Studying to Succeed: How to Ace the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE)

Get to know the exam, find the answers to your most pressing questions, discover valuable study strategies, and hear from an expert who has passed the NPTE.

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Expert Review

Daniel Chazin

- Bio

Daniel T. Chazin, PT, DPT, is a licensed physical therapist from Nashville, TN. He specializes in acute care rehabilitation as well as working with individuals with neurological impairments. He is a member of both the APTA and TPTA.

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Last Updated: 02/04/2021
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Getting to this point has been no small achievement. You worked hard as an undergrad, got accepted into your DPT program, and gave grad school your all for three years. Now, before you can begin your dream career as a physical therapist, you need to pass the NPTE. The NPTE is the multiple-choice exam designed to test your knowledge before you’re able to earn your professional PT license. And while your DPT program has prepared you to sit for the exam, passing the exam is up to you alone.

This is a big step, and just like everything worthwhile in life, it’s going to take hard work and determination. From getting acquainted with the exam process and format to collecting the right study materials and crafting your test-taking strategy, keep reading to learn how you can prepare to ace the NPTE.

Need to Know Info: FAQs About the NPTE

It’s only natural to have questions about the NPTE prior to taking it. From understanding the test basics like registration and cost to finding out about scoring and passing requirements, here are some of the answers to your most asked exam questions.

What is the NPTE?

If you’re interested in pursuing a career as a physical therapist, you’ll need to pass the NPTE exam. The exam ensures that you know all of the necessary information to be a successful entry-level PT professional in your chosen area of the field. Members of state physical therapy licensing boards use the information from the exam to evaluate your capability as a candidate for licensure in their state.

Where can I take the NPTE?

The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) requires you to take the exam at a Prometric testing location or through their ProProctor online testing service. Depending on your location and accessibility to testing sites during the COVID-19 pandemic, taking your assessment online through the ProProctor service is probably the safest and most convenient choice. If you’re interested in taking the test in-person, Prometic displays a full list of their available testing sites and how each is making accommodations for test-takers during the pandemic in 2021.

How do I register for the NPTE?

The easiest and most efficient way to get set up to take the exam is to create an FSBPT profile. Here, you’ll click the “NPTE” button in the “services” area on your screen. At this point, you’ll see all of the important registration deadlines, depending on when you want to sit for the exam. These deadlines are firm, and there’s no wiggle room, so read carefully. You’ll need to complete your online registration and submit the registration fee no later than 11:59 pm EST on the day of your deadline. You can also find a list of deadlines here.

How often is the NPTE offered?

The NPTE is offered quarterly in January, April, July, and October. In each of these months—except July, which offers two testing days—there is only one testing day.

How many times can I take the NPTE?

You can take the NPTE a total of six times in your life. The FSBPT reports that those who need to take the exam more than two times typically do not pass on subsequent attempts. You can only take the exam three times in any 12-month period, and no more than three consecutive times before you’ll be required to skip an exam date. Lastly, if you take the exam twice and get two failing scores of 400 or below, you will be barred from taking the exam again.

How much does the NPTE cost?

As of January 2021, your registration process requires you to submit a payment of $485 online using a Discover, MasterCard, or Visa credit or debit card. Again, you’ll need to complete your online registration and submit this fee online no later than 11:59 pm EST on the day of your deadline. When you make an appointment to take the exam with Prometric, you’ll also need to submit a $101 scheduling fee.

What is the minimum passing score for the NPTE?

Even though you’ll receive a numbered score when you take the exam, the NPTE test is a pass/fail exam. Scores range from 200 to 800, and 600 is the minimum passing score.

What happens if you don’t pass the NPTE?

If you don’t pass the NPTE on the first try, you can retake it. If you earn a 400 or lower on the first two attempts, however, you won’t be able to reschedule for a third try. In total, you’ll be able to sit for the exam a total of six times.

How is the NPTE scored?

FSBPT uses a complex system to create multiple versions of the NPTE. While the exams cover the same content, FSBPT reports that “forms (versions) of the NPTE may vary slightly in their level of difficulty.” You’ll be able to earn a scaled score between 200-800, but an 800 doesn’t necessarily mean you got a perfect score since your raw score—the number of questions you answered correctly—is converted to a scale score. Regardless of where you take the exam or plan to pursue licensure, all licensing authorities follow the same guidelines and standards for scoring and determining passing scores.

Getting to Know the NPTE

For those who are well on their way to testing day and are crossing off the boxes on their checklist, here’s more in-depth information to keep in mind as you move forward to schedule and prepare for the NPTE.

Exam Eligibility

You’ll need to meet the general eligibility requirements listed below before you can take the NPTE.

  • You must be at least 18 years old.
  • You should possess the appropriate PT degree from a CAPTE-accredited institution.Graduates of non-CAPTE accredited programs need to provide FSBPT with a copy of a credential evaluation by a recognized agency and results of the TOEFL exam administered by ETS.
  • You can’t have an open security investigation or sanctions that haven’t been completed.

Content Blueprint

The NPTE consists of nine body system sections and five non-system content sections. The system sessions include musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, lymphatic, integumentary, metabolic and endocrine, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, and system interactions. The most heavily tested system sections, from least to greatest, are musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, and cardiovascular.

From the most heavily tested to the least, the content sections include evaluation, intervention, examination, and non-system domains. Subcategories located in the non-system domains section include equipment, devices, and technology; therapeutic modalities; safety and protection; professional responsibilities; and research and evidence-based practice.

Below you can get an idea of how many questions you can expect from each body system and non-system category.

Body System Physical Therapy Examination Foundations for Evaluation, Differential Diagnosis, and Prognosis Interventions Total Per System
Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Systems 7-9 8-9 8-10 23-28
Musculoskeletal System 18-21 17-20 16-19 51-60
Neuromuscular and Nervous Systems 15-17 14-16 15-17 44-50
Integumentary System 3-4 3-4 3-4 9-12
Metabolic and Endocrine Systems n/a 3-4 2-3 5-7
Gastrointestinal System 0-2 2-3 1-2 3-7
Genitourinary System 1-2 2-3 1-2 4-7
Lymphatic System 0-2 1-3 2-3 3-8
System Interactions n/a 8-12 n/a 8-12
Non-system Categories Number of Questions
Equipment, Devices, and Technologies 5-6
Therapeutic Modalities 6-8
Safety and Protection 5-6
Professional Responsibilities 4-5
Research and Evidence-Based Practice 3-5

Exam Format

In total, there are 250 multiple-choice questions separated into five sections on the NPTE exam. In each 50-question set, there are 40 scored questions and ten experimental questions.

You can expect the questions, which vary in length, to cover hands-on, real-world applications or scenarios that you’ll probably encounter with patients as a PT professional. In some cases, multiple-choice questions require you to know a single term, while others require you to know a handful of PT concepts, phrases, and practices to choose the best multiple-choice answer.

7 Study Strategies for NPTE Success

From making a study schedule to locating the best materials, a careful approach to preparing for an exam can make all the difference. Here are six tried and true test prep strategies that can help you save time and energy as you prepare to take the NPTE.

Strategy

1

Go beyond memorization

Since NPTE exam questions will ask you to apply various PT topics you’ve learned in school to real-world scenarios, memorizing facts and terms isn’t necessarily the best approach. For example, the content outline provided by the FSBPT indicates that for each body system on the test, you’ll need to apply knowledge of physical therapy examination, evaluation, diagnosis, and prognosis, and applicable PT interventions. In this way, you’ll be combining information you’ve gained from case studies, hands-on work experience, academic articles, and coursework to answer exam questions. So, as you prepare for the NPTE, make sure you understand concepts, outcome measures, rehabilitation treatment strategies, and current best practices in the field for addressing patients’ ailments.

Strategy

2

Remember the big picture

Keeping the big picture in mind can be a key to success with the NPTE. The exam isn’t an assessment of endless PT knowledge, so think critically about the information you gained in your PT program and how you can effectively apply it to future patients. This clinically minded, patient-centered approach aligns with the types of questions you’ll encounter on the NPTE exam. With this in mind, you can worry less about covering every little detail as you study and aim to retain the clinical concepts and applications that will ultimately make you a great physical therapist in the long run.

Strategy

3

Invest in the right study material

A short google search through NPTE study materials will show you that not all study guides are created equally. And because there’s no one-size-fits-all for study materials, getting to know what works best for you can be crucial. Online resources will offer a broad range of study suggestions, from phone apps to hardcopy study guides, that accommodate a variety of learning preferences. Take the time to consider what kinds of materials work best for you. For example, flashcards might be more useful for visual learners, while lectures and presentations may work better for others. Using a range of learning and study modalities can also keep your study sessions fresh and more interesting, helping you avoid ruts and study fatigue.

Strategy

4

Focus on the Big Three

While test-takers should study all NPTE exam categories, the sections referred to as the “big three,” deserve extra attention. The big three is made up of the musculoskeletal, neuromuscular/nervous system, and cardiopulmonary and lymphatics sections on the exam. These topics are integral components of the foundational knowledge you’ll need as a physical therapist, and they’re also the most heavily tested on the exam. In fact, about 75% of NPTE questions cover these three categories, so think about focusing about 75% of your study time here.

Strategy

5

Take more than one practice exam

According to our expert, Daniel T. Chazin, taking three practice exams was “the best choice” he made when preparing for the NPTE. In fact, he urges test preppers to take no less than three practice tests. You’ll find that, like the NPTE, some practice tests will be a little more difficult than others. Taking more than one practice exam allows you to get a good feel for the exam, learn how to kick it in gear when you encounter tougher questions, and exposes you to a greater number of practice questions. You can find tests through various online retailers, but some of the standouts come from TherapyExamPrep.com, Momentrix, and the FSBPT.

Strategy

6

Get familiar with the content outline

It’s crucial to review the test outline as you start preparing for the NPTE. You’ll find content outlines offered by most test prep companies, but it’s best to get the most up-to-date and official content outline you can find. The FSBPT offers an official content outline so you know exactly what to expect based on any updates or changes the organization makes from year to year. A solid content outline also ensures that you know all of the categories and topics that the exam will cover, all in one convenient location. It might even be a good idea to print out the outline and keep it next to your desk for easy reference.

Strategy

7

Avoid stress-studying

While preparing to take the exam, you should make sure that you have another PT student, professor, mentor, or counselor that you can talk to if you feel overwhelmed, too stressed, or panicked. Additionally, Dr. Chazin recommends that students make a good study plan well in advance to avoid last-minute cramming, which can often stress you out. He suggests that test-takers avoid studying the day before and the day of their exam. In his opinion, it’s more important to rest and engage in enjoyable activities as well as getting a good night’s sleep.

Study Advice from an NPTE Expert

Daniel-Chazin
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Daniel T. Chazin, PT, DPT, is a licensed physical therapist from Nashville, TN. He specializes in acute care rehabilitation as well as working with individuals with neurological impairments. He is a member of both the APTA and TPTA.

Q: Many of us have different ways of preparing for exams. What’s one preparation or study strategy that worked for you when gearing up to take the NPTE exam?

What worked best for me was going through TherapyEd’s NPTE study guide. From there, I read each chapter and identified the information I knew more than 80% of and the information I knew less than 80% of. For anything I knew less than 80%, I made a flashcard online using Quizlet in the form of a question and the answer on the back. Then, I organized all my flashcards by chapter and printed them out. With flashcards in hand, I aimed for three hours of focused study time per day over a 16-week period and a schedule template put together by TherapyEd. I would read the question then check the answer. If I was right, I put a checkmark. If I was wrong, I put an “x.” For any question that had an “x,” I made sure to go back to review at least once before moving onto new material. The flashcard system helped put me in a good mindset for taking practice exams and eventually, the real thing.

Q: Are there some common pitfalls or mistakes that people make when preparing for the exam? Do people spend too much time on one thing when they should be working on another? How can our readers avoid these pitfalls?

Yes. Often, it is easy to get roped into over-studying in an area where we feel weak. Remember this: if your program went to great lengths to teach a particular area of knowledge, then it’s likely that you should focus your study in that area. Think big picture. While small details may be useful in the short term, the big picture and larger concepts will help you reason through moments where you find yourself stuck. While it may seem silly, the most basic concepts that you may have learned in your first semester may be the most helpful for you to deduce your answer when at an impasse.

Q: What’s something unique about preparing for or taking this exam that caught you off guard or stuck with you after the fact?

I realized how in the shuffle of everything I had to do as a student, I was not able to give my full attention to and learn everything that I wished I had when I was in class. The sheer volume of it was too great for me to take it all in. This was a wonderful opportunity to rectify that, and I took full advantage of it. What stuck with me after the exam was how helpful the practice exams were. They really do a good job of showing you how to approach the questions individually as well as in the exam’s entirety. I recall sitting in the exam and feeling comfortable about what was in front of me. Taking three practice exams was the best choice I made when studying.

Q: What’s something that you wish you knew going into the exam?

Three things come to mind. First, don’t study the day before or the day of the test. I guarantee that you will only stress yourself out. Place value on rest and a day to simply enjoy yourself before engaging in this large undertaking. Second, get a good night’s sleep. The last thing you want is to feel foggy when you hit hour number two or three of this exam. Third, you know your body. If you know that you’ll go to the bathroom a lot if you are drinking during breaks, see if you can cut down on that. If you need to hydrate between exam sections or eat a granola bar, do it. Practice finding out what you need while sitting for the exam during the practice tests and replicate those conditions during the big day.

Q: What would you recommend in terms of practice materials?

Everyone is different. Ultimately, you have to do what you know works best for you. For me, I firmly believe in the effectiveness of prep courses and study materials that a few companies like TherapyEd and Scorebuilders put out. I went with TherapyEd’s prep course and book and that was great for me. The prep course helped me develop a 16-week study plan, exposed me to the exam’s feel and style, and gave me access to practice exams. Speaking of which, take no less than three practice exams. Some are harder than others, so try to mix and match if you can. Some come packaged in with study materials that you buy; others are available individually, such as the PEAT (available through FSBPT). Finally, I’d recommend downloading Scorebuilders’ free app called “PT 365.” It offers a question per day and gets you started on the journey to exam prep.

Additional Resources

  • NPTE Podcast For those who want to study and practice on-the-go, this podcast can serve as an excellent test prep resource. Almost 50 episodes cover a variety of subjects, including specific topics on the exam, mental preparedness, and info on the latest NPTE updates or changes.
  • PhysicalTherapyEd Here you can find NPTE practice quizzes, recommended study schedules, study guide and book recommendations, and a practice exam with personalized feedback.
  • PT Final Exam This site features a variety of excellent PT exam resources, including a list of recommended study materials and their study guide, workbook, and practice exam.
  • PT Hustle This YouTube channel offers three useful playlists for test prep, including videos with test-taking tips, recorded lectures on relevant content for the exam, and practice questions.
  • PTProgress PTProgress shares their top 10 tips for passing the NPTE on your first try.
  • Quizlet Recommended by our expert, Quizlet gives you quick access to dozens of NPTE exam prep materials, from flashcards to sample exam questions, for free.
  • Scorebuilders This company offers two-day review courses online and at select campus locations in addition to a 120-day self-paced review course. They also publish a comprehensive hardcopy study guide.
  • Tests.com This site offers free access to an NPTE study guide and an exam prep course through Momentrix and International Education Resources, respectively.
  • TherapyEd This company offers a wide range of prep services, including online content reviews and study guides, a prep course, and online tutoring.
  • TherapyTeam.com This site provides online self-study materials with recorded webinars and practice questions. They also offer a five-week tutoring course and a mobile app.