National Physical Therapy Examination: Rite of Passage into the Physical Therapy profession, Examination of Minimum Proficiency and Competence to Begin PT Practice or Final Act of Perverse Torture?

As most of you know, the National Physical Therapy Exam was just a few weeks ago. Now that results have been released, many students and #FreshPTs around the country are breathing a sigh of relief. But, let’s be real here, was all of that stress and anxiety really necessary?!

When prepping for the NPTE, everyone told me, “you’re going to feel like you failed.” To which I wondered: “Why?” I’ve spent the last 6 months preparing for this exam, not counting the last 3 years of physical therapy school. I used 3 different brands of study materials, and based on the way I’ve been scoring on practice tests I am on track to pass. If I don’t feel like I failed a practice test as I finish it, why should I feel like I failed the NPTE after I finish that?

So I did what everyone told me to do. I went into the exam with an open mind, packed all my snacks, and took that exam just like I would a practice test. I thought, “I’ve got this! I just have to sit for the exam and all my worries will be over!” BOY WAS I WRONG.

The first 50 questions come and go and I think, “Well that wasn’t great. I must be super unlucky to get questioned on literally every small topic that I am not comfortable with. Must just be this section!” NOPE. No it was not just that section. The next 200 questions were just as bad. I felt like they specifically designed an exam for every single topic Cait Cederholm was not comfortable with. I kid you not, I checked TWICE to make sure I was actually taking the NPTE and not some medical doctors exam.

You know how when you’re studying, you think, “Is it worth spending my time learning the intricate details of the TMJ or the pelvic floor?” Chances are, there might just be one question on that topic and I could make an educated guess! I chose to spend my time studying other major topics so I could nail those questions instead. Topics like wound care and orthopedic diagnoses.

I left that exam feeling the most defeated I have ever felt after an exam. I am the unlucky soul who received not 1 question, but at least 5, on each of those topics I wasn’t confident. Typically I am a great judge of how I do on exams. I’m that person who remembers every question I struggled with and looks it up afterwards to see if I got it right. I could not even get my brain to function enough to reflect on my performance when I left the Prometric Center. I actually just sat in my car for 20 minutes, questioning my future.

“How am I going to tell my friends and family that I failed?” “GREAT, I already accepted a full time job, will they even want me anymore?!” “Oh no, I have to go to clinical tomorrow and tell them how it went, there’s no way I can even do that without breaking out in tears.” “I’ve wanted to be a PT since High School, how can I switch careers now?” “I don’t have another $600 dollars to spend on re-taking the exam.” On and on the list went. I was sure I failed.

Speaking of $600, I questioned if purchasing all of those study materials was really worth the money? A ScoreBuilders course, prep book, flashcards, TherapyEd book, 2 PEAT exams. All of which amounted to a minimum $1,000. This is highway robbery! And at that moment I thought, it wasn’t even worth it. Why should I have to pay $1,000 to sit for an exam that I am REQUIRED to take in order to be a licensed physical therapist? They could charge just about anything and we would all have to pay for it.

The next week was absolute torture. Everyone who was anyone asked how it went. I warned all my friends and family that I KNEW I failed. Don’t worry about me, I’ll just be over here questioning my life choices. Once I finally accepted my fate, there was talk about score releases. I was not ready! Some poor souls even received an email from TherapyEd about prepping for their second attempt?! WHAT. That is not okay TherapyEd. Way to kick us while we’re down! Maybe check next year before sending that email? Or, better yet, don’t send it at all.

Tuesday rolls around and I am an absolute mess. I chose to not tell anyone that results were coming out that night because I couldn’t bare the thought of them asking if I passed. I drove straight to my good friends house and made her log in for me to check. To my absolute surprise, I actually passed. I PASSED. There had to be a mistake somewhere? Log out and log back in. PASSED? How? How is it that after feeling SO poorly about an exam, I passed? Something is wrong with this story.

I understand that 50 questions are being tested, and maybe they dropped some questions the majority of students missed? But where are we going wrong in our preparation for the NPTE? Should we focus more on those small topics? More on differential diagnosis? Is it our education system? Or is it just the way of the world? I don’t, by any means, think it should be an easy test, but I do think we should at least be able to accurately reflect on our performance.

Now, by this point (if you’re still reading), you might think I’m just a big complainer. And you know what, that’s okay! My hope is that someone (anyone!) will have some sort of solution for the next cohort of NPTE takers. Stress management during the exam? I took all my breaks, did jumping jacks, and ate healthy snacks. What else is there? Overall, how can we find a better way to accurately reflect on our performance after taking the NPTE, or if nothing else understand that feeling like you failed REALLY is a normal part of the examination process. To those individuals who have yet to take the exam, may the dropped questions ever be in your favor! Good luck!