Are you considering a career as a respiratory therapist? If so, you’re probably wondering just how difficult respiratory therapy school is.
Here’s the thing: it’s not easy. But it’s also not impossible.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the most important factors to consider about the difficulty of respiratory therapy school. This will help you decide if it’s the right path for you.
Why is Respiratory Therapy School Hard?
So, what’s the verdict? Is respiratory therapy school hard?
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Each person’s experience in respiratory therapy school will be unique. And each person’s definition of “hard” will be different.
However, the answer for most students is an astounding “yes”!
While each student’s experience is different, most would agree that respiratory therapy school is objectively difficult and can be challenging at times. Here are some of the main reasons why:
- Difficult coursework
- Clinical rotations
- Skill checkoffs
- Weekly exams
- Must treat critically sick patients
- Must learn life-saving skills
- Cost of attendance
- Must pass two board exams
- Respiratory therapy school requires balance
Now let’s explore each of these reasons why respiratory therapy school is hard in a little more detail. These are definitely things to consider before enrolling in a program.
1. Difficult Coursework
One of the biggest reasons why respiratory therapy school is hard is due to the difficulty of the courses that students are required to take. This includes:
- Cardiopulmonary A&P
- Mechanical ventilation
- Patient assessment
- Neonatal and pediatric care
- Pulmonary function testing
Respiratory therapy is a science-based profession; therefore, students must develop a strong understanding of human anatomy and physiology before even entering the program.
It doesn’t get any easier from there. In fact, the complexity of the coursework only gets more difficult as students progress through the program. This is especially true once students begin learning about subjects like the principles of mechanical ventilation.
However, students can find some relief in the fact that most respiratory therapy programs are structured in a way that allows them to gradually increase their knowledge and skills over time.
2. Clinical Rotations
In addition to the difficult coursework, students in respiratory therapy school are also required to complete clinical rotations.
For those who don’t know, clinical rotations are basically hands-on training experiences that take place in real healthcare settings. This could be anything from a hospital to a nursing home or even an outpatient clinic.
During these rotations, students will work with patients of all ages, from neonates to the elderly. And they’ll be responsible for tasks like:
- Assessing patients
- Performing diagnostic tests
- Administering therapy
- Monitoring patients
- Documenting patient care
Clinical rotations can be both challenging and rewarding. They’re a great opportunity for students to put their knowledge and skills to the test in a real-world setting.
However, they can also be stressful and demanding, especially when balancing them with exams and other assignments in respiratory therapy school. Not to mention, students are constantly being evaluated by their preceptors (clinical instructors).
So, it’s important that students give it their all and perform to the best of their abilities. That is because clinical rotations are basically an extended job interview, starting from the very first day.
3. Skill Checkoffs
While balancing coursework and clinical rotations, respiratory therapy students are also required to complete skill checkoffs.
For those who don’t know, a skill checkoff is an evaluation of a student’s ability to perform a certain clinical skill. This includes all the basic skills of a respiratory therapist, from administering oxygen therapy to intubating a patient.
Students must demonstrate competency in all required skills in order to progress through the program. And the hard part is that they have limited opportunities to do so.
4. Weekly Exams
On top of everything else, respiratory therapy students are also required to take (and pass) weekly exams. Sometimes multiple exams fall in the same week, which can make things even more difficult.
These exams usually consist of multiple-choice questions and/or short answer questions. They cover material from lectures, labs, and clinical rotations. However, this may vary from one program to the next.
The point is that respiratory therapy students have a lot on their plate.
They have to juggle a lot of different responsibilities, and it can be challenging to stay on top of everything while studying for weekly exams.
5. Must Treat Critically Sick Patients
Respiratory therapists are often required to treat and care for critically ill patients who are very sick. This could be anything from a patient with pneumonia, COPD, or someone who has suffered a myocardial infarction (heart attack).
This part of the job is harder emotionally than it is physically.
It can be difficult to see patients suffering and sometimes even dying. But, it’s all part of the job and something that respiratory therapy students must be prepared for.
6. Must Learn Life-Saving Skills
Respiratory therapy students are required to learn skills that could potentially save a patient’s life. This means that, at times, they could be the difference between life and death for a patient. Some examples include:
- Managing a patient on the mechanical ventilator
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Administering emergency medications
- Assisting with a bronchoscopy
- Assisting with a tracheostomy
These are essential skills for respiratory therapy students to learn, which is often challenging for some. But, it’s also very rewarding to know that they have the ability to save someone’s life.
7. Cost of Attendance
The cost of attending respiratory therapy school can be quite expensive, depending on the program and state in which you plan to enroll.
On top of tuition, there are also other associated costs, such as books, supplies, tools, and room and board. This can add up quickly and put a financial strain on students, especially those who are paying for their own education.
Some programs offer scholarships and financial aid, which can help offset the cost of attendance. But, this is not always available or enough to cover the entire cost.
8. Must Pass Two Board Exams
In order to become a licensed respiratory therapist, students must pass two different board exams offered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC):
Students must pass both exams in order to obtain their license and credentials to practice respiratory care. This is easier said than done for some, as both exams are extremely difficult and require a lot of preparation.
Thankfully, thousands of students have been able to use our test prep materials to prepare for (and pass) the exams. However, the difficulty level of passing both exams is something that all prospective students must consider before enrolling.
9. Respiratory Therapy School Requires Balance
One of the hardest things about respiratory therapy school is that students must balance everything that is thrown their way. This includes many of the things that were already mentioned in this article, such as:
- Clinical rotations
- Skill checkoffs
- Preparing for the board exams
It can be difficult to find the time to do everything that is required, especially when you factor in a personal life outside of school.
Therefore, the ability to balance everything in respiratory therapy school is an essential skill that students must develop.
Is Becoming a Respiratory Therapist Worth It?
Despite the challenges that come along with respiratory therapy school, most respiratory therapists would agree that it is definitely worth it.
This is because the career itself is very rewarding, both emotionally and financially.
Respiratory therapists have the opportunity to make a positive impact on the lives of their patients and their families. They also enjoy a good salary and job security, as the demand for respiratory therapists is expected to grow in the coming years.
Can You Work While in Respiratory Therapy School?
Many students ask if they can work while attending respiratory therapy school. The answer is yes, but it’s not always easy.
Working while in school can help offset some of the costs associated with the respiratory therapy program. But, it can also be difficult to find the time to do both.
Respiratory therapy school on its own is already a lot to handle, so students must carefully consider if working is something that they can realistically do. If you excel at time management, then you can definitely make it work.
However, remember that you will need to balance studying for exams and clinical rotations with a work schedule. I did it as a student, so it’s definitely possible. Just know that it’s not for everyone.
So, is respiratory therapy school hard? For most, the answer is an emphatic yes.
But it’s also important to remember that the difficulty level of respiratory therapy school varies from person to person.
It depends on your perspective and your definition of “hard.” But one thing is for sure: respiratory therapy school is definitely not easy.
It will take hard work, dedication, and determination to succeed.
But if you’re up for the challenge, then respiratory therapy school can be an immensely rewarding experience. You’ll learn a lot, make new friends, and develop skills that will help you become a successful respiratory therapist throughout your career.
But if you’re not sure if you’re ready for the challenge, that’s OK, too. There’s no shame in taking some time to think about it. You want to be sure that you’re making the right decision for yourself.
Whatever you decide, we wish you the best of luck in your journey. If you want to learn more, check out our guide on how to become a respiratory therapist.
John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.
- Faarc, Kacmarek Robert PhD Rrt, et al. Egan’s Fundamentals of Respiratory Care. 12th ed., Mosby, 2020.
- “What Is An RT?” AARC, 12 Sept. 2019, www.aarc.org/careers/what-is-an-rt.
- “The National Board for Respiratory Care.” The National Board for Respiratory Care, www.nbrc.org. Accessed 18 Dec. 2020.
- “Respiratory Therapists : Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 10 May 2022, www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/respiratory-therapists.htm.