Navigating Nursing School Exams: Your Roadmap to Success

Nursing school exams can be SO stressful and you may feel like you don’t even know where or how to start studying because there’s so much information at hand. You’re not alone and I was once in your shoes buried under books, notes, and online materials. It can be overwhelming to tackle all of the information being tested on, but here in this post we are going to break down the types of questions you can expect on nursing school exams and how to prepare for each type of question. This will help you to create a strategy or game plan in your studying and how to best prepare for your exams!

We are all familiar with traffic lights and what each color means, right? Green means go, yellow means proceed with caution and be prepared to stop if needed (or for some of us it means speed through the intersection as fast as possible to avoid the red light, but that’s not the idea we are going for here), and red means stop! This is the same concept to apply to test taking!

Let’s break it down…

Green light exam questions→

Green means GO! Green light exam questions are simple, factual questions that are straightforward and you either know it, or you don’t. Studying for these types of questions includes memorization strategies, such as flashcards, quizzes, repetitive writing, etc. If you don’t immediately know the answer to a green light exam question, star or circle it and move on. You can always come back to it if you jog your memory and the answer comes to you later on!

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Yellow light exam questions→

Yellow means SLOW DOWN! Yellow light exam questions are more detailed in their wording than green light questions and require you to slow down and read the question carefully. Yellow light exam questions are typically still fact based and a matter of recall, so you’ll either know the answer or not. Some yellow light questions may be more detailed/complex in the sense that you have to put together several “facts” of information to come up with the answer.

Red light exam questions→

Red means STOP! Red light exam questions are the most complex questions. These questions require you to make an inference or apply your knowledge to a situation or circumstance and test your critical thinking skills. Red light exam questions are not simple recall or “regurgitation” questions and you are not expected to know the answer right off the bat. Red light questions make you think and put together information about a concept, apply that knowledge to the situation, and then form your answer. The answer is not already in your head, you must apply all of your “green light” information and formulate your answer based on the circumstance or scenario presented in the question. Remember, red means STOP, so break down the question, highlight or circle important key words or components, and work your way slowly through the question. Studying for red light exam questions may include making diagrams or concept maps to help you tap into your critical thinking skills!

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It’s important to note that standardized nursing exams like the NCLEX® (National Council Licensure Examination) predominantly consist of these red light questions. This emphasizes the significance of mastering critical thinking skills throughout your nursing education. So, while the green and yellow light questions prepare you for foundational knowledge, it’s the mastery of challenging NCLEX-style practice questions (red light questions) that truly sets you up for success on these crucial exams.

Not all studying is created equal! Be prepared and incorporate multiple facets of learning to ensure you are well rounded in your studying. This means you need to be prepared for those green light questions and to know the facts at hand and be able to recite/regurgitate simple information. Once you have that baseline and foundation of fact based knowledge, then you can build on that and start connecting the dots and begin to understand not only the facts but understand concepts and then be able to apply this information to scenarios! Critical thinking can be a foreign way of thinking, so don’t be discouraged if it takes you a while to learn this way of thinking. Take your time, layer your knowledge and most importantly, don’t doubt yourself! Once you answer a question, trust yourself, and don’t look back!


Jenny Jacobs, MSN, APRN, CPNP-PC, CPN is currently a Nursing Educator at UWorld and actively serves and practices as a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner in the urgent care setting. She has 7 years of nursing experience in several settings, including PICU, medical/surgical, PACU, and endocrine/GI. She currently lives in Houston, TX with her husband and two dogs, Tinsley and Sadie. In her free time, she loves to stay active and do anything outdoors, such as hiking and camping, as well as traveling the world! She has been to 7 different countries and loves exploring and learning about different cultures.

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