What To Do If You've Failed the NCLEX

What Happens If You Don't Pass The NCLEX?

Nursing school requires years of dedication, and the long days and nights you spend in study culminate when you take the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Given in every state, this exam tests your knowledge of nursing and the skills you've gained during your training. Depending upon what type of nursing program you complete, you'll take either the PN (Practical Nursing) or RN (Registered Nursing) version. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says nurses must pass the NCLEX to practice in any state after having graduated from an approved nursing program. Some nurses choose to pursue additional certifications in areas like gerontology or pediatrics, but the NCLEX is the basic, required exam for anyone who wishes to work as an RN or LPN/LVN in the United States.

But...what happens if you don't pass the NCLEX? Is your nursing career over before it's even begun? Is it time to consider a different profession? Failing the test isn't an ideal outcome, but the good news is; it isn't the end of your nursing career.

Reading Your Candidate Performance Report (CPR)

If you don't pass the NCLEX, you'll receive a document called the Candidate Performance Report. This two-page report is created for you whether you fail the NCLEX-PN or the NCLEX-RN. Reading this report is the first thing you should do before planning to retake the exam.

If you don't finish the exam, you won't receive a full report on your performance, and your CPR will only include the number of questions you answered and the number of questions you needed to answer to pass the test or receive a full evaluation on the CPR document. If you do finish the exam but you don't receive a passing grade, your CPR will include specific details on your performance.

It's important to understand the concept of Computerized Adaptive Testing (CAT), which is explained within the CPR you receive. According to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), the computerized system will look at your answers and halt the test if you don't perform well enough to pass the test even after answering every question. The NCLEX-RN has 265 total questions, and the NCLEX-PN has 205 total questions.

The most important section to read on the CPR is the second page of the report, which describes your performance in each content area of the exam. Each section will contain a phrase that tells you whether you were "below the passing standard" or whether you passed. When you begin studying to retake the test, you'll want to concentrate your efforts on the sections where you performed poorly.

Retaking the NCLEX If You Fail

If you don't pass the NCLEX on your first try, most states allow you to retake the exam after 45 days have elapsed. It's important to visit the website for the state nursing board where you intend to practice to determine the specific requirements of your state.

Generally, these are the steps you'll need to follow to retake the test.

  • Speak with your state nursing board about retaking the test.
  • Gather materials as required by your state's board of nursing.
  • Register again with test provider Pearson VUE and pay the test fee.
  • Schedule your exam after receiving your new authorization to test (ATT).

The NCSBN requires that you wait at least 45 days before attempting the NCLEX a second time, but some states do require that you wait more than 45 days, and the board of nursing won't send out an authorization to test until the state-mandated number of days has elapsed.

Ensuring Your Best Chance of Passing the NCLEX

Studying for the NCLEX is an essential activity whether you're taking the test for the first time or the third time. If your initial attempts at studying don't result in a successful exam, you may want to modify your studying habits. Your nursing school may have resources for you including counselors, tutors, and study groups who can help you prepare for the exam. The NCSBN also offers extremely valuable NCLEX test plans that are regularly updated.

If you have the money available, you may also want to consider taking a live review course. These courses usually cost somewhere around $300 to $400, and the investment of money and time may be worth it. If you are tight on funds, you may want to begin saving for a review course in the months before you graduate from nursing school.

You may also want to purchase a review book that will help you study for the NCLEX whenever you're not otherwise engaged in school work. One popular book is "Saunders Comprehensive Review for the NCLEX-RN" by Linda Anne Silvestri Ph.D. RN, which is available from major book retailers and may also be available in your school's bookstore. You may also wish to read "Prioritization, Delegation, and Assignment (PDA)" by Linda LaCharity.

Don't Panic. Failing the NCLEX Isn't the End of the Road

It helps to remember that some future nurses do fail their first NCLEX and must retake the exam. Your state board of nursing and the NCSBN offer nurses the chance to retake the test because they realize that talented and competent nursing school graduates may require a second chance.

If you fail your NCLEX, don't assume your long hours in nursing school have been for nothing. As soon as you are notified that you failed your exam, contact your state's nursing board and find your state's requirements for retaking the exam. Having taken the test once, you may find you are better prepared to complete and pass the exam on your second try.