How to Become a Physical Therapist


Physical therapist working on patients knee

When going to college, one of the hardest decisions can be choosing your major.

When choosing your major you may also be thinking about different paths that you would take to get to your career.

Many different careers may require you to go to professional school, grad school, medical school, etc.

Many students going to school thinking that they know exactly what career path if they want to take and then they end up changing their minds.

The reason that they change their minds includes:

  • Taking a class they realize sparked a different interest in them that they never knew
  • Discovering they do not like the subjects that they anticipated that they would.
  • They may also start to realize that their dream career is actually not something that they are interested in

It may also end up being something that is a little bit different than what they had imagined in their heads.

No matter what, planning out your life things can always change. It is always good to have a plan, however, because you never know what is going to happen. It is also good to have a backup plan.

This is why it is really good to start thinking about if you want to go to any sort of professional school.

The reason for this is because there is a lot that needs to be done during your undergraduate career.

You don’t want to have to end up taking extra time to finish what you need for graduate school.

You also want to make sure that you are getting as involved as you can and being the best student that you can be.

Obviously, you have plenty of time to change your mind about whether or not you’re going to grad school. It is just a good thing to think about before you even started attending.

 If you know your path ahead of time, you can best prepare during your undergraduate career.

However, it is also very normal to realize that you want to further your education.

The field of therapy

Going into fields like occupational therapy and physical therapy has become very popular lately and also very in demand.

It is a great route to go if you are interested in the medical field but you are not interested in being a nurse or a doctor.

There are many different requirements that you will have to fulfill during your undergraduate career in order to get into physical therapy school.

You will want to look hard into and do your research to make sure that it is the right path for you.

It is a lot of schooling so make sure it is correct major.

It is a great occupation and you can really help people physically get back into normal life activities.

Majors to consider

Most people tend to go for different science majors during their undergraduate career.

You can technically go for some different majors to get into physical therapy school. Just consider there are classes that are required that are already line up with certain science majors.

It is important to understand what the job of a physical therapist is. You need to think about what classes are required and how do you get into graduate school.

I am going to go through some of the basics of what you need to know when deciding if physical therapy is the route for you.

What does a physical therapist do?

Physical therapists are healthcare professionals and exercise/ movement experts. The PT will prescribe exercises, work to treat the injury, and educate patients about rehabbing an injury.

Their main focus is on the physical health of patients.

Physical therapy can get confused with occupational therapy because they have a lot of similarities and are both types of therapy.

Occupational therapy has a larger focus on the overall state of each patient.

Occupational therapists are more focused on the mental and physical health of their patients.

They want to make sure that each of their patents is capable of doing all normal daily activities.

Physical therapists focus more on just the physical aspect.

  • A PT is focused on the overall patient but they focus on the physical aspect
  • Many people seeking PT have injuries and will need help in recovering
  • Physical therapists will look at muscle function, joint flexibility, balance, coordination, motor function, quality of life, posture, and strength.

This is a great career path for you if you are interested in helping and empowering people. 

Every day you are working with hands-on care to help patients engage in their own health and healing.

You will end up using your deep understanding of anatomy and kinesiology from your undergraduate and graduate career.

Therapist help rehab

A physical therapist will help with recovery for:

  • Back surgery
  • Knee surgery
  • ACL surgery
  • Hip replacement
  • Shoulder surgery
  • Sprains
  • Ligament tears
  • Elbow surgery
  • Ankle surgery
  • Etc

You will start by consulting with your patients to learn about them and their issues. The therapist in coordination with the surgeon or doctor will diagnose and create a treatment plan.

Then you will teach exercises and encourage them to be as interested in their healing process as you are.

You will also be in charge of keeping up with your patients’ progress and goals to then generate your new treatments.

Another thing that physical therapists can do is introduce in-home care and talk to families about how to help their loved ones.

This can be a hard process and something that many families have never had to deal with before.

How many years of schooling to be a physical therapist?

In order to be a physical therapist, you have to go to undergraduate school first.

This means that you will have to have four years of schooling before you can even apply to be a physical therapist.

There are many popular majors for undergraduate schooling simply because the classes required for certain majors coincide with the required classes for physical therapy school.

There are also a certain amount of volunteer hours you must have to apply as well.

You need a minimum of 100 service hours with at least 16 volunteer hours in 3 different settings.

You will need to complete these throughout your time as an undergraduate.

Many students tend to get these done during the summers in between their semesters.

It is important to make sure that you focus on these types of requirements.

If you need to take a gap year of taking five years in undergrad to get theses accomplished, then take it!

There is nothing wrong with taking a longer amount of time and it is completely normal.

Believe it or not, only around 34% of undergraduate students graduate in four years.

Especially if you have a graduate or professional path, make sure that you take the amount of time at school that you need and that will help you be the best person for your physical therapy school application. 

They also like to see that you have had some sort of job shadowing or observation while you are in your undergraduate career.

A doctor of physical therapy is a three-year program.

This means that overall it is seven years of schooling to become a physical therapist.

It is also important to take into consideration the amount of time that it takes to take both the tests to get into physical therapy school and then become a physical therapist.

GRE test and state board

To get into physical therapy school you will have to take the GRE which is the typical standardized test to get into most graduate schools.

Average GRE scores for physical therapists are around 155 on the verbal section, a 154 on the quantitative section, and around a 4.5 on the writing section.

These scores vary by class and school but are generally averaging around these numbers.

You can take the GRE once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period.

Once you’re done with your physical therapy schooling, you must pass your board exam.

The Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy is the department that administers the physical therapy board exam.

The board exam is called the National Physical Therapy Examination.

You must pass this exam to be a physical therapist. Each individual usually takes a different amount of time to study for each of these tests.

Make sure to take the amount of time that is best for you so that you do not have to retake them. 

Do you have to go to medical school to become a physical therapist?

No, you don’t need to go to medical school to become a physical therapist.

It is important to understand the difference between medical school and physical therapy school.

If you go to medical school it is going to be a four-year program that is also going to have to include a residency after.

A physical therapist has to do three years but does not have to do a residency like a doctor.

Although PT is getting a doctorate, it is different schooling than going to medical school.

If you are going to medical school then you are interested in being a doctor, anesthesiologist, radiologist, neurologist, hospital doctor, or pathologist.

It is different with becoming a PT because after undergraduate school, you will be focusing on getting into physical therapy school.

If you are not interested in going to school to become a physical therapist, you could always go to school to be a physical therapy assistant.

They serve under the direction and assistant of a physical therapist. A physical therapy assistant is someone who is going to help a physical therapist.

They are not licensed to do all the same things that physical therapists do.

This means that they are helping and assisting with all of the same patients and problems that the physical therapists are.

To be a physical therapy assistant you don’t need a four-year bachelor’s degree. You can become a physical therapy assistant through a two-year associate’s program.

What is the best major for physical therapy?

There are many different majors that are good for this career path.

You have the entire time of your undergraduate career to decide if this is the career choice that best suits you and your strengths.

Some students go into school thinking they were going to go into business and end up deciding to become a physical therapist.

As long as you have the requirements during your undergraduate, you are perfectly capable of applying to be a physical therapist no matter what your major is.

It is also a good idea to talk to your high school counselor to see what majors-best align with your strengths and interests.

A personality test may reveal that becoming a physical therapist is not really the right path for you.

You are going to be spending four years studying the subject.

It is best to make sure that it is something that you’re interested in and have a passion for.

Also if anything changes in your path to becoming a physical therapist, you still have a bachelors degree.

Make sure your 4-year degree will get you a job after college. If you do not go to PT school then you need to use that degree to get a different career.

Obviously, your end goal is to become a physical therapist, but this degree is still going to be very important for you.

Four years is how long you were in high school. This means you were spending the same amount of time dedicating yourself to the subject.

Don’t pick a major just because you think it will look good on your application to become a physical therapist.

You never know what’s gonna happen in the process of your undergraduate career and you don’t want to be stuck with a degree that you hate.

You also don’t want to spend that much time, energy, and money on a subject that you aren’t even interested in.

It is always a good idea to choose a major that aligns with all of the prerequisite courses for physical therapy school as well.

Although you can technically major in anything, some of the best and most popular majors for physical therapy are:

  • Exercise Science
  • Health Science
  • Human Nutrition
  • Kinesiology
  • Biology
  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Psychology
  • Athletic Training
  • Sociology
  • Physics
  • Education
  • Engineering
  • Business Management
  • Nursing

What classes are required for a physical therapist?

Just like any sort of professional schooling, there are required classes that you have to take in order to even be able to apply to go to physical therapy school.

As I had said earlier, some of these classes are classes that are already required for certain majors at certain colleges.

This is the main reason why certain people will pick science-heavy classes. Science classes are required for physical therapy schooling so you can get these classes done.

If you pick a major that does not have these classes then you will have to take them on top of the current class load.

This is very important to take into consideration saying us sometimes your schedule can already be pretty heavy with a hard course load.

Many schools also only offer certain classes during one specific semester. An advanced biology class you need may only be offered every spring semester.

This could really have an effect on your overall schedule and how long you’ll have to be in school.

As I said earlier, it seems like you have a lot of time in college, but it goes fast.

If you are a sophomore you should have classes you are taking that fulfill PT school requirements. Guidance counselors should be able to guide you on the classes you need each semester.

Here are some examples of the basic prerequisite classes at colleges and universities. This could differ depending on the programs.

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biology 1&2
  • General Chemistry 1&2
  • General Physics 1&2
  • Lab courses
  • Statistics
  • Psychology

What classes should I take in high school to be a physical therapist?

There are no required classes for you to take in high school to be a physical therapist.

However, it would be a good idea for you to take any sort of AP, Excelerator, honors, or college credit classes with science.

This would mean any sort of chemistry, biochemistry, physics, nutrition, etc.

High schools are coming out with a lot more opportunities for college credit.

If you are able to pick out certain classes that you can take, then a great opportunity would be to pick out these types of classes.

If not, just take whatever classes you possibly can. In the end, the classes that you take in high school will not really help when getting into graduate school.

If there are no accelerated science classes offered, then just take any accelerated courses in general.

Also, the more college credit classes that you take in high school, the less that you have to take when you’re in college.

This will not only save you money but give you extra time to take the prerequisite courses to become a physical therapist.

I am not going to school for physical therapy, however, the major that I have requires me to graduate with 150 credit hours.

This is kind of a similar situation to having to add credits to go to graduate school.

I basically have to graduate with around 30 more credits than the average college student.

I am so grateful for the fact that I took so many college classes while I was in high school. This will allow me to graduate within four years.

Take all of the opportunities that you have to make your college career less stressful and more successful.

You will appreciate all of your hard work and dedication that you put in during high school when you get to college.

If taking extra college classes in high school allows you to take fewer credit hours in college you’ll really be thanking yourself. College classes require a lot more time and studying than in a high school class.

Especially if you are already adding on the stress of extra classes for physical therapy school.

Talk to your high school counselor and see what is available at your high school.

How much does a physical therapist make a year?

As with any other career, the salary of a physical therapist is really going to depend on the location and the demand.

Because different locations have different minimum wages, the salaries for these types of jobs are really going to differ.

It also depends on where the jobs are in demand.

Either way, physical therapists are said to be in demand in the United States.

This is a great opportunity to go to school for something that you’re passionate about and make a good amount of money.

Many students graduate college not knowing if they will have a job but still having debt.

As of right now, the average salary for a physical therapist is somewhere around $85,000 per year.

In Ohio, this transit is the same and the average salary is still around $85,000 per year.

However, in California, the average salary of a physical therapist is around $100,000.

Obviously, the cost of living in California is a lot higher than Ohio but this just goes to show how much the salaries can differ.

Best colleges for physical therapy

When it comes to going to graduate and professional school, you tend to just apply to as many places as you can and take whatever you can get.

It tends to be a very stressful and competitive process, so you can’t really be picky.

However, if you are in the top percentage of students who can decide between schools.

It is also important to understand that it is completely normal to not get into graduate school the first time you try.

Especially since physical therapy is becoming a booming career path.

It could be the case that you would not get in the first time because of the number of applicants.

Do not give up and apply as many times as you need to to get to your end career goal. Here is a list of some of the top schools for physical therapy.

  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Southern California
  • Emory University
  • Northwestern University
  • University of Iowa

Conclusion

Overall, becoming a physical therapist is a great idea if you want to help people every day.

Just make sure that you want to put all the work in to get all the education did that is needed.

Also, make sure that you want to put in the time to volunteer and also take all of the exams are required for this career path.

Do your research and see where your passions lie.

All of the work for this major will pay off when you were making a decent amount of money doing something that you love.

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