How to Become a Physical Therapist: A Newcomer's Guide
The work of a physical therapist (PT) sounds undeniably appealing. PTs spend their days taking a hands-on, active role in helping people of all ages maintain or regain their strength and mobility. The ability to move is a fundamental—and easy to take for granted—factor in our overall quality of life, and PTs lead the way in keeping patients on track as they rehabilitate.
Because of this, you can certainly envision yourself working with patients as a physical therapist someday. But you also know that the road to becoming a physical therapist isn’t as simple as a snap of the fingers—there are several important steps to take along the way.
So what does that entail? Let’s walk through the major milestones prospective physical therapists will reach along the way.
5 Steps for becoming a physical therapist
The following steps, while certainly much easier said than done, will put you on track to becoming a physical therapist. Keep in mind that while these are listed sequentially, the work associated with each milestone can overlap a bit (e.g., preparing for the licensure exam during graduate school).
1. Earn an undergraduate degree and complete prerequisites
Your main goal during your undergraduate years will be to gain admission to a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program after graduation. With grad school as a clear next step, you want to keep track of DPT program admission requirements and stay focused on becoming a competitive applicant.
Typically, DPT graduate programs don’t require a specific bachelor’s degree for admission—what’s most important is that you complete a bachelor’s degree program and fulfill the specific course requirements. Common undergraduate degree options include exercise science, kinesiology, biology, health science or psychology.
You do have some flexibility in your undergraduate education path, but meeting program prerequisites should not be overlooked at this stage. While each DPT program sets its own prerequisite standards, the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)® states the most common course prerequisites include:1
- Anatomy/A&P 1 with lab
- Physiology/A&P 2 with lab
- Biology 1 (not botany or zoology)
- Biology 2 (not botany or zoology)
- General Chemistry 1 with lab
- General Chemistry 2 with lab
- General Physics 1 with lab
- General Physics 2 with lab
Given the varying entry requirements for different DPT programs, undergrad is also the time to review and research options for DPT programs—this will help prevent any unexpected issues during the application process.
2. Apply to DPT programs
It might seem like a small step, but the application process takes some real work. There is a helpful online tool you’ll want to get familiar with at this stage—the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS)®. Not only can you find program admissions requirements on the PTCAS site, but you can also apply through their system to all the schools you’re interested in.
The application is broken up into sections where you’ll need to provide relevant information and documentation. We’ll walk through the sections to help you get a better idea of what you can start doing now to become a physical therapist.
- Personal information: This includes contact info and some biographic information.
- GPA and scores: Here, you’ll submit your transcripts. This section will also include your score for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized test that most DPT programs require.
- References: While some programs require only two, many experts recommend having four to five on file in PTCAS. A practicing physical therapist and professor are often the strongest types of references, though other healthcare professionals, supervisors or advisors are accepted as well.
- Observation hours: While not all programs require observation hours, they are highly recommended. Not only do these demonstrate your interest in and your knowledge of the profession, but shadowing a physical therapist can help you become more confident in your career choice. These hours can include outpatient and inpatient settings.
- Experiences: Here’s the place to list your club involvement, leadership opportunities, research and volunteer hours.
- Achievements/licenses and certification: This is where you can showcase any official credentials you hold like first aid, basic lifesaving (BLS), lifeguarding, certified personal training, etc.
- Essay: Your personal statement tells the programs you’re applying to about your journey and motivations for becoming a PT. You’ll answer additional essay questions that vary depending on the year. Many programs also send out supplemental applications to applicants that pass their initial screening.
There are a lot of programs to research and apply to. Like with your undergraduate experience, you’ll want to weigh factors like cost, course experience, location and more before applying and enrolling.
3. Complete a Doctor of Physical Therapy program
At this stage, you’ll be immersed in intensive academic courses with hands-on lab training as you master the skills and knowledge needed to practice as a physical therapist. Additionally, students will complete clinical rotations, where they’ll work directly with patients and established physical therapists. This combination aims to progressively build and reinforce critical skills like diagnosis, clinical reasoning, patient management and much more.
Graduate school is a period of intense growth and development as a prospective physical therapist. You’ll have a lot to take in during this time, but you will also make professional connections and develop a clearer picture of your preferred settings and patient populations to work with.
4. Pass the licensing exam and meet other licensing requirements
Towards the end of your graduate program, you’ll start getting ready to take the licensing exam for physical therapists, the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE)®. The exam consists of 250 objective, multiple-choice questions covering the major areas of physical therapy. This assessment is a five-hour exam with five sections designed to evaluate your competence and ability to safely practice as a physical therapist.
While clearly you’ll want to put in the study time and work to ensure you’ll pass this critical licensure exam on the first attempt, you do have the opportunity to retake the exam up to six times (with a maximum of three attempts per 12 month window). The best way to avoid multiple retakes is to be prepared. Review the content outline, seek out review materials and work with a study buddy to stay on top of your test prep.
While you must pass the exam to get licensed, it’s not the only part of getting licensed. You’ll have to look into your state’s exact requirements. Some common requirements include:
- Supervised clinical practice hours
- Jurisprudence assessments
- Background checks
- Proof of professional liability insurance
Keep in mind that this is a step that can overlap somewhat with the next. Some states offer DPT graduates temporary permits to work as they await licensure exams, and employers may hire physical therapists with employment contingent on obtaining licensure.
5. Sharpen your resume and start your job search
Now’s the time for all the studying and clinical hours to finally pay off. You’ll need to polish up your resume, practice your interviewing skills and turn to the network of physical therapy professionals you’ve built throughout your education to find a position. Beyond the typical job-search advice, it’s also a good idea to join your state’s physical therapy association to further your connections and demonstrate your commitment to the profession.
Some physical therapists choose to take the step of joining a residency or fellowship program after graduation for additional intensive training in specialized areas like wound care, hand therapy, neurology, geriatrics and more. These optional programs offer an opportunity for physical therapists to work closely with established specialists and develop an even deeper knowledge of the focus area.
What’s next for you
The road to becoming a physical therapist is undoubtedly a lengthy one. The good news is you’ve already taken a small first step by getting a handle on what’s to come. As you’re starting out in college, keep in mind the importance of meeting course prerequisites and other entry requirements for your graduate program of choice.
If you’re ready to start exploring program options and requirements, head over to the Rasmussen University Doctor of Physical Therapy program page to learn more about how this innovative hybrid format program can help prepare you for a life-changing career.2
1“PT Admissions Process,” American Physical Therapy Association, [accessed June 2022]. https://www.apta.org/your-career/careers-in-physical-therapy/pt-admissions-process.
2 Currently this program is NOT eligible for participation in Title IV federal student aid programs.
American Physical Therapy Association and PTCAS are registered trademarks of the American Physical Therapy Association.
NPTE is a registered trademark of the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.