How Dr. Sarah Falbo raised her NPTE exam score by 30 points

PT school costs a lot of money.

If you’re here—reading about how to pass the NPTE exam—you know that. What you may not know is how much that fact informs the way you approach NPTE prep.

“In PT school, we spend a lot of money on textbooks, clinicals, and tuition,” says Dr. Kyle Rice, aka Coach K. “When I graduated, I was $150,000 in debt. And then you tell me I’ve gotta spend more money on NPTE prep? I feel like there’s a sense of entitlement that your school should’ve already taught you how to pass the NPTE in one shot. Why do you have to put money toward something that should just come naturally? 

Dr. Sarah Falbo, PT, DPT, agrees. 

“Before I took my first practice exam and failed horribly, I thought, ‘How bad can it really be? I should know this stuff!’” says Dr. Falbo. “But remember: You’re out on rotations for the last 30 weeks of PT school. You haven’t been in class for months! It’s not surprising we don’t remember everything.”

Coach K recently caught up with Dr. Falbo to find out how she went from failing every practice test she took to bumping her score by 30 points in one try with the PT Hustle’s Coaching Program

Bouncing back after failing the NPTE practice exams: Q&A with Dr. Sarah Falbo and Coach K

Coach K: How did you get into physical therapy?

Dr. Falbo: My senior year of high school, my dad and I were training for our first half marathon, and he hurt his hips. Then it went to his knee and his ankle, and it gave him trouble running and walking. I saw how he recovered with the help of an amazing physical therapist (PT) and it really motivated me.

Coach K: How did school go for you?

Dr. Falbo: PT school was a struggle. I didn’t get in on my first try. The second time, I got in off the waitlist last minute. I had to get settled into school in a new state quickly, and I didn’t adjust well. I actually ended up on academic probation from missing one question on my neuro final! 

But my practical scores were great. I always got As on the comprehensive, hands-on stuff. But those multiple choice exams—I think I got one A in all of PT school. So when it came to how to pass the physical therapy board exam, I was nervous.

Coach K: How did you do on practice tests? 

Dr. Falbo: Before I took your course, I got a 52% on my first Scorebuilders exam and I just felt like I knew nothing. What was PT school even for? I didn’t remember anything at all.

Coach K: I got a 45% on my first one and I was like ‘Oh, this is going to be bad!’ 

Coach K: So you got that first score, and then you decided you needed help figuring out how to pass the NPTE. What made you choose the PT Hustle?

Dr. Falbo: I knew you were the bomb so who else am I going to take any PT help from?! But seriously, I knew the program had two things I really needed: 

  1. Mental fortitude building, and 
  2. Test-taking strategies.

Like I said, I didn’t do well on multiple choice exams in school, and I never really did anything about it because I was technically passing. But when it came to getting the NPTE passed, I was like, ‘I need somebody to show me how to do this thing right because I don’t want to do it again.’ 

Coach K: What was the toughest challenge for you preparing for NPTE?

Dr. Falbo: I just got tired. I’m usually a pretty focused person. I can stay motivated, do the thing, keep studying. But when it came to the second, third, fourth hour of the exam, I had complete brain fog. I didn’t even touch the fifth hour. I’m staring at a question in a loop, and I just didn’t care. I was so apathetic as to what I put down because what does it matter? I know I’m failing the NPTE. Why try? 

Coach K: That’s key: your problems weren’t knowledge related. We’re not trained in how to address things like fatigue. How did you do it?

Dr. Falbo: At first, I thought it was a motivation issue I couldn’t change. I had a list of excuses in my head. Then, on our first coaching call, you said, ‘Are you even taking care of your body?’ I thought, ‘I eat a granola bar before I take the exam, my sleep is fine. It’s gotta be motivation. It can’t be that simple.’ And it turned out to be a little bit of both. 

Coach K: Food and fuel are important—what you eat before the NPTE exams and during breaks. A one-granola-bar plan is just what I was doing as well! And I didn’t have enough energy to last, which makes you apathetic toward the end. 

Coach K: How did you build up your motivation to study everyday?

Dr. Falbo: I thought back to why I wanted to go into PT and other big moments. I love triathlons and endurance events. I love training for something big. But I realized I’d forgotten what it felt like to be at the finish line. I had to find some meaning behind the NPTE—not just because I have to do it, but because I want to do it for my future patients. 

Coach K: Let’s talk about that epic time you saw a significant score increase. 

Dr. Falbo: I thought there was a mistake! I’d taken four practice exams up to this one, and then I went up 30 points in one after I’d been in the coaching program for a bit

Here’s what I did: 

  • I studied the same amount.
  • I saw my family more.
  • I took care of myself. 
  • I ate a legitimate breakfast. 

I didn’t want to eat, but I knew if I didn’t, I was going to be too tired to comprehend what I was reading during the exam. So I ate toast, avocado, and an omelet for breakfast. Then I had Greek yogurt, almonds, and a granola bar during the break. I think I actually even studied less. 

Coach K: Are y’all listening to this?! It’s not about piling information in your brain 15 hours a day. 

Dr. Falbo: It’s not worth it! When I failed the NPTE, I was studying eight hours a day, and it was too much. 

When I passed:

  • I never studied more than five hours at a time.
  • I focused on getting two or three really important topics down, instead of reading a book and hoping to absorb it. 
  • I ate enough before studying, and before taking the test.
  • I focused on what was really motivating me to take the NPTE—not because it was the next thing I needed to do, but that I deserve to be a DPT.

Coach K: When it came to the PT Hustle, you chose the coaching program. Why?

Dr. Falbo: I needed to overcome my fears and isolation. The people around me were living their lives, not studying, not worrying about the next paycheck. I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because they hadn’t done it. I was just burdened by this exam and couldn’t bring myself to study. I needed coaching to bring me out of it. I needed to see there were other people to connect with, to talk through our strengths and weaknesses. It was invaluable. 

Coach K: Is it worth the risk to do it all by yourself and see what happens?

Dr. Falbo: If I’d taken the NPTE before I figured out eating and focus, I don’t think I would’ve passed. If I’d gotten a job lined up and paid for the exam and failed, that would’ve been so difficult for me.

Coach K: Looking back now, what would you tell your younger self?

Dr. Falbo: If you didn’t pass your first, second, third time, don’t absorb your results as your identity. It’s hard, especially if you tell your parents, your friends, your family. But don’t absorb other people’s emotions. You have nothing to do with other people’s expectations of you. Your history is not your identity. Failing and struggling are not who you are; it’s just what happened in the moment. 

Coach K: What was it like passing the NPTE exam? 

Dr. Falbo: My reaction was pretty crazy pulling up my scores. I looked at it and fell on the couch and had a moment of complete relief. 
I would never have thought if I ate better and studied less, I’d increase my score. That plus envisioning myself at the finish line changed everything. And PT Hustle got me there.

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