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How does the NCLEX-RN work?

If you’re at all like me, this is how you’re feeling right now just thinking about the NCLEX-RN.

Jim Carrey NCLEX Champion - Magoosh

Unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the NCLEX-RN, how it works, and how to pass. For sure there are a minimum of 75 and a max of 265 questions.

Gandalf wrote the NCLEX - Magoosh

But, how does the exam work? What evil wizards are behind the dreaded adaptive quizzing? I want more than the basics.

Is it possible to understand how I scored based upon the number of questions I take? Am I destined to be selected to take all 265 questions?

Never fear. There is an explanation. The answer to these questions, my young sojourner, is in the goal of Computerized Adaptive Testing or CAT.

computer adaptive testing - magoosh

Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT)

The powers-that-be determine your competence, based on question difficulty, NOT how many questions you can answer correctly. The NCLEX-RN is a changing exam based upon your performance.

*3/15/16 Update: The NCSBN has confirmed that no candidates are randomly selected to receive the maximum number of questions*

So what does that mean?

It means that every question has been analyzed and vetted for difficulty, and, depending on how you do, it affects when the exam shuts off. As you answer more questions, getting some right and some wrong, the test determines your competency level.

After you’ve taken the minimum number of questions, the computer compares your competency level with the passing standard.

Let’s use a simple visual. Imagine a box around the passing line.

box with line

As you answer questions correctly, more of the box moves above the line, as you answer questions wrong, more of the box moves below the line. The moment your box moves completely above the line or completely below the line, the test shuts off. If you’re feeling good and it shuts off, life be like…

Brad Pitt NCLEX champion - Magoosh

If you’re feeling terrible and it shuts off, life be like…

Drake failed the NCLEX - magoosh

But that doesn’t mean you failed. You could have passed. Many people feel they performed poorly, finished the exam at 75 questions, and still passed.

But what if I go the distance (you ask)?

Let’s dispel some rumors. Personally, I have not read any information about students being “randomly selected” to take all 265 questions. If anyone can point me to a credible source for this statement, please email me.

What really happens?

If there’s no clear result after 75 questions, the computer continues to ask you additional questions. Your box could be almost entirely above the line, with just a sliver below, and the exam will continue to present you with question after question. If you continue to the maximum number of questions, the computer will alter its decision making process. It disregards the “box zone” and simply looks at the final competency level based on the questions asked. If you’re above the passing line, you pass.

yeah boyeeeee - maghoosh

If you’re below the passing line, you don’t pass.

Robin crying under desk with wine - magoosh

The pass/fail decision is based on the competence level corresponding to the difficulty for your test alone, not on a percentage correct.

I hope this helps clear up some of the confusion as to how the NCLEX-RN exam works.

For more information about studying for and taking the NCLEX-RN, check out more of our blog posts.

Best of luck my friends!

Fresh Prince dropping knowledge of the NCLEX - magoosh

About Chris

Chris is a new grad RN in northern California currently working for Dignity Healthcare. When he's not going ham sandwich, he enjoys playing the guitar, making amateur dance and hip hop mixes (, and exercising. He is a lover of GIFs and a would be happy to be a guest speaker at your next office function or nephew's bar mitzvah.

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