Developing a Study Plan for the NP Certification Exam

Margaret A. Fitzgerald, DNP, FNP-BC, NP-C, FAANP, CSP, FAAN, DCC, FNAP

As a newly prepared nurse practitioner, you are to be congratulated on your success to date. After completing a rigorous graduate program, your days of study are not yet over but continue with a new focus. You need to continue to develop, expand, and refine your NP knowledge base to assure success with certification. But how do you do this? Here is advice I provide in response to commonly asked questions about preparing for the certification exam.

In preparing for the NP certification exam, where should I start?

Start with reviewing the information on the exam content outline, available at your certification agency ‘s website. Make a list of the areas where you feel your knowledge base is secure and where just reviewing material to refresh your memory will likely suffice. Make a second list where you identify areas of weakness and topics where you need to concentrate your review. If you take the Fitzgerald NP review course, you will become aware that the content of certain parts of the program is truly review, whereas other sections reveal areas where you need to expand your knowledge base. Knowing what areas you need to focus on helps you decide how to allocate your study time.

As you study, please keep in mind that the NP certification examination is a test to see if you possess and can utilize the knowledge base needed to be a safe entry-level nurse practitioner. As a result, consider that certification tests your knowledge of the following:

  • Why a patient is at risk for a problem.
  • How a clinical problem has developed.
  • What is the most likely clinical presentation of the condition?
  • Why a given intervention is effective.
  • How that intervention works.
  • What is the most likely clinical outcome?
  • Why this clinical problem is of significance to the overall healthcare system.

Therefore, a poor approach to preparing for the exam and practice is to memorize information, so you know what to do but not why you are doing it. For both the exam room and as part of the larger health care system, a better approach to knowledge building is to understand concepts and apply knowledge so you know what to do and why you are doing it. The Fitzgerald Nurse Practitioner Certification Examination Review & Advanced Practice Update, with hundreds of practice questions, prepares you in the why, how, and what of NP practice, while helping you to build your knowledge base and prepare you for success on the NP boards.

How much time should I allow to prepare for my examination?

This issue of time needed for certification preparation is unique to each exam candidate. That said, one of the major pitfalls in study is the failure to put aside the time to prepare. Map out the demands on your time in the first months after completing your NP program, including work hours, family, personal, and professional commitments, as well as time you have perhaps set aside for a well-deserved vacation. After doing this, set up a schedule of study time, allotting a greater amount of time to areas where you have a knowledge deficit and less to areas where you only need to refresh your knowledge base. Make sure you cover all areas listed as possible exam content. Set your exam date only after a period of well-planned, systematic certification-focused study that is focused on increasing your knowledge base and honing your clinical decision-making skills.

How should I organize my study time?

The first step is selecting the Fitzgerald Health Education NP review course as part of your study for the NP boards. The Fitzgerald Method of NP review begins with a summary of the vast body of knowledge needed for evidence-based NP practice and for successfully passing the NP boards. This summary is followed by sample practice questions to help you hone your clinical decision-making and test-taking skills.

Allow a minimum of 4 to 6 weeks of planned study after you complete the review course to maximize your likelihood of success on this important high-stakes exam. Sit down with your calendar and develop a study schedule, in 2- to 3-hour blocks, 6 days per week, giving yourself one day off a week so you do not feel trapped or overwhelmed. Then analyze what you have already reviewed, noting your stronger and weaker points. For example, if you really understand all the cardiac information and can apply this knowledge, and the NP review course was truly review, then you are likely set in this portion of your study. If you are still struggling with thyroid issues, then you know you need additional study in that area. While this seems obvious, often people who are studying for a high-stakes exam gravitate back to the familiar as it is comforting to review what you know. Mark the topics you will review in your schedule; for example:

Monday night, 7–9 PM, study thyroid disease using the book Nurse Practitioner Certification Exam Prep by Dr. Margaret Fitzgerald and my course materials from the Fitzgerald NP Certification Examination Review & Advanced Practice Update.
Tuesday, 4–7 PM, review health promotion using my class notes from my NP program, as well as the Fitzgerald Health workbook and online resources.

How do I approach my study for the NP boards?

Setting up a system of study can further enhance the success of a review or study session. One method is the SQ4R system:
The study information is Surveyed to establish goals.

  • Questions about the information are formulated. What do you need to learn about this topic so that you have a firm grasp on the concepts? Are you able to consider the pathophysiology of a condition, how this manifests in the clinical presentation, and how a given intervention modifies or corrects the disease process?
  • Read to answer these questions. Study background information so you can correctly answer the questions above.
  • Recite the responses to the original questions. Consider writing up a short summary of what you have learned from your study.
  • Review to see if the original goals were met.

At the end of each session, after securing your knowledge base, use the practice questions from Fitzgerald to test where you are in your learning. Practice exam questions are a great way to wrap up your study on a topic and demonstrate your mastery of the information. Post-study, you should be scoring in the 85%+ range on practice questions. Use practice questions to wrap up, not start, your NP certification review. If you are not scoring well on practice questions, you need additional study of the content area associated with those questions.

What about forming a study group?

Study groups can be helpful and are a terrific vehicle for sharing information and resources. Alternatively, study groups can yield a poor return on time invested if all members are not similarly committed. I hear about study groups who use Zoom or some other conferencing service to get together online. Here are some guidelines for forming a successful study group.

  • All group members must treat attendance and participation as they would any other professional commitment, such as work or school.
  • Well in advance, set a schedule, a place and time to meet, as well as a topic for the meeting.
  • Plan a start and end time, with a clear objective for the session.
  • Study groups usually work best when a group member volunteers to research and present information on a subject according to a predetermined schedule. The presentation is typically followed with a discussion of the issue and review of sample exam questions and rationales for the correct response.
  • The leader of a given session should also assume responsibility for keeping the discussion on track, facilitating the efficient use of time and resources.
  • In order to help avoid having the group deteriorate into a chat session, plan for a short period of socialization following high-yield study sessions.

Here is an example of an online session planned by a highly successful study group with three members, Sarah, Ben, and Helena:

The session will start at 7 PM and end at 9 PM with the objective of identifying the clinical presentation, assessment, and intervention in community-acquired pneumonia. Sarah is the presenter and also group leader for the evening and is responsible for keeping us on track.
A social period from 9–9:30 PM will follow.

Should I take additional preparation examinations?

I am often asked this question, and taking a prep test prior to study may help you identify areas of weakness that require further study. Attempting to build your knowledge base by taking practice tests does not work and is often cited as the main study method by NPs who fail boards. Taking additional prep tests once you have completed your study can both confirm your knowledge and bolster your confidence. The Fitzgerald Test Bank online prep tests cover the topics found on the certification exam.


Successfully passing your certification exam not only marks a critical rite of passage, but is also tangible evidence of your considerable achievement. Make sure you do all that is possible to maximize your likelihood of success.

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Pass the exam the first time with the proven Fitzgerald method; our pass rates exceed 99%.

Enroll at: Fitzgerald NP Certification Exam Review & Advanced Practice Update.

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See additional NP certification exam study resources below. More courses & resources are available at:

Resources for NP Certification Examination Preparation

All resources listed are available at:

Fitzgerald Knowledge Building Courses & Resources

Fitzgerald Comprehensive Pharmacology Courses help NPs gain the broad-based pharmacology knowledge needed for clinical practice:

Improve your cardiology knowledge through the following Fitzgerald courses:

This practical case-based course is designed to help you learn when and what to order and how to analyze the results of lab tests:

The Fitzgerald Cue Cards are step-by-step guides designed to help you provide a thorough and accurate physical exam. Available Cue Cards:

NP Review & Practice Prep

Pass the exam the first time with the proven Fitzgerald method; our pass rates exceed 99%. Enroll at: Fitzgerald NP Certification Exam Review & Advanced Practice Update. Now available in an interactive LIVE ONLINE format. Dr. Fitzgerald’s comprehensive study guide for NP certification prep featuring more than 2,300 sample questions and 177 quick-look tables:

  • Fitzgerald, Margaret A (2021). Nurse Practitioner Certification Exam Prep. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis. This book is the most comprehensive NP review text on the market. Make sure you study the entire text, and not simply focus on the practice questions. This will help expand your knowledge and clinical decision-making skills.

Test-Taking Skills

A resource that will be helpful in developing test-taking skills:

Certification Exam Practice Questions

Excellent sources of practice questions for the family and adult-gerontology NP certification examinations:

Clinical Resources

A helpful resource for honing high-level assessment and differential diagnosis skills:

A helpful overall guide to primary care NP practice:

A comprehensive guide to diagnostic imaging and laboratory diagnosis that uses an algorithmic approach to choosing the best study:

Fully illustrated in a unique format, this is one of the clinical resources I find most helpful in my practice:

Career Resources

Optimizing Your NP Career: Employment Search, Interviewing, Negotiation, and Professional Growth
Take charge of your career and learn how to find and obtain the best position, interview, negotiate, and achieve maximum career growth through this online course.