5 surprising NPTE test prep mistakes

So you’re finishing up PT school and preparing for the National Physical Therapy Exam, but have a few doubts about your preparedness for the “big day”. How do I know if I’m ready? What is the highest yield information? Will I be able to finish in time? What if I don’t pass? Just take a deep breath and don’t make any of the these 5 mistakes.

Mistake #5 – Content Tunnel Vision

Students underestimate the vast array of content on the NPTE. The exam does not care about your desire to be an outpatient orthopedic physical therapist. That’s right, probably should’ve paid attention during your acute care rotation. The exam is designed to protect the public.

In regards to public safety, what do you think is more important to know? How to perform an anterior drawer test or how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a stroke; stage an infected decubitus ulcer; or appropriately respond to a  hypoglycemic episode?


Mistake #4 – Self Deception

Believing you’re going to fail before you even attempt the NPTE. Don’t psych yourself out reading internet posts about students who failed.  Don’t get caught up in believing the test is “tricky” or “too difficult”. Nonsense! The test is fair. The questions are peer-reviewed and screened for appropriateness.


Mistake # 3 – Unnecessary Frugality

Stop penny pinching on studying materials. I was once a student, and yes, I get it. I know $50 seems like a lot of money right now, heck, that’s a good night at the local tavern. Seriously though, spending in excess of $100,000 on PT school, only to budget on board exam study materials doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical. I’m not talking about paying hundreds of dollars on prep courses or books. Chances are you already have 15 textbooks from PT school. Review your anatomy, physiology, ortho, etc… but most importantly, take practice exams. High quality practice exams are in short supply. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of taking reliable simulated board exams. It’s the most efficient method of studying, because you’re exposing yourself to the exam formatting, learning time management, and increasing content knowledge all at once.


Mistake # 2 – Memorization vs. Rationalization

You’re mistaken if you think content knowledge alone will ensure success. Memorizing the cranial nerves is nice, but incorporating their function into a clinical scenario is entirely different.

If a patient has a palsy of cranial nerve VII, which of the following findings would you expect on examination?

  • 1) Impaired light touch over maxilla
  • 2) Inability to close the eyes
  • 3) Difficulty chewing
  • 4) Difficulty showing their teeth

Just because you know paralysis of the facial nerve is called Bell’s Palsy doesn’t mean you can recognize it clinically. The exam is clinical, not based on memorization of textbook content.

How does a student make the jump from textbook master to clinical expert without having years of experience?

Take high quality practice exams. Expose yourself to the depth and breadth of the questions. The board offers a good resource called the PEAT. Modern Learning Company also has excellent practice exams for students preparing to take the NPTE.


Mistake #1 – Practice, Practice, Practice, Practice

Don’t study for a clinical application exam by simply reading textbooks and flashcards. NPTE questions are designed to test entry-level clinical reasoning skills. Expect clinical scenarios, not recall questions. Read the two questions below to better understand what we’re talking about.

A) What nerve supplies motor to the serratus anterior muscle?

B) A physical therapist works with a patient on scapular stability. During a prone push-up, the therapist observes medial scapular border winging away from the thorax. Which of the following nerves is MOST likely injured?

  • 1) Thoracodorsal
  • 2) Suprascapular
  • 3) Long thoracic
  • 4) Dorsal scapular

Question (A) is a recall question. No clinical reasoning skills needed. The serratus anterior is innervated by the long thoracic nerve. Done.

Whereas, question (B) requires clinical reasoning skills. The test-taker must first know that medial scapular border winging during a prone push-up indicates serratus anterior weakness. Then, the test-taker must know the serratus anterior is innervated by the long thoracic nerve.

Let’s take it a step further!

C) A physical therapist works with a patient on scapular stability. During a prone push-up, the therapist observes the medial scapular border winging away from the thorax. Upon standing from the push-up position the patient reports severe lightheadedness and dizziness. What is the MOST appropriate physical therapist action?

  • 1) Place the patient in Trendelenburg position
  • 2) Place the patient in reverse Trendelenburg position
  • 3) Check the patient’s blood sugar levels
  • 4) Refer the patient to the emergency department

This question leads the test-taker to believe it’s an orthopedic question, then veers off in a different direction. Always read the answer options first! Learn how to analyze the answer sets and stems here.

What  is the most effective method to increase test-taking confidence and content knowledge?

Everyone preaches about reviewing all the textbooks and study guides over and over and over again. How much of the 1,000 page textbook are you retaining on a daily basis? Maximize your study time and increase your test-taking skills by completing practice exams….review the rationales….and reference your textbooks as needed.

Be confident and prepared. Shift how you prepare for the most important exam in your career! Take the next step and turn textbook knowledge into applicable clinical reasoning skills.

Check out Modern Learning Company for instant access to high-quality simulated PT board exams.

Please feel free to contact us with questions or to obtain answers to the practice questions above!

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