory body (NRB) where they wish to practice. Once the application is submitted, candidates receive their authorization to test (ATT), at which point they can register for the exam. Testing is available all year around.

How to Study for the NCLEX

To pass the NCLEX, students will need to develop a study plan. This includes downloading a test plan, taking practice tests, finding a study group, and listening to NCLEX podcasts. Students also have the option of taking NCLEX study courses through various colleges and companies.

Download the Test Plan: The NCSBN encourages students to review NCLEX test plans before their exam appointment. The plans, which serve as blueprints for the exam and provide information about the content that will be tested, are available on the NCSBN website.

Take Practice Tests: There are various free and for-purchase NCLEX practice tests available online. Practice exams include previously used test questions. They are designed to help students get a feel for what the exam experience may be like on the test day.

Find a Study Group: Students who participate in a study group may find they’re less prone to procrastinate. They may also learn faster, gain a greater understanding of test prep topics, and be better able to fill in gaps in their study notes by using the group’s collective knowledge.

Listen to NCLEX Podcasts: NCLEX podcasts cover a variety of topics, including cardiac review, critical care nursing, psychosocial integrity, and managing ethical dilemmas in nursing. Podcasts can often be downloaded and listened to on demand.

NCLEX Test Categories

The categories of NCLEX tests reflect four client-needs categories: Safe and Effective Care Environment, Health Promotion and Maintenance, Psychosocial Integrity, and Physiological Integrity.

Safe and Effective Care Environment: This section includes questions about Safety and Infection Control, such as accident prevention and hazardous materials, and Management of Care, which covers topics such as informed consent and ethical practices. Safety and Infection Control accounts for 9-15% of exam questions, while Management of Care accounts for 17-23% of exam questions.

Health Promotion and Maintenance: In this client-needs category, students are tested on their knowledge of topics such as postpartum and newborn care, lifestyle choices, and high-risk behaviors. Kaplan, the test preparation company, estimates that this section accounts for 6-12% of the exam’s questions.

Psychosocial Integrity: Kaplan estimates this category also accounts for 6-12% of the exam. In this section, students are tested on nursing actions such as stress management, chemical dependency, coping mechanisms, and end-of-life care.

Physiological Integrity: The final client-needs category consists of two sections: Basic Care and Comfort and Pharmacological, which accounts for 6-12% of the exam, and Parenteral Therapies, which accounts for 12-18% of the exam. The Basic Care and Comfort section covers topics such as assistive devices, personal hygiene, and oral hydration. The Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies section tests students on topics such as intravenous therapy, dosage calculation, and pharmacological pain management.

The Benefits of the BSN to DNP Degree

Nurses who are at the start of their nursing careers should know there are a variety of benefits associated with completing a BSN to DNP degree. DNP-prepared nurses are not only seen as leaders in the health care field, they can pursue a range of specialized patient care paths, such as Adult-Gerontology (AGNP), Family (FNP), Pediatrics (PNP), Psychiatric Mental Health (PMHNP), and Women’s Health (WHNP).

Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP): The AGNP program provides future nurse practitioners with the skills and knowledge to address the care needs of aging populations.

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP): DNP graduates who are FNPs work with patients of all ages in a family practice setting.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP): BSN to DNP candidates who are most interested in providing care to infants, children, and teens are likely to be drawn to this specialization . Upon graduation, PNP specialists possess the knowledge to provide care to pediatric patients.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP): Nurse practitioners who hold a PMHNP credential understand how to provide care to patients with a variety of mental health disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia.

Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP): WHNP specialists are qualified to provide a myriad of services to women of all ages, including gynecologic care, prenatal care, and postpartum care.

Learn More

While passing the NCLEX is the final hurdle in obtaining a nursing license, it’s only the first step for those who are interested in becoming a nurse practitioner or pursuing other advanced roles in nursing. The online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program at Regis College is designed to provide nurses with the knowledge and skills to move up in their careers.

Discover how completing the online BSN to DNP program from Regis College can prepare you for leadership opportunities in nursing.

Recommended Reading
The Benefits of a Nurse Mentorship Program for New Nurses
Crunching the Numbers: What Is the Average DNP Salary?
What Degree Does a Nurse Practitioner Need? Why Advanced Programs Are Critical


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet
Atlanta Journal Constitution, “The Great Nursing Shortage: Which States are Hit Hardest and What’s Being Done to Help?”
Kaplan, “NCLEX Strategies: Critical Thinking & Rewording Questions” Kaplan, “What is the NCLEX-RN?”
Houston Chronicle, “What Is the Difference Between the NCLEX-PN and the NCLEX-RN?”
National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Application & Registration
National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Exam Day
National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Test Plans
Player FM, “NCLEX Podcasts”