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A Comprehensive Guide On How To Navigate Your Path To Physical Therapy School

Are you considering a career as a physical therapist? If you are, you may have a million and one questions running through your mind right now. Do I have what it takes to be a physical therapist? Are there physical therapy schools near me? Do I have to relocate? Can I afford it? These are just some of the questions that answering will play a crucial part in your career path.

The field of physical therapy enjoys a rich and vibrant history of innovation and evolution, from the earlier days when certification in reconstructive aides was offered to the adaptation of the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree, the associate degree in PT assistants, and even post-professional residency for physiotherapists.

This comprehensive article will explore physiotherapy as a career option and help you better understand this field. Keep reading to discover the requirements, benefits, and what it takes to graduate from a physical therapy school.

a group of students participating in various physical therapy programs

Prerequisites and Admission Process

Physical therapy school prerequisites and admission processes vary between different programs. However, most programs are alike as they require some similar college classes that you must have before accepting you.

With the prerequisites, you shouldn’t assume that since you majored in exercise science or biology, your admission is guaranteed.

Currently, there are over 170 physical therapy programs on the Physical Therapy Centralized Application Services (PTCAS) list, and you can check on the most recent prerequisites for each program.


an amazed young lady after receiving her PT school admission letter

Essential Prerequisites For Applying To Physical Therapy School

One thing to note is that these prerequisites might change at any time, and you should check from time to time if the PTCAS updates its list. Some of the core prerequisites for any PT program include the following:

  1. Chemistry 1,2 with lab
  2. Biology 1,2 (not zoology or botany)
  3. Statistics
  4. Behavioral/social sciences
  5. Physics 1,2 with lab
  6. Anatomy 1 with lab
  7. psychology
  8. Maths (some programs require a math class).

The exact number of semesters will solely depend on the program you choose.

Additionally, there are non-traditional ways to attain some prerequisites for your program. For instance, if you are an engineering major with statistics or physics, you can have your PT program take those into consideration as some of your prerequisites. All you have to do is attach your course description and transcripts to your admission email.

You should note that some Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs will only accept physiology or anatomy classes completed with neuroscience and biology integrated with their physiology department.

Some DPT programs may sometimes fail to accept anatomy and physiology classes completed in other departments, such as kinesiology. Therefore, checking the PTCAS directory and finding out the requirements of the DPT program you want to take before applying is vital.

Tips For Preparing A Competitive Application

When checking the prerequisites of your chosen program, it doesn’t mean that the school with fewer or more prerequisites is worse or better off than another.

Even though some programs don’t require biology, you will still need to understand significant body processes and cellular structures that a biology class covers. Just check the PT program, as it may cover biology in its anatomy or Physiology classes.

College applications have become quite competitive as most students want to further their education past high school. Also, there are many students with stellar high school resumes that most college admission committees would love to have in their colleges.

The available spots are getting fewer each year, and you might wonder how to make your application stand out. You don’t have to worry; with some pointers, you can have your application at the top of the list and a competitive edge over other applicants with extra work or effort. The following tips will help you.

a male student going through his field of physical therapy application form

Exceed The Prerequisites or Admission Requirements

When it comes to PT school admission, you must meet the requirements. You must gain a competitive edge as an applicant and exceed the minimum standards while ensuring your transcripts are of high quality.

Additionally, you must participate in extracurricular activities and maintain a good GPA. It’s crucial to remember to balance everything in your life; don’t take on too much, as this may lead to burnout.

Take your Academics Seriously Up To The Finish Line

If you think you can relax since you have time before fall doesn’t mean you go through your final year on autopilot. Even if your electives show interest, you must still work hard on your academics, Advanced Placement, college prep, and other crucial enrollment courses.

You can never be too prepared; you need to be ready to get to the finish line.

Finalize a School List

You can visit your ideal physical therapy school before you apply to ensure it meets your expectations.

If your schedule is hectic and you don’t have time to visit, you can take a virtual tour and access information online.

Having a list of several schools will help your chances of ending up in one of your choices.

While coming up with a list of ideal schools, factor in the following:

  • Size
  • Cost
  • Location
  • Campus culture
  • Academic programs

Start Applying Early

Applying early will help you get your documents ready, and reduce anxiety or contingencies that may come up.

You can tune your mindset to focus solely on your academic success, which allows you to show that you are a solid student who will be a great addition to any school that takes you in.

a group of students seeking more information on physical therapy degree

Let your Admission Essay Reflect Who You Are

When writing your admission essay or personal statement, let it shed light on who you are. This essay allows you to show the admission committees another side of you that is not covered or explained through your test scores.

Let your essay hook the admission committee from the first paragraph until the end, making them want you in their physical therapy program.

Reach Out And Connect With The College Admission Office

Reaching out to the school’s admission office before submitting your application gives you a competitive edge over the other students. If you have any questions, call the admission office and ask them.

Understanding the admission process and requirements

You can start your admission process by applying to the physical therapy school. Here’s how the admission process works.


The DPT requires you to complete two applications and submit them separately:

  1. PTCAS
  2. Supplemental Application (UCSF). For this application, you will need the instructions you receive after your PTCAS application submission.


Recommendation Letters

You will need at least three letters of recommendation from three people who know you and your abilities. One letter should be from a licensed physiotherapist. The other two letters you can get them from:

  • Health professionals
  • Employers
  • A primary science instructor.

Ensure you submit these recommendation letters through the PTCAS before the deadline.

a happy doctor of physical therapy degree student after receiving his recommendation letter

Clinical Experience

When applying for a DPT program, you must demonstrate your understanding of the physical therapy field by completing 50 clinical observation hours, either paid or voluntary.

To pass the clinical evaluation, you must work under the supervision of a licensed physiotherapist in an outpatient, inpatient, or rehab setting.

After completing these hours, send an electronic report to PTCAS before the application deadline elapses.

Choosing the Right Physical Therapy Program

The application process for most PT programs is expensive, and you must ensure you choose the right program. Conduct thorough research and only apply to a program you would take if the college accepts you.

In the U.S., most PT programs utilize PTCAS, an online portal that allows for easy PT program application. All you have to do is upload your information, making it easy to apply to several programs anytime.

When you log into the PTCAS portal, you will find the list of the programs. On the PTCAS page, you will find more information, such as contact information, start date, class size, deadline, requirements, etc.

Factors to consider when selecting a physical therapy school



The most crucial factor to consider when searching for a physical therapy school is accreditation. Ensure the program you are interested in is accredited by CAPTE (Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education).

CAPTE accreditation ensures your program meets specific guidelines and allows you to sit for exams (National Physical Therapy Examination NPTE)) and be licensed.

A physical therapist assisting an athlete after receiving an accreditation in physical therapy


When it comes to the curriculum, look for the following:

  • A program that has a balance between practice and theory
  • Diverse clinical education and rotations
  • Innovative teaching methodologies
  • Faculty expertise
  • Easy access to research materials
  • Research opportunities
  • A curriculum that incorporates evidence-based teaching methods and practices.
  • A supportive student learning environment (graduation rates, excellent faculty-to-student ratio, career services, and alumni network).
  • State-of-the-art facilities
  • Dedicated faculty

Curriculum and Clinical Practice

Most physical therapy schools mainly focus on the study of treatments and interventions that aim to improve patients’ dysfunctional movements. Your career as a DPT is based on the foundation of critical appraisal and scientific inquiry of already published work.

Your curriculum will incorporate clinical and classroom education regarding the dignity of your patients. You will participate in clinical practices that offer you critical learning opportunities. The DPT curriculum model is problem-oriented and integrates traditional case-based models.

Importance of hands-on experience and patient care

Having hands-on experience with patient care is a crucial step in your journey to becoming a physical therapist. You will develop the skills necessary to provide excellent physical therapy care to your patients.

Working directly with patients helps you to learn each patient’s unique needs and how to make a plan that addresses the individual patient’s unique needs.

As a physical therapist, you will learn to effectively build trust with your patients, convey information, and involve patients in healthcare decisions affecting their lifestyles.

When you deal directly with patients, you will not only hone your skills as a PT, but you will also cultivate empathy, which will allow you to provide your patients with holistic and compassionate care.

a physical therapist assistant helping with the rehabilitation of a patient and gaining clinical practice

Integration of theory and practical skills in physical therapy education

Physical therapy schools expect you to integrate the knowledge you receive at their institution (clinical and academic) to help understand human nature. Once you combine theory and practical skills, you can examine and apply all aspects of your expertise during physical therapy education.

Building a Successful Career as a Physical Therapist


As a physical therapist, you will closely work with patients when they are recovering from an injury, medical condition, or surgery. Your role will be to help patients regain their mobility through electrical stimulation, manual therapy, and strength exercises.

To succeed as a physical therapist, you need to cultivate the following traits consciously:

  • Be patient
  • Be realistic
  • Determination
  • Be resilient
  • Collaborate with other professionals
  • Be compassionate
  • Have integrity
  • Aspire to be knowledgeable
  • Be astute
  • Be respective
  • Be positive
  • Be communicative

Opportunities For Specialization And Advanced Practice In Physical Therapy

Although being a licensed physical therapist is a huge feat, it’s just the beginning of your career. If you aim to be the best physical therapist, you need to look forward to the next step. After all, your job involves asking patients to move to the next level one step at a time.

After earning your DPT and starting to work with patients in the field, you can strive to advance in your career. You may be looking into broadening your skill set or increasing your salary. There are several ways to achieve your goals.

Some of the ways you can advance your career include the following:

Completing a Post-Professional Program

You must complete a post-professional program through the American Board of Physical Therapy Residency Fellowship Education (ABPTRFE), which accredits physical therapy fellowship and residency programs. APTA recognizes ABPTRFE, and once you complete a post-professional program, you don’t have to worry about accreditation as ABPTRFE is accredited.

To achieve this goal, you can follow one of two available paths, they are:

PT Residency

After graduating as a DPT, you can participate in a residency program. During your DPT residency, you will work one-on-one with a mentor in the field. You need to understand that a residency program is more than on-the-job training. A residency program is an excellent way for you to apply your knowledge of evidence-based practice in your workplace under a mentor (virtual/ onsite).

a DPT working with a patient during her residency

PT Fellowship

You can follow this career path after completing a PT residency, allowing you to further your skills. At your PT fellowship, you can specialize in any of the following ABPTRFE programs:

  • Hand therapy
  • Critical care
  • Neonatology
  • Nonclinical (Higher education leadership) program
  • Spine
  • Orthopedic physical therapy(manual)
  • Movement systems
  • Performing arts
  • Sports division

Become a Certified Specialist

You can become a certified specialist after getting certification from the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS). You can specialize in the following fields:

Cardiovascular/ Pulmonary Clinical Specialists (CCS)

A CCS is a highly trained and equipped personnel member in the physical therapy field who helps patients heal from either heart or lung conditions. For instance, you will find these specialists assisting patients recovering from open heart surgeries, heart attacks, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

To qualify as a cardiovascular or a pulmonary specialist, you must meet the following:

  • Have the American Heart Association certification in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
  • Submit evidence-based clinical data from a cardiovascular or pulmonary-related project within the last ten years.
  • Complete the required clinical care by working 2000 hours in an APTA-accredited facility.

a pulmonary specialist listening to a patient’s breathing pattern

Orthopedic Clinical Specialist (OCS)

Among the available physical therapy programs, orthopedics is the most popular. These specialists treat adverse conditions and injuries affecting the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. If you pursue this career option, you will also see patients battling musculoskeletal disorders like arthritis.

Geriatric Clinical Specialist (GCS)

The aging population in the U.S. has been increasing at a steady rate. As a physical therapist specializing in geriatric care, you will work closely with senior patients with musculoskeletal conditions (osteoporosis, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease).

Neurology Clinical Specialist (NCS)

This specialization is in demand; once you pursue it, you will treat patients with neurological conditions, such as memory impairments, and brain injuries.

Oncology Specialist

As an oncology specialist, you will specialize in the study and treatment of cancer and will work closely with cancer patients. Your role will be helping cancer patients manage chronic pain, loss of bone density, and weakness caused by their symptoms and treatments.

Pediatric Clinical Specialist (PCS)

As a pediatric clinical specialist, you will solely focus on treating physical conditions affecting young people (newborns to teenagers). Here, you will deal with conditions like autism, cerebral palsy, and cystic fibrosis, among others.

an orthopedic doctor helping with the treatment of a young girl

Electrophysiologic Clinical Specialist (ECS)

This is one of the newest physical therapy specializations. It deals with muscle and nerve damage caused by wounds or compromised skin integrity.

Women’s Health Specialist (WCS)

In physical therapy, a women’s health specialist deals with conditions affecting women (menopause, pregnancy). As a WCS, you will be helping women deal with postpartum and postpartum experiences, such as low back pain and incontinence, among others.

Sports Clinical Specialist (SCS)

An SCS works with amateur and professional individuals participating in any sporting activity like the Olympics. Your role as a SCS includes the following:

  • Sports medications management
  • Rehabilitations
  • Injury management

Benefits of Physical Therapy Education

There are several benefits of PT education, and they are:

  • Physical therapy helps patients recover from traumatic injuries
  • PT helps lower the risk of patients aggravating their injuries.
  • It helps reduce chronic pain
  • It helps improve patients’ balance and mobility.
  • It can help improve athletic performance.

Impact of physical therapy programs on healthcare outcomes

Currently, it is estimated that there are over 3.2 million deaths yearly due to a sedentary lifestyle, leading to some non-communicable health conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Physical therapy addresses the need for an active lifestyle, and a PT can help you develop an exercise routine that will lower your risk of having these health conditions.

Role of physical therapists in promoting wellness and quality of life for patients

Apart from helping patients with rehabilitation, physical therapists play a crucial role in promoting general fitness by encouraging active lifestyles. A PT will prescribe activities to improve patient fitness and assist people in overcoming environmental and personal barriers to active lifestyles.


PTs usually use noninvasive and nonpharmacological interventions, such as patient education, expert knowledge, wellness, and fitness, to deliver health-focused strategies that help in preventing and managing non-communicable diseases. The time a PT spends with patients creates an intimate and trusting relationship, creating a conducive environment for promoting wellness.

A physical therapist uses the following key behaviors while assisting patients to improve the quality of their lives:

  • Quit smoking
  • Weight control
  • Physical activities
  • Stress reduction
  • Good nutrition
  • Control their sleeping cycle

a licensed physical therapist discouraging the patient from smoking

Contribution of physical therapy education to the healthcare system

The physical therapy field plays a crucial role in providing comprehensive healthcare. The following are some of the ways physical therapy education contributes to the healthcare system:

  • Enhancing collaborative skills
  • Holistic patient care
  • It offers a broader perspective
  • Adaptability
  • Fosters a culture of respect
  • Offers a lifelong learning experience


Deciding to pursue any specific career can take time and effort.

If you want to help people improve the quality of their lives through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed exercises, then you are on the right track. Once you become a physical therapist, you can use your in-depth medical training to deliver expert patient care. You will work closely with other healthcare professionals, such as nutritionists and general practitioners.

Although the path to graduating as a physical therapist isn’t easy, the results are worth it. Watching a patient who could not stand due to debilitating back pain stand comfortably without pain can be a sight to behold. We wish you the best of luck in your physical therapy school journey.


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