Seven Reasons Why Students Fail the NCLEX

  • 01 April, 2022

Chances are you have heard the phrase "don't let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game." Just as the saying goes, do not let the fear of failing your NCLEX prevent you from putting your best foot forward. There will always be the potential of failure, but let that be your motivation to hone in on your studies and do what is in your control to prevent it from turning into your fate. Enlightening yourself regarding ways to succeed is vital but so is learning about habits that can lead you down the path toward failure. Don't let failing the NCLEX become part of your reality. Plan ahead and know what you are up against. Below we will take a deep dive into seven different reasons why students end up failing their NCLEX and how you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Seven Reasons Why Students Fail the NCLEX


  1. Anxiety

    First on the list is addressing any NCLEX related anxiety. Whether you are a calm test taker or far from it, the likelihood of experiencing some form of apprehension on the day of your NCLEX is rather high. While some stress can assist in maintaining an appropriate motivation level, too much can be detrimental to your thought process and overall physical wellbeing. When your main focus is on the emotions you are experiencing, it is almost impossible to divert your attention elsewhere. Attempting to determine the correct answer to a question can feel burdensome when your mind is racing. You do not want this to be the case when you are taking a critical exam. Overcoming this feeling starts with addressing it.

    A few ways to help conquer excess worries include:
    • Taking the time to learn about all of the details related to the NCLEX, the testing site, the process, the format of the test, etc. in order to eliminate any fear involving the unknown. The more that you know about the structures of the exam itself, the more your mind will be at ease.
    • Know what to study. Figure out the breakdown of the content that will be assessed and determine where your strengths and weaknesses lie.
    • Figure out ways that you can re-center and calm yourself down in times of extreme worry. Whether it be diaphragmatic breathing, imagery, or some other form, find something that works to alleviate those nerves.
    • Practice positive affirmations. The way in which you talk to yourself can have a larger impact than you may realize. Tell yourself that you are going to pass and that you are capable and avoid voicing negative thoughts.

  2. Rushing

    Another factor that can lead to failure stems from not fully reading the question or all of the available answers. Skimming over critical wording can point you in the wrong direction, leading you toward selecting an incorrect option. It is imperative not to jump to any conclusions without pulling out key words and truly dissecting what is being asked of you. Remember that you have about two minutes per question, so take your time as you work your way through the assessment. You can always highlight questions that you are unsure of and return to them at the end, given you have enough time to do so. Even if you are positive right off the bat that you know the correct answer, still be sure to read everything thoroughly as a means of double checking your work.

    To avoid rushing, keep these thoughts in mind:
    • Identify the key phrases and words in the question so you are positive about what is being asked before choosing an answer.
    • Eliminate options immediately that you know are incorrect.
    • Re-read the question and each of the potential answers before officially submitting your selection.
    • Rationalize your answer-if you can explain to yourself why it is correct, you are more likely to be accurate.

  3. A lack of understanding of the testing format and overall content

    In order to know how to study and test well, you need to know beforehand what the structure will look like as well as what material you need to be prepared to know. This may seem obvious, but many students do not take the time to learn about the format of the NCLEX, which can be detrimental given that it is extremely different from other standardized nursing exams. This exam evaluates you in real time, feeding you questions that it has determined you will have a 50 percent chance of answering correctly. Due to this adaptive technology, the exam will most likely feel more challenging, and you will come across information you are not particularly familiar with.

    To offset this from occurring:
    • Go onto ncsbn.org to review the details of the exam.
    • Learn about computerized adaptive testing (CAT) and how this is unique from previous tests you have taken.
    • Understand the breakdown of content so you know what areas take precedent when you are studying.

  4. Second guessing and switching answers

    You are incredibly close to becoming a nurse, so be confident in your abilities, and do not second guess your own knowledge. Many times, students will have selected the correct answer only to talk themselves out of it by going down the rabbit hole of "what if." Don't make any assumptions or base your answers off of real-life scenarios. Pretend that everything you'd ever need (supplies, staffing, etc.) is of surplus and shortages of any sort are not an issue, unless specifically stated in the question. Making up additional details can derail your focus and lead to selecting an incorrect answer.

    While you are taking your exam, focus on the following to help avoid self-doubt creeping in:
    • Determine your rationale for the answer you have chosen and be confident in your selection.
    • Double check that you have not added any of your own information to the question or available answers.
    • Don't stew on a question for too long.

    Have you failed your NCLEX-RN exam recently? Are you looking for advice on what steps you can take next? Enroll in our NCLEX Exam Prep course taught by nursing education experts to pass your NCLEX exam and get practicing as a registered nurse! You will receive the resources you need to pass the exam such as Live Online or Ondemand lectures, Practice Portal, Study Hub, discussion forum, flash cards, and more!


  5. Starting to study too late

    Some students ride the high of graduating a little too long and neglect to review until the last minute, providing them with subpar results in the end. Others may assume that nursing school itself was enough "studying" and that it is not necessary to allocate more hours. However, the content that you will be expected to know varies greatly and requires several weeks to touch upon. You want to start studying right after graduation while the information you have since acquired is still fresh. Underestimating the complexity of this exam is a risky move.

    In order to prevent procrastinating:
    • Create a schedule and figure out how many days a week and how many hours per day you can allot to reviewing material.
    • Start brainstorming your study regimen before you have graduated nursing school, and plan to put your schedule into action shortly after. Do not delay or postpone this-You cannot effectively cram for the NCLEX.
    • Treat your studies like a job so that you do not risk having to take it again.

  6. Waiting too long to test or taking the test too early

    Although there is no one-size-fits-all timeframe as to when you should schedule your exam, you should be cautious not to take it too soon after graduation. Conversely, you do not want to wait too long either. Find that sweet spot where you still have time to review but the information you learned in nursing school is still raw and easily accessible.

    Planning to take your NCLEX a week or two after graduation is not in your best interest, but waiting up to a year is also not an ideal option. You want to find a healthy middle range, and that is ultimately up to you and your comfort levels.

    To assist in finding the appropriate time span that works for you:
    • Look at your calendar and determine how much time you can reasonably dedicate to studying.
    • Pick a date to schedule your test and plan accordingly.
    • Make it a priority to dedicate a certain number of hours a day to go over necessary material.

  7. Not taking care of your body

    You need to find a desirable balance between studying and living life. Don't plan to study 24/7 without moving from your desk. Be sure that you are still sleeping well, nourishing your body, hydrating, and exercising. Additionally, some social interaction every once in a while can aid in keeping you sane during this rigorous process. Essentially, take your studies seriously, but do not eat, breathe, and live for this exam. Solely focusing on your NCLEX may seem like the smart action to take, but doing so can actually hinder your progress. You need rest in order to effectively retain the information that you are working hard to learn. Too much studying and not enough sleep will prevent this process from occurring. Try to make studying enjoyable rather than a tedious task that has to get done. The more fun that you can weave in, the easier it will be to not only learn the necessary information but also help in preventing dread or burnout associated with studying.

    Here are some tips you can incorporate to be sure you are putting yourself first:
    • Go to bed and wake up at the same time. Shoot for 7-9 hours of sleep each night so that you are getting an appropriate amount of rest.
    • Formulate a study plan that is enticing and one that you can stick to. If you have friends that you can study with, this can oftentimes make it more enjoyable and increase your willingness to do so.
    • Make sure you are eating or at least snacking on healthy items throughout the day. Remember, food is fuel, and your brain needs a good amount in order to work optimally.
    • Bring a water bottle with you wherever you go so that you are staying hydrated.
    • Move your body in some way each day. Whether it is a walk in your neighborhood or an at home workout, be sure that you are not sitting down continuously. Get your body moving and, better yet, get some fresh air as well. This will help ease nerves as you work up to your test date and help to keep your mental health in line.

Be diligent in the choices that you make leading up to your NCLEX date. Examine each of your study tactics and ask yourself if they are boosting your chances of passing or if they are holding you back, and make the necessary changes based on such evaluation. Adopt the mindset of doing things right the first time so that you don't have to worry about the potential of a second round. Failing the NCLEX is easy to do when you neglect to put the appropriate actions into place. However, it can also be effortless to set yourself up to pass when you know ahead of time what to avoid and thus focus on appropriate actions to get you there. Don't let one or more of these seven reasons be the culprit that steals your chances of seizing victory over the NCLEX.
About the Author: Kelsey Mangan

Kelsey Mangan is a registered nurse, who graduated from Linfield College in 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and minor in education. She is a health and wellness advocate, writer, wife, and a new mama to baby Paisley. In her spare time, she enjoys working out, spending time with friends and family, finding binge-worthy shows on Netflix, and snuggling with her sweet daughter.

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