NCLEX Format & Pass Rates – All You Need to Know is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

NCLEX exam

I recently wrote about the NCLEX-RN exam and some useful tips on how to pass it the first time.

The article prompted me to dig a bit deeper into NCLEX pass rates, the number of questions you’ll be expected to answer, and some other data that may be helpful for your exam preparation.

So if you’re ready, let’s take a look…

Format of the NCLEX Exam and the Number of Questions

Unfortunately, (in terms of knowing what to expect) the amount of questions in the NCLEX-RN varies quite widely.

This is because is a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT) that selects questions based on your performance as you proceed through the exam.

The algorithm will choose the questions dynamically, which means you could have anything from a minimum of 60 right up to the maximum of 145.

The NCLEX exam also includes up to 15 questions that do not go towards the scoring but are used to fine-tune the algorithm.

One universal factor to the tests is that as you answer questions correctly the difficulty level will increase incrementally.

Conversely, if your answers fail to hit the mark, the difficulty level will decrease to ease you back into the swing of things.

The nature of this format means that you will not be able to skip any questions.

The CAT format – an opportunity for you to prove your competency

It is important to understand that the CAT format allows you to prove your competency level throughout the test.

Your aim when taking the exam is to answer enough questions correctly so that you work your way up the difficulty levels.

This, in turn, establishes that your competency is high enough to be a responsible nurse. It also means you have a maximum of 145 questions with which to prove this.

Quite simply, the test ends when you reach the required level of competency established by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).

Statistics do come into the fray here, however. You need to reach the competency level and answer enough questions to stay above the passing line with a 95% confidence interval.

In other words, once you reach the competency level, you need to show consistency too.

If you do not stay above the pass line with 95% confidence, you will fail the test. This goes back to why the number of questions varies so widely, depending on the performance of the test-taker.

Finally, I would remind you again (I talked about it here), that each NCLEX question is as important as the next.

Do not self-evaluate as you proceed. It is important to focus on the question at hand in an effort to maintain consistency. Going over past questions in your head will only trip you up going forward.

NCLEX First Time pass rates

NCLEX exam nurses

Clearly, your aim is to pass the NCLEX on the first attempt. At a maximum of 5 hours long, it’s not something you’ll want to do often.

So what are the statistics like for that?

According to the NCSBN, the NCLEX-RN first-time pass rate for US-educated nurses in 2020 was 86.5%.

That is pretty damn high and shows that if you have done your studies (in line with my 10 step action plan), your chances of passing the first time are very good.

(The stats for the NCLEX-PN first-time pass rate are slightly lower at 83%.)

Repeat NCLEX-RN pass rates

Unfortunately, the pass rates for those that need to repeat the NCLEX-RN exam drop sharply, and sit at a low 42.9%.

(Again the PN repeat pass rate is slightly lower at 35.6% – the quarterly stats for both can be found here).

A drop in confidence, insufficient study, and maybe even innate student competence all contribute to these low pass rates.

Essentially, your aim is to put the work in, study hard, take plenty of practice exams and be part of those first-time pass rates instead.

About Hannah Drake

Hannah Drake, RN, CSP is a registered nurse and owner and founder of Nurse Focus. Her nursing career spans almost two decades, and in that time she has developed her skill base across a variety of settings, including med surg nursing, clinical informatics system administration and implementation, and healthcare community management. Contact Hannah.

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