The Student Physical Therapist
Congratulations to all the newly licensed PTs out there! Last week the results of the NPTE came out, so we thought we would offer our advice and perspective on preparation for the exam. In December last year, our school had us take a practice exam without any studying. This allowed us to determine where our strengths and weakness were. You should definitely makes a schedule and stick to it. Having deadlines to meet ensures getting through the material.
Chris: I started studying back in February for the boards, beginning with my class notes (I often over-study for tests). I took a few subjects and made (long) study guides from my class notes. I went through all my notes in Modalities, Cardio/Lymph, Pulm, Neuro, and Functional Equipment. The study guides I made contained all the information from each of those subjects that wasn't absolute common sense to me. I then went through the O'Sullivan text and added any information to my study guides that I hadn't previously covered. Come graduation, I now had all the information for those subjects on study guides I created so that I wouldn't have to return to the O'Sullivan book for those subjects. I highly recommend focusing the majority of your time studying on the "Big 3" - Musculoskeletal, Neuro, and Cardiopulm/Lymph. About 75% of the test covers those subjects. I was fortunate in that I barely had to study ortho, so if you find you're strong in a certain area you may be able to partially ignore a section as well to focus more on the other two. I mainly looked through the O'Sullivan book to learn about tests and diseases that we weren't taught in school. Something I do want to point out is that the ortho material on the boards and in the O'Sullivan text is outdated information. Recent evidence in the area is definitely the exception on the exam, so I recommend familiarizing yourself with older treatment/exam methods. Knowing I was weak in Neuro and Cardiopulm/Lymph, I frequently covered that material and read information about the diseases from other text books. The NPTE study guides do a great job listing various diseases/treatment methods for you to know, but only provide some information. Reading background information from pathology books and books like O'Sullivan's Physical Rehabilitation definitely helped me gain a much better understanding. I even went so far as to review Neurscience (anatomy and physiology). This made any neuro questions much easier for me. Once I had some confidence in each of the major areas, I spent some time just to freshen up on the smaller areas of the exam - Integumentary, EBP, Professional Behaviors, etc. These areas are covered less on the test but they still count!
I also studied with or did some Q&A with friends probably at least once a week. I frequently found that we were all finding additional information that the other hadn't covered. Lastly, one of the the most important things to do is take practice exams. I took 2 of O'Sullivan's between graduation and the boards and read the questions/answers for a third. This really helped me to understand why certain answers were right. I learned things like in acute ortho injuries, the O'Sullivan authors recognize modalities as a treatment of choice frequently. You learn to pick up little clues about each question that prepare you for the actual test. Another obvious benefit of taking practice exams is learning where your weaknesses/strengths are after each test. This is important, because you can alter your studying to focus on another area afterwards. You will likely be asking yourself: should you go with Scorebuilders or O'Sullivan. The general consensus I have heard (I did not look at Scorebuilders) is that Scorebuilders has many more graphs and pictures, while O'Sullivan is outline format. Additionally, lower O'Sullivan practice test scores are linked to passing the NPTE compared to Scorebuilders. I actually preferred this as I would rather be over-prepared. I walked out of the boards feeling pretty confident in how I did. I was actually shocked at how much simpler the NPTE questions were compared to O'Sullivan's. One of the reasons I felt confident is that I went into the test knowing that I was going to get questions wrong. Everyone does. This isn't like school where you need to get an "A." Questions will be thrown out and the scores will be adjusted. Like Brian, I took the night before off and just watched a movie (Braveheart) to get my mind relaxed. Overall, I would say I studied at least 3-4 hours a day (often more), but I definitely had days off and took a couple vacations in the months leading up to the exam. In the 2 weeks before the test though, I upped my studying significantly like Brian.
Brian: If you're about to sit down to start studying for boards soon or even a year away and feel like you have to re-learn neuro and/or cardio/pulm again - I was there too. If you're the world's worst written test taker and you're freaked out about that for the boards - that was me as well. If you're about to sit for the NPTE and you haven't passed a single O'Sullivan practice exam - again, that was me. The point is that the mental aspect of the boards is very real and can be detrimental to your studying/focus if you do not get a handle on it. There is probably a good chunk of students that rarely have to worry about the mental aspect of test taking as much as others do but with the boards I think pretty much everyone freaks out at one time so don't worry, that part is pretty normal.
Now Chris did a pretty good job of outlining study strategies so I will touch on only additional things to consider.
- Start studying months ahead of time, even if its just once a week for a few hours. It makes a difference even if you think you forgot everything you studied come graduation.
- Focus on your weak areas. For me that was cardio/pulm and neuro, not ortho. Integumentary? Yeah I studied that everyday because I didn't remember anything from that.
- The hardest thing to do is sit down and study for a test months away when we are used to cramming for test after test. Study a few hours each day in the beginning weeks and towards the end (2-3 weeks before) I would turn it up to 6-10 if you can to make sure you get as much in as you can.
- Don't just take the practice tests and look at the score, analyze it too. Figure out where you have improved and where you haven't. Then from there focus on the poor sections and "maintain" the strong ones.
- You cannot memorize and know EVERYTHING, so don't worry. But know the big concepts down cold and try to fill in the smaller details.
- Study in groups or with a friend if you do not understand a concept. They can help you get through that sticking point.
- For a guy that hates to ever waste time and always feels like he needs to study or get ahead, the best thing I did was chill out the night before the test. I watched a movie and listened only to my positive music/speeches.
- Unless you're like Chris who knew he dominated the test, you're probably like myself or Jim who felt we failed the test afterwards (and during too - but take breaks and reset your mind for positive motivating thoughts). Don't dwell on that.
Jim: Much of the information I have to add has been touched on above from both Brian and Chris, but I do have a few additional comments to make. First, I want to say that it is possible to work on a temporary license while studying for the board exam. It was difficult and mentally taxing at times, but do not rule out this option if you want to start working right away. The key is time management! Second, I cannot stress enough the importance of taking practice exams and analyzing each question: both incorrect and correct answers. I took 5 practice exams and looked through every question thoroughly. Multiple times I found myself answering questions correctly but using the wrong clinical reasoning skills. Additionally, make note of specific topics that need to be reviewed in greater detail. Find these mistakes early so you can perform better on the next test. Analyzing every question of each test was a long process, but understanding the "textbook" answer is essential to passing the NPTE. Finally, I want to discuss the importance of using multiple resources. I used both O'Sullivan and Scorebuilders as my review books, but also had class notes, textbooks, websites, and more at my disposal to delve deeper into topics that needed further explanation. No resource is all inclusive, so use as much as possible.
Study hard with intention. The satisfaction of passing the exam is worth the effort!
James Heafner DPT, Chris Fox DPT, and Brian Schwabe DPT, CSCS are recent graduates of Saint Louis University's Program in Physical Therapy.