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Differences Between the PAX-RN & the NCLEX

by Samantha Ley, studioD

From RN to B.S.N. and even D.P.N., the field of nursing is full of highly specific acronyms, including those for degree programs, licensed positions, professional organizations, and required examinations. Students must complete an accredited nursing education program in order to become registered nurses (RNs). Some of these nursing programs require an admission examination -- the PAX-RN -- and all students must take the NCLEX-RN once they graduate. After completing their education and required exams, licensed RNs can expect relatively strong job prospects: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted 26 percent employment growth for RNs between 2010 and 2020, and reported that they earned an average of $67,930 per year as of May 2012.

PAX-RN Goals

The PAX-RN, also called the NLN PAX-RN, is developed by the National League for Nursing; the acronym stands for Pre-Admission Examination. Many nursing schools use this exam to determine applicants' basic skills and potential for academic success in nurse training. Individual schools may set composite score requirements or percentile minimums to be admitted or to be given preferential consideration for admission to the professional nursing program.

PAX-RN Content and Format

The PAX-RN tests students' verbal skills, including reading comprehension and vocabulary. It also has a math section, which includes word problems, algebra and geometry, and a science section covering topics like chemistry, biology and physics. Students have one hour to complete each of the three main sections, and the test contains 214 questions. Questions are multiple choice and each section includes experimental content that does not count toward students' final scores. Students often take the test at their preferred college or university.


The National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN, is developed by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing and is used by state boards to determine nursing students' readiness to contribute to safe and professional healthcare practice. Students take the exam toward the end of or after completing their accredited entry-level RN training program. An acceptable score on this exam is one of the requirements to become licensed by any state; some states may require students to complete additional steps to earn licensure.

NCLEX Content and Format

Students take the NCLEX-RN at third-party test centers, rather than at their school. They have six hours to complete the exam, with scheduled breaks. The test is computer-adaptive, meaning that students are presented with questions adjusted to their ability level, which is based on previous answers. Students must answer 75 items and can answer a maximum of 265. Structured around specific concepts related to client needs and nursing processes, the exam questions may be multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, ordered response, or other formats.

About the Author

Samantha Ley writes career and education articles for various online publications. She also works in social media management and creates test materials and other educational content for various companies. Ley holds a B.A. in English and Spanish from Kenyon College and an M.Ed. from the University of Virginia.

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