What Are You Struggling With?

How to Stop Being a BAD Test Taker in Nursing School (struggling student)

Currently I’m struggling with test taking and second guessing my answer choices. Although I have improved, I continue to second guess myself. Every time I check my answers, my first choice was always the right one. When taking exams I’m left with two obvious, good choices. Although my brain tells me the first one was right, my pen or mouse picks the second. Any tips on how to overcome this would be a great help.


Not passing the NCLEX® (or any exam for that matter) does not always mean that you have not studied enough. Sometimes, it can be because you have spent so much time studying that you forgot to prepare YOU – the person who’ll be taking the exam!

What do I mean by that?

You and YOU Against the Test

On the day of your exam, it is YOU who will be taking the test.It is just YOU vs. the exam. That’s it!

Okay, perhaps it would be fairer to also mention the proctor or professor in the background; but for real, when it comes to getting the correct answers, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN!

Now, don’t take that the wrong way because you can certainly work that to your advantage. That’s the key reason why you should not be caring about other test takers, the clock, and whatever else you have going on in your life. Make it a point to only focus on answering the exam questions as best as you can. An exam is meant to be savored, made sweet, sweet love to if you will, and handled like a pro…but how?

Listen To That Squeak!

Have you ever experienced being drawn to an answer but have no idea whatsoever why or how? Just got this strong feeling that an answer is the right one but not really understanding why your brain is telling you to go ahead and pick it?

What usually happens next is you end up rationalizing with yourself, picking another option, and then it turns out that your hunch is the correct answer all along!So, so unfair!

That sounds all too familiar isn’t it?

Want to know how or why that tiny voice is your head often ends up being correct? How can something so weird like that happen?

Chances are, you have already answered a similar question before or have read a concept that applies to it in your years of studying. It’s just that you cannot consciously remember it at the top of your head and so you usually end up choosing another option after much thinking, err rationalization.

If you’ve seen the animated movie, Inside Out, they do kind of show in there (in a very neat way!)how memories are stored and accessed. Call it instinct, guts, divine intervention, or your fairy godmother whispering in your ear – that little squeak is the real thing!


When you start to try to ignore that little tug drawing you to the correct option, don’t you sense a nagging feeling redirecting you to go back to that option again? That is because your brain is trying to tell you that you’re heading to the wrong direction!

I’ve said that it is you and YOU who’ll be taking your exam. You have to learn to listen to yourself and give yourself some credit. Just like how you don’t need to measure ingredients when you’re cooking your favorite dish because you know it so well, there will be times that you’ll be drawn to the correct option without really thinking about it; and that is because it is so freakin obvious that your brain was just saying, “duh dude, here’s the answer!”

10 commandments of nursing school

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here are some more tips for successful test taking:

The 10 Commandments of Successful Test-Taking

#1 – Thou shall not use your study time in vain.

If you’ve set time to study, then take a seat and try to go over your notes. This would be much better if you’re relaxed but believe it or not, passive studying and repetition does work so hands-off your mobile and keep reading/studying!

#2 – Thou shall not ignore keywords.

Nursing questions are littered with keywords. Words such as EXCEPT, SATA, and NOT are often used and yes, also often missed thus leading to incorrect answers. It really is not enough to have just knowledge to pass a test, you’ll have to understand what is being asked in the first place.

#3 – Thou shall not cheat.

Some professors would use the same exam for all the classes that they’re handling. This is not an excuse to get a free pass. Remember that the exam is your tool to gauge how much you’ve learned, retained, and understand.

#4 – Thou shall honor your first answer – always!

This is one of the best nursing student hacks ever! You must listen to the squeak! That tiny little voice that points you to the correct answer even when you have no idea how come that answer is the right one is your lifesaver!

#5 – Thou shall not steal glances at the clock while reading questions.

You really should stop torturing yourself by NOT looking at the clock while answering questions! Being mindful of time is fine, but being consumed by how much time you are taking answering each question is a no go.

#6 – Thou shall not kill time dawdling between options.

In fact, you should not even be going back and forth between options (except maybe if it’s a SATA-type question). Going back and forth between options for a considerable length of time only serves to confuse you further and tire you out, thereby making you more likely to choose the wrong answer!

#7 – Thou shall remember to take a break.

Here’s what you do when you find that choices seems to be blurring together or that questions are not making sense. Take a deep breath and take a mini break. It can be as short as 30 seconds thinking of a pleasant thought but it will definitely be worth it!

#8 – Thou shall not look unto your neighbor’s answers.

And thou shall not be bothered by your neighbors AT ALL! Cheating is for losers and you’ll not be doing yourself any favor if you do that nor when you look around trying to figure out who’s done with the exam and who’s still soldiering on with you. Really, don’t do it!

#9 – Thou shall pass the exam.

Well, how else would we know that you’ve become a good test taker other than by passing your exam?

#10 – Thou shall remember that an exam is just an exam.

There will be instances when you will not get things right and that’s fine. Being a nurse means having to contend with a lot of challenges, some of which may be extra difficult to swallow than the rest. There will be times when you think you’ve given an exam your 100% and have it totally betray you(how dare the test do that, right?!). Part of being a good test taker is developing a nurse’s mind and learning to pick your fights.

May ‘The Force’ Be With You

Accept that some things are not meant to make sense right away. As you continue in your nursing journey, you’ll begin to recognize and give value to your inner voice. ‘The Force’(that’s a Star Wars reference, btw) that’s pulling you to the correct answer is your newfound Jedi-ness peeking through. Learn to embrace it and use it for the good of mankindto pass any exam that comes your way! That’s the ultimate trick to stop being a bad test taker, the 11th commandment: Thou shall not doubt yourself, EVER!

No amount of knowledge and notes will help you pass that test if you don’t believe in YOU. There is no room for errors in real life nursing and the test is designed to sort of simulate that. The key is being as confident in answering your exam questions as you are being an awesome nurse!

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Date Published - Dec 19, 2015
Date Modified - Dec 19, 2015

Jon Haws

Written by Jon Haws

Jon RN CCRN is a critical care nurse at a Level I Trauma center in Dallas, TX. His passions include learning about anatomy and physiology and teaching. When he isn't busting out content for NRSNG.com he loves spending time with his family.


  1. Scott

    My family const of MD, board of surgery, on the board of directors, and professors at teaching hospitals, and I spent time in the Army: I was told I would be cut before the semester is over and I should have a contingency along with all the other 75% who answer the questions wrong. I see many that would be excellent nurses, smart & very caring no matter what their background. I feel horrible when I see them trying to hold back tears losing something they truly love. Every pt and scenario is like a snowflake, there is never a correct SOP. Yes, we all use the Kaplan, Quizlet, and practice NCLEX questions. All I know with medicine: use the tools to the best of your ability and give them the love they need to survive even though we don’t have the capabilities. My question is: who suffers the most, the pt, the family, or those in the med field- you tell me out of the 3 which is MOST correct. If you can answer that you are definitely better than I and the 75% of my class.

  2. Mary

    Words such as EXCEPT, SATA, and NOT are often used

    Hi. I am assuming SATA means = except and not? Please verify. thank you. Mary