3 Steps To Becoming a Physical Therapist

A DPT supervising his PT assistant while she supports patient during a balance modality.

Whether you’re in high school or college, or a non-traditional student looking to change careers, here’s a straightforward overview of the steps needed to become a physical therapist.

  • Undergraduate Bachelor’s degree from a 4-year academic institution (preferably in a movement science-related major, but any major is fine).
  • Post-bachelor’s Doctoral degree in physical therapy from a CAPTE-accredited program.
  • Passing the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) and becoming licensed in your state of practice.

Keep reading to learn more about these steps and to find out key information on the profession.

Step 1: Undergraduate Degree and Prerequisites

All physical therapy schools require that applicants hold a bachelor’s degree; doesn’t necessarily have to be in a science subject – any major is accepted as long as pre-PT prerequisite courses are completed. There are quite a few particular classes that you have to take as requirement, which you can take while completing your undergraduate degree or as a non-degree seeking student if you’ve already graduated with a bachelor’s.

Certain majors may fulfill some of these PT program prerequisite courses as part of its core curriculum – otherwise, these classes have to be taken as electives or after undergrad as post-baccalaureate classes. For example, Exercise Science majors usually are required to take Anatomy & Physiology and Chemistry I as part of their coursework – which also counts towards a portion of meeting PT school prereq’s.

Also, know that some undergrad programs offer pre-physical therapy tracks designed to set you up for faster entry into a DPT program.

5 Prerequisites for Getting into PT School

1. Minimum 3.0 GPA is usually required, though some programs will accept lower. If you hold multiple degrees, the GPA of your most recent completed degree is used for your application. If your undergraduate GPA is below 3.0, but you have completed a graduate degree with a GPA of 3.0 or higher, it will count as meeting the minimum 3.0 GPA requirement.

2. Taking and completing all required courses prior to enrolling. Most schools still allow you to apply if you haven’t completed all the prerequisite classes at the time of application – as long as the classes are completed before starting the PT program you will be good.

3. Graduate Record Examination (GRE) score must be from within the past 5 years to be considered valid for application.

4. Make sure to completely fill out the application forms for the programs you’re applying to. Many schools use the Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) which allows you to fill out only one application and submit it to multiple schools.

5. Work experience in a physical therapy setting as a volunteer (or employee) under the direction of a licensed PT is highly recommended and for some PT programs required. There is no minimum number of hours, however it’s necessary to convey your knowledge of the role of a physical therapist in your application and any interviews. At minimum, 50-100 hours of experience/observation in one or two physical therapy practice settings is good for most programs. If you attend or live near a university or college that has a PT program, you’ll likely be more than welcome to visit and speak with the faculty members and coordinate to sit-in on a class or two as a means of showing and researching your interest in becoming a PT.

Required Courses

The following prerequisite courses are just a general guideline and will vary depending on the DPT programs to which you’re applying. You of course should contact each school to find out the exact set of prereqs:

  • Chemistry I and II w/ labs or equivalent
  • General College Physics w/ lab or equivalent
  • Anatomy and Physiology w/ lab or equivalent
  • Exercise Physiology w/ lab or equivalent
  • Introduction to Applied Statistics or equivalent
  • 2 courses in Psychology or Sociology

For most DPT programs, all prereqs need to be taken for a grade with a minimum of a “B” or 3.0 in each course. If you have completed the required classes more than 10 years ago, you may be required to provide a letter explaining how you have kept this prerequisite knowledge current.

All application materials are due by a specified date in the year prior to enrollment into the physical therapy program. Again, it’s usually not an issue to be taking prerequisite classes while applying, however they must all be completed before enrollment. The admissions staff of physical therapy programs take into account the overall applicant.

Acceptance is based on a good balance between undergraduate GPA, GRE scores, comprehension of the PT profession, application essay and details from your personal references. To improve your chances of being accepted into a DPT program, you have to make sure to meet all the minimum criteria and present a well-rounded application.



Pre-PT Degree Options

Biology and majors under the umbrella of health science, such as exercise science, kinesiology and athletic training tend to be the most popular fields of undergraduate study for students entering into PT school. This is because the curriculum offered by these majors provide a great foundation for learning physical therapy. Any bachelor’s degree is fine for applying once you’ve taken the necessary pre-PT coursework.

Simply put, you’re not required to major in a health or science related area to get into a DPT program. For example, a prospective student could major in art history and take the prerequisite PT school courses while studying art. Pursuing a major outside of health science or biology may take longer since courses required for PT school, such as Anatomy & Physiology and Physics, are usually not part of the core curriculum, whereas they typically are with health science/bio degrees. This is something to consider if time and money are important factors.

What is most crucial is earning a high grade-point-average in your chosen degree and pre-PT courses (ideally 3.3 GPA and above for more competitive DPT programs).

Is Exercise Science the Best Pre-PT Degree?

An Exercise Science bachelor’s degree is chosen by many students pursuing PT school since its core curriculum includes coursework in the biological and physical sciences (i.e. anatomy, physiology, physics, chemistry) as well as applied health science subjects (i.e. exercise physiology, kinesiology, strength & conditioning). This ideal fusion of science education provides invaluable groundwork for going into many medical and allied health professional schools, in particular physical therapy.

A good number of colleges & universities offer Exercise Science degrees with pre-physical therapy concentration to ready students for streamlined application to a physical therapy program after graduation. These programs are designed to offer undergrads a nice advantage towards getting into a PT program and excelling once matriculated.

List of Pre-PT Programs

While you can be “pre-PT” at any accredited 4-year school, here are undergraduate institutions specifically offering pre-PT as a major by itself or an Exercise Science major with pre-PT concentration. We will be updating this list as needed – please feel free to contact us with your school information if you do not see your program listed below.

Step 2: Graduate from a DPT Program

img100_dpt-studentOver the past decade, the two degrees most commonly granted to become a PT have been the Master of Physical Therapy (MPT) and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). However, U.S. physical therapy programs now come in only one flavor: the DPT. You can read more about the MPT to DPT change here.

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) made it a requirement for all American schools to offer only the DPT degree program by 2017 – a goal met 3 years in advance. Also, more colleges and universities are going to be offering transitional doctor of physical therapy (tDPT) degree programs for practicing PTs who hold a bachelor’s or master’s in this field.

PT education must be obtained from a 3-year CAPTE (Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education) accredited DPT program in order to be eligible to earn the necessary credentials to practice. Some programs are actually slightly under three years.

On top of coursework or didactic education, PT students are required to do multiple medical facility rotations to gain clinical experience in various areas of patient rehabilitation. Evidence-based treatment will be a huge part of your training. This exposure and experience is an integral part of the learning process. Furthermore, it will help you in determining the specific work setting and field of PT you wish to pursue following graduation. Training beyond this is optional and is offered in the form of residency programs that take an additional 12 months or more depending on specialty, which include sports medicine, cardiopulmonary and pediatrics. Fellowships are also available (typically following a residency) to bring specialty field expertise to the highest level.


Step 3: Obtain Licensure to Practice

Each of the 50 states mandate that PTs have a license to practice; all requiring graduates to pass the NPTE (National Physical Therapy Examination) and possibly fulfilling other criteria (such as compliance training) depending on the particular state. (You’ll be eligible to sit for the NPTE exam after graduation.) To maintain licensure, most states require its physical therapists to meet continuing education (CE) requirements every 1 or 2 years to ensure they keep up-to-date on current standards of care in the profession. The CE requirements can vary widely by state with some states presenting no criteria at all.

Getting to Know the PT Profession

img0099_ptPhysical therapy has become a popular career choice for many students that have a degree in exercise science and also those coming from a different background, but interested in movement science. In absolute terms, whether PT is is the “best” career related to this field is completely subjective.

However, in terms of job security it’s hard to argue against it not being at the top. A whopping 36 percent growth in employment has been slated for physical therapists over the decade between 2012 and 2022, with a salary approximately 56% higher than the national average for all occupations.

Aside from pay, job security and being able to work in a field heavily rooted in exercise science, it’s an excellent choice for those looking for an intrinsic benefit from the positive impact they make in the lives of people they work with.

Definition and (Very Brief) History

The ultimate objective of physical therapy is to bring back motor functionality as close to a normative state as attainable for patients to carry out activities of daily living without discomfort and limitations. In the case of patients with permanent disabilities, the goal is to help them function more efficiently.

The APTA (American Physical Therapy Association) describes a physical therapist as a…

“Health care professional; who maintains, restores, and improves movement, activity, and health, enabling individuals of all ages to have optimal functioning and quality of life while ensuring patient safety and applying evidence to provide efficient and effective care.”

Spanning the better part of a century, the progression of this occupation (which began in the early 1900’s largely in response to the 1916 polio outbreak) has seen academic/training criteria reformed significantly from early reconstruction aide training programs to the current standards of doctoral-level education and state licensure.

General Walk-Through of What a PT Does

When physical therapists see a new client, they set in motion the rehabilitation process by reviewing patient records and results of recent medical examinations, as well as collecting new information on the patient’s health & lifestyle behavior, occupation, and primary areas of discomfort.

Then, the PT performs a thorough qualitative and quantitative assessment of the patient that measures musculoskeletal and neurological components to gauge current functionality. After this, the therapist will ascertain to which degree any may impact the person’s capacity to complete life tasks on a day-to-day basis. PTs may also use highly specified manual diagnostic tests, such as anterior and posterior drawer for shoulder or knee, to determine the degree of impairment the patient has and the best course of treatment.

Common treatments solutions typically consist of various therapeutic exercise modalities, home exercises, custom brace/support apparatus fabrication, and applied therapeutic modalities such as electrical muscle stimulation, hydrotherapy and ultrasound.

Apart from rehabilitating patients, some physical therapists have the potential to assume other job functions in other areas including facility/department management, clinical research, and academia.


Key Personality Traits

There are a number of necessary attributes to both successfully work as and enjoy being a physical therapist. One of the key personality traits would be compassion. PTs tend to have as part of their career ambition an eagerness to help people. The majority of them sincerely care about their patients making the best recovery possible.

It is also crucial to be analytical or meticulous with details. For example, a seemingly small piece of information in a patient’s health record could determine the course of rehabilitation; therefore, PTs have to be cognizant of any pre-existing health risk factors or conditions throughout the patient assessment and treatment phases.

Additionally, professional communication abilities are integral due to the fact that you must form a good rapport with patients to be able to obtain information and feedback, as well as effectively communicating with other health care professionals.

Last but not least, muscular strength, endurance and coordination is important for physically assisting and supporting patients during various modalities.

Employment Outlook and Pay

The average salary of physical therapists as published by BLS.gov in 2015 was a little over $82,000 or about $40 per hour. From 2012 to 2022 PT jobs have been projected to climb by 73,500. Much of the demand is the result of aging baby boom generation (people born between 1946 and 1964) that are staying physically active much longer than past generations.

Like any other profession, there can be substantial differences in salary based upon experience. How much you earn is also reliant upon the following factors: your geographic location, the facility where you’re employed, your employment status (i.e. salaried, per diem, travel PT) and whether you’re a general PT or specialist.

Initially, the 1st physical therapy job you have right out of school will most likely earn you a salary somewhere between $55,000 and $65,000 based largely on your location. However, it’s important to take note there is much room for earning potential growth which you can look forward to as a PT with salaries just north of $100,000 being possible.

Infograph: How Much Do PTs Make? (2015)

Infographic displaying recent (2015) physical therapist salary and employment statistics.
Click to enlarge

The Physical Therapy Assistant Option

Looking to work in the physical therapy field in under 2 years? Want to get work experience before becoming a PT? If you said yes to any of these questions, then becoming a physical therapy assistant (PTA) may be a good choice. Learn more about the requirements to become a PTA.

  • http://totalbodynj.com/ chiropractors nj

    Thanks for sharing! It would be great if you created a post similar to this on the subject of becoming a chiropractor. We need more GOOD chiropractors in the world!

  • lovelychic

    This was quite helpful. You laid out the steps bluntly, which was exactly what I need. Thank you!

  • http://www.exercise-science-guide.com Exercise Science Guide staff

    No problem, glad you found this information useful and good luck with your studies!

  • Emil

    Hey thanks a lot for the info :) , mmm lets say i study sport science for 3 years thn i can continue to DPT and all of this would take 6-7 years right ? and after DPT degree do i need to specialize ? and how many years that would take. plzz replyy

  • http://www.exercise-science-guide.com Exercise Science Guide staff

    No problem Emil, glad this article was helpful. You are correct in order to obtain your DPT you must first complete 3-4 years of undergrad and then 3 years of physical therapy school at the grad level. Once you have your DPT you can certainly go for a specialty. Physical Therapy offers numerous options from sports, to women’s health, geriatrics, neurology and pediatrics. To find more information on the specialties and the certification requirements please visit the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) website at http://www.abpts.org.

  • Cristina Bracamonte

    Specialization is not a requirement to becoming a PT. Most training for specialization involves a residency program and taking ABPTS exam. This is definitely a more recent trend with recent graduates, but many physical therapists do chose to stay generalists. These programs are 12-18 months length, involving mentorship, advanced coursework, clinical and research work. With successful complete of the residency you can become eligible to sit for the exam. Another route is to complete so many hours of clinical practice with a particular demographic in order to sit for a specialty exam. Just so you know, there are also fellowship opportunities after residency completion, usually 1 year which can further hone your skills and prepare you for research and or teaching roles.

  • http://www.exercise-science-guide.com Exercise Science Guide staff

    Thanks Cristina for providing this information! This clears up some of the confusion surrounding how to specialize after graduating from an entry-level DPT program.

  • 3rd year PT student

    I just wanted to correct a piece of information. The APTA does not administer any type of certification exam. After graduation, a graduate must take a licensure exam which is administered by the federal board of physical therapy. It is a completely seperate entity from the professions national organization.

  • Aaron

    I am currently a junior in high school and this information was greatly helpful. most places I have looked for information have kept working around the basic steps saying “well, it depends” hank you for the main steps and information.

  • exsciguide

    Thank you for that very important clarification! Congratulations on shortly becoming a PT : )

  • Grant

    Hey I’m currently a high school student looking for potential careers in this field. Any advice from current Pt and also college suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks for the support!

  • Jay

    If you major in pre physical therapy as a undergraduate won’t it only be 2 years for the doctorate program?

  • JD

    I think DPT programs are completely separate from undergrad in that all take about 3 years to complete – even if you were “pre-PT” as an undergrad. Can anyone else verify this?

  • http://www.empowereddoctor.com/5989/physical-therapy-center-new-jersey/ Julia Connars

    Very interesting..Physical therapy is becoming a very popular choice amongst students given its ample opportunities and good payout.