How To Become a Physical Therapy Assistant

Fresh PT assistant graduate going over therapy modalities with patient recovering from knee surgery.

Physical therapy assistants (PTAs) assist physical therapists (PTs) and other professional rehabilitation staff as they treat clients who have suffered a painful or immobilizing injury or illness. CAPTE (the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education) accredits two-year Associate of Science (A.S.) and Applied Science (A.A.S.) programs that balance lecture and discussion with hands-on learning.

These programs also include supervised clinical practicums in settings where physical therapy takes place. Your course work will likely include study in anatomy and physiology, human development, kinesiology (the study of human motion), math (often college algebra), pathology (the study of disease), psychology, rehabilitative exercise, and therapeutic techniques and procedures.

Intro to PT Assisting

PTAs are able to carry out physical therapy treatments and associated responsibilities that have been assigned and permitted by the overseeing PT. However, the PTA may revise a particular therapy technique in correspondence with adjustments in patient condition as long as it’s inside the range of the therapy program set up by the PT in charge. PTAs tend to work more closely and spend more time with patients than PTs.

They may also perform basic supervisory and administrative duties such as oversight of a PT Aide and keeping track of patients’ progress. Competency of the PTA in completing designated and authorized activities is continually evaluated by the overseeing PT.

Infographic: An Overview of the Profession

Here is a pictograph profile of a PTA, including general career information and the most recent occupational statistics:


(click above image to enlarge)

Path of Education for PT Assistants

The 2 years a PTA program takes to complete includes all coursework and clinical education. This typically equates to 5 semesters at 15 credits per semester on average – 74 to 75 credits overall. Most of your time (approximately 75%) will be devoted to in-class learning (didactic portion), with the remainder (approximately 25%) being dedicated to clinical “hands on” training. Overall, the blend of academic and clinical teaching improves the student’s capacity to link learned principles to therapeutic practice in the field.

Classroom/Lab Learning

The classroom is where you will study and be tested on underlying sciences related to the human body and its movement as well as the fundamentals of physical therapy assisting. Applied coursework will make use of what you learn in basic health science courses and will equip you with the required understanding of the abilities need in performing therapeutic modalities and patient assessment across a large range of diagnoses and patients.

The purpose of lab is to apply what you have been taught during lecture through active learning and practice in a controlled setting. This is where you start to develop your applied science and therapeutic clinical skills.

Example PTA Curriculum

There will be courses related to most, if not all, of the following subject areas. Some key courses, such as A&P and those involving clinical procedures, may be spread out through multiple semesters. The asterix (*) denotes classes that usually involve a lab or practical component.

  • Algebra or Statistics
  • Anatomy and Physiology*
  • Clinical Practice and Discussion*
  • Critical Thinking
  • Disabilities and Pathology*
  • English Composition
  • Interpersonal Communication
  • Intro to Physical Therapy*
  • Kinesiology*
  • Medical Terminology
  • Physics*
  • Psychology
  • Therapeutic and Rehabilitation Procedures*

It should go without saying, but it’s of utmost importance to be 100% on-point and attentive during class and lab. You have to maintain a consistent and rigorous study schedule all throughout PTA school. Your performance and degree of comprehension early on will directly affect your ability to succeed in subsequent courses and eventually your career. Some programs even require you get a B or higher in most, if not all, classes. Given the tight, fast-paced 2-year curriculum required to become a physical therapist assistant, every course counts and there really is no room for error or circling back. So, make sure you do things right the first time around! Your future depends on it!

Clinical Training

The clinical part of your training to become a PTA usually begins in the 3rd semester and runs through your 5th or final semester (you’ll still be taking classroom-based courses during this time). Referred to in your curriculum as ‘clinical practice’, ‘clinical education’, ‘clinical practicum’ or ‘internship’, these courses are usually 4-5 credits each due to the amount of time, effort and work involved. It’s a huge part of your preparation in transitioning from student to physical therapist assistant after graduation.

Clinical training basically involves practicing what you’ve learned from class and lab in real-world settings such as regional hospitals, rehabilitation clinics and nursing care facilities. You’ll work under the direction of a clinical instructor or CI (either a PT or PTA) – who in turn will provide guidance, teachings, advice and feedback on your entry-level performance.

PTA programs differ from school to school and some programs may use the lab time to perform more practical applications. Please keep in mind curricula specifics will vary by school and know that it’s important to research the details for the programs you wish to apply.

Requirements for Applying to PT Assistant School

The following is a list of minimum requirements needed for applying to PTA school. This is a general guideline, make sure to check with the schools to which you are applying for exact criteria.

1. Take the ACT or SAT and submit your scores. They may be supplied on an official high school or college transcript. Some programs have a state-mandated entrance exam – for example, certain schools in Alabama require you to take the COMPASS assessment exam. Some require a passing score on the Wonderlic GAIN test.

2. As low as a 2.0 grade point average in the prerequisite courses listed below. Some schools require 2.5, yet others a 2.75 GPA.

3. Completely fill out applications for the PT Assistant schools you’re applying to. (This may seem obvious, but leaving even one question incomplete, whatever the reason, can reflect poorly with admissions committees).

4. Provide official transcripts from all high schools and colleges you have attended in the past. A plan for completion of all remaining prerequisites prior to matriculation into the program, and a list of the courses in which the applicant is currently enrolled must also be submitted with the program application.

5. Most schools require an experience form which chronicles between 10-50 hours of volunteering/observing first-hand, treatment on patients administered by a Physical Therapist or Physical Therapy Assistant. Some programs may require your observation take place in a minimum of 2 different locations. Additional observation hours and volunteer or actual work experience in a PT setting as an aide is preferred. Records of your hours will need to include the signature of an overseeing physician, PT or PT Assistant.

6. Provide 2 or more references from people that have no relation to you.

Some PTA programs will have additional forms, including supplementary applications containing essay questions, you must fill out to complete your application.

Prerequisite Courses

The prerequisite courses that have to be completed prior to enrollment into a PT Assistant program are typically a combination or all of the following

  • Biology I
  • Anatomy and Physiology I and II
  • English I
  • Intro to Psychology
  • Medical Terminology
  • a Communications related course, and
  • College Algebra or Statistics (or other math-related course)

Again, what’s specifically required depends on and varies with each program. At the latest, these classes usually can be taken the semester right before matriculation, however applicants fulfilling all courses before interviews may have an advantage.

Choosing a PTA Program

Make sure the PTA programs of the schools you’re applying to are accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. This organization is the only accrediting body for both PTs and PTAs. To be a candidate to sit for the PTA licensing exam, which is actually administered by the FSBPT (Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy), you must have graduated from a program approved by CAPTE. Also, do research on the ones you’re interested in. You should care about things like the percentage of grads that pass their PTA licensure exam the first time and all healthcare organization affiliations a program has.

CAPTE-Accredited Programs

The purpose of CAPTE is to assure all PTA curricula across the nation meet the high standards set by the organization. This helps maintain consistency in the quality of coursework/clinical education and how they are taught, in turn ensuring each graduate is a qualified physical therapist assistant. For more information, including a list of accredited schools, you can visit CAPTE’s website.

Know Where You’re Headed

The best thing to do is head on over to the websites of the schools that you’re interested in and check out the details on how their PTA program is organized, including admissions requirements and more importantly graduation, licensure exam pass and employment rates. This works to both the advantage of the school and to the advantage of the possible student by way of showing success rate statistics.

Knowing the success rate a program’s graduates beforehand is crucial since it’s a good reflection of the quality of the program itself. If not published on their webpage, call the school to inquire about the percentage of students that pass the PTA licensure exam and are hired right after graduation. You can contact the FSBT for access to this information as well. After all, the whole point of you going to school is to be as well-prepared as possible and secure employment as a PTA once you have you’re diploma in hand!

Comments are closed.