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NPTE Studying Tips I Wish I'd Known

by Clinton Boone

Have you started studying for the NPTE yet?

If so, good for you, and keep up the good work! If not, don’t worry. You still have plenty of time! I took the NPTE in July, 2016 and did not start studying until mid-April (which some considered way too soon, while others considered way too late).

I want to share my NPTE studying tips and experiences, and the answers to some commonly asked and highly debated questions. Prior to my studies, I noticed that I was receiving conflicting bits of advice from people all around me. Perhaps, you are asking the same questions and receiving the same conflicting bits of advices from PTs in the field.

Want more study tips? Download The Ultimate Guide to the NPTE!

When should I start studying for the NPTE?

It depends.

There are popular 8, 12, and 16-week plans out there. I’ve heard of people studying non-stop for just 4 weeks and passing (which even they would not recommend) and others who started cracking open the review book in their last 1-2 semesters of school – many months before the test.

If you do decide to study while finishing school, I would keep it light. You really need to treat studying for NPTE like a 25-40+ hour-a-week job to truly succeed. However, in retrospect, my full-time studying would have been a whole lot easier if I had even spent 5-10 minutes per night during my final semester of school reading an NPTE review book. Remember, between graduation and the NPTE (unless you take the test early depending on your state), you should have a solid 2+ months to study, unless you work, which brings me to my next question…

Should I work while studying for the NPTE?

It depends.

I asked other PTs this same question, and got a wide variety of passionate responses from both ends of the spectrum. First, a majority of places I found with job openings were only hiring physical therapists with a valid license. So keep in mind: That dream job you're eyeing might not be hiring new grads who still need to take the NPTE. And if that is the case, I would avoid getting a job just for the sake of getting a job if it is in a setting you do not want to be in.

As for me, I found a job at a small outpatient orthopedic clinic that was very flexible and understanding of my need to study. We agreed that I would work 24 hours a week (three 8-hour shifts) so I could study while gaining some early clinical experience and earning some income in the process. In hindsight, having a job helped me on the practice tests and the actual NPTE itself. Some questions that arose dealt with scenarios that I could easily compare to real-life cases in my clinic. I did have to sacrifice some weekends and fun summer plans with my friends to study, but such is life.

Side note: I did have a few classmates work a full 40 hours a week while studying for the NPTE. Although they did pass the NPTE, they said they would not recommend working that many hours while studying if they had to do it all over again.

Most importantly, you also have to think about how YOU study best.

In all 4 years of undergrad and all 3 years of PT school, I worked part-time at my university’s library as a side job. I was always used to having a part-time job while studying, and for me, having a few hours each week I knew I would have to devote to work helped make my hours devoted to studying more productive. In fact, even while working 24 hours a week, I put in more time studying for the NPTE than many of my classmates who chose not to work while preparing for the NPTE. If you’re the kind of person who needs a side-obligation to make your study time more productive, then a part-time job might be in your best interest. But if you're easily overwhelmed, you might not want to take that route.

Should I take an NPTE study class?

It depends.

Some older PTs in my clinical rotations told me that I would never pass unless I took a review class, while other PTs told me that those classes were a waste of money. My university had a two-day prep class that was very useful, but in my opinion, not absolutely necessary to pass the NPTE. (But obviously, if your DPT program offers some kind of free review course, take it!) Although some courses do give you a nice review book to take home (e.g. O’ Sullivan’s Course Manual), it is not absolutely necessary for everyone.

How many NPTE practice tests should I take?

It depends. (Notice a trend?)

I took 9 practice tests (four from Scorebuilders, three of O’Sullivan, and the two PEAT tests). I knew some classmates that passed the NPTE after only taking 2-3 practice tests, and others that took more than the 9 tests I took.

The best answer to this question might lie with how you were in PT school. Every class had the kids who barely had to study to get by, and the kids who had to study their butts off all year long. I was in the latter of the two aforementioned groups, so for me, I needed those 9 tests to feel confident and prepared. On the other hand, my classmates who barely studied in PT school were satisfied with their studying after 2-3 practice tests.

But above all, you must treat the practice tests like the real NPTE. I would go to the library and take the test in total silence. Like the real test, I refrained from coffee and water and avoided going to the bathroom (except on my scheduled test break as on the real NPTE). As you must prepare academically, you must also prepare mentally. A 5-hour test is nothing to sneeze at. And also, REVIEW EACH QUESTION AFTER COMPLETING EACH PRACTICE TEST! I scheduled my post-practice test review the day(s) after I took a practice test, and it usually took 2-3 times longer than taking the actual practice test.

The PEAT is offered from the FSBPT (you know, the people that make the actual NPTE!). It is comprised of a practice test and a retired NPTE from a prior testing cycle, and you get a nice detailed score report after taking each test. The PEAT is a fairly accurate indicated on how you might do during the NPTE. Previous studies by the FSBPT showed that 99.3% of people that passed the retired NPTE also passed the real NPTE.

Which brings me to my next most commonly asked question…

Which NPTE study materials and practice tests should I use?

First, I’ll start with apps. There are many apps out there. I liked NPTE PocketPrep and Scorebuilders’ Content Master. If you always have your phone on you (which I’m sure you do), you may benefit from an app. As the NPTE loomed closer, I used the study apps all throughout the day whenever I could (e.g. waiting in line at a restaurant, on the elliptical at the gym, during car rides [not when I was driving, of course], in the middle of bad conversations, etc.).

You can also get flash cards from companies like Mometrix. I'm a big fan of exercising on the bike or elliptical with some flash cards!

Used review books may not contain access for the practice tests, which are just as valuable as the book itself. Although you can buy access to practices tests on the Scorebuilders website and other websites if need be, I would ensure that any used books you buy come with the practice tests. Additionally, the NPTE went through a major overhaul in 2013. Therefore, any books prior to the NPTE reconstruction may not be the most accurate reflection of the current test.

As for the best book, this was one question where most people agreed on the best sources of information. The best two study books out there are Scorebuilders by Giles and TherapyEd by O’Sullivan. Scorebuilders is an easier read with easier tests, and O’Sullivan is a very long and intense black-and-white outline with brutal practice tests. Both books include 3 practice tests and both have extensive post-test reviews, fully explaining for each question why each choice is either correct or incorrect. Both have their pros and cons; I used both books and sets of tests and would highly recommend both. But…

If I can only afford one, should I use Scorebuilders (Giles) or O’Sullivan?

This question is highly debated. Online forums and an informal poll of my classmates virtually revealed a 50/50 split. As mentioned above, it was unanimous that Scorebuilders was much more reader-friendly and easier than O’Sullivan. However, it was also unanimous that O’Sullivan is more comprehensive and provides a greater challenge.

If you can only choose one book, I would choose based on the criteria mentioned above. But I highly recommend buying both if you can, starting with Scorebuilders and finishing with O’ Sullivan and the PEAT practice tests. An extra $100 or so for an additional book (on top of all the testing and licensing fees) may seem like a lot of money at the time, but you definitely want to do all you can to pass on the first try. Not only will you lose 3 months of potential income and have to pay additional testing fees to retake the test if you fail, but studies actually show that the more times a candidate has taken the NPTE, their likelihood of passing decreases with each subsequent attempt.

Also, ask older classmates and other PT students for advice (which I’m sure you’ve already have during the course of PT school). They may even have an old review book they would be willing to sell or loan you.

Where should I focus most of my time studying?

Unlike many of the previous questions, this is one where most PTs agree on the same answer. Focus on “The Big Three” (Musculoskeletal, Neuro, Cardiopulmonary). Nearly 125 of the 200 counted questions are from these three topics alone, as stated in the FSBPT Content Outline. While you definitely do not want to neglect GI, GU, Lymphatics, Modalities, and all the other topics, you must be very proficient with “The Big Three” if you want to pass.

To truly know where to focus your studying, take a practice test, and the post-test review should tell you what categories you did best in and what categories you need additional help with.

What if I fail my first NPTE practice test?

Don’t worry! As you will see with the means and medians of NPTE practice tests, most people will fail their first practice test (and perhaps some subsequent practice tests as well). You will also see that the pass rates and scores of these practice tests are often lower than the actual NPTE pass rates and scores. As mentioned above, these practice tests are mainly meant to challenge you and gauge how you are doing overall at this particular point of your studying, and where you should be focusing most of your future study time.

Conclusion: Studying tips are a personal matter.

In retrospect, I simply realized that we are all different. Like most things in the realm of physical therapy: it depends. Like having multiple patients with the same diagnosis, there is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach, especially when it comes to studying for a beastly test like the NPTE. You are going to get advice from all different people, but what worked for that person might not work for you. Ultimately, study the way you always have and do what you have always done. You’ve gotten through four years of undergrad and three grueling years of PT school by obviously doing something right; don’t change too much for the NPTE.

Download the ultimate guide below! 👇



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