• How to Prepare for the NCLEX

    By Melissa Hagstrom, contributor

    "Think of this as a marathon, not a sprint."

    For Pamela Gardner, MSN, RN, director of nursing programs and NCLEX instructor for Kaplan Test Prep, comparing the NCLEX-RN examination to a marathon is the best way to convey the elements of a successful testing process to the nursing students with whom she works. The idea is to prepare in advance, practice and stay calm — all the same things that runners do leading up to a big race.

    The NCLEX-RN examination signifies the end of nursing school and the beginning of a nursing career, and must be passed in order to practice as a licensed registered nurse (RN) in the United States. Preparing, learning about the test format and understanding the nuances of the NCLEX can help student nurses be best prepared for what is arguably the most important exam of their career.

    Created and overseen by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), Pearson VUE is contracted by NCSBN to administer the NCLEX. While no major changes have been made to the exam since April 1994 — when the change to computerized adaptive testing (CAT) for the nurse licensure examination came about — new questions are constantly being added, and the content as a whole is evaluated every three years as a result of a comprehensive job analysis conducted by the NCSBN.

    Although the content may be weighted differently every three years depending on the results of the job analysis, since the new NCLEX-RN Test Plan became effective in 1998, all examinations contain a combination of questions from the following categories: Safe and Effective Care Environment; Health Promotion and Maintenance; Psychosocial Integrity; and Physiological Integrity.

    Gardner, an experienced nurse educator who now provides NCLEX instruction and consultation services for Kaplan, explained that students should make sure they diversify their studying across all categories in order to be fully prepared.

    "It's important to 'bring up the bottom' so you are well rounded as a student with your knowledge," she said. "If all you know is pharmacology, then you probably won't pass this test because you didn't focus on the other areas as well."

    During the practice tests, students should begin to identify areas where their scores are low in an effort to focus their time and attention on bringing up those numbers.

    When deciding on a review course, Gardner advises students to look for reviews that are not content-oriented, but rather one that focuses on critical thinking, application of knowledge and the style of the test. A review course that is appropriate is one that teaches students how to think about the questions, and then apply that information to the question in front of them, she added.

    "They need a review course that focuses on what the NCLEX is looking for. Kaplan's courses and other good courses teach students how to think about the information, not how to memorize it. You cannot in a million years memorize all of the knowledge in nursing. Students think they have to have it memorized, but they don't. What they have to know how to do is think about the questions," Gardner said.

    The NCSBN does not recommend or endorse any review courses or study materials, but it does encourage students to ask a nursing education professional for recommendations.

    Kaplan currently offers three ways for nurses to prep for the NCLEX-RN which includes in-person classroom instruction, online classroom instruction and video instruction, Gardner explained. Also, some nursing schools work with Kaplan directly to host a review session on campus for nursing students.

    Along with in-person or online review sessions, social media is also proving to be an excellent preparation resource for students. Twitter and Facebook are excellent resources where students can compare notes, get feedback and see what resources help students and which ones do not. A simple search can uncover a variety of NCLEX resources online, from message boards to free webinars and practice questions.

    Whether a student chooses to participate in a review course or review information from classroom textbooks, Gardner said the most important thing to know before taking the exam is to relax when testing. "Anxiety is probably the biggest problem with passing this test, more students fail the test due to anxiety than to lack of knowledge."

    Gardner's words seem to ring true, as the most recent NCSBN examination statistics show the pass rate for all first-time RN candidates for the NCLEX-RN from January-December 2013 is just over 80 percent.

    Keeping stress and anxiety under control is also important for after the exam, as well.

    "After completing the NCLEX-RN exam, we encourage students to take a deep breathe, relax and do activities they enjoy with family and friends," Gardner said. "While it's pointless to second-guess any of your answers at this juncture, we find that nursing students often find support among each other since they share similar experiences and aspirations."

    Gardner encourages future nurses to practice the whole process and learning how to think, from the very beginning of nursing school to the very end.

    "Once they understand the test, they do better on the test. Get yourself familiar with NCLEX style and comfortable with the process from the very beginning. This test is way too important; if you don't pass it your schooling is for naught."

    For those nursing students who do not pass the examination on the first try, the NCSBN allows candidates to retake the examination 45 days later. Candidates are encouraged to contact the board of nursing in their state for specific retake policies.

    For more information on preparation and testing, visit the NCSBN page on NCLEX examinations.

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