Next-Gen NCLEX-RN Expert Test-Taking Strategies, How to Balance Studying

This section of allnurses' Next-Gen NCLEX-RN Study Guide focuses on test-taking strategies, balancing studying, and test day tips. Resources

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For those seeking to master their Next-Gen NCLEX-RN, we've compiled effective strategies to do so, helping to optimize your resources and conduct regular self-assessments for performance improvements.

This article is part of a more extensive study guide for the Next-Gen NCLEX-RN:

Expert Test-Taking Strategies

One of the first things you should do when you begin preparing for the NCLEX is to determine your learning style to maximize your efforts. There are a variety of learning styles, and they can include:

  • Auditory Learning: From listening to lectures, podcasts, or recorded discussions.
  • Visual Learning: From seeing, watching videos, or observing.
  • Tactile Learning: From hands-on experiences, return demonstration, or simulation.

Sometimes, individuals can be learners that combine these learning styles. No matter what type of learner you may be, it is important to know how you best learn, retain, apply, and analyze your learning.

Identifying The Topic

There are several essential steps that test-takers must follow to be sure that they understand what the question is asking. Many times NCLEX questions have several components that can be confusing and cause candidates to get distracted from the topic. The following steps can help test-takers weed through the fluff and get straight to the point of answering NCLEX questions correctly.

Here are the steps in identifying the topic:

Step 1: Read the question carefully and thoroughly - from the first word to the last word. Be sure to read slowly. Do not skim or skip any part of the question.

Step 2: After reading the question, you want to identify the nursing concept you are working in. This step is not so easy at first, but with practice, you will improve.

Remember that the nursing concept is the bigger picture process that guides nurses in their practice. Sometimes, the concept is what we are trying to address, also known as the topic, focus, or problem.

Here's an example:

The nurse is caring for a 46-year-old male patient who came into the ED with chest pain 10/10 and tachycardia of 156 at rest. The patient states "I am scared, I feel like I am going to die.” Which response, if made by the nurse, would be most appropriate?

  • Nursing Concept = Therapeutic Communication
  • Topic/Focus/Problem = Priority response

Step 3: (Not always necessary) If you cannot identify the nursing concept and topic, read all the answer choices for clues, then identify the nursing concept and topic/focus/problem.

Once you have identified the topic of the question, it makes it much easier for you to stay focused on the topic and avoid getting distracted by other information that is not important or relevant to the topic/focus/problem that needs to be addressed.

Reviewing What's Important

Once you have identified the topic of a question, it is helpful to take a few moments to think about everything you know to be true about the topic. For example, if the topic of the question is teaching about cast care, you want to list out all the things you remember to be truly related to teaching a patient about cast care.

The following are true about teaching for cast care:

  • Do not get the cast wet
  • Do not stick anything under the cast to scratch
  • Do circulatory checks of the casted extremity
  • If any findings are concerning, such as an odor, new or increasing pain, swelling, or drainage, notify the doctor immediately.

When you take a few seconds to remind yourself of the following details regarding cast care teaching, answering the question is much easier. When you have some criteria to compare against the answer choices, it helps to keep you from getting distracted and to focus on the topic of the question. If the answer choices do not match what you know to be true, then it is most likely not the correct answer.

Eliminating Answer Choices

There are several things that candidates should consider when deciding which answer choices to eliminate and which ones to keep in consideration. We've already discussed that taking the time to review what's important about the topic of the question to create a set of criteria is one beneficial way to eliminate answer choices confidently. Another helpful tip is to consider every single word in an answer choice carefully.

The creators of the NCLEX are masters at writing test questions that challenge the test-taker to be careful and apply what they've learned in school to answer questions correctly. Sometimes answer choices sound like the correct answer, but they may have just one word incorrect, which makes the entire answer choice incorrect.

Candidates must be confident in their ability to move through the questions and answers thoroughly, making sure not to miss a word so they don't fall for the many NCLEX traps set by the test creators.

Here is an example of how reading every single word can help in confidently eliminating answer choices:

The nurse is instructing a student on how a midstream clean catch urine specimen should be collected. The nurse knows the student understands the instruction provided if the student states which of the following?

  1. "Cleanse the urinary meatus with a disinfectant towelette, have the client urinate into a sterile specimen cup, avoid touching the inside of the container, and cover immediately after."
  2. "Cleanse the urinary meatus with iodine solution, and insert a urinary catheter to obtain the sterile urine specimen."
  3. "Cleanse the urinary meatus with a disinfectant towelette, have the client empty their bladder ½ hour before the test, and then keep all other urine voided on ice for 24 hours."
  4. "Cleanse the urinary meatus with a disinfectant towelette, void a little bit of urine first, then stop, and then void the remaining urine into a clean specimen cup, avoid touching the inside of the container, cover immediately after."

The correct answer is 1.

When you take the time to read every single word while carefully considering whether the answer choice is true or false, you can see that answer 1 is the only one true regarding collecting a midstream clean catch urine specimen. Many test-takers may choose 4 as the answer; however, if the answer choice is read closely, one would note that a "clean specimen cup" is not the appropriate collection container for a midstream clean catch. This specimen collection procedure requires a sterile container.

You want to be very careful every single time you're answering NCLEX questions. If you skim, read the question too fast, or focus on information that you think should be present rather than remaining objective and seeing the answers for what they are, then you may find yourself falling for many of the well-designed NCLEX traps.

Here is one more example of how reading every single word can help in confidently eliminating answer choices:

The nurse is observing an LPN perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation for a patient that is a full code. The nurse knows that the LPN is correctly performing CPR if which of the following is observed?

  1. The LPN is using the heel of her hand to compress the chest at a depth of 1 inch.
  2. The LPN is compressing at a rate of 99 compressions per minute.
  3. The LPN is delivering 30 chest compressions for every two breaths.
  4. The LPN is using her arm muscles to apply force to the chest with each compression.

The correct answer is 3.

When you take the time to read every single word while carefully considering whether the answer choice is true or false, you can see that answer choice 3 is the only one true regarding the correct CPR technique. Many test-takers may choose other options as the answer because each answer contains components of the correct technique. This question, in particular, challenges the candidate's understanding of the correct CPR technique. It seems pretty straightforward; however, skimming or reading too fast may miss important information that could get you into trouble.

Remaining Objective

Nursing school does an excellent job teaching us that nurses must remain objective. This helps nurses follow standards of practice that have been scientifically proven to be effective. The interventions that we implement have measurable outcomes. Even when nurses are faced with subjective data, it is the role of the nurse to take that subjective data and convert it into something objective. For example, when a patient says they are having pain, a nurse asks many follow-up questions that allow the subjective information to be measured.

  • From 0 to 10, how bad is the pain?
  • Where is the pain?
  • How would you describe the pain?
  • Does it radiate to any other location?
  • When did it start?
  • Does anything make it better?
  • Does anything make it worse?

By asking additional questions, nurses can objectively apply nursing principles and standards of care to effectively address the patient's pain. Test-takers must do the same thing with test questions and answer choices. Since NCLEX questions often contain much irrelevant information that can cause candidates to veer off-topic, asking specific questions to clarify and better understand the information is essential.

Here are some key questions candidates should ask as they consider answer choices as options for the correct answer:

  • Does this answer choice solve the problem or focus on the topic of the question?
  • Does this answer choice meet the criteria for what's most important?
  • Does this answer choice reflect textbook nursing practice standards?
  • Does this answer choice make sense for the situation?

You know you have chosen the correct answer when you confidently answer "yes" to these questions.

Balancing Your Studying

Work, study, eat, sleep, repeat—this is the routine many new grads find themselves in when they tirelessly work towards studying for the NCLEX. Although it does take a lot of practice answering NCLEX-style questions and reviewing nursing content, it does not mean that every waking hour needs to be devoted to NCLEX prep.

Short studying periods, with lots of extra time to manage other aspects of life, have improved one's ability and performance. To help you find the balance in it all, we've put together a few simple yet effective tips that you can follow to get the most out of your effort.

Study Smarter, Not Harder

  • Set a time limit of 3 to 4 hours per day of study time. This includes answering NCLEX practice questions, as well as content review.
  • Be sure to do practice questions when you are most alert and have the most uninterrupted time to complete a full set of 85 questions.
  • Always answer practice questions as if you were taking the NCLEX. Give it your best effort each time. This only helps you to master the steps in thinking carefully about the question and answer choices.

Use a blended approach to reviewing content, such as:

  • Videos 
  • Flashcards
  • Notes 
  • Reading 
  • Return Demonstration 

Create a concept map or flowchart of the NCLEX strategies and review it daily to keep the strategies in the front of your mind.

Optimizing Your Resources

  • Try to avoid engaging with too many NCLEX Prep resources. Some programs have very different approaches to answering questions, which could cause confusion.
  • Stick to one process or program and complete it fully. If there is no improvement in accuracy, confidence, or ability after completing a particular NCLEX prep program or service, then trying another approach may be helpful.
  • You need not spend frivolously on new textbooks, NCLEX prep materials, or other expensive nursing content materials. You only need access to an up-to-date question bank to practice answering NCLEX-style questions. Your nursing school textbooks, notes, and even Google can help you find the necessary information.

Self-Assessment For Performance Improvement

  • Weekly self-assessments should be completed every few days.
  • A combined assessment of practice question accuracy, ability to recall information when quizzed (flashcards, notes, etc.), and self-confidence in feeling prepared are all good methods of assessing ability.
  • NCLEX prep question banks that are online and/or automated are great tools to keep track of progress and identify areas that need improvement.
  • Self-assessments shouldn't just focus on the ability to recall nursing content but also apply the knowledge and analyze the content in various ways.
  • Ability also includes factors such as personal wellness. If you are ill, emotionally distraught, suffering from anxiety, or are going through a rough patch in your personal life, this can also affect your ability to perform well. Get plenty of sleep, water, and healthy food, and be sure to find time for laughter, love, and connection with others.

When to Seek Expert Guidance and Support

  • When candidates are overwhelmed with NCLEX Prep resources and don't know where to start.
  • When candidates suffer from test anxiety and have a difficult time focusing.
  • When candidates have unsuccessful attempts at passing the NCLEX.
  • When candidates score below 65% accuracy on practice questions.
  • When candidates need to have individualized tutoring to meet their learning needs.

Test Day Tips

Candidates must come to the test day prepared to stay focused and try their best. Here are some test-day tips that will help you do your best.

Come Prepared For The Exam

  • Schedule the exam during a time of day when you are most alert. If you are a morning person, perhaps scheduling the exam in the morning would be best.
  • Arrive at least 30 minutes early. Some candidates find doing a "dry run" the day before the exam helpful so they know how to navigate to the testing center.
  • Dress comfortably and in layers. The testing centers can be warm or cold depending on the time of year, so having layers will help to keep you comfortable.
  • Make sure you have gotten enough sleep each night for a week or more leading up to the exam. You want to be alert and focused the entire time.
  • Ensure you eat healthy foods and a high-protein and nutrient-dense meal before the exam to help fuel your brain and stay focused.
  • Avoid drinking caffeine before the exam unless you find it worsens your ability to focus. Caffeine tends to cause anxiety and frequent urination, severely affecting your ability to stay focused.

We hope you have found this NCLEX study guide helpful in your journey toward achieving NCLEX success. Remember, it's all about shifting your mindset from holding onto every detail to thinking more about the nursing concepts that help us make decisions within our practice.

Whether you plan to take the NCLEX for the first time or it may be another attempt, we are confident you're on your way toward earning your nursing license. 

What's most important is that you believe in yourself. You deserve to pass the NCLEX and have already proven that you can do it because you have already completed the hardest part—nursing school. 

NCLEX Columnist

Damion Jenkins has 14 years experience as a MSN, RN and specializes in NCLEX Prep Expert - 100% Pass Rate!.

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