Test-Taking Tips for Students from HESI® Compass™ Coaches

For graduating nursing students, finishing nursing school is a huge accomplishment but that’s not all it takes to become a nurse. Passing the NCLEX® is the next big hurdle they face in order to join the workforce, with most new graduates aiming to pass the test on the first try. HESI Compass closes the gap between graduation and the NCLEX with personalized learning to ensure students retain all of the knowledge they attained through nursing school. Part of the personalized learning plan includes direct guidance with tenured nurse educators as coaches.

Coaches in HESI Compass work directly with students to share test-taking tips, help strengthen areas of weakness, and answer any questions students may have to be NCLEX-ready. Here are some test-taking tips from our HESI Compass coaches that they’ve shared with students previously to achieve NCLEX success.

Understanding Test Questions

Students should read each question carefully and thoroughly, identifying any keywords in the question. They should make sure they understand what the question is asking of them and that the answer choice they choose truly answers the question! Keep safety in mind—what answer choice keeps the patient safest in this situation?

—Kelli Selvage

Students can struggle with “Select All That Apply (SATA)” questions.  Here are some tips for students to answer these questions: 

  •  Look at each option choice individually, not as a group.
  •  Ask “does this option actually answer what the question is asking?”
  •  Each option provided is a true or false statement—choose the true statement(s).
  •  All questions have at least one correct option.
  •  Do not worry about the number of options to choose from, just focus on if the option answers the question.
  •  Visualize the event. Use nursing knowledge and clinical experiences to answer the question.

 Practice, Practice, Practice, and remember that Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance!

—Lisa Draper

An important point for students to remember is that the NCLEX tests competence and ability to care for a client, and to implement necessary measures in a particular situation. It is critically important for students to read the question carefully, note the information in the question, and read all available options. One other point to remember is that if an option identifies an intervention that requires a physician’s order, then answer the question as if there is already an actual order for the intervention. If the question describes a client situation that is not life-threatening and there is an option that directly relates to a nursing action relevant to the situation, then it is best to select that option and not the option that indicates to “call the physician.” Remember that there is usually an action that the nurse would take in a non–life-threatening situation before calling the physician. Students should also check out the Test-Taking Algorithm in Saunders Clinical Judgment & Test-Taking Strategies text.

—Nancy Capponi

Option choices with the terms such as never, only, all, every… usually is an incorrect option choice. Cross that option off! Each option that is crossed off is increasing one’s chances of choosing the correct one.

—Sara Riley

Question Rationale

These are important test-taking tips for students to practice as they learn to break down the questions:

—Laurie Harris

I always tell my students to read every rationale, even if they got it correct. It could have been a very good guess, but they really may have no idea why they got it correct!

When in doubt, NEVER change the answers unless there is 100% certainty it is the wrong option choice, such as in cases where a keyword was misread, etc. Even if students can’t pinpoint it, subliminally something (from a reading assignment or something they may have heard in class or clinical) may be pulling them towards that particular option or choice. Go with your instinct or gut!

—Sara Riley

Drug Calculations on the NCLEX

Pharmacology can be a very tricky area and is often an area that students struggle with. Students should keep in mind a few things as they work through pharmacology-focused modules in HESI Compass related to the NCLEX:

  • NCLEX will provide information on what to round to when test-takers input their answers to calculation questions. For example, if it says to “round to the nearest tenth”, you should have one number after a decimal point (such as 2.5). They will provide test-takers with a calculator tool for the exam and a whiteboard to write on.
  • NCLEX uses generic names for medications. These often use the same parts of words based on what the drug is used for. Students should review root words to help memorize drug categories. If they know what category a drug falls into, they are more likely to understand how it works in the body, possible side effects, and what patient education may be needed.
  • Students will not be able to learn all medications—focus on high-risk medications such as blood thinners and insulin or medications that can be used across all genres of nursing like HTN, depression, and diabetes medications.

—Annette Wounded Arrow

Managing Stress and Test Anxiety

It is important for students to manage their stress. Test anxiety is a real thing! They should learn to take time to be calm through breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, or mindfulness apps and spend at least 10 minutes per day practicing. Even if they don’t typically have test anxiety, there is a chance that they will be nervous from the pressure of such an important test. 

Here are some ways students can keep stress at a minimum: 

  • Students should prepare for the exam seriously but don’t make studying their life. It’s important to keep a balance in the weeks leading up to the exam. 
  • Allotting time in the day for good nutrition, exercise, proper sleep, and whatever they do for fun and keeping a balance, students’ minds won’t build up the test moment to anything bigger than it actually is. 
  • Students should focus on something that helps them stay grounded—cooking a nice breakfast, listening to music, going on a run—whatever works for them. 

Ultimately, the best way to abate nerves is to study appropriately. When students feel confident and prepared, the NCLEX doesn’t seem all that scary. 

—Julie Omsberg

For testing day, students should eat a healthy meal, dress comfortably, avoid distractions, stay calm, and exercise positive self-talk. During the test, students should practice deep breathing, practice positive self-talk, be confident that they will succeed, and read each question carefully.

—Sharon Mingo

I encourage students to take a break the evening before their test. They should do something that is relaxing for them! Get to bed early (no studying!) and try to get at least eight hours of sleep. They should make sure they’re up the next morning in plenty of time to eat breakfast and not feel rushed to begin the exam.

During the exam, students should recognize when they need to take a short “mental” break. This is typically when they’re reading questions over and over but not comprehending what they’re reading. Stop and clear your brain before proceeding! Take some deep breaths and think about something that makes you happy.

—Kelli Selvage