All Articles Critical Care Nursing

How to Prepare for and Pass the CCRN with Confidence! (Part 1 of 2)

*Original post released 9/2/2020

Many critical care nurses, at some point in their career, consider becoming a board-certified critical care registered nurse by sitting for the CCRN examination. For progressive care nurses, certification is obtained via the PCCN examination. I’m here to tell you that it is completely doable, regardless of if you barely have enough hours to qualify as eligible or have been working in the field for many years. Because of the sheer amount of information I want to cover, this article is going to be split into two parts.

This first part will discuss eligibility criteria, exam review resources, and general tips/pointers to help you prepare for the exam and approach it more confidently. The second part, which will be released tomorrow (9/3/2020), will dive into areas of focus and the exam test plan overall. By the time you’ve read both parts, my hope is that you feel like you have a solid plan of action, ample pre-reviewed quality resource suggestions, and the confidence to approach certification no matter what point you’re at in your career. Throughout this article, you’ll find multiple “hot” words that have been hyperlinked to take you to the exact resources I’ll be discussing. Be sure to check them out for more information!

Eligibility Criteria

The critical care registered nurse (CCRN) and progressive care nursing (PCCN) certification exams are proctored by PSI Services with certification ultimately granted by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses or AACN. To be eligible for either exam, you need to meet the criteria of having provided direct care to the critically ill patient population of your designated exam for a minimum of 1,750 hours. If you work full time with 36 hours per week, it is realistically possible to to meet and exceed this requirement within your first year as a nurse. If overtime is worked, and no sick days are taken, you could hypothetically meet this requirement even sooner. If you’ve worked longer two years or more and aren’t sure if you’ve met the hours requirement, there are two options: a 2-year option and a 5-year option. The two year option requires 1,750 hours within those two years and a minimum of 875 of those hours worked within the most recent year. The five year option requires 2,000 hours within those five years and a minimum of 144 of those hours worked within the most recent year.

Ultimately, you’ll have to “sign” an honor statement that states that you’ve met these requirements. You’ll also be required to provide contact information of a colleague/supervisor who can verify the validity of your experience in case of audit. The cost of the for AACN members is (currently) $245 and for non-members $360. My suggestion is to check with your facility to see if they have vouchers for these certification exams or if they offer a reimbursement program. There’s no need for you to pay for this exam if you don’t have to! Plus, they likely won’t issue a voucher or approve reimbursement unless you meet the minimum eligibility criteria anyway; it can serve as an extra step in eligibility verification if you’re unsure. In addition to this, your organization may also have a subscription or have purchased review materials in bulk…meaning less out-of-pocket cost to you.

Exam Review Resources

Now that we’re on the subject of test review materials, let’s discuss some of the most common resources, their costs, and how well I *personally* felt each prepared me for the exam. These are not discussed in any particular order; however, I will discuss resources from the same company together.

Barron’s CCRN Exam Prep: Available as both a book and flashcards $29.99 each on Amazon (often on sale). I felt like this resource was the best “bang for your buck” as the book was concise, contained review questions by section, at least one in-book practice exam, and an online practice exam. Solid review source at this price point (I preferred this compared to a colleague’s Kaplan review book).

Nicole Kupchik’s courses and books: Ranges in price from $39.99 to $269 depending on how many you purchase and if they’re bundled. I absolutely loved the online review course! She makes the material approachable and teaches it in a way to help you recall info easily. However, I found the review book difficult to retain information from after studying. The practice question book has three tests (150 questions each), which was nice for the price point. I felt like the CCRN exam questions had a higher difficulty compared to those in her book though.

AACN resources: Varied resources – practice exam $10-13, question bank access $25-75, review course $159-199 (pricing can vary based on AACN membership and duration of access). I felt their online review course repeated most of Nicole Kupchik’s course information (in a less approachable way), but it also went above and beyond in some areas of review. If I hadn’t used this course to supplement Nicole’s, I would have definitely missed multiple questions on the exam. As for the single practice exam, these questions were very similar to the actual exam. The question bank was nice in theory, however it was not user friendly in the sense that there wasn’t a way to exclude questions already answered. This made reviewing with their question bank very frustrating, time consuming, and inefficient.

Pass CCRN book & question bank: Cost is $81.95 (book and question bank access) or $26.95 (only question bank access). The combo is often on sale either with Elsevier or Amazon! I actually didn’t end up using the book to review, so I can’t vouch for how well this resource will prepare you. BUT, I did use the question bank, and let me tell you…this resource is the most realistic in comparison to the questions I had to answer on the exam. They provide decent rationales and there are over 1,000 questions included with the online access. That’s one heck of a deal!

Board Vitals Question bank (app or online): $89-139 depending on duration of access with the option for an additional $99 for the CME credits (30+ hours!). Plus, if you Google “board vitals coupon code,” you can typically find a decent discount code. I was able to snag a 20% off code! I felt these were really solid case-study questions; the only downside is that some of the questions had minimal explanations to help with comprehending why an answer is either correct or incorrect. Their bank contains over 500 questions in total.

Which resources you use will likely depend on your budget and experience as a nurse. When I sat for the exam, I had thirteen months worth of experience in a level three ICU setting. While this may seem like sufficient time for some, I knew there were multiple skills and situations I had yet to experience or be exposed to. This was why I opted to utilize multiple resources; plus, I’m a little bit of an obsessive nerd who only feels prepared after looking over nearly every resource on the subject. It’s one of my character flaws (:

So if your budget is tight, I’d opt for the Pass CCRN! question bank and Barron’s review guide. That’ll be about $50 or so invested into review resources, and I can guarantee you’ll get your money’s worth. If your budget is a bit more friendly, I’d opt for the Pass CCRN! question bank and the AACN review course. If you’re a big spender like me who feels the need to have it all, I’d suggest both online courses (Kupchik’s and the AACN’s) because Nicole’s is more approachable and memorable, yet the AACN covers additional crucial information that she leaves out. Oh, and don’t forget that Pass CCRN! question bank! If you don’t want to drop a big chunk of change on a review course, you can also try searching YouTube for CCRN review videos. Although I didn’t use their videos, I have heard great things about those from Laura Gasparis and Lifelong Nursing. I’ve included the links to these searches for you, so all you need to do is click on the hyperlink for the one you’re interested in checking out!

If you like our review materials, I’ll be putting together a CCRN resource bundle listing in our Etsy shop that will contain Parts 1 & 2 of our hemodynamic study guide, our ABG study guide (with practice problems), CCRN mnemonic flashcards, our ECG flashcards, and our critical care IV drip cards. This bundle will be available digitally or as a physical laminated set where the study guides are bound for you.

General Tips & Pointers

I don’t feel like it’s too early to start studying once you begin working in a critical care setting. I know you’re probably thinking, “I just graduated, why do I need to study more?” or “I’ve been a nurse for years, why should I have to devote time to studying?” I wish I had put more effort into the process earlier on in my ICU career, because doing so definitely improved my nursing abilities and critical thinking. I found I was able to work more efficiently, accurately, and in a way that most benefited the patients under my care. The length of time you take to prepare for your certification exam, should be based on your level of experience/comfort with critical care material, how long you’ve been a practicing nursing in a critical care field, and what your personal goals are. If you’re taking the certification exam purely for yourself, you may not have to put in as much time as someone who is taking it for professional development. For example, the person taking a certification exam in order to be a more competitive grad school applicant (like for CRNA school) may devote more study time so they can not only pass the exam but obtain the highest score possible .

I always suggest to take a baseline practice exam to see where your baseline knowledge level is. Taking this step also allows you to see improvements in your performance….i.e. the fruits of your labor. If you do take practice exams, I highly suggest taking exams from several different sources because the questions can vary so drastically (as I described above in the resources section). However, be careful when trying to compare progress between exams if they come from different test prep services.

If your budget has you really strapped for cash and you want practice exam questions, try doing a search on the Thriftbooks website for CCRN review books. Granted this site sells books of older editions, however they will be cheap and you’ll be studying in a more eco-friendly manner as well. In my experience, the books renew every couple of years (sometimes within the same test plan), so the content may not vary much in between editions. The older editions can help you practice taking questions in the same format they’ll be presented to you on the exam. Just be sure that you are preparing based on the current test plan!

If you do purchase a review course, I would recommend pushing yourself to complete one video each day (not necessarily a module in its entirety, but at least one video). Videos on Nicole Kupchik’s course tend to be anywhere from 10-40 minutes, whereas the AACN course videos are approximately 30 minutes to an hour in length. I made this both approachable and doable by connecting the audio from the video to the bluetooth in my car so I could listen as I drove to and from work. Studying in this manner often allowed the material to be fresh in my mind prior to the start of my shift, and made it easier to integrate the information into my nursing practice. At the very least, it helped me look at typical critical care scenarios in a new light.

If you have downtime at work, I suggest keeping a review book in your clinical bag or have an application on your phone with review questions. In my opinion, it can be difficult to try and study a subject while at work; not to mention, your focus should really be on your patients anyway. This is why I suggest simply working on review questions in your spare time at work. Questions are something you can easily put down and pick right back up.

As far as test day tips go, make sure you scope out the testing center location ahead of time when possible to avoid any delays or confusion in directions. Be sure to have your two forms of identification available with you when you sign in (I brought my license and social security card/passport). Make sure you either leave your phone in your vehicle or turn it off completely after checking in. They’ll give you a locker for your personal items, but if your phone were to go off or even vibrate, it could be grounds for dismissal completely. Don’t worry about scratch paper or a writing utensil, they’ll provide that…even during Covid times. I sat in a large room for testing with only one other person, so don’t worry about social distancing. You’ll likely have your temp checked and still be required to wear a mask during the exam. The only time I did not have to wear an exam was for the photo they take of you initially, prior to the start of your exam. You can take restroom breaks during the exam, just check with the proctor about their specific constraints beforehand.

The best part of all? No waiting to find out if you passed the exam! When you close out the exam and gather your belongings, they’ll print your score report immediately. When you pass, that’ll be the only results you’ll have for about 7 business days until the AACN registers your certification on their site. Once this happens, you’ll be able to print off a certification verification letter with the date obtained, expiration date, reference number, and contact information for the AACN. Your physical certification and letter of congratulations will arrive to your address within approximately 30 days.

I know you can do this, because I did! I spent about two months preparing for this exam, barely having a year of experience under my belt. Trust me when I say that it is possible. Not only is it possible to pass this exam, it is possible to excel on it. In the final part of this article, we’ll discuss the test plan and some general pointers to help you know where to focus your time for the purpose of certification as well as enhancing your overall practice as a registered nurse. Plus, next week I’ll be providing a sample 8-week study plan for the full-time working nurse to help you feel less overwhelmed in approaching the test plan content. I hope this helped give you all some insight into the exam and demystify the worth of some of those acclaimed resource materials. Until next time, happy studying!


Andra Alyse


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: