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Every graduate nurse knows that the final hurdle before they become an RN is passing the NCLEX. This rigorous exam assures that every RN has the competency they need before they enter practice. Failure means retaking the test or, in a worst-case scenario, never fulfilling one’s career goal of becoming an RN.   

How can a graduate nurse successfully prepare for the NCLEX? 

One important factor is to know the common mistakes that people can make, from studying too hard (yes, totally possible!) to not getting enough sleep. Knowledge is power as we all know, so the more we know about the problems that can come up, the more we can create strategies to combat those and ensure success.  

NCLEX mistakes and solutions 

If you’ve completed your nursing school program and are preparing for the NCLEX, then you know that your course of study was designed around successfully educating students to pass their boards. In fact, every state board of nursing monitors for that. Any school of nursing with consistent pass rates below 80% is put on notice by the state board and will have to show a plan for correction.  

However, here are some common mistakes nursing students make, and how to prevent them.  

1) Not Testing Soon Enough 

This is the biggest mistake I see. Students who wait too long to test after graduation can lose momentum. I know that students want to push it out months because they want to take that time to study. Unfortunately, so much of what was learned in school can be lost during that time.  

Because it takes a while to get all the paperwork through and get your testing date, I recommend that students start the process immediately upon graduation. The sweet spot is no more than 4-5 weeks after graduation. You really want to schedule within that window.  

2) Not Reading the Questions 

Another mistake I see is that students don’t fully read each question. There’s so much anxiety because this is such a high-stakes test, students just rush through the questions. They know it’s a timed test. It’s an adaptive test. How you answer one question will change subsequent questions. This can be incredibly stressful. It’s important to thoroughly read the question, give yourself time to consider it, and then move on. Don’t overthink.  

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3) Poor Study Habits 

Students often try to cram right before the test. You can make this mistake a couple of different ways. You can study too much, as much as 100 questions per day, or you can cram on the day before the test, staying up all hours. Neither is bound to be successful. Instead, create a structured study plan for the weeks up to the test date.  

So how should you study? The best strategy is to include simulation tests in your study plan. This means taking timed practice tests under the same conditions as if you were taking the real thing – no paper, pens, computers, or phones. If you simulate the testing environment, you’ll have less anxiety on test day.  

Additionally, in your practice exams you can thoroughly read each question as well as the rationale for the right answer. This can help you apply critical thinking skills to the test.

4) No Self-Care 

The day before the exam, use that time to take care of yourself. Take a break from studying. Exercise, eat well, and try to get a good night’s sleep. One the day of the exam, fueling with a healthy breakfast and yes, caffeine, can help you stay sharp for the long hours ahead. 

Students often just fry themselves, by stressing out, overstudying, or not studying in an effective way. By creating a plan that includes mental and physical well-being, you have a better chance to be successful.  

5) Panicking 

You’re taking the test and you stress out because it feels like every question you’ve answered is wrong. Fear and worry take over, and you start to panic. Don’t be discouraged! From my own experience and from the experience of my colleagues and peers, we’ve all agreed that we did not feel confident about any of the questions.  

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The adaptive nature of the NCLEX means that if the testing software judges that it has properly assessed a student’s abilities, the test will cut off. You’ve either scored so well that the test knows you’ve passed, or you’ve scored so low that you’ve failed, and there’s no point in continuing.  

People often think that if they pass that mark and get the full 150 questions, they feel like they’ve failed. It’s important for people to know that they could be the person randomly selected to receive every question, which is part of the system.  

 

NCLEX tips and tactics 

You’re ready. You’ve planned your test strategy, you’ve taken simulation tests, you’ve scheduled your test for a month after graduation, and you’re on it. What are some other tips for successfully passing your boards? 

A) NCLEX first, then work 

Many graduate nurses get their first job out of nursing school before they pass the NCLEX. That’s understandable. People have student loans and they want to start their career without delay. Most states allow graduate nurses to work as RNs for a period of time before they pass their boards. 

However, the pressure of starting a nursing job plus studying for the boards can be incredibly stressful. And if a student doesn’t pass that first attempt, they may have to switch to being a tech, which means working at a lower salary. There’s also stigma attached – colleagues will know that you failed the exam.  

If at all possible, I recommend that graduate nurses focus on the test and then start a new job.  

B) Make use of all available resources 

There are plenty of resources out there for taking the NCLEX and nursing boards. I highly encourage students to find the materials that work best for them. I used a deck of NCLEX flashcards and did thousands of those over four weeks. Some examples of resources include review materials from Kaplan, Saunders, Board Vitals, and other providers.  

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Don’t forget your peers and mentors. Form study groups with your classmates and turn to your nursing instructors and other experienced colleagues for advice and guidance.  

C) Try, try again 

You take the test and fail. Now what? Schedule a retest. You can retake the exam 45 days after your failed exam, but I recommend no sooner than that 2- to 3-month window. That gives you time to reset and plan your strategy. This time, you’re going in with more knowledge and experience. So go in, do your best, take each question as it comes. 

Most importantly, be kind to yourself. This is a rigorous test. It’s intimidating. But remember—you’re in good company.   

Face the NCLEX with confidence 

Passing the NCLEX confirms that you have the professional competency required to be an RN. It’s an achievement to be proud of. Knowing the common NCLEX mistakes and the best ways to avoid them can boost your chances of success. Remember – you’re not alone. Your colleagues have all been there. They’re waiting for you to join their ranks.  

Dr. Mariea Snell, DNP, APRN, FNP-C
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