How Hard is the NCLEX-RN? – (16 Biggest Challenges & Ways to Overcome)

Written By: Darby Faubion BSN, RN

Are you a nursing student or a recent nursing school graduate? Have you been preparing to take the licensure exam and wonder, "Is the NCLEX hard?” It is natural to be concerned and, “How hard is the NCLEX-RN?" is something all nursing students ask. In this article, I will share 16 challenges that make the NCLEX-RN exam hard and ways to overcome them. When you have finished reading, you will have a better idea of what to expect on the test and how to prepare for it.

Is The NCLEX-RN Really Hard?

At some point, every nursing student struggles with the question, “Is the NCLEX hard?" While the simple answer is "yes," it really isn't that simple at all. People have different learning styles and methods by which they approach testing. Some NCLEX test-takers feel the test is the most challenging test they have taken, while others think it is not. In my experience as both a nurse and nurse educator, I have learned that no two people approach the NCLEX the same. The NCLEX is, hands-down, one of the most important tests you will ever take, but there are ways to prepare that may help ease the stress.


Why Is The NCLEX-RN Hard?

The NCLEX-RN will test your ability to analyze situations and apply the knowledge you acquired in school to find solutions. Rather than using memorization skills, logic and critical thinking skills are required to succeed on this exam, making it more comprehensive and challenging. So, if you find yourself asking, "How hard is the NCLEX-RN? - The short answer is, it's very hard. Although the NCLEX-RN is hard, you can implement some strategies that will help increase your chances of success.

Is The NCLEX-RN Harder Than Nursing School?

As a nurse and nurse educator, I have heard opinions from both students and colleagues about whether the NCLEX-RN is harder than nursing school. The answer to the question of whether the NCLEX-RN is harder than nursing school is a matter of opinion.

Your success on the exam determines if/when you can enter the workforce as a licensed nurse, but no pressure, right. The NCLEX-RN tests whether you can provide safe, efficient patient care in various situations using the knowledge and skills you gained in nursing school.

Don't freak out! If you pass nursing school and utilize tools to help you prepare for the NCLEX, you can succeed. Remember, you made it this far!


Every test-taker has strengths and weaknesses. One way to prepare for a hard test, like the NCLEX, is to anticipate challenges and find ways to overcome them. Let’s look at the 16 most common challenges NCLEX candidates face and ways you can overcome them.

1. Second-Guessing Your Abilities

About the Challenge:

It is not uncommon for NCLEX test-takers to second-guess whether they are prepared enough to take the test. Second-guessing your abilities can lead to anxiety about the test, leading to difficulty on test day.

How to Overcome:

The NCLEX-RN is hard, but so is nursing school. While you must continue to prepare for the test, it is essential to acknowledge how far you have come and give yourself some credit. You made it through nursing school and are about to embark on a career as a nurse. One of the best ways to overcome self-doubt is to prove your abilities. You can accomplish this by taking practice tests and improving your score. Every test you take is another opportunity to prove to yourself how capable you are of passing the NCLEX-RN.

2. Changing Answers Repeatedly

About the Challenge:

The NCLEX is hard, and you want to do well on the exam. A common mistake test-takers make is to change answers repeatedly.

How to Overcome:

If you answer a question and realize you have chosen an incorrect answer, it is okay to change your answer to the correct option. However, you should only change your answer when you are sure your first answer is wrong. If you are not 100% sure, go with your first instinct.

3. Reading Questions Too Fast

About the Challenge:

Because the NCLEX-RN test is timed, many candidates get anxious and try to go through questions too fast. The maximum number of questions on the NCLEX-RN is 145, and you have five hours to complete the test. The average time it takes to answer a multiple-choice question is sixty seconds. If you answer the maximum number of questions in the maximum time allowed, that equals an average of two minutes per question.

How to Overcome:

To overcome the challenge of reading questions too fast, simply slow down. Take your time to read each question and answer options thoroughly before making a selection.

4. Cramming Before the Test

About the Challenge:

Even the most experienced students can tend to cram before a major test. It is one of the biggest and most important challenges to overcome if you want to take and pass the NCLEX-RN. Cramming content is basically the method of trying to gather a large amount of information and stuff it into your short-term memory. While you may remember some facts or statistics, the NCLEX will require you to use critical thinking and skills application, which you cannot develop in a short period of time. Additionally, trying to cram content before a test can dramatically increase test anxiety and can be counterproductive.

How to Overcome:

Instead of cramming for the NCLEX, create a study plan and follow it. Dedicate a set amount of time each day or week to studying. The NCLEX is hard; so, you need to study hard and consistently. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) provides a test plan describing the content you will see on the NCLEX-RN. By taking advantage of resources to prepare and spending adequate time in preparation, you can improve your chances of success on test day.

5. Not Using the Right Study Tools

About the Challenge:

You know that the NCLEX-RN is hard, but with the right tools, you can prepare for success.

How to Overcome:

I understand you have already invested time and money into earning a nursing degree but making an investment in the right NCLEX study tools is also essential. There are many tools available to help you prepare for the NCLEX, and using the right ones is vital if you want to succeed. Buy a Comprehensive NCLEX Study Guide. Utilize practice tests... lots of them.

6. Not Getting Enough Rest Before the Test

About the Challenge:

Whether you stay awake worrying about taking the NCLEX or have bad sleep habits, it could affect your ability to do well on the test. Lack of sleep can cause headaches, increased anxiety, difficulty concentrating, and slow response time, all of which can have a negative impact on your test-taking ability.

How to Overcome:

If you want to perform at your best, it is vital to develop good habits now. While not everyone needs eight or ten hours of sleep every night, you do need rest. The best way to overcome the challenge of insufficient rest is to establish a routine that includes rest and sleep periods. Go to sleep at the same time every night as much as possible. Make sure you put electronics away and turn the television off. You will find that a good night's sleep will make a dramatic improvement in your overall performance, not only on the NCLEX but in everyday tasks.

7. Reading Too Much into a Question

About the Challenge:

The NCLEX is hard, but it is not designed to trick you. It can be easy to read a question and read more into it than necessary.

How to Overcome:

Take advantage of NCLEX practice tests. When it comes time to take the NCLEX, read the whole question. Break the question down to and find what it is asking for. Then, read each answer. Eliminate incorrect answers and choose the most appropriate based on the question’s content. If you find yourself questioning what else you can do, you are probably reading more into the question than necessary.

8. Rushing Through the Questions

About the Challenge:

Many incorrect responses on the NCLEX (or any test) are the result of rushing through questions and misunderstanding.

How to Overcome:

Read the whole question, looking for keywords. Take the question content and reword it to make a statement using each answer option. By doing this, you will be able to identify incorrect answers and find the most appropriate answer. Remember, you have five hours to complete this exam. Do not rush through it.

9. Assuming the NCLEX-RN is an “Average” Nursing Test

About the Challenge:

The NCLEX is different from almost every test you have ever taken. Tests in nursing school are knowledge-based or skills-based. The NCLEX-RN tests your ability to analyze and apply the knowledge you gained in nursing school. It can be easy to think the NCLEX-RN is an “average” nursing test and underestimate the test’s difficulty.

How to Overcome:

I cannot stress enough the importance of taking NCLEX practice tests. NCLEX practice exams will test your critical thinking skills and ability to make clinical nursing judgments. Simply taking practice tests is not enough, though. When you take the tests, review the rationales for answers, so you understand why answers are right or wrong.

10. Waiting Too Long to Take the NCLEX

About the Challenge:

After graduation, it can be easy to take a break and forget about school for a while. While a short break may help you unwind, waiting too long may not be the best idea.

How to Overcome:

Graduates who take the NCLEX within two months of graduation typically have higher pass rates than those who wait longer. Immediately following graduation, you still have the "student mindset." You will have just taken exit exams or finals, and test-taking strategies will be fresh in your mind. If you need to take a short break, that is understandable. However, you should spend some time dedicated to studying for the NCLEX and take it as soon as possible.

11. Not Understanding the Different Types of NCLEX Questions

About the Challenge:

NCLEX test questions may be in the form of multiple-choice, multiple response, fill-in-the-blank, chart/exhibit, drag and drop, graphics, or hot spot.

How to Overcome:

With the right NCLEX study tools, you will have access to hundreds of sample questions. Sample questions will be presented in various formats. Practice answering all questions until you are comfortable with each type.

12. Not Recognizing and Applying Your Learning Techniques

About the Challenge:

Everyone learns and applies information differently. Recognizing the learning techniques that work best for you and how to use them will help increase your chances of success on the NCLEX.

How to Overcome:

Whether you have already graduated nursing school or are still a student preparing for graduation and to sit for the NCLEX, you have a unique way of learning and applying knowledge. As you prepare for the NCLEX, find ways of studying that help you retain information and learn to apply those methods to test-taking.

13. Assuming the Worst

About the Challenge:

It may surprise you to know how many nursing school graduates trick themselves into believing they will fail the NCLEX. Unfortunately, if you think you will fail, you probably will.

How to Overcome:

The NCLEX-RN is hard, but you have taken hard tests before. At this point, you need to give yourself some credit. If you graduated from an accredited nursing program, you have been taught the content and participated in clinical experiences that have prepared you to take and pass the NCLEX. Remind yourself daily that you have come this far and that the NCLEX is the next step to your career, a step in the positive direction, and that you will succeed!

14. Practicing NCLEX Questions Instead of NCLEX Tests

About the Challenge:

It is understandable that you have been in nursing school a while and are not thrilled about taking more tests. Success on the NCLEX will depend on how well you prepare.

How to Overcome:

Like most nursing students, you probably have flashcards and notebooks full of information you have learned throughout your nursing program. This information is helpful and can help you prepare for the exam. However, there is a difference between reviewing information on a flashcard or memorizing notes and taking a test. The more NCLEX practice tests you take, the more comfortable you will be on test day, which increases your chances of success on the actual exam.

15. Choosing Random Answers

About the Challenge:

Coming across a test question and not immediately knowing the correct answer can make it easy to click on a random answer so you can move on to the next question. Do not choose random answers!

How to Overcome:

Although you may not be 100% sure of an answer, you have learned test-taking strategies in nursing school. Instead of choosing random answers to avoid being stuck on a question, use nursing priorities to choose the best answer. Remember the ABC rule. When you can't decide between answers, choose the answer that addresses the higher ABC rule first. The ABC rule just maybe your best friend on the NCLEX-RN.

16. Panicking When the Test Doesn't Shut Off

About the Challenge:

While some NCLEX test-takers may answer the minimum sixty questions, others may be presented with a maximum of one hundred forty-five questions. The number of questions you answer is not always an indication of success or failure on the test.

How to Overcome:

Remember that the NCLEX-RN is a computer adaptive test. The computer determines whether a harder or easier question should be presented after you answer a question with a right or wrong answer. Some people answer the maximum number of questions and pass, while others may answer the least amount and pass or vice versa. To overcome the challenge of panicking when the test doesn't shut off, take a deep breath and work your way through. Don’t compare yourself to others in the testing center or to what previous candidates told you about their experiences.

7 Ways To Know You Are Ready To Take The NCLEX-RN

Every nursing student wonders, “How hard is the NCLEX-RN" and, naturally, questions if they are ready to take the exam. If you are preparing to sit for the NCLEX-RN, you probably want to know how to tell if you are ready. The simple truth is, there is no magic formula to help you decide if you are ready to take the NCLEX or not. What you can do is prepare. You can study, take practice exams, and study some more. While no one can tell you it is time to take the test, there are a few ways to know if you are ready to take the NCLEX-RN.

1. You got the right study tools and have used them.

I recommend all nursing students and nursing school graduates have at least two NCLEX review books. Your nursing instructor or academic advisor will likely have a list of suggested NCLEX prep books. Some schools require students to purchase an NCLEX Comprehensive Review book and include it in their list of textbooks. Popular choices include Saunders Comprehensive Review and Lippincott Q&A Review for the NCLEX-RN.

2. You have implemented the art of Practice, Practice, Practice!

Studying material is a must, but it is not the only thing you need to do to prepare for the NCLEX-RN. Use every resource at your disposal to practice for the exam. The NCLEX prep books you purchase will have practice questions with answers and rationale. Practice answering questions every day. After you have answered questions, read the rationale for answers. If you get a question wrong, go back to that content in your textbook or notes and learn why the answer is wrong. Then, practice more.

3. You can articulate your knowledge of content to others.

When you have a clear understanding of a subject and can demonstrate your knowledge by educating others, this is a good sign you have mastered the content. Form a study group with others preparing for the NCLEX and practice answering questions from the group.

4. You understand and can apply critical thinking skills.

Success on the NCLEX-RN requires an ability to use critical-thinking skills. If someone asks you a question about nursing care and how to apply your knowledge and you find you are easily confused or overwhelmed, you probably need to spend more time studying and developing methods of evaluating scenarios using critical thinking skills and applications.

5. You have dedicated time studying for the NCLEX-RN.

One of the biggest mistakes nursing graduates make is getting their degree and thinking they are finished. It may come as a surprise to know how many people attempt to take the NCLEX without spending time preparing for the test. It is easy to feel like you have just finished nursing school and know everything you need to know. The truth is, if you graduated from an accredited nursing program with teachers who followed guidelines for instruction, you should have been exposed to every bit of information the NCLEX-RN could present. However, you should continue to prepare for the test until you take it and pass.

6. You feel comfortable with the different question formats.

Preparing to take the NCLEX-RN means familiarizing yourself with the various question formats the test will present to you. With the Computer Adaptive Test formula, each NCLEX candidate will answer different questions and in a separate order. While some test-takers may be presented with a majority of multiple-choice questions, others may see more diverse question formats. Using NCLEX practice tests will help you prepare for the different questions you will see on the actual exam.

7. You graduated from nursing school!

Nursing school is challenging. If you have accomplished graduating from an accredited nursing program, chances are you are ready to take the NCLEX-RN. Don't sell yourself short by second-guessing your abilities. It took a lot of hard work and dedication to make it through nursing school. You did it!

BONUS! 5 Simple Things To Do The Day Before The NCLEX-RN Exam To Make It Easier

Preparing for the exam beforehand can make test day easier. Here are five simple things you can do the day before the exam to make your day easier.

1. Locate the test center.

Once the NCLEX test begins, you will not be permitted to enter the testing room. So, it is crucial that you arrive on time. The day before the exam, take the time to drive to the test center to determine how long it takes you to arrive. Also, find an alternate route in case traffic is backed up or you come upon an accident on the roadway.

2. Find something comfortable to wear.

Apart from religious or cultural attire, items such as scarves, hats, coats, and gloves must remain outside the testing room. Test moderators suggest dressing in layers, such as a t-shirt under a sweatshirt. If you become too hot, you can always take the sweatshirt off, but if you are too cool, you won't have the benefit of having a jacket in the room. The test can last up to five hours. So, wearing clothes that are not restrictive is a plus.

3. Make sure you have gas in your car.

I don’t know about you, but one of my worst habits is waiting until my red “low fuel” light comes on before gassing up. The last thing you need is to run out of gas on the freeway on your way to take the NCLEX-RN. The day before testing, be sure you have enough gas to get to and from the test site, including factoring in using an alternative route.

4. Gather essential items.

Candidates without proper identification are not allowed to take the NCLEX. The first and last names on your identification must match the names on your ATT (Authorization to Test) email. If you have had a name change since registering for the exam, you must bring documents that show a legal name change. These documents may include a marriage license, divorce decree, or other court-ordered name change documentation.

5. Relax!

Do not spend the night before the NCLEX-RN trying to cram content. Important information and skills cannot be learned overnight. Instead, take the day before the test to do something you enjoy. Go for a walk, see a movie, have a quiet evening with your family. Then, get a good night’s sleep.

My Final Thoughts

If you are a nursing student or recent graduate preparing to sit for boards, you have probably asked, “How hard is the NCLEX-RN?” While every NCLEX candidate has different learning styles and approaches the exam differently, the 16 challenges that make the NCLEX-RN exam hard and ways to overcome them presented in this article offer some insight into preparing for and succeeding on the test. Take the time to study and practice for the NCLEX-RN. Then, get a test date and go pass the test! You can do this!


1. Does The NCLEX-RN Get Harder the More You Take It?

The NCLEX-RN is hard. However, it is not necessarily harder the more you take it. Whether a candidate does better or worse the second time (or more) taking the exam depends on why they failed the first time and what is different the next time around. Of course, the ideal situation would be to take the NCLEX and pass it on your first attempt. However, if you do not pass the exam the first time, take the time between your first attempt and the next to study and prepare.

2. How Hard Is The NCLEX-RN Compared To ATI?

The material offered by ATI models content found on the NCLEX-RN. Most schools consider the ATI Predictor Test an indicator of potential success on the NCLEX-RN. Although ATI is used to predict a candidate's potential for passing the NCLEX, in my experience, nursing faculty and students alike believe the NCLEX-RN is harder than ATI.

3. How Hard Is The NCLEX-RN Compared to UWorld?

Several sources report an average of 90% of students report UWorld questions are at the same or greater difficulty level as NCLEX-RN questions.

4. Is 1 Week Enough to Prepare For NCLEX-RN?

The NCLEX is hard, and preparation is the key to success. As a nurse educator, I would not recommend spending only one week preparing for the NCLEX-RN. Nevertheless, that is not to say candidates with one week of preparation will not succeed on the test. You must consider how well you did in nursing school and how much preparation you had as a student to sit for boards and make an informed decision based on your experiences.

5. How Can I Pass The NCLEX-RN Without Studying?

It may be possible to pass the NCLEX-RN without studying, but it is unlikely. Passing the NCLEX-RN without studying would require you to retain all the content you learned in nursing school. Although you will naturally recall information, the NCLEX-RN will require you to use critical thinking and analytical skills, skills that must be mastered in order to succeed.

Darby Faubion BSN, RN
Darby Faubion is a nurse and Allied Health educator with over twenty years of experience. She has assisted in developing curriculum for nursing programs and has instructed students at both community college and university levels. Because of her love of nursing education, Darby became a test-taking strategist and NCLEX prep coach and assists nursing graduates across the United States who are preparing to take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).