Often it’s not nursing knowledge that makes the difference in passing nursing boards, but having strategies for answering questions so that it’s apparent that you really “get it.” There are ways to prepare for what is often a daunting test so you can take it with complete confidence that all the time, money, and hard work that went into nursing school won’t go to waste. We interviewed experts, educators, and other nurses who aced these exams—first time around or later—and share their most helpful hints with you here.
Jake Schubert, RN, BSN
Travel nurse and executive director of Nursity.com, an online NCLEX strategies and review course
“The average candidate takes one or two prep or review course, and spends an additional 40 to 50 hours on other independent study,” according to Schubert. He recommends that students talk to their peers about their experiences and read online testimonials. In addition, check to see if your school has partnered with a test-preparation program. “Some schools provide review courses as part of the capstone curricula—ATI, Kaplan, and HESI are the big corporations with relationships with many of the schools. Most students take an additional course as well,” he adds.
2. Understand the NCLEX format and how it works.
“When you intimately know the beast, it won’t be as intimidating,” says Schubert. Because this is a computer adaptive test that uses algorithms, it’s different from every other test students have taken in their entire academic career. You must also prepare for it differently. “If you did exceptionally well or performed extremely poorly, the exam will end at 75 questions,” he explains. But if you are somewhere in the middle, it can go up to 265 questions to assess how well you know the material and whether you’ll be able to perform as a nurse in a safe manner. (See Schubert’s YouTube video—“How to Pass the NCLEX with a 58%” for more details about this type of test.)
3. Strategize how you will approach questions in which you don’t know the answer.
Most students who graduate from nursing school have sufficient content knowledge, but because the test is computer adaptive it will find an area where you are weak, says Schubert. “The NCLEX will assess your judgment as much as anything else.” What will you do when you don’t know what to do? You need strategies for these types of questions. “How do you answer a question about content you never learned? Strategy. Ask yourself, ‘Why did they write this question? Is it a medication question? A judgment question?’ As a new graduate nurse, that’s all you do all day, is try to figure out what to do in situations you don’t necessarily fully understand. This is much of what the NCLEX is assessing—will you make a safe decision?” he adds.
4. Don’t wait to study or take the exam.
The longer you wait, the more you forget, and the worst you score. “Take the exam immediately after graduating from nursing school,” Schubert advises. “Begin studying for the NCLEX before you graduate, to keep the material fresh in your mind, which will improve your score. Pass rates go down the longer a candidate waits after graduation,” he says. To find out more about pass rates, we recommend you go directly to the source: the National Council of State Boards of Nursing website at www.ncsbn.org.
5. Figure out the best way for you to study, and then stick with your plan.
“Keeping to a study schedule and certain days and times is important,” says Schubert. “But don’t cram. Instead, spread it out over a longer period.” He also recommends reducing distractions, such as television, devices, and social media as well as calls or visits from family and friends. Make sure your study area and equipment are well set up so that you’re comfortable during each study session. Then take frequent breaks so that you don’t deplete your energy, and switch among various subjects every half hour or so to maintain focus.
Launette Woolforde, EdD, DNP, RN-BC
Vice president of system nursing education at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York
“When you don’t have minority role models that reflect who you are, it can hamper your optimism and pursuit of certain goals,” says Woolforde. “For example, I remember reading that 12% of the U.S. population is African American, but only 2% of nurses in the workforce are African American.” The lack of role models may extend to educators, staff, and mentors who can help monitor and guide students. On the other hand, those missing pieces of the career puzzle “can serve to motivate students to start a new trend and make a clean break from what’s happened before,” she adds.
2. Be aware that factors such as language, cultural norms, and your environment can influence your standardized testing experience.
Being a first-generation nurse or college student, for example, means you have to figure out your own way around in academia and career preparation, says Woolforde. “Minority nurses might not fit the norm in their family or culture. But I’m happy to see so many nurses exceeding these norms. Soon, minorities will be the majority in the U.S.”
Minority test-takers may have to “think against” their own cultural norms, cautions Woolforde. “Maybe in your culture women do not make decisions. You have a question about a patient coming into the ER—a male with a wife—and the wife is upset and vocal about it. How would you answer the question? The correct response is ‘Reassure the wife,’ but what if in your culture, wives aren’t spoken to? A wife may be dismissed in that culture.”
3. Do two or three things to “pump yourself up” each day.
“Overthinking and overprocessing while studying is a problem,” says Woolforde. “Don’t try to master everything. Do a little bit every day. Take tests over and over. Spend more time doing practice tests than in reviewing your general knowledge.” Some review services provide assessments, so take a look at your pharmacology scores, for instance, and decide if you need to allocate more time to that section of the test. Nursing students know a lot, but when they look at the questions they may not understand what the question is really asking. “It’s not ‘What is this medication for?’ but more about ‘What would you do to prepare a patient?’ For example, if a patient is taking Lasix then he needs a diet that’s rich in potassium,” she says. “Review what you’ve learned over the years. Believe in yourself. You’ve come this far, so you can pass this exam. There’s great positivity that comes from that belief. There’s power there.”
4. Don’t let fear hold you back.
Fear of failure and fear of the unknown are two major hurdles for many minority nursing students, says Woolforde. “They ask, ‘Am I smart enough?’ They’re afraid that they’ll fail the test because they don’t know the right answers. They’re afraid there’s material that they didn’t get in school or that they didn’t study it enough. I usually tell them all that might be true—you might not know the answer outright. But you can usually rule out two answers and reduce your choices. Then reread the question, think about it, and let the right answer surface,” she advises.
5. Think beyond the NCLEX.
“Even during your orientation, you can be thinking about specialty certification,” says Woolforde. “If you work in oncology and pediatrics but like peds, then you may decide, ‘This is where I want to spend my career.’” Next, consider specialty board certification as a stamp of expertise in an area of practice. In order to maintain that certification, you have to maintain a minimum number of continuing education hours and must practice for a minimum number of hours there. “Certification shows that you’re current with best practices; you’re currently practicing and staying on top of trends and issues in that specialty,” she adds.
G. Rumay Alexander, EdD, RN, FAAN
Interim chief diversity officer and director of the Office of Inclusive Excellence in the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
For highly vulnerable students, every test becomes a test of language proficiency, says Alexander. Multiple choice questions are especially problematic, she adds, so practice to understand how they’re structured and how to answer them. “Outside of the U.S., most countries don’t use multiple choice questions on tests, so international students may need more help to pass. Non-English speakers typically need to translate questions into their own language and then retranslate their answer in English. Older students are another minority group that is disadvantaged; they’re out of practice with test-taking.”
2. Understand that half the battle is staying level-headed.
“Try not to let your brain get hijacked by emotions,” advises Alexander. “Avoid being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired [“H.A.L.T.” is a good memory aid]. Make sure you’re well-nourished, well-rested, and really and truly try not to get panicked because you don’t know the answer immediately. Answer the questions you are certain you know and then revisit the questions you skipped.” It’s normal for people taking the NCLEX to think that they’re failing, so try not to be overwhelmed if you need to skip questions. Usually, you are doing fine, so just stay the course.
3. Tap the various staff members and other resources that your school provides.
“We have student advisors who meet with students and take them through different tests and practice exams,” says Alexander. Practice questions come from the end of textbooks, or students go online and get questions that best address their weak spots. “Students who have test anxiety can get help at a center that helps with managing anxiety and practice with testing, too,” she adds.
4. Find your happy place.
When highly vulnerable students were not passing gatekeeper exams at her school, Alexander asked the school’s “cultural coaches” to work with them. “We told the distressed group to forget about the exam and we asked them this question: ‘If you didn’t have that coming up, what would you do?’ Their response was ‘Let’s have a party!’ so we blasted music for 40 minutes and they taught each other new dances. There was laughter, joy, and smiles. Then they went on to study for the exam.” The nursing students were advised to do visualization exercises for stress reduction, like the school’s winning basketball team did before a game. “We told them, ‘When you’re stuck on a question during the exam, go back to this time. Remember the dance or anything that makes you feel peace, joy, or sense of accomplishment.’” The visualizations worked, and students later reported that their anxiety was greatly reduced when they applied the technique.
5. Understand that not everyone will pass the exam on the first try—and that’s OK.
“If you failed, well, you’re not the first person who has,” says Alexander. “Maybe you need to practice more or review a certain part again. Students repeat exams all the time. It’s not a denial of your dream; it’s a delay. Maybe you need to work more on test anxiety or preparation. Failing should inform you, not defeat you.”
Sometimes students face difficulties right before the exam that throw them off course, such as a suddenly ill child or a minor fender bender. Everybody has a bad day, Alexander explains, and the main thing is to resist the urge to ruminate. “Instead, focus on what’s next,” she suggests. “Ask yourself, ‘What do I want? What’s my next move?’ Remember, there is a skill to test-taking and it takes intentional preparation. Prepare, don’t despair!”
There are so many ways to prepare for the nursing boards now, what with new technology as well as in real-life social support. You can pick and choose the techniques that work best for you. Take an online review course, use an app, study with a group, or set up an at-home program. Success is absolutely within your reach!
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