NCLEXStudent

How To Approach an NCLEX Question: Part I

How to Approach NCLEX Questions

In order to be successful on the NCLEX® it is helpful for a nursing student to know the following three things: how to prepare in advance, what to expect on test day, and how to analyze the stem of a question.

Understanding this information allows for more intentional and strategic study (building a study plan, customizing spaced repetition flashcards, focusing on weak areas, etc.).

When a student begins to grasp how to approach an NCLEX question, he or she enters the testing site with a confidence and enthusiasm that contributes to NCLEX success on exam day.

Now, it is important to note that the NCLEX is an ever-evolving exam. That means it is impossible to predict the exact content that is going to be on your exam for the following reasons:

  • The NCLEX is a computer adaptive test (CAT), using adaptive technology to gauge core entry-level nursing competency. Therefore, the algorithm adapts, choosing the next question based upon your correct or incorrect answer on the previous question. 
  • The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) continually reviews exam content to ensure all content accurately reflects current entry-level practice in nursing.
  • The NCSBN states that they “will continue to develop innovative items to assess how well candidates can apply various nursing knowledge and principles as long as these item types improve the measurement of the NCLEX.”

But just because you won’t know the exact questions on your upcoming exam, that doesn’t mean you have to be unprepared. You can still be successful on the NCLEX exam by studying effectively and understanding the types of questions to expect. With that being said . . . 

Here are three things to consider when approaching an NCLEX question:

1. Practice the Right Way

The best thing you can do to ensure success on exam day is to practice with NCLEX-style questions.

The old adage says “practice makes perfect,” but this is not always true. If you’re practicing the wrong way, you are simply reinforcing bad habits and not making progress.

Perfect practice makes perfect,” and using practice tests with NCLEX-style questions is a perfect way to practice.

The NCSBN offers practice tests, and UWorld offers over 2,100 NCLEX-style questions in its NCLEX-RN® QBank and over 1,200 NCLEX-style questions in its NCLEX-PN® QBank.

2. Examine the Stem Thoroughly

The entire question and answer on the exam is referred to as “the item.” The actual question is referred to as “the stem,”  and it is essential that you read the stem carefully and completely to understand exactly what the question is asking.

The items on the exam will require test takers to demonstrate evaluation and analysis so it is imperative that you not rush through the stem being presented to you.

A few things to remember when examining the stem and considering your answer to multiple-choice questions: (Note: 80-90% of the exam is multiple choice)

  • After reading the stem, and before reading the answer options, consider what you think the correct answer would be. Then consult the answer options to see if one of the choices matches your answer. 
  • Once you’ve read the stem carefully and considered your answer, read each of the four multiple-choice answer options, remembering that the NCSBN wants “the most correct answer.”
  • As part of computer adaptive technology, you can’t skip an item on the NCLEX; therefore, you will have to provide an answer for each item presented.
  • If you don’t know the answer, eliminate the answer options you know to be incorrect (these are known as “distractors”), consider what you learned in clinical rotations, and choose the most appropriate answer of the remaining options.

3. Resist the Urge To Question Yourself 

Overthinking on an exam, especially a high-stakes exam like the NCLEX, is a common problem for test takers, and it’s a problem that can diminish your chances for success.

If you’ve spent the proper amount of time in test preparation, practiced with NCLEX-style questions, and utilized innovative digital flashcards, then anxiety is greatly reduced. You can trust the work you’ve done and all you’ve learned in didactics and clinical rotations.

There is a fine line between being thorough and being afraid. As you move item by item through your exam, choose determination over hesitation.

Remember: You’re not going to get every question correct. The test is designed to determine the level of your knowledge and it can’t do that without asking you occasional questions beyond your academic or application level.


If you’re a nursing student preparing to take the NCLEX® exam, UWorld is the gold standard for NCLEX prep. We can help guide your success from classroom to clinical with thousands of questions that mimic the exam, detailed rationales, vivid illustrations, and precise performance tracking. Discover why over 700,000 nursing students have trusted us for their exam prep since 2015.