How to Study for the NCLEX, PALS, NRP, and Other Certifications You Need As a Nurse

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To become a nurse and receive your Registered Nurse (RN) license, you must first pass the NCLEX.  The NCLEX is the National Council Licensure Examination created in 1982 for nurses in the US, Canada, and Australia.  It’s a computerized test that consists of multiple choices and questions become more difficult (or easier) depending on which questions you’re answering correctly or incorrectly.  Passing the NCLEX is one of the biggest challenges nurses face once graduating from school.  And how to study for the NCLEX is a million-dollar question for those who are finishing nursing school and need to take the NCLEX.

Once you’ve passed the NCLEX and you’ve received your RN, the studying doesn’t stop.  As a nurse, depending on what unit you’re working on, it’s required that you maintain some level of certification.  Most nurses are required to maintain their BLS (basic life support).  Adult nurses in critical and intensive care settings are usually required to maintain their ACLS (advance care life support).  Pediatric intensive care nurses are required to obtain PALS (pediatric advance life support), and neonatal intensive care nurses are required to maintain NRP (neonatal resuscitation program) and in some cases, S.T.A.B.L.E. (sugar, temperature, airway, blood pressure, lab work, emotional support).

Keeping up with all of your certifications and keeping track of what expires when can be exhausting.  Plus studying for each exam comes with its own set of hurdles.

Now that I’ve been a nurse for 6+ years and taken the NCLEX plus received many other certifications throughout my career, I’ve come up with the best study tips when studying for the NCLEX and other advanced certifications.  Plus I’m going to share tips on staying organized, how to create a conducive studying environment, and more.


How to Study for the NCLEX PALS, NRP, & Other Certifications Needed for Your RN License

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Creating a Conducive Studying Environment – How to Stay On Task

The first step in studying (for anything) is to create a conducive studying environment.  This will look different for everyone, but the idea is to figure out how you best learn.  What distracts you?  What keeps you on task?  And create that environment.  It’s important to remember that what works well for your friends may not work well for you.  Don’t fall into a trap thinking you have to study like the rest of your classmates or colleagues.

First, do you study better at home or away from home?  If you do study well at home, make sure that you create an environment outside of your bedroom so that you don’t associate sleeping and studying together. If your home environment distracts you, find a coffee shop or a place that you feel comfortable.  Make sure to grab everything you may need for studying – headphones, laptop, books, notebooks, writing utensils, and chargers, before leaving your house.

Next, keep your phone away from your study space.  If my phone is nearby, I’m constantly checking it and getting distracted.  If I’m studying at home, I prefer to keep my phone in an entirely different room; if I’m studying at a coffee shop, I prefer to keep my phone in my car.

Another way to stay on task is to give yourself time to be distracted.  When I study, I tell myself that if I can stay on track for 45 minutes, then I can get off track for 15 minutes before it’s time to study again.  That way I’m sitting down and focusing on studying from 8-8:45, then from 8:45-9 I’m getting up to walk around, go to the bathroom, eat, browse the internet, etc before starting my studies again at 9.

Another way to stay on task is to give yourself a hard stop time.  Even if you aren’t done studying, which you probably won’t be, it’s necessary to set a stop time.  You may never feel prepared, but for the information to be learned, you must sit with it and let it absorb.  The longer your study days are, the more unproductive they will be.  When you start in the morning knowing that you HAVE to be done at 5 pm, you can look forward to the night off.  Honor your promise to yourself, shut your books, and do something fun that doesn’t involve studying.

When all is said and done… reward yourself!  This may look like an ice cream cone, a dinner out with friends, or even a bubble bath alone.  Make sure that you’re treating yourself on days where studying seems daunting and difficult.  Plus it’ll give you something to look forward to at the end of the day.


How to Stay Organized

Another key piece to studying well is to stay organized.  Make sure that you have all the tools that you want and need to learn the material in front of you.  If you like to highlight – buy different color highlighters for different reasons.  For example, yellow could mean “review material”, pink could mean “I already know this well”, blue could mean, “pharmacology”, etc.  If you learn well with sticky notes, buy a bunch of sticky notes and stay organized that way.  However it is that you learn, make sure that all of the tools you need are available to you before you sit down to study.

If you’re studying for an exam with tons of different information, I think it’s also important to sit down and create an outline of the material that you plan to review/learn before the day of your exam.  For instance, if you’re studying for the NCLEX and you know that there will be a little bit of everything on the test, maybe on Monday you commit yourself to study pharmacology.  Tuesday you commit yourself to study pediatrics.  And so on.  If you’re studying for a more focused exam like PALS or NRP, flip to the table of contents, decide what material you need to focus on the most, and start there.

When I study for a focused exam I like to go chapter by chapter, focusing more on what I don’t know and just skimming over what I do know.  I’ll buy my specific book, NRP for example, and find out how many chapters there are.  If there are 12 chapters then I give myself at least 25 days to study for the exam, two days per chapter, and one day before the exam to review any difficult information.


5 Tips When Studying for the NCLEX and Other Certifications

  1. Don’t wait until the last minute – give yourself plenty of time to study so that you don’t get overwhelmed and don’t try to learn too much information in one day.  Studying is stressful enough without adding overwhelming time constraints to it.
  2. Stay organized!  Keep your papers in order, keep your utensils all in one place, however you stay organized – do that.
  3. Figure out how you learn best.  Do you learn well by reading?  Writing?  Whatever it is that helps you learn and retain information, focus on that method when you study.  Don’t fall into a trap of studying like your friends if that isn’t how you learn.
  4. It’s always okay to ask questions.  While you can’t necessarily ask questions during the NCLEX, you can ask questions during classes like PALS, NRP, ACLS, etc.  You aren’t expected to know everything and while it’s important to come to class with a basic understanding of the material, you’re also there to be taught and learn the material too.  Make sure to speak up if there is material that you don’t understand.
  5. Be prepared on the day of.  Bring water to stay hydrated, wear something comfortable that you can sit in all day.  If you’re allowed to bring lunch or snacks, make sure to bring lunch or snacks.


One final thing to remember when studying for these exams/certifications… it does not make you a bad nurse if you fail.  Some of the best nurses that I know failed the NCLEX on their first try, failed PALS before taking the time to understand the material, and more.  What makes you a bad nurse is not putting your all in, not trying to understand that material, and not doing the very best that you can for your patients.  We have all failed at some point in life, don’t get down if you happen to fail one of these exams.


For those reading this post, what other study tips do you have for future nurses who will be sitting for exams and certifications?  Let me know in the comments below!


Read more:  Why You Should Receive Your PALS Certification As a NICU Nurse


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Kylee is a NICU nurse passionate about making travel affordable and accessible to nurses. Inspiring nurses to travel both near and far, Kylee began Passports and Preemies in 2017 while volunteering in Skopje, North Macedonia as a way to reach nurses and advocate for the prevention of nurse burnout by traveling. Kylee has been a NICU nurse for 9 years and a travel nurse for 7 years. Since starting her career in travel nursing, she’s worked in six different states, 10 different hospitals, volunteered as a nurse in North Macedonia, worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia, and has traveled to 45+ countries. Her favorite travel nurse assignment was in Seattle and her favorite destination is Georgia (the country). Kylee is the original creator of the “8 Day Vacay” – a vacation geared towards nurses who aim to take advantage of the potentially 8 days off between work weeks with no need to use PTO.

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