ATI Nursing Tests - How to Study for & Pass ATI Exams

What Is An ATI Exam?

ATI, short for Assessment Technologies Institute, is a program used by about 70% of nursing schools across the United States to help student nurses learn and master important nursing concepts. If your school uses ATI, you will likely take a series of exams throughout your nursing school career. You will hear these referred to as "CMS" (Content Mastery Series) exams, or sometimes "ATI Proctored" exams. CMS exams are a set of standardized exams, meaning that students across the country who use ATI may be required to take them. This differs from "adaptive" exams, which adapt to your performance, meaning that you are given harder questions if you continue to answer questions correctly. The CMS exams, though, are standardized, meaning that you get to see exactly how you stack up to students within your program and across the country. Not only that, but your results will help you to understand in which areas you are scoring very well and in which areas you can stand to improve. These topic areas include subjects found on the NCLEX blueprint, such as "pharmacological and parenteral therapies" or "psychosocial integrity." By identifying your weaknesses, you can remediate on those topics and strengthen your knowledge in those areas by the time you take NCLEX!

Many schools that utilize ATI will also administer an "exit exam," which is a lengthy exam that evaluates your performance across all the subjects you've covered in nursing school. Your program may call this an "exit exam" or they could call it the "comprehensive predictor". Your score on the exit exam is adjusted, and correlates to what ATI estimates your chances are of passing NCLEX on the first try. For instance, an adjusted individual score of 80.7% to 100% means that ATI believes you have a 99% chance of passing the NCLEX on the first try, while a 68.7% to 69.3% adjusted individual score correlates to an 84-86% chance of passing NCLEX on the first try. Each school has different requirements for this exam. Some schools require you to receive above a certain score to graduate, while others only have requirements for remediation. Be sure to check with your program about what the exit exam means for you!

Both of these types of exams are proctored, meaning that you are either being observed directly in a physical environment (such as a classroom on your campus), or through a virtual proctoring service known as Proctorio®. Although this may feel intimidating, remember that it is just a precaution to make sure that all testers are following the test integrity protocols.

What To Know About The Various ATI Exams:

ATI Exam Subjects

CMS exams are administered in the "big nine" topics. These are the major areas of nursing focus that most programs have. These include: Fundamentals; Pharmacology; Nutrition; Medical-Surgical; Mental Health; Pediatrics; Maternal/Newborn; Community; and Leadership. Not all schools require each CMS to be taken, so be sure to clarify with your program. These exams are administered over these topics to gauge your knowledge on these specific areas of nursing knowledge.

The exit exam, however, is comprehensive. This means that it covers all topics from the entire program, similar to the NCLEX!

How Many Questions Are On ATI Exams?

The number of questions on the CMS exam differs by topic. Most of the exams have 60 graded questions, but Community is unique in that it only has 50, while Medical-Surgical has the most with 90 graded questions. Keep in mind, however, that there are always ten "pilot questions" on each CMS exam. A pilot question is one that is not counted towards your score, but it is used to assess your understanding of the material and help to create future exams. Because of the pilot questions you will have an extra 10 items on each exam, but you will not know which questions are counted in your score or not! It's very important to treat each question like it will be included in your score.

On the comprehensive predictor, you will receive 180 total questions. While that seems like a lot of questions, remember that it is covering all NCLEX categories, and is meant to help prepare you for the stamina of sitting through the NCLEX exam!

How long is the ATI exam?

In general, you are allotted one minute per question. This means that on your Community CMS exam, you would have 70 minutes to complete the exam, but on the Medical-Surgical CMS you'd have 100 minutes. Because the comprehensive predictor is 180 questions, you are allotted 180 minutes, or three full hours.

Each test allows test takers up to 5 minutes of "pause" time. This is so that you may step away to use the restroom or get a drink of water. If you're testing in a physical environment such as your campus, you may be required to have an escort to the restroom. If you are testing at home, you may be required to leave your camera and microphone on during this time to ensure you are maintaining the test integrity protocols.

How The ATI Is Scored:

The CMS exams are scored using levels. You will receive an individual score, however this score will correlate with a level used to gauge your performance in this area.

  • Level 3: Exceeds most expectations for performance in this content area.
  • Level 2: Exceeds minimum expectations for performance in this content area.
  • Level 1: Meets absolute minimum expectations for performance in this content area.
  • Below Level 1: Does not meet absolute minimum expectations for performance in this content area.

Each nursing program will have different standards they would like for you to meet. Some programs may want you to obtain a score of Level 1 or higher, while others may have higher expectations and want to see you score at Level 2 or 3. Be sure to clarify with your program what their expectations are for students taking this exam.

Remember that the comprehensive predictor (or "exit exam") is scored differently, and does not utilize levels. After you take the exam you will be provided with an adjusted individual total score. You can use this score to help you identify your likelihood of passing the NCLEX on the first attempt.

Can I Take ATI Exams from Home?

Due to COVID-19, many schools are utilizing distance learning to allow students to continue progressing through the program without being at increased risk for contracting COVID-19. Thankfully, ATI has found a way to be accommodating to these sorts of social distancing requirements! Using an extension for your Chrome browser called "Proctorio," you can take a proctored exam from home. Proctorio allows you to be proctored using your computer's camera and microphone to observe you and your testing environment. Check with your school to see if this is an option for you!

ATI Exam Costs

Most programs that utilize ATI will either have the cost built in to the tuition, or will have you pay for it as part of your student fees each semester. Make sure to clarify with your program if there is any additional cost to you associated with taking these exams.

How To Register For The ATI Exam

In most cases, there will be no need to register for the exam. If your school uses ATI to supplement your education, you will create an account early in the program. This allows tests to be loaded into your account over time so that you may take the exams required of you. At some points you may be provided with a Test ID and a password that will allow the test to be added to your account. Be sure to ask your instructor for more information on this so that you can be prepared for test day!

Retaking The ATI Exam After Failing

Each school has different guidelines for which tests may be taken again. In most cases, CMS exams are not repeated and the score that you earned stands. You may be asked to remediate these exams. Remediation may look different across different schools, but in general the idea is to identify your greatest areas for improvement and study more about those topics. This might look like a "focused review" through ATI, or completing an ATI "active learning template" (or ALT) to help you improve.

The comprehensive predictor requirements will vary based on school as well. Some schools will require all students who scored below a certain benchmark to remediate and then retake the exam, while others may not. It's important to understand what will be required of you by your specific program, so be sure to ask about your school's policies for the exit exam.

How to Prepare for ATI Exams

Tips To Help You Pass The ATI Exam:

There are a lot of different ways to prepare for any ATI exam. We've come up with a few strategies, but be sure to ask your instructors what other advice they may be able to offer.

  • Take practice tests: You should be able to access practice tests through ATI, typically through something called Learning Systems. This is the best way to prepare for the exams. It makes sense that if ATI created the exam, you should practice using ATI practice questions! Not only does this help you to study the content, but it also helps you to see how the content you know might be applied in a test environment while also helping you to improve your test taking skills.
  • Manage your study time: In most cases, you will know your test dates with plenty of advanced warning. Find your test date and work backwards, figuring out how many days you have to prepare for your exam. It's incredibly important to create a study plan for yourself, and stick to it! As much as you can, try to avoid "marathon studying," where you attempt to cram information over long study sessions. Instead, try studying in small bursts (30-60 minutes) several times a day. Most of all, it's important to be doing something to prepare every single day. Consistency is key when preparing for a big exam like this.
  • Be well rested for the testing day: As nursing students, you know that taking care of your body will help your brain be ready to function at its best. Although it may be tempting, avoid studying the night before the exam. Instead, do something fun or relaxing like reading a book, watching a movie with your family, or getting some fresh air. Give your brain a break before asking a lot of it the next day! Be sure to get a good night's sleep the night before, and have a good breakfast consisting of both carbohydrates and protein to give your brain the fuel it needs to perform. Avoid caffeine as much as possible to decrease the test-taking jitters, too.

Practicing For The ATI Exam

As discussed previously, this isn't an exam you want to try and cram for in the days leading up to it. Break your studying into bite-sized chunks that you can tackle throughout the day over the course of several weeks (if possible, based on when your test is). Again, be sure to use the ATI products to study for the ATI exams! Not only should you have access to practice tests, but you should also be able to access the series of books ATI wrote to help you master this information. Some schools provide you with the full set of the physical books, while others provide you with the eBooks. If you have the eBooks, you can find them in the "RN eBook Library". You can find these by going to the "My ATI" tab and looking at the options available to you under the "Learn" section. These books will help provide you with the information you need to know to be best equipped to tackle these exams.

When it comes to the comprehensive predictor, you will want to utilize these resources as well. Your school may also use something called Virtual ATI (VATI), which is a course made to help to review all major content areas and remediate on your areas of opportunity for improvement before taking this exam. While enrolled in the VATI course, you will be working one-on-one with a coach who can help direct your studies and give you more suggestions for improvement! Even if your school doesn't use VATI, you should still be taking practice tests in your study time, and using the ATI texts to learn, understand, and improve.

For both types of exams, it is likely that you will be asked to complete practice exams before taking the real one. These practice ATI exams are meant to mimic the real one you will be taking. Be sure to approach these exams as though they were the real thing. You want to see where you stand currently, and where your biggest areas of opportunity are for improvement. These exams will also help you to understand the types of questions you may be asked in the real test, so be sure to focus on improving in your weaker areas versus spending time on content you already understand.

Flashcards to help you study for the ATI

Staying engaged when you study is the utmost priority; otherwise, you're wasting your own time! Your brain gets easily tired when trying to just read a wordy textbook, so it's good to try and mix up your studying resources! A very beneficial way to study and stay engaged is by using the Level Up RN flashcards! The front of the card prompts you to think of what you know about the given topic, while the back of the card will give you the most high-yield (meaning the biggest bang for your buck) content you need to remember. Not only that, but our flashcards have bold/red information to help you identify the most important information, silly memory devices to help information stick, and bright colors to keep you visually engaged.

Constantly going through your flashcards will help you with something called "active recall." This means that by looking at the information repeatedly you are constantly reminding your brain that it needs to remember this information, helping you retain what you've learned more efficiently. If you use our Learning System, you can increase your active recall even further! The Level Up RN Learning System allows you to separate flash cards based on how well you know it. By focusing your study time on your "one star" (new/unfamiliar information) and "two star" (information you still have a bit more to learn) topics you can make sure to use your study time as wisely as possible!

ATI Success Stories

Additional FAQ about the ATI exam

Can a calculator be brought to the ATI test?

If you are testing in your school or another proctored physical environment, you will likely be provided a four-function calculator to handle any math questions you might encounter. If you're testing at home with virtual proctoring, however, you will be required to use the calculator that is built into the virtual testing environment. It's always a good idea to type out your equations multiple times to make sure your answers are the same, and you didn't miss a decimal or an entire number while typing into the calculator!

Can I use scrap paper?

You are allowed one piece of scrap paper to use during any ATI exam. When you're testing in a physically proctored environment, the paper will be provided to you and you will be required to turn it in to the proctor after completing your exam. If you test at home using Proctorio, you'll be asked to use a plain white piece of computer paper, and you must show it to the camera (front and back) to demonstrate that it is free from any information. While on the very last question of your exam, you should tear the paper up into small pieces in front of the camera prior to hitting Submit.

How many versions of the ATI exam are there?

Although these exams are standardized, you will not necessarily be taking the exact same exam as another tester. There are usually multiple versions of the exam, meaning that two schools taking the same CMS exam at the exact same time may get completely different sets of questions. Additionally, each tester will receive these questions in a different order from those taking the same exam. This means that even if you're sitting next to someone taking the same version of the exam, you will not be seeing questions in the same order.

How quickly do you see the results of the ATI test?

This depends entirely on your school. Some programs will allow you to see your results immediately after completing the exam, while others may have a "lockout period" where you cannot view your results for a specified amount of time (usually 24-48 hours). Although lockout periods will understandably heighten your anxiety, try and distract yourself during this period. You've taken the exam, and there's nothing that you can do about your score by worrying! It may also help you reduce your anxiety to ask your instructor when your results will be available before the test day comes. It won't change the lockout period, but it will at least make sure you are informed and not receiving a surprise at the end of your exam!

What is the passing score for the ATI?

Remember that each program has their own requirements for the CMS exams and the comprehensive predictor. These expectations will likely be communicated to you well ahead of time, but if they are not be sure to ask your instructor directly.

How hard is the ATI exam?

Remember: what is hard for one person may not be hard for you. Perhaps pharmacology comes easier to you than pediatrics; it's likely, then, that the pharmacology CMS will feel easier to you than the pediatrics CMS.

These exams have questions spanning difficulty ranges of easy, moderate, and hard. The exam will likely be much more difficult for someone who did not study or take the practice questions than someone who did. By utilizing your resources, studying early and often, and being consistent with your studying habits, you can enter these exams as well prepared as possible.

How many times is the ATI offered each year?

The CMS exams and comprehensive predictor will be offered to you based on where you are in your individual program. A person at one school may take their CMS in one week while a person taking the same CMS at another school may not take if until a month after that. If you have any concerns about when your test dates will be, be sure to check your syllabus or course calendar before asking your instructor directly!

As mentioned above, changing up your study methods to stay engaged is the best way to make your study time as impactful as possible! One of the best ways to do this is to engage your visual and auditory senses by watching educational videos on the content that will be covered in your ATI exams. You'll have something to be visually engaged with, but you'll also be hearing it. Combining your senses when you study is an excellent way to let your brain know you are interested in the material and want to remember it.

Not only that, but it always helps to hear multiple people discuss the same topics in different ways. You've probably already heard your professor explain it one way; by hearing the same information described in a different way, your likelihood of having an Aha! moment increases.

If you have our flashcards, be sure to look at them while watching the videos as well to add in that tactile/kinesthetic sense! And remember, the backs of our flashcards are all matte so that you can write in your own notes, highlight things you find important, and even add in your own mnemonics!

ATI® and Test of Essential Academic Skills™ are registered trademarks of Assessment Technologies Institute, which is unaffiliated, not a sponsor, or associated with Cathy Parkes or this website.