After eighteen months of preparation, perspiration, and palpitations, I have finally passed the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), administered by the United States of America’s Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). The NPTE is the means by which all candidates for physical therapy licensure, whether domestic graduates or foreign trained applicants, are assessed for basic entry-level competency for the profession. It is not the only requirement for licensure, however it is the one standarised requirement in all fifty States, and if you want to work as a physical therapist in the USA, you must sit and pass it.
You might think for someone like myself who has been a physical therapist for the past eleven years this would be little more than a formality. Think again. The NPTE is one of – if not THE – toughest exams I’ve ever taken. Unfortunately, those who have taken the exam are prohibited from disclosing any information about the exam itself, so I cannot reveal the anything about its content or structure. I can, however, give some more general advice based on my experience in preparing for and undertaking the exam – advice I would have found invaluable in my own lead-up to the exam date.
Here are my five tips for surviving the NPTE:
- Allow plenty of time to prepare
A five-hour 250 question exam requires ample preparation time. The exams generally run every three months, so depending on where you are in the schedule should guide you as to which exam you should take. Don’t be in a rush to sit the first available exam. It may be in your best interest to give yourself additional time to ensure you are able to cover all the required material, get a feel for the exam with some practice exams (see below), and build your confidence in your ability to do well.
- Study everything
The NPTE potentially covers the entire scope of practice of physical therapy, from musculoskeletal to neurology, cardiac and respiratory to lifespan, and principles of general practice and research. Chances are you don’t remember everything there is to know about physical therapy, even if you are a new graduate. If you are currently working as a physical therapist, you probably know the area you work in quite well, but haven’t even thought about other areas in a long time. You need to study everything about physical therapy, and feel confident that you can apply that knowledge. It is a big ask, and it is probably the last time you will ever need to know everything about the profession, however it is essential if you want to get through the NPTE.
Didn’t keep all your old textbooks? Fear not, there are some very useful resources to help you revise and prepare for the exam. Two that I used are BenchPrep, an online prepatory course for the NPTE, and PT Exam: The Complete Study Guide by Scott Giles, a reference text which is a thorough summary of all the areas of physical therapy, set out in a way that is specific to the content of the NPTE. BenchPrep is particularly useful as it gives you a study guide, which tells you how much material you need to cover in a given timeframe in order to be ready for the exam, and enables you to connect to other students preparing for the exam to ask questions or form study groups. The PT Exam text I used was a little dated (2011), however the material is still relevant and the practice exams that come with it are very useful indicators of how you’re doing. The resources available are not limited to these and you should search for some that you feel are most appropriate to your needs.
- Do the practice exams
Find and complete as many practice exams as you possibly can. Not only is it useful to familiarise yourself with the exam situation, it will give you clear feedback as to where your strengths and weaknesses are, and enable you to adjust your study plan accordingly. Both BenchPrep and the PT Exam book have quizzes and practice exams, and FSBPT provides (for a fee) an online practice and assessment tool (PEAT) which very closely mirrors what you can expect from the actual exam. Practice exams enable you to get a feel for how questions will be worded, and practice interpreting the possible answers. Often, the answer that’s required is not a matter of separating right from wrong, but understanding which answer is the MOST correct based on the information you’re presented with. It takes practice to be able to understand this, particularly if you’re a current practitioner, as chances are you have developed your own ways of addressing the needs of patients, and this may not match to what the examiner is expecting.
- Seek support
Having good support structures in place is invaluable, both in terms of supporting your study and maintaining your sanity. Having family members, friends, loved ones who can support you during this incredibly stressful time can make all the difference to your mental and emotional health. A little understanding goes a long way, and it’s likely you will need plenty in the lead in to the exam.
Support from other people undertaking the exam is very useful as well. Being able to find discussion forums or study groups can greatly assist your preparation. This gives you the chance to check your understanding about different things, develop your judgement and reasoning, and ensure you are covering everything you need to know. In most groups you will find someone who knows the answer you’re looking for, or who will ask a question you haven’t thought of. It can also be useful to be able to relate to others who are going through the same experience you are.
- Find ‘you’ time
It can be very easy to narrow your focus to preparing for the exam, and let all other aspects of your life fall by the wayside in the process. Do this, and not only do you risk severely over-stressing yourself, you may cause damage to your health, your relationships, and other things that are important to you. This is where allowing ample time (see 1. above) becomes critical. You need to be able to step away from your study and preparation, if only to give yourself a chance to recharge and recuperate. Take a walk, go to the gym, play with the kids or catch a movie you’ve been wanting to see. There are no bonus points for spending all your time on studying – in fact, chances are by taking some ‘you’ time, you will return to your studies with a clearer mind and sharper focus.
According to FSBPT, only about 88% of US graduates, and 30% of non-US graduates, pass the NPTE the first time. Incorporating these tips into your study plan might just give you the edge on ensuring you are one of those who pass.
If you are preparing to take the NPTE, I wish you the best of luck for a successful outcome, and for your future career as a physical therapist.
Got some other tips for taking the NPTE? Please feel free to share in the comments section below.