From RN to LPN or LVN, nurses face a dizzying array of acronyms even after they've completed their college degree or other educational requirements. Exact professional duties vary by state and by work setting. However, registered nurses generally provide some level of direct patient care. Licensed practical nurses, also known as licensed vocational nurses, provide a more basic level of patient care and usually work under the supervision of RNs and other health care professionals. Each type of nursing professional must take a specialized version of the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX, before they can be licensed to practice in their state.

Use of NCLEX

Results from the NCLEX are used in conjunction with other materials so that state boards of nursing can approve nursing students for licensure. As within many other health care professions and jobs that require a high standard of safety, the exams test the competencies required for safe and professional practice. Students should check with their state's board of nursing to learn about any specific eligibility requirements to register for the NCLEX.

Similarities between PN & RN Exams

Both tests are organized according to the main areas of patient needs: care environment, health promotion and maintenance, and psychosocial and physiological issues. In addition, both LPN/LVNs and RNs can expect questions related to communication, nursing care, teaching and learning, and documentation. Though the NCLEX-RN and the NCLEX-PN test slightly different areas of expertise, they are both developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Tests are administered via computer in Pearson VUE centers throughout the U.S. and in many international locations. To apply for either test, students need to pay a licensing fee and submit an application through their state board, as well as register directly through Pearson VUE.


Students have five hours to complete the NCLEX-PN, designed for prospective LPN/LVNs. Questions on the NCLEX-PN relate to LPN/LVN responsibilities and contributions to existing health care plans. Between 13 and 19 percent of the content relates to coordinated care, or the necessity of collaborating with other health care professionals in providing patient care. According to the NCSBN, 73.9 percent of all prospective LPN/LVN students passed the NCLEX-PN exam in 2012, with 84.23 percent passing on their first attempt.


The NCLEX-RN exam is six hours long. Questions relate to the professional objectives of registered nurses, whose tasks involve initiating care plans and assessing patients. The largest percentage of content on the exam, about 20 percent, deals with care management, followed by pharmacological and parenteral therapies at 15 percent. In 2012, 79.51 percent of all RN candidates passed the NCLEX-RN, with a pass rate of 90.24 percent for all first-time participants; baccalaureate-prepared nurses passed at a higher rate than other educational levels, at 91.66 percent.

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