Whether you’ve been working as a pharmacy assistant for a while and are ready to take on more job responsibilities or are just beginning to consider a career in the pharmacy field, you might have heard about the Pharmacy Technician Certification Exam (PTCE). Passing this exam is required to become a certified pharmacy technician, or CPhT, which not only allows you to perform more tasks at work but typically comes with a pay increase, too.
“The PTCE tests knowledge and skills relevant to the duties of a pharmacy technician, covering both community and hospital settings,” says Brian Staiger, Pharm.D., an adjunct professor who teaches the pharmacy technician certification course at the University at Buffalo. “It’s a one-hour and 50-minute [computer-based] exam, consisting of 90 multiple-choice questions, with 80 of them being scored and 10 being [randomly] unscored.”
If this sounds relatively easy to you, think again: the PTCE can be challenging, with a current pass rate of about 70%. This means it’s totally possible to ace it, but that it requires a serious commitment to preparation before trying. Here’s how to study for the PTCE so you can pass with flying colors and become a CPhT.
8 study tips for the pharmacy technician exam
Before you decide to take the PTCE, you should know what it can help you achieve and what steps you need to take before sitting for the exam. According to Dr. Staiger, you can take the test at any point in your career, but looking for ways to advance your skills is usually the top reason.
“Technicians may have opportunities to participate in patient care, disease state management, or medication therapy management programs,” says Dr. Staiger, “[and] some pharmacies provide opportunities for certified technicians to participate in pharmacy glucose, cholesterol, and other screenings, [as well as] immunizations.”
However, Dr. Staiger adds that the regulations for technicians vary by state, with some states requiring techs to be certified, registered, or licensed (and a few not requiring anything at all). Make sure you don’t invest the time and money into taking the PTCE if it’s not the right step forward in your state; you can check the PTCB’s state regulations map for specific info.
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Finally, know what you need to do before registering to take the exam. According to Zachary Green, CPhT, associate director of Partnership Development at the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board (PTCB), you need to complete a PTCB-Recognized Education/Training Program or have equivalent work experience as a pharmacy technician (500 hours minimum).
You’ll also need to disclose all criminal and State Board of Pharmacy registration or licensure actions, and be a resident of the U.S. or its territories to be eligible.
Now that you’re ready to hit the books, use these 8 expert-recommended tips to improve your study process.
1. Make a study plan
This is one of those times when you don’t want to “wing it” before a big test, says Dr. Staiger: “It’s important to create a study plan and stick to it, making sure to cover all of the content areas and practicing with sample questions—breaking down how you will spend your preparation time is key to success.”
Speaking of content areas, it pays to know how the PTCE is divided so you can devote the right amount of time to each one. Green says there are four knowledge domains that make up the exam’s content areas:
- Medications, 40%
- Federal Requirements, 12.5%
- Patient Safety and Quality Assurance, 26.25%
- Order Entry and Processing, 21.25%
2. Identify your knowledge gaps
Using what you know about the content areas covered by the exam, Green suggests reviewing the exam outline (found here) and picking out any knowledge areas you’re less familiar with. Then, he says, you can use the PTCE Practice Bank to create groups of questions based on those knowledge areas. This will help you study smarter, focusing your attention on your current gaps in knowledge.
3. Take practice tests
Speaking of the PTCE’s Practice Bank, Dr. Staiger strongly recommends preparing for the exam by taking practice tests: “This will give you a feel for the types of questions you’ll face, how they’re formatted, and how to manage your time.”
To take a practice test, you can use an exam prep book or take the Pre-PTCE exam available on the PTCB website for $29. The Pre-PTCE exam, Dr. Staiger explains, is a simulation of the real PTCE; it includes questions that were previously used on the actual exam, is designed to look and feel just like the real thing, and provides explanations for the answers at the end to help you understand where you need to improve.
4. Brush up on your math skills
If you don’t already know, math skills are a key component to any pharmacy career. These skills are highlighted in the “order entry and processing” domain of the exam, though Dr. Staiger says it’s important to be prepared for math calculations that could come up in any category.
“As a pharmacy technician instructor, I know that math and calculations are often the most intimidating part of the course and exam for students who haven’t used these techniques in years,” says Dr. Staiger. “A little refresher and consistent practice can go a long way.”
5. Give yourself enough time to prepare
If you’re wondering how long you need to study for the PTCE, unfortunately there’s no single answer. Dr. Staiger says it’s dependent on several factors, such as prior work experience as a pharmacy technician, math skills, and learning style. While some people could cram in all the info they need in just a couple of weeks, other people will need to slowly build their knowledge base over a longer period of time.
As a general guideline, Dr. Staiger suggests setting aside at least four to six weeks to study if you’re looking to feel confidently prepared.
6. Focus on federal regulations
One thing that can trip people up when taking the exam is forgetting its focus on federal—not state—regulations. Dr. Staiger says some of his former students, especially when already working as pharmacy techs in a particular state, have mistaken a state regulation for a federal one. Make sure you know the difference and focus only on federal regulations.
7. Utilize memorization tools
The largest knowledge domain on the PTCE is “medications,” which Dr. Staiger says includes things like generic drug names, medication classifications, common and dangerous drug interactions, and administration instructions. With literally thousands of prescription drugs on the U.S. market, it isn’t possible to memorize every fact about every single drug that exists—but you can study smarter, not harder, by utilizing memorization tricks and tools.
“Consider using exam prep resources like books and materials that provide memorization techniques and ways to simplify the information,” advises Dr. Staiger. “For instance, grouping similar drugs by their suffix—such as all [statin drugs] ending in ‘-statin’ like atorvastatin, simvastatin, and lovastatin, can make them easier to remember.”
8. Stay up-to-date with changes
The last time the PTCE was updated was on January 1, 2020, says Green, who adds that the exam changes on an as-needed basis, based on data generated by the PTCB’s Job Task Analysis (which is performed every five to seven years). Make sure you’re using relatively current exam prep materials, so you don’t study information that’s out of date, or accidentally put too much—or not enough—emphasis on the current content areas of the exam.
“In recent years, there has been a particular emphasis on patient safety and mathematical calculations,” says Dr. Staiger, “so those should be prioritized as well [as medications] when studying.”
The bottom line
The PTCE is a tough exam, but it’s not impossible to pass. If you take your preparation seriously, commit to studying the knowledge domains, and practice your test-taking skills, you can walk away from your first exam attempt ready to show off your shiny new CPhT.
And if you don’t pass on the first try, that’s okay, too: you can retake the PTCE as many times as you need to in order to pass, though there is a six-month waiting period after the third attempt and additional restrictions about how often you can take the exam in a 12-month period (so make sure you brush up on the PTCB’s retake policy).