As commencement approaches and nursing students scramble to finish capstones, wrap up clinicals, and take finals, there is one big exam hanging over their heads: the NCLEX.

Although it’s been a few years since I was one of the sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated students poring over books and study guides in the local coffee shop, I remember the feeling like it was yesterday. When graduation ceremonies are over you are so close and yet so far from the real end of it all (which is actually just the beginning). You want to celebrate, but a sense of dread still looms. Hang in there! You’ll get through this and it will soon be a distant memory. And in the meantime, here’s my best advice for NCLEX prep and success. 

1. Don’t schedule too soon….but don’t schedule too late, either.

I remember being so frustrated at all the hurdles and steps required to take the exam. Once the paperwork was finalized by the school you still had to wait for your authorization to test, which then allows you to schedule the exam. There is a sweet spot between scheduling too soon after graduation and waiting too long; I recommend scheduling the test 4-6 weeks after graduation. First, you need a break, you’ve earned it! Catch up on sleep and relax for a few days before diving into the exam prep. But also make sure you will have enough time to retest if necessary—especially if you have a job lined up with a specific start date. Most states require you wait 45 days after a failed attempt before you can retake the exam.

2. Pick the time that works for you.

I picked the earliest possible testing time because I am the early bird who wants to get it over with. If you are absolutely not a morning person, and you relish the pre-exam hours to cram in your car, pick an afternoon time. Look back at your schedule of nursing courses and analyze whether a certain class time led to greater exam success. Consider rush hour and traffic near the testing site, too, as this can add hours to the already early time you’ll be waking up that day!

3. Sleep well, and go easy on the caffeine.

Staying up the night before the exam will certainly not be the difference between a passing and a failing score; in fact, it may hinder your performance. Try to take a quick nap after large study sessions when you’re tired, as studies have also shown people who nap after learning information were better able to recall it later. Slow down on the coffee, too, especially on the morning or afternoon of the test, as it will only increase your anxiety.

4. Find your own NCLEX Bible.

For me it was Saunders, which had a CD-ROM component allowing you to test online and read rationales over and over again. Amazon has hundreds of books, with lots of online options. The best way for me to learn was through studying wrong-answer rationales.

5. Don’t forget to study specific NCLEX strategies.

Not everyone will benefit from an NCLEX review course, so don’t feel compelled to take one if you’re not that kind of learner (or if you don’t have the cash). But it’s worth the investment to purchase a book that reviews the strategies for test taking, not just the exam topics.

6. Use the nursing process.

Don’t overthink and try to guess how the question is trying to trick you. One of the most helpful tips I remember someone telling me was that you have to assess first. If there is a question with several action-related responses, choose the one that is assessment, since before doing anything else, you must assess!

7. Read the question TWICE before reading any of the answers.

All of us at one time or another have read a question too quickly, causing us to miss the key word of “not” or “except.” Pay close attention to those key exception words. After reading the question, rephrase the question in your own words to yourself. What is this question asking me? Think of what your answer would be to your rephrased question, and then read the answer choices.

8. Be prepared for a 76th question.

Although it is possible to pass the exam in 75 questions, chances are, you will take more than that. Don’t put so much pressure on yourself that when the 76th question pops up you freak out, assume you’ve failed, and then cannot refocus on the questions. Keep your cool!

Well-prepared students are most likely to pass this exam. Breathe, take your time, and take a few seconds to gather yourself before you click start. Take a break during the exam if you need it to clear your head and refresh. Pack snacks and water in your locker and a treat in the car for yourself when it’s all over.

Laura Kinsella

Laura Kinsella, BSN, RN, CEN, is an emergency room nurse in Washington, DC.

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