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How to Pass Nursing Exams: ATI, HESI and the NCLEX®

A step-by-step formula for ATI, HESI and NCLEX study aid

Three simple areas to identify your weaknesses on Nursing exams

3 nursing exams - ati hesi and the nclex

Everyone has a weakness and for nursing students prepping to pass nursing exams like the ATI, HESI or the NCLEX®, those weaknesses can feel crippling. Nursing students tend to write in to Picmonic with similar, seemingly insurmountable issues like:

“I’m doing poorly answering questions. Help!”

“I’ve failed my NCLEX®, what do you recommend?”

“Can you help me figure out why I’m doing so poorly on my nursing tests?”

“I don’t think I’m going to pass my HESI Exit because I can’t even pass my HESI practice exam. Help, please!”

“Is it just me or does the ATI not make sense? Oh, it’s just me? Can you please help?”

Often nursing students are left with a standardized report post-testing telling them “content areas” of weakness, but sometimes, it just a matter of understanding how the testing process works, so Picmonic has boiled everything down into three areas to work on before nursing exams. We’re in this together to help you pass your nursing exams.

The nursing test passing formula has three main parts:

• Understanding the Question
• Application of the Content
• Content Mastery

nursing exams - understanding the questionUnderstanding the Question
(What is the question asking?)

This is the easiest of all of the problems to overcome but is surprisingly VERY common. Try not to jump to a conclusion in the middle of reading a question. Rushing can cause you to choose the wrong answer and you really can’t rush through a nursing final exam question.

Tips for understanding the questions:

  1. ALWAYS read the entire question on your nursing exam!

  2. Ask yourself after reading the question: “What is this question asking me?” If you don’t know what the question is asking you, read it again.

  3. Be sure to look for keywords like “appropriate, highest priority, safe, therapeutic, accurate, next, first, best, indicated.”

Application of the Content
(Choosing the “most correct” answer)

Sometimes, even when you understand the question but still get it wrong it means it’s a matter of understanding what the question’s priority, or best answer, is. This is where it’s important to implement some basics – ADPIE (Assessment, Diagnosis, Planning, Interventions and Evaluation) as well as ABC’s (Airway, Breathing, Circulation) and understanding the basics of physiological need (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).

If discerning the best answer is your only problem, the best fix here is to practice questions. Make good use of ATI or HESI practice exams or, well, any nursing practice questions like Picmonic’s Daily Quiz. These practice board questions are here for a reason. Preparation via repetition can be your friend. While preparing for your NCLEX® exam it has always been recommended to run through about 1,500 practice questions total. We’ve gathered five awesome resources for nursing exams to use:

nursing exams - picmonic nclex question of the day

Picmonic Question of the Day

The Good:
Picmonic posts an NCLEX® question every day -for free-, and we even link you to the content you messed up on so you can check out our visual study guides in all their glory.

The Bad: We don’t tell you your weaknesses or let you create entire tests of questions.

nursing exams - uworld for the nclex UWORLD for NCLEX® 

The Good: With increasingly difficult questions, UWORLD will push you to your limits and give you a better idea of what to put on your Picmonic Playlists.

The Bad: It’s expensive.

nursing exams - nclex mastery NCLEX® Mastery App 

The Good: It’s a super handy smartphone application for NCLEX® questions on the go!

The Bad: Sometimes it’s hard to find rationale references so you can look up additional information. But that’s fine because you can find a Picmonic visual study aid to look over instead!

nursing exams - kaplan qbank Kaplan QBank

The Good: Kaplan’s vast experience and rationales are the best at guiding you on how to think through the questions.

The Bad: It’s expensive. (Sensing a theme?)

nursing exams - NSCBN question bank NSCBN’s Question Bank

The Good: They are closely affiliated with same people who write questions for the actual NCLEX® exam so their questions are likely to be the most similar to what you’ll actually see on the NCLEX®.

The Bad: It’s expensive.

nursing exams - mastering the contentMastering the Content
(“I don’t remember that!”)

This is the toughest one to quickly master. You’ve read the question and you don’t remember which disease, drug, or bug the question is actually talking about. Don’t give up! There’s hope on the horizon!

This is where you do a complete self-assessment. If you are preparing for NCLEX® or an exit exam like the HESI exit or ATI, check your previous assessment score sheets to identify weaknesses in content areas. After you realize you’re not that proficient in OBGYN, make it a point to review those content areas with Picmonic’s visual mnemonic study aids. Picmonic has the research that says our study guides increase memory retention 331% and it’s the most fun you’ll have studying. Okay, the research didn’t say it was ‘fun’ but seriously, it is. We don’t need research to know that.

Mastering content areas:


nursing exams - picmonic nursing pathways

The Good: Picmonic is the most concise resource available to make learning fun while being research proven to increase memory retention! Additionally, you can use our Pathways to target your study time and focus on the content you’re weak on. Picmonic will make it easier to remember and understand thousands of facts and concepts you need to know — including Fundamentals, Pharmacology, Med-Surg, Anatomy, Physiology, Pediatrics, Obstetrics, Psychiatric, and more. Best of all? You can try it free.

The Bad: Picmonic isn’t designed as a last minute review resource. We suggest using Picmonic from day one of school which prevents the whole problem where you can’t remember your lessons or you don’t understand a concept. That being said, even if you only just discovered Picmonic towards the end of your time at nursing school, you can use Picmonic’s NCLEX Pathway to pinpoint and review areas of weakness, and Picmonic’s Daily Quiz will intelligently adapt to help increase your knowledge retention in these areas to conquer your nursing exams.


nursing exams - nursing textbooks

The Good: They cover everything.

The Bad: It is impossible to read all of the information included in the book.

Practicing Questions

nursing exams - student

The Good: Practice questions are a great way to cover content while also testing yourself.

The Bad: Make sure you read the rationales EVEN for questions you got correct. Sometimes question banks don’t do a great job of explaining the entire concept or give direct links to additional resources for you to brush up on weak content areas.

Review courses such as Hurst

nursing exams - review

The Good: Hurst covers information you need to know for NCLEX® in just a few days which is great!

The Bad: They are expensive and remember, review courses cannot fill in major gaps of missing content in your brain.

If you’re struggling with getting “exam-ready” for your nursing exams, Picmonic is a great way to get all the knowledge you need for the NCLEX® in a way that’s fun and helps you remember way more than a textbook ever could. Sign up for a free Picmonic trial today!

Marlee Liberman

Marlee Liberman, RN, Master Nursing Scholar

As a registered nurse, Marlee understands the struggles that nursing school throws at you – not to mention the overwhelming pressure preparing for the NCLEX®! Marlee brings a unique skill set and perspective to Picmonic with her previous degree in broadcast journalism, her creativity in video production, and her wandering nomad lifestyle. Her blend of talents provides her with the knack for simplifying complicated concepts and demystifying the world of nursing.

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