How to Study for the NCLEX more Efficiently

Modified on by Brainscape Team



nurse studying with mask

It’s been a key ambition of yours to become a nurse and now here you are: preparing for the NCLEX. Your study guide weighs a good six pounds, and you can feel your desk shake like there’s a T-rex approaching every time you drop it open, ready to start the study-a-thon. 

The exam is a MONSTER but there are key facts and hacks to preparing for it that can make the task far more manageable. We’re here to help. We’re going to tell you how to study for the NCLEX and in a way that can save you heaps of time and anxiety.

In this guide, we’ll cover: 

  1. The mindset of efficient study
  2. What really counts: the NCLEX secret
  3. What you need to know to pass the NCLEX
  4. The best NCLEX study tools
  5. How to study far more effectively for the NCLEX
  6. The best time to study for the NCLEX

These are the things we wished more NCLEX students knew, because it would save them a ton of time, effort, and lost sleep. Ready to get started? Excellent. Let’s go…

1. The mindset of efficient study

Mission Control KranzThere’s a story (it may even be true) about an incident that happened during the 1960’s space race between the USA and the USSR. 

The scientists were getting all wound up about an issue: they figured normal ink pens wouldn’t work in space. No gravity meant no reliable ink flow, so how were their astronauts going to write anything down once they were in orbit? 

The USA scientists went away and spent countless hours solving this problem. Eventually, very pleased with themselves, they came back with the newly invented ballpoint pen. 

The Russians? They scratched their heads over the problem for about five minutes, then told their astronauts: “Just use a pencil.”

When you have a huge amount of information to get into your head, and not much time, this is the attitude you need to adopt. Get a little creative.

Not: “How can I memorize every single word of my 1,000+ page study guide?” 

Instead: “What do I NEED to know to ace the NCLEX, so I can get on with the important work of becoming a first rate registered nurse.”

This is the question we’ll be answering in this article. So buckle up, and let’s get real with your study plans. 

The elephant in the room

Elephant Eye

We’ll start by addressing the elephant in the room: the NCLEX is huge

It’s more than an elephant. It’s a wooly mammoth of an exam. How mammoth? Well, the Saunders NCLEX book comes in at 1,087 pages. In other words, if you dropped it on your foot, it would hurt – a lot

Also, the Saunders book is just one NCLEX study guide. It’s the Wild West out there in NCLEX study land. There’s no ‘official’ guide, and anyone with a Word doc can write and market their own book.

As a result, students can get overwhelmed not only with how much there is to learn but over which study guide they should invest their trust in. 

With such a mountain of information, Is it really necessary to learn everything? Are there more important facts than others? How do you know what’s truly important to pass the NCLEX, and what’s not? 

2. What really counts: the NCLEX Secret

Here’s a little-known secret about studying for the NCLEX: not all NCLEX study is created equal. 

Maze with red marker

In other words, it isn’t just about putting in the hours of study. To ace the NCLEX, you have to study the right material, in the right way. 

Unfortunately, many students believe they have to learn everything in the NCLEX guide they’re using. This is a recipe for overwhelm, and it’s not at all true. There’s a much smaller portion of knowledge you need to master to pass. The only problem? Most guides don’t make it clear (or they don’t know) what that portion of knowledge is.

Studying the 80/20 way

There is a smart way to study for the NCLEX. It takes hard work, no doubt about it. But the smart way is far more efficient and it’s called the ‘80/20 Rule’.

The 80/20 Rule states that in every situation, only a few things are very important. In an entire textbook chapter, only about 20% is crucial to you passing the exam. The other 80% is more detailed, background information that’s not entirely necessary for you to memorize. The proportions are not always strictly 80/20 but the principle holds true for any subject.

pie chart to represent 80/20

In the NCLEX, there’s certain knowledge that really counts, and then there’s the superfluous rest. If you dedicate most of your time to studying those vital portions, you’ll do just fine. 

But if you get overwhelmed and rush around trying to memorize every single fact in that bible-sized study manual, you’ll put yourself on the fast track to burnout.

3. What you need to know to pass the NCLEX

For practical purposes, the NCLEX practical nurse (PN) and registered nurse (RN) tests are almost exactly the same when it comes to content. The main difference is in how they frame the test questions, and this reflects the roles of practical versus registered nurses in hospital. 

For example: Instead of “which patient should you see first” the PN test question will say: “which patient should be reported to the RN first?”

The NCLEX test plan is broken up into these sections:

– Management of Care (Coordinated Care for the NCLEX PN)

– Safety & Infection Control

– Health Promotion & Maintenance

– Psychosocial Integrity

– Basic Care & Comfort

– Pharmacological & Parenteral Therapies

– Reduction of Risk Potential

– Physiological Adaptation

The main difference for the NCLEX PN is that instead of ‘Management of Care’ there is a section called ‘Coordinated Care’. These sections carry the most weight in terms of assessment, accounting for between 17 to 23% of the test. The other sections are spread out fairly evenly after that, around 10 to 12% each. 

The entire test integrates the nursing process of caring, communication, documentation, and teaching. So while there are 8 sections on the test, you may be tested on the nursing process in any of these sections.

Using Brainscape to prepare for the NCLEX

For every major section of the NCLEX, there’s a subset of knowledge you absolutely have to know. It’s much smaller than the entire knowledge base, but you do need to know it well. That’s what Brainscape’s flashcards cover.

The flashcard decks are aligned to the content in the sections outlined above. Because some of the test plan sections are very broad or generalized, the decks are broken down into a course format style instead. This is similar to nursing school and makes it easier to review the content. 

For example: the ‘Health Promotion and Maintenance’ section includes both prenatal maternity and disease prevention for every system. However, it’s just easier to study maternity and then each adult health system separately

Here’s the key point: within each section, some information is far more likely to be on the test than others. 

In Pharmacology, there may be ten, twenty, or thirty things you could learn about each drug. Only some of these are going to be important on test day and they’re most often related to the safe use and administering of that drug.

For example, if a drug has twenty rare side effects, but only two of them are common, then make sure you know these two, because they’re likely to come up in the test. Also, this knowledge may impact majorly on a patient’s health in the future. It’s this subset of vital facts that the Brainscape NCLEX flashcards cover. 

This practicality is what most study guides miss when they try to prep students for the NCLEX. Why is this? Because most study guides are designed by academics. 

These people create the guides based on some sort of ideal scenario where students have loads of spare time available to devote solely to study. Newsflash: this is almost never the case.

use your mobile device to study on the go

Most NCLEX students have other responsibilities: part-time jobs, nursing school, or caregiving roles. They don’t need complete academic knowledge of organic chemistry. They just need to know what material to study so they can pass the test

Spoiler alert: we created Brainscape NCLEX flashcards for time-stretched students who want the skinny on exactly what’s vital to pass the NCLEX and become a good nurse. We’ll explain how our flashcard collections make your job easier in more detail shortly. 

NCLEX test-taking technique

A final thought on NCLEX test-taking technique: some nursing students get tripped up on the exam because they over-complicate things when they use their practical experience as a base to answer the questions. While real-world experience is definitely a help, it can also get in your way. 

This usually happens when you overthink a scenario. Experienced nurses sometimes don’t do as well on NCLEX style questions because they ask themselves too many ‘what if’ questions and confuse the central issue. For example: ‘what if it’s a child’ or ‘what if they have this other disease’ or ‘what if they took this other medication?’

Stethescope and phone

While the NCLEX tries to be a true test of what it’s like to be a nurse, it’ll never be quite the same as real-life nursing. It’s a standardized, national exam meant to test your knowledge of certain facts, and how to apply those facts to a scenario.

When you’re presented with a situation, the exam question can’t cover every possible detail you would want to know in a real case. And it’s worth remembering this when you go to do the test. 

Get used to answering the question with just the information you’re given. If you can think of other questions you’d want to ask before you decide on the best course of action, leave them aside, and focus on the next best option in front of you. 

4. The best NCLEX study tools

A. Review courses and other tools

There are a lot of challenges NCLEX students need to overcome when they set out to master the material. Firstly, there’s a huge number of study books and courses on the market. As we mentioned before, there’s no regulation around the NCLEX: anyone and their grandmother can put out study resources. This means there’s a lot of variation in quality. 

The review materials and services we like best are:

  • Saunders Comprehensive Review book
  • The Hurst NCLEX Review course
  • Klimek Reviews (we recommend the live, in-person review only)
  • Remar Review

Other popular resources are:

  • Kaplan NCLEX book and review course
  • Mike Linares from SimpleNursing.com
  • Sarah from RegisteredNurseRN.com

Then of course there’s NCSBN, the actual test writers. You’ll certainly get the official party line with their resources; however, they’re very much in the business of telling you to cover everything plus the kitchen sink when it comes to studying. They’re not the kind of review who’ll tell you: “This bit, and these parts are super important. These bits…meh. Not so much.”  

You should also know about:

  • Pearson VUE: this is the testing center where you go to take the exam. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with where you’ll be taking the test ahead of time so there are no surprises.

B. Practice exams

It’s important to test your knowledge with NCLEX practice exam questions, of which there are a myriad online. These aren’t regulated either so you’ll find some excellent ones and some not-so-good ones. 

In the not-so-good practice exams, some of the questions are worded badly, giving students the impression the examiner is trying to ‘trick’ them into the wrong answer. And other times some of the answers are just plain wrong!

The practice NCLEX exams we trust are: 

  • The NCLEX Mastery app
  • The Saunders Comprehensive Review (there are practice questions in the book and online)

Another popular resource for practice questions is UWorld. This is a great product to use if you are already very strong in your knowledge of nursing content. But if you are still focused on reviewing the basics, we recommend starting elsewhere.

Be aware that some test exam companies deliberately make their tests harder than the NCLEX. In theory, it’s meant to give students confidence (if I passed this, the NCLEX will be easy!) In practice, it’s often the opposite, and students can get discouraged by how much more they need to learn. That’s why we recommend sticking to the practice exams above, as they’re a fair representation of the NCLEX.

C. Nursing school

Most students find that their NCLEX study is something they need to take charge of outside nursing school. This is because nursing schools have to strike a balance between training you to be a good nurse, and preparing you for the NCLEX.  

Being a good nurse is different from being a top NCLEX student. Unfortunately, many nursing schools focus primarily on training you to be a good nurse, and deal with NCLEX requirements by either: 

  1. Assigning huge amounts of reading from brick-like textbooks, or
  2. Doing a three day NCLEX review course at the end of the semester. (In other words, an extended NCLEX cram session.) 

Neither of these methods is very effective. Simply reading information doesn’t mean you’ll retain it. And trying to cram material into your head at the end of a semester is largely a waste of time, as very little of it will end up in your long term memory. 

This means there’s a large gap in NCLEX study prep. We’re here to help you fill that gap in a way that will make your life easier and your study time far more efficient. 

D. Brainscape NCLEX flashcards

We created Brainscape flashcards in partnership with Justine Buick, “The NCLEX Tutor”, because of the gap between nursing school, study guides, and what you really need to know for the NCLEX. 

Teachers would tell these students things like: “Learn chapters 19-25 of your textbook in the next three days,” and they’d fry their neurons trying to do this. Justine wanted a more standardized way to help the many students she saw who were completely swamped by the vast sea of information they had to learn. 

In contrast, Brainscape NCLEX flashcards are a massive timesaver. They don’t cover every single iota of knowledge in the NCLEX but that’s exactly the point!

Instead, the flashcards focus on the most crucial knowledge you will absolutely need to pass this test. In addition, you get the information in easy, well-organized, bite-sized chunks you can study anywhere: during a five-minute wait before class, on the bus, or at home after dinner. It’s all there on our app, and you can sync all your devices over the net. 

Also, you may find learning the Brainscape way strangely addictive…

You’ll still need to do the normal NCLEX test prep: answering practice exam questions, reading the study guides, and going to class. However, with the Brainscape flashcards, you’ll get the most important facts into your long term memory, far ahead of time. 

They’ll be there, ready to be used, when you’re actually staring down the barrel of your NCLEX test and the clock is ticking. 

Customize your flashcards

In addition to the pre-made NCLEX flashcards, you can also make your own NCLEX flashcards. This can be very useful when addressing subject areas you’re not very strong in. 

The extra steps you take to make your own flashcards will force you to break down complex topics into their simplest pieces. This process is a powerful way to deeply understand and embed knowledge so you’ll always have it.

5. How to study far more effectively for the NCLEX

So far we’ve covered what to study for the NCLEX (and it’s rather less than you’d think). Now we’re going to look at how to study. 

A. Passive vs active study

In the same way that patients don’t present at hospital with a perfect list of their symptoms, real world study isn’t always straightforward. 

For example, reading through material in a book may feel like you’re learning. It’s a great way to get an overview of what you need to learn. But it’s a passive technique, and things learned passively don’t stay in your memory for long.

Passive study may feel like you’re being productive, but it’s not really. It’s a bit like doing a pleasant stroll on the flat ground to build muscle. It’s nice, but not effective. In contrast, active study is hard work. And it really gets knowledge into your long-term memory. 

piles of paper

Similarly, answering multiple choice questions may seem like a great way to practice. After all, the NCLEX uses multiple choice, right? It’s certainly a useful revision technique. Again though, it’s not that great for putting information into your memory. This is because answering multiple choice questions uses recognition, rather than active recall. 

Recognition is when you see a list of medications, and recognize the one that’s used to decrease a fever.  

Active recall is when you see the question:”‘what medication can be used to treat a fever?” And, without any clues, your brain goes and retrieves that piece of information from your memory. It’s a far more reliable way to test whether you really know something or not. 

Active recall is what Brainscape flashcards use to test your knowledge. This type of learning is especially important for the dense NCLEX sections like pharmacology. 

B. Retaining what you’ve learned

Many study guides are structured like this: watch the video, read the chapter, fill out the workbook exercise and BAM! You’re done. 

Except…

A week later, are you really going to recall a fact like: antiemetics can be known as ondansetron, metoclopramide, or promethazine? 

Probably not. (Unless you have cyborg-like memory abilities.)

When you have literally hundreds of these facts to remember, you need to take the most efficient path, which is doing more than just reading the study guide. 

Fortunately, there’s a magic ingredient to truly learning information in a time-efficient way. The magic ingredient? Spaced repetition.

Spaced repetition relates to how often you review new information. Getting the timing of this right gives you the most efficient way to learn and retain information. There is an optimum spacing at which to revise new facts, and Brainscape does this for you automatically behind the scenes. 

In Brainscape, you rate how well you know each card, from not at all (that’s a 1) to perfectly (a 5). The algorithm then repeats the cards you don’t know far more frequently. And the ones you do know? It tests you on those just enough to ensure you retain them in your long-term memory. 

Spaced repetition is especially helpful when you don’t have much time available to study. By doing a little bit, often, you get far better results than students who try to cram all their study into the week before the test.  

C. Here’s what effective NCLEX study looks like

To sum up how to study efficiently for the NCLEX, there are three aspects: 

  1. Understand the topic
  2. Learn: get the information into your brain (memorization) 
  3. Retain: keep your knowledge fresh

#1 Understand

Read through your study guide and make sure you understand everything in it. Highlight any parts that aren’t clear, and make a note to ask your teacher or other students to clarify them until you’ve fully mastered them.

Write the key concepts down in your own words. This is an important part of both understanding and memorization. When you put something into your own words, as well as the textbook version, you’re creating an extra ‘hook’ your brain can use to retrieve the information when you need it next. 

Teach someone. Teaching someone else (especially a non-nursing student) is the best way to test your knowledge and ensure you have a firm grasp of the concepts. 

#2 Learn

Break each topic into small, bite-sized pieces of knowledge. This is an important step to getting information into your memory. Brains don’t ‘upload’ large volumes of data in one large information dump. They store information the same way you build a house: brick by brick. 

This is where the Brainscape NCLEX cards are exceptionally useful. Working with Justine Buick “The NCLEX Tutor,” we’ve broken the mountain of knowledge that is the NCLEX into its key parts, and created flashcard decks based on these. 

Inside each flashcard deck, we’ve further distilled each topic into its most important individual facts, and written out these facts in question-and-answer pairs on single flashcards. 

In the entire set of Brainscape NCLEX classes there are 3,100+ flashcards. However, considering we’re condensing knowledge from what would be thousands of pages and years of experience, these flashcards will save you literally days of knowledge-sorting time. 

Nursing flashcards that include images and text

Even better, you don’t need to break open the giant textbook, figure out where you left off, or go back and review all the parts you aren’t confident about. In Brainscape, you self-assess how well you know every card you see, and our intelligent algorithm will organize your studying for you, using the principle of spaced repetition. 

This keeps you in the zone of optimal learning, where just the right amount of new material is mixed with information you already know. In other words, your working memory is stretched just enough to build new knowledge scaffolding. It’s like a perfectly-paced fitness workout . . . for your brain. 

#3 Retain

When you simply read a section of the NCLEX material, and never look at it again until a week before your test, you leave yourself vulnerable to memory decay. New information stays in your short term memory for a few hours, and then fades. Even a quick review of new material will help fix it in your long term memory far more effectively. 

Studying a little every day means that by exam time, your brain has had plenty of time to fit the vast catalogue of NCLEX knowledge into a neatly organized library of information. 

Do this, and you’ll be one of those students who isn’t frazzled and stressed to the max at test time. Instead, you’ll be quietly confident, ready to ace the NCLEX and start a new chapter of your life!

6. The best time to study for the NCLEX

Along with what to study, when to study is the component that’s most often overlooked by NCLEX students. 

The best time to study is: ideally, all the way through your nursing degree. 

However, some students don’t get serious about the NCLEX until their last semester. That’s ok, as long as you’re giving yourself months, not weeks, to prepare. With the right tools and approach, this can suffice for many students.

Either way, you don’t have to take hours and hours of extra time during the week to study. In fact, even ten to fifteen minutes of flashcard study a day can make a big difference. 

The best way to do this review is to pair up your flashcard sessions with what you’re currently studying in your classes or review course. For example: if you just reviewed pediatrics, you could spend fifteen minutes after dinner going over the pediatric flashcard deck in Brainscape. 

When you review something the day you learn it in class, and then a few days later, your retention rate goes up dramatically. This is something Brainscape does for you automatically, without you needing to think about it. Just load up the cards, and press ‘go’… 

Students who study in this way are often able to take and pass the NCLEX with more confidence while spending less total time preparing.

Why do all this? The importance of studying for the NCLEX effectively

three nurses with a newborn babyThe world needs more qualified nurses. And it always will.They do an incredibly important job. All the way back to Florence Nightingale, Walt Whitman, and before, nurses have risked their lives to help others. They’re on the front lines caring for the sick, the in-need, and the vulnerable. 

The best way to get yourself into NCLEX study mode is to remember your end goal. The NCLEX is the final hurdle for you to vault over in order to become a nurse, and with focus, determination, and some effective study, you’re sure to get there.



Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit brainscape.com or find us on the App Store .

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