Studying for the National Physical Therapy Exam can feel overwhelming especially when having clinical rotations at the same time.

Being able to manage your time between the two can be challenging; however, it is not impossible to do. You’ll want to be realistic about how much time you can dedicate to studying and being able to retain the information. Here are a few ways you can study while in clinicals.

Study the NPTE in Short Bursts

Let’s be realistic here, your brain will probably be on high gear while in clinicals. Your mental and physical energy levels most likely are decreased when you get off your shift. Studying for the board exam may not be the highest priority once you get home.

So, how can you get a burst of energy to sit and study? When you get home, be sure to have a balanced meal to help fuel yourself and allow your brain to be mentally alert. Then set aside times where you can be consistent on a daily basis. The goal is that you focus on quality rather than quantity in order to help you retain the information better.

Start with studying times that would be similar to treatment times where the max would be 45 minutes at a time. When days are really busy, you can still get studying in with 15 or 30 minutes. Just understand you won’t be able to get into too much detail.

For the short study sessions, you can cover the following:

  • Missed practice exam questions – being able to understand from the content aspect as well as from the test-taking point of view.
  • Breaking down or simplifying terminology – being able to rephrase or connect with an example helps you to remember better for the exam.
  • Creating brain dumps – being able to write down concepts that can be used as a review and for practice exams.

Pick One NPTE Topic To Cover Each Day

Before you leave your clinical site, find out what your schedule or the types of patients you would be working with. If there is a common theme, choose one topic or area that you want to really focus on. When you come home, spend some time studying that particular area.

One of the best ways to cover a topic is to take a blank body template and doing the following exercises:

  • Subjective portion – write down possible clues that the patient may say about the mechanism of injury, the type of pain and past medical history
  • Objective portion – write down what you may expect to observe with posture, possible abnormal measurements, special tests that you’ll want to perform and functional movements.
  • Assessment portion – write down what you expect would be similar to the condition or diagnosis is given.
  • Plan portion – what are the possible goals and treatments you would provide. Keep in mind a plan for progression as well as regression.
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Take a few minutes to write out some questions or concepts you would like to solidify the next day. See how well you did with your pre-plan with your patients and what could be adjusted for next time.

Utilize And Ask Your Clinical Instructor

While you are working with patients and increasing your knowledge during your clinical rotation, be sure to set aside some time with your clinical instructor to go over concepts. Take advantage of your individual time to address questions that you have or techniques that you want to solidify.

Here are a few things you can ask your clinical instructor:

  • How can I improve on picking up keywords from your evaluations or progress with patients to help identify clues faster?
  • How can I learn to associate particular signs and symptoms to help me figure out what I should expect from the objective assessment?
  • What procedure or treatment intervention should I use when there are red flags, contraindications or something that would alter treatments?

Don’t forget to ask how they were able to relate the information towards the exam and tips or techniques to help make remembering the information better. Remember, they were once in your spot before, so find out what you can do or expect before taking the exam.


Studying for the NPTE doesn’t have to be consuming or draining after your clinical rotation day. Being able to set aside some time and plan what you want to focus on and then taking action helps to make progress a little at a time. Just know that you won’t be able to cover everything in detail and by doing any of the recommendations above, it will help relieve some stress and you’ll gain more out of your clinicals. See how well you can prepare for your board exam in a more clinical way. I’m sure you’ll retain the information a lot better! Now go have fun learning while balancing your life with clinicals.

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Miye Fonseca, PT, DPT, is the Founder and CEO of Therapy Exam Prep, a provider of online NPTE and NPTAE exam prep courses and practice exam simulations focusing on the clinical thinking aspects, test-taking strategies and addressing factors on confidence, fear and test anxiety. She has spoken at student conclaves, has been a guest on podcast interviews and written articles about exam preparation from a clinical thinking and practical approach.

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3 Ways to Balance Clinicals and Studying for the NPTE was last modified: by

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