DPT applying custom fabricated knee brace

By 2020, all new physical therapists will require a DPT degree to practice.

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.

There are 3 necessary prerequisites for becoming a licensed 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.

Step 1: Undergraduate Degree in the Sciences (Pre-PT)

University admissions staff seek applicants with solid high school grades and a genuine interest in pursuing a health profession. It’s important to know you do not have to declare yourself as pre-PT in the beginning and you can be pre-PT as an undergraduate in any major. However, certain majors can better prepare students for this field. Learn about the best undergrad major for PT school.


You’ll be required to take specific prerequisite courses before applying to a PT graduate program – some of these courses will already be part of your undergraduate major curriculum. Odds of getting accepted can improve significantly if you have volunteer or work experience in a physical therapy setting. Also, it is important to obtain good recommendation letters from science teachers, physical therapists and other healthcare professionals. A cumulative GPA of 3.3 or greater is what’s needed for you to be a competitive applicant.

As a physical therapist, a major component of your work will consist of teaching patients and their loved ones about the therapy process and what to expect. Since you’ll be speaking directly with men and women from a wide range of cultures and lifestyles, diverse liberal arts courses are encouraged as part of your undergraduate studies.

Furthermore, you should take classes that enable you to build strong abilities in both spoken and written communication, critical reasoning, interpersonal communication, and basic computation. Most importantly, a comprehensive course load in the biological and physical sciences is essential in forming the foundation for your graduate degree physical therapy education.

Step 2: Graduate Physical Therapy Program

U.S. physical therapy programs now come in only one favor: the DPT. 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 current PTs who hold a bachelor’s or master’s in physical therapy.

PT school focuses on applied health sciences, beginning with fundamental classes in biology, physics, chemistry, statistics, anatomy and physiology, and psychology. Your learning will advance towards more and more focused courses including exercise physiology, kinesiology, biomechanics, pathophysiology, research methodology, abnormal psychology and therapeutic methods and techniques.

Your entire learning and training in a graduate physical therapy program will not occur in the university classroom exclusively. Much emphasis is stressed on using what you’ve learned from textbooks and your professors to actual physical rehabilitation scenarios. Depending on the location and situation, you’ll be observing or actually be permitted to perform hands-on while being under close supervision.

A great deal of time will be spent watching qualified physical therapists perform procedures in different clinical situations and environments. Evidence-based treatment will be a huge part of your training. Exposure and experience like this is an integral part of the learning process. Furthermore, it will assist you in identifying the specific work setting and field of PT to pursue following graduation. Just like the majority of medical professions, a PT’s learning never ends. In staying up to date with the latest in rehabilitation science and industry progressions, anticipate taking numerous continuing education classes and seminars during the course of your career.

Step 3: Certification/Licensure as a Physical Therapist

After graduation from a CAPTE-accredited program, you’ll be allowed to sit for the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Prior to being permitted to work as a professional PT, you’ll be required to effectively pass this examination – a criteria of every state in the United States and Puerto Rico. Certain states have additional prerequisites that vary, like specific amounts of continuing education hours and compliance training to obtain a license to practice.

Infographic: How To Become a Physical Therapist

Have a look at the following infographic to find out more about how to get started on your career in physical therapy and what to expect once you become a physical therapist.

Infographic showing information related to a career in physical therapy.

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.


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