Preparing for the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)

Sonya L. Irons, PT, DPT, CCS
Posted 11/10/23

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The examination officially known as the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is developed, maintained, and administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT). The focus of the NPTE is on entry-level clinical application of knowledge and assuring safe and effective patient care. While preparing for this exam, you might encounter various terms to describe it such as “boards”, “licensure exam”, or “national exam”.

When you first start to prepare for a comprehensive exam of this magnitude, it is normal to feel overwhelmed. You may have more questions than answers. It helps to remember that your faculty, clinical instructors, and other healthcare professional colleagues endured a similar comprehensive licensure examination. You are not alone – it is a rite of passage.

After passing five different examinations in my career at a Prometric testing center, I would like to share my top ten insights into preparation for the NPTE:

1. Get organized. At the end of each quarter/semester, spend time organizing your class material so that it is easy to reference when you are studying for the exam. Condensing physical study material might be necessary if you are traveling all over the country for your clinical rotations. 

2. Order a study guide. There is something refreshing and encouraging about having a single reference that includes the academic information you need to know in one book. You will need adequate breadth and depth of the information in this book to achieve success on the NPTE-PT or NPTE-PTA. The study guide addresses what will be on the test and includes the content outline. 

3. Start early and pick a study plan that works for you. Do you have a friend from class who could be an accountability partner? Figure out the number of months you have before the test and pick a study plan that works with your lifestyle. Keep in mind, there is no perfect study plan. You will need to adjust your study plan to systematically work through the academic material, even as challenges arise in your life.

4. Embrace clinical rotations. Students often miss the opportunity to reinforce academic information during clinical rotations. For example, if you are on an orthopedic clinical rotation, you could read the musculoskeletal chapter of the study guide. Reading the material and seeing it in action during clinical practice is a practical way to reinforce the material. Seek additional learning experiences at your clinical rotation. Any opportunities to shadow other disciplines or other settings will only enhance your learning experience. 

5. Incorporate an active studying approach that works for you. Passive studying combined with an active study approach assures the best return on your investment. What active learning strategy will you select? What approach has worked for you in the past? The key is that the active study technique helps you solidify and retain the academic material. Active options include study groups (virtual or in-person) to ensure talking knowledge of the material, flashcards (purchasing a set or making your own), writing out material repeatedly in a notebook, or utilizing technology such as apps. Be prepared to switch up your active learning approach if you are not seeing improvement in your sample exam scores. 

6. Start a review/remediation list. Keep a notebook and write down all unfamiliar terms or phrases. Refer to this list often for review, as repetition is beneficial for learning. 

7. Take sample exams seriously. Sample exams assess your readiness to take the actual exam, and the scores you achieve on sample exams assess your ability to pass the NPTE. Treat them like gold. Only take a sample exam when you have the time to complete it in one sitting, without distractions, with a simulated test environment. Taking exams of this magnitude requires endurance, and you will build up your endurance with each sample exam that you take. Consider taking sample exams intermittently throughout your study plan to assess progress. Block additional time to review the questions, answers, errors, and associated explanations. After you finish the sample exams, you can compare questions side by side.

Pro tip: Reframe your thinking. If your school offers a comprehensive exam, try embracing it instead of dreading it. Think about it as another opportunity to prepare for the NPTE. The more exposure to practice exams, the better. It is important to recognize that multiple feelings can co-exist in the same space, and for this test you might feel both scared and excited.

8. Address text anxiety. We expect nervousness and anxiety around this exam, and even while taking sample exams. However, some students experience a different type of anxiety that will not allow them to progress through an exam or think clearly. If you are concerned about your own test anxiety, I recommend early exploration of resources and meeting with faculty and staff at your school while you are still a student. These resources may not be available to you after graduation. Historically, students reduce some anxiety by embarking on a study plan and diving into sample examinations. Perhaps taking and reviewing a demonstration exam will reduce anxiety by learning more about the types of questions that will be on the test. If you are not ready to test the waters with a demonstration exam, even just reviewing this list of sample questions could boost your confidence.

9. Minimize distractions. This one is becoming more of a challenge for all of us. What does an ideal study session look like for you? How many hours does that entail? We live in a world of distractions. Most students would like their smart phones or laptops available to them so that they can look up terms they are not familiar with while studying. However, we know that sometimes accessing technology can lead us down a rabbit hole full of distractions. Ask yourself how you have previously removed distractions while studying in the past and tap into that known resource about yourself. Personally, I have had success utilizing the Pomodoro Technique while studying, which includes setting a timer for 25 minutes to study without distractions, followed by a 5-minute break. 

10. Day before and exam day prep: If your schedule allows, practice the driving route to Prometric the day before your test to decrease your anxiety to ensure no unexpected detours. Do what you can to get a solid night’s sleep. Eat a familiar breakfast. Instead of panic-reviewing material in your car before the exam, take a few moments to calm yourself and picture yourself passing the exam.

Take a moment to reflect on your own study habits and experiences. With that in mind, what would you add to this list?

Note that taking the NPTE is just one part of the licensure process. Besides signing up for the exam, you will also need to secure a seat at a Prometric testing center. Additionally, you will pursue state (also known as jurisdiction) licensure. State licensure requirements vary from state to state. Some states may require a jurisprudence exam, which is an examination specific to the rules and regulations of that state. As you navigate this process, seize the opportunity to not only pass the exam but also to excel in your professional development.

Best of luck on your journey to becoming a licensed healthcare professional!

Explore more tips on preparing for the NPTE in this blog post by my colleague Scott Burns.

About the author: Sonya L. Irons, PT, DPT, CCS is a Board Certified Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Clinical Specialist and a course instructor for Scorebuilders.