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6 Steps to Pass the National Physical Therapy Exam

Preparing for the NPTE? A little planning goes a long way.

Will Crane
5 min read
September 14, 2020
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For many physical therapy new grads, the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) is the last hurdle standing between them and a long, fulfilling career as a licensed physical therapist. And it’s a relatively tall hurdle—one that typically requires months of dedicated preparation to clear. On that note, how you prepare can make all the difference. Here are my suggestions: 

1. Make a plan.

My biggest piece of advice is to have a study plan. I find that when I don’t have a plan, I will start studying the shoulder, then something will spark me to look at the brachial plexus, then I’ll move over to the hand of benediction—and before I know it, my shoulder day is wasted! Sound familiar?

Having a daily plan is crucial to staying organized. And once you have a plan, stick to it. At the end of each week, review your plan and see how well you adhered to it. Did you miss anything? This makes it easier to ensure you’ve checked all the boxes and covered all the content you needed to cover. Back when I was studying for the NPTE, I had anxiety about missing things, and it caused me to lose sleep. Once I introduced some structure and knew exactly what I needed to study each day, that anxiety went away—and I was able to get a good night’s rest. This was a game changer for me.

2. Set achievable goals.

PTs set goals for their patients all the time. Setting study goals is no different. Whether you’re treating a patient or preparing for a test, goals—specifically, SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timed) goals—are crucial to making and measuring progress. For instance, if I am lining up to take a practice exam this week, and my previous practice exam score was 60%, then I am not going to set a goal of 90% for my next practice test—that’s just not realistic. Instead, my goal for the next exam is simply to improve.

After all, if I set a goal of 90% and I do not hit it, then I am going to react negatively—even if I increased my practice test score by, say, 15%. The same goes for setting study goals. It is unrealistic to give yourself a goal of studying the whole musculoskeletal system in a week. Instead, break your study goals down into more realistic pieces.

3. Vary your content.

At PT Final Exam, we strongly encourage people to study from the core text books—not just the review guides. The NPTE is written based on the same core physical therapy textbooks you are thinking about burning! So, put away that lighter, and instead use these books to prep for the exam. But, don’t merely stare at pages of text for hours at a time—especially if you’re a visual learner like me. If you can break up the monotony and vary your approach, you will see content in different ways, and you’ll have a better chance of finding something that sticks. To help, we’ve created free video and audio resources for you on our YouTube channel and our podcast, the NPTE podcast.

4. Use your time wisely.

We are all terribly busy, and sometimes, life gets in the way of the best laid plans. Making the most of your time using a power session can be helpful. You might say, “What the heck is a power session?” I’m glad you asked! A power session is when you pick a topic and read out loud or into your phone for 20 minutes. You can read from your notes, from your textbook, or both. Once your 20 minutes is up, get outside! Do you like to run or walk? Put in your headphones and listen to what you just recorded while being active. When you get back, spend 20 minutes teaching someone what you just learned! We remember 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and 90% of what we teach. Now that is a productive 60 minutes!

5. Practice and learn.

Research shows that one of the absolute best ways to get information to stick in your head for test day is to take practice examinations. Practice exams are meant to mimic the style and format of the actual test.

We get asked all the time what the best practice exam schedule is. Honestly, it depends a lot on the number of practice exams that are available to you. We’ve seen people who have used most of the available practice exams fail the real exam. If you only have a few practice options available, be sure to space them out so you can access them at even intervals.

Because taking a practice exam is time-consuming, I’d recommend scheduling only one per week—at most. That’s because, to get the full value of the practice exam, you must not only finish and score it, but also spend a reasonable amount of time reviewing the exam content. I’ve seen too many students neglect to review their practice exams—only to get the exact same score on the next one. This is simply because they did not learn anything from their prior attempt.

6. Get the help you need.

We tend to isolate ourselves as we prepare for a large exam like the NPTE. Unfortunately, this can be detrimental, because it prevents you from encountering new ways of thinking about the content—and you miss out on the accountability that comes with being part of a study group. One of the most popular things we’ve done at PT Final Exam is implement our Crash Course series. This is a series of six mini courses on the main systems that are tested on the NPTE. Applicable to PTs and PTAs alike, these crash-courses deliver the exact content you need when you need it. In fact, we’ve nicknamed them the “Crush Courses” because they’ll help you crush the NPTE!

The NPTE might seem scary, but at the end of the day, it’s just a test—and a little planning goes a long way toward helping you get the most out of your study efforts. If you’re currently prepping for the NPTE, what questions do you have? If you’ve already passed it, what advice do you have for those who haven’t taken it yet? Tell us your thoughts in the comment section below.

Will Crane, PT, DPT, OCS, is an NPTE expert and respected speaker and educator in the field of physical therapy. Dr. Crane started PT Final Exam in 2012 with the goal of providing excellent NPTE preparation courses in a compassionate and professional environment. Since then, Will has been involved in numerous university programs and has trained more than 10,000 PTs and PTAs on the way. To learn more about the test prep resources PT Final Exam offers—as well as group and cohort discounts—email him at


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