Registered nurses (RNs) and Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs) may have different roles and responsibilities within the clinical work environment but they both need to run the gauntlet of the National Council Licensure Examination or NCLEX before they can become employed. The question is: what IS the difference between the NCLEX RN and the PN exam?

You’re in the perfect place to find out! But, first, allow us to introduce ourselves …

[Pssst! Check out Brainscape’s seminal guide on how to study for the NCLEX more efficiently.]

Hi! We’re Brainscape

We’re the world’s smartest study app with comprehensive, expert-curated collections of adaptive flashcards for both the NCLEX RN and NCLEX PN exams. You can check those out here:

We’ve worked closely with NCLEX tutors to break down the latest NCSBN test plans—as well as the content taught in Saunders, Kaplan, Hurst, Lippincott, HESI, Khan Academy, and the other top NCLEX review books and courses—into these flashcards so that you can benefit from the most powerful supplemental study tool for learning, understanding, and memorizing that all-important nursing content.

[Read: The best flashcards for medical and nursing students]

Because we’ve studied the NCLEX RN and PN test plans so carefully—and because NCLEX superhero, Justine Buick (The NCLEX Tutor), is the lead author of our flashcards—we also understand what’s expected by each exam. So, without further ado, here are the key differences (and similarities) between the NCLEX RN and PN exam, starting off with a brief definition of what each healthcare professional ultimately does!

What’s the difference between a Registered and Licensed Practical Nurse?

Licensed Practical and Registered Nurses

Both registered (RNs) and practical nurses (LPNs) work independently and as part of a healthcare team to provide safe, effective, and ethical care for patients, families, and communities. The key differences between RNs and LPNs lie in the:

  • Depth and breadth of knowledge covered in their education,
  • Competencies and skills developed during training, and
  • Expectations for clinical practice.

LPNs may care for people of all ages but those patients are typically in a stable or predictable state of health. With additional education, training, and/or supervision, they may also care for those with more complex healthcare needs.

RNs, on the other hand, have more comprehensive education and so they can provide care for patients of all ages in both stable and unstable, complex, or unpredictable conditions. RNs also enjoy additional responsibilities in clinical practice, advanced clinical decision-making, and the utilization of health research.

[Read: How to get a job in nursing]

Now, how do these differences manifest themselves on the NCLEX RN and PN exams?

  • LPNs can be asked questions about collecting data, but not assessing it | RNs collect and assess data
  • LPNs can only delegate to Unlicensed Assistive Personnel (UAPs) | RNs can delegate to both UAPs and LPNs
  • Blood, Parenteral Nutrition (TPN), and IV therapy shouldn’t show up on the NCLEX PN exam | RNs will see NCLEX questions on blood, TPN, and IV therapy

Now, let’s look at some of the similarities between the NCLEX RN and PN examinations …

The similarities between the NCLEX RN and PN exam

The NCLEX for practical nurses (PN) and registered nurses (RN) essentially works the same and tests virtually the same nursing content, with minor differences we’ll talk about in this guide. Moreover, each section of the test plan carries about the same weighting or percentage mark allocation for each, as you’ll see in the following pie charts from the website:

Distribution of content for NCLEX PN Test Plan
This pie chart shows the distribution of content for the NCLEX PN Test Plan. In other words, it shows what percentage of exam questions you can expect to be allocated to the various nursing content topics. Image source:
Distribution of content for NCLEX RN Test Plan
This pie chart shows the distribution of content for the NCLEX RN Test Plan. Image source:

As you can see from these diagrams, the NCLEX exams for practical and registered nurses test the same nursing content and have essentially the same mark allocation for each section. What this means is that the NCLEX RN and PN are very similar.

Additionally, students can receive the same number of questions on each of the exams (between 70 and 135). The exams themselves are computer adapted, meaning that if you're doing well, you'll get fewer questions. However, if you're still struggling to pass some of the sections mentioned in the above pie charts, you'll continue to get questions.

But, like identical twins, there are still important differences between the NCLEX RN and PN to be recognized so let’s now take a look at those …

Important: Read the NCSBN’s official NCLEX RN test plan (2023) or NCLEX PN test plan (2023) to understand exactly what to expect from either examination.

Remember, in April 2023, the NCSBN introduced a new generation of exam questions called Next Generation NCLEX so make sure you read the linked article to understand how that differs.

The differences between the NCLEX RN and PN exam

Given the same nursing content, subject weighting, and number of questions, what is the difference between the NCLEX RN and PN test plans?

Well, if you were to dig into the various sections of the test plan for both RN and PN, you’ll discover some specific differences that—because Brainscape is all about making your life easier—we’ve gone to the trouble of highlighting for you, section by section...

Section 1: Management of Care vs. Coordinated Care

The RN test calls the first section “Management of Care”, whereas the PN test calls it “Coordinated Care”. Both sections, however, include the same content.

Within that section, the heading “Case Management” on the NCLEX RN test is the equivalent of “Resource Management” on the PN test. Both test the same content.

Similarly, “Assignment, Delegation and Supervision” (RN test) is the equivalent of “Client Care Assignments” (PN test). For each test, the questions would be worded differently, for example:

On the NCLEX RN test, a question might read: “Which client would you assess or see first?” whereas on the PN test, it would be worded as: “Which client would be reported to the RN first?” Ultimately, the goal for each question is exactly the same—choose the most unstable client—however, they are phrased differently to reflect the different roles and responsibilities of the two healthcare professionals.

Another example of this is in questions about delegation. On the NCLEX RN exam, there may be questions about delegating to the UAP and LPN, whereas on the PN exam, the same questions will refer to UAP only (since these are the only healthcare professionals LPNs are permitted to delegate to).

Freaking out a little? Here’s how to deal with NCLEX stress ...

Section 2: Safety and Infection Control

Both the PN and RN test have exactly the same content on this section, so we’ll skip along to the next …

Section 3: Health Promotion and Maintenance

On the NCLEX RN test, the heading “Techniques of Physical Assessment” is the equivalent of “Data Collection Techniques” on the LPN test. The content is exactly the same but, again, the questions may be worded differently.

For example: on the RN test, the word “assess” would be used, whereas, on the PN test, they would say “collect data” or "monitor". In reality, it pretty much means the same thing but, again, LPNs aren’t required to “assess” on the NCLEX PN exam.

Section 4: Psychosocial Integrity

There are a couple of differences in the wording of the topics; however, both tests include the same content.

Section: 5: Basic Care and Comfort

This section is exactly the same for both the NCLEX RN and PN exams.

Section 6: Pharmacological and Parenteral Therapies

On the NCLEX PN test, there is NO mention of blood, central venous access devices, total parenteral nutrition, or IVs. So technically, RNs are getting tested on those topics only.

[Read: How to study medications for the NCLEX]

Section 7: Reduction of Risk Potential

There is NO “system specific assessments” on the PN exam, only the RN exam, which is strange because practical nurses should know how to do system specific assessments. Other than this, the content is exactly the same for this section.

Section 8: Physiological Adaptation

There is NO hemodynamics or illness management on the PN exam, which, again, is strange since these sections include EKG strips and there could be EKGs on the PN exam. So, make sure you study those! Otherwise, this section is also essentially the same content.

The best way to study for the NCLEX LPN and RN exam

What we’ve just established with the above overview is that, essentially, the NCLEX RN and PN exams test the same nursing content with very few exceptions. The main difference is that LPNs can skip studying blood, TPN, and IVs; however, to be on the safe side, we recommend that you still study those topics. Even if they don’t show up on the NCLEX, it’s valuable knowledge to have going into your first nursing job!

So, what’s the best way to study for the NCLEX? We wrote a whole article on it, which you can read here: ‘How to study for the NCLEX more efficiently’ (and we recommend that you do) but a super helpful study tool that can be a real game-changer for nurse grads is Brainscape’s certified NCLEX RN or NCLEX PN flashcard collections.

Brainscape's certified NCLEX PN and RN flashcards
Landing pages for Brainscape's NCLEX PN and RN flashcards

With all of the most important facts in the latest NGN test plan—as well as Saunders, Kaplan, Hurst, Lippincott, HESI, Khan Academy, and other top NCLEX review books and courses—already distilled down into neatly organized decks of flashcards, you’ll have everything you need to know already captured in flashcard format. And delivered via our sophisticated spaced repetition algorithm, you can learn efficiently anytime, anywhere, and on any device (even offline)!

So, get this supplemental study tool in your corner and study efficiently and consistently, and you’ll rise to the challenge of the NCLEX PN or RN exam; whichever you intend on taking!

**NCLEX-RN® is a registered trademark of the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), which neither sponsors nor endorses this product.