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How to Become a Physical Therapist: Steps to Take from High School

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“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is a question most high schoolers are tired of hearing. It’s a big question, often asked casually, and the truth is that most people don’t know as early as high school.


That said, “I wish I had known all this sooner,” is something I hear in career talks with recent college grads when they learn that a lot of career paths are closed to them, or would require going back to school (and spending more money). Students put so much emphasis on getting into a great college that they often lose sight of what comes after higher education.


Starting your career search early is a great way to avoid regrets later on. Contrary to popular opinion, there are a lot of steps you can take in high school to find your list of dream careers. Not only will you learn your interests, but also the steps you take now will make you a more competitive applicant once you enter the job market.


What Does a Physical Therapist Do?


Physical therapists work with patients of all kinds and ages to help them gain mobility. PTs often work in hospitals, clinics, or assisted-living centers. A typical patient portfolio may include athletes recovering from sports-related injuries, children managing chronic conditions, or aging patients trying to maintain their independence.


Physical therapists customize a care plan to meet each patient’s needs, assessing balance, coordination, strength, and overall health. From there, they use a variety of methods, including strength training, massage, dry needling, and wellness education.


Becoming a physical therapist is a great way to help others lead a rewarding life. It is a good fit career for anyone who likes working with people, using their body, studying anatomy, and solving problems creatively.


How Much Do Physical Therapists Make?


The median salary for physical therapists in 2019 was $86,840, well above the national average. The field has grown by over 30% in the past decade. Physical therapists report a lot of job satisfaction when asked about their career path.


Moving forward, professionals trained as physical therapists can expect to see consistent demand for their services. A growing job market translates to greater job security as well as increased variety in job opportunities.


How to Become a Physical Therapist, Starting from High School


High School


If you are interested in becoming a physical therapist, there are steps you can take as early as high school to set yourself up for success in this field.


Shadow or intern with a physical therapist. You will not know the details of what it means to be a physical therapist until you can see a licensed professional in action. Reach out to friends or family members currently employed as physical therapists, or cold call local PT clinics to see if they would be open to having you shadow a physical therapist on duty.


Volunteer or work as a health care provider. You will become close to your patients once you begin your career in physical therapy. Now is a great time to gain exposure to different kinds of patients. You will learn whether working as a health care provider is right for you and improve your bedside manner at the same time.


Many high school students volunteer at their local hospital. You can also volunteer at an assisted living facility if you are interested in working with the elderly. Volunteering with children who have disabilities that impair their mobility is another way you can connect with people who benefit from the work of physical therapists.


Additionally, Primary Care Attendants (PCAs) visit patients in their homes and help with tasks of daily living. This is a rewarding paid position within the health care industry that juniors and seniors are already qualified to perform.


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Take challenging science courses. If you want to be a physical therapist, you have many years of science courses ahead of you. Take Honors or AP science courses in high school to see if the content interests you. If it does, that’s a good sign that physical therapy may be a good fit career.


Everything you learn in these classes will come up again later in your education. Don’t cram for exams but instead learn the material carefully so that you have access to it years down the road.


Earn good grades and SAT scores. The test scores you earn now show colleges your commitment to your future profession, whatever that may be. Even if your classes now don’t seem all that related to what you ultimately plan on doing, it’s important to demonstrate a good work ethic.


Apply to colleges and universities with strong science programs. Graduate programs for physical therapy expect that you will take certain science classes as prerequisites. Make sure the program you attend offers a robust science curriculum, and make sure that students who declare your major have access to those classes. Liberal arts colleges and smaller universities might not offer certain PT prerequisite courses, which include niche topics such as Anatomy and Physiology. If you still want to attend a smaller school without these required niche courses, consider looking for schools that are part of a consortium that includes a larger university, where you could take the courses.


Explore freshman entry programs. A handful of graduate programs for physical therapy guarantee admission to students coming straight from high school, pending successful completion of their undergraduate requirements. If you are certain that becoming a physical therapist is right for you, explore this opportunity for accelerated study.

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Complete your prerequisite courses. In college, you can have any major you like and still be on track to become a physical therapist. That said, much like medical school, graduate programs in physical therapy require a number of prerequisite courses. Be sure you take the following to be eligible for advanced study in physical therapy (these vary by school, but these are courses that are generally required):


  •     Anatomy or Anatomy & Physiology 1 with lab
  •     Physiology or Anatomy & Physiology 2 with lab
  •     Biology 1
  •     Biology 2
  •     General Chemistry 1 with lab
  •     General Chemistry 2 with lab
  •     General Physics 1 with lab
  •     General Physics 2 with lab
  •     Psychology
  •     Statistics


Because physical therapy prerequisites are mostly courses in the natural sciences, students interested in becoming physical therapists often major in Biology or another natural science.


Whatever classes you take, be sure to keep your grades up, as they are the single greatest factor considered in graduate school applications.


Shadow or intern with a physical therapist. There are many different ways to practice physical therapy. Even if you have already shadowed or interned with one physical therapist, you should keep gaining exposure. Contact your school’s office of career services to see if they know of any alumni who would be interested in having you shadow them or intern with their practice.


Some graduate programs require that you spend a minimum number of hours with a licensed physical therapist, and these hours must be verified. Log your hours and request a verification letter at the end of your time together so you can keep track of these hours for graduate school purposes. For a competitive graduate school application, aim for 20-40 hours per location, with over 100 hours total.


Join volunteer clubs and service initiatives. There are lots of ways to connect with your local community. Whether it’s playing music at nursing homes, leading after school enrichment programs, or volunteering at your local hospital, service groups allow you to strengthen the interpersonal skills that will be crucial once you start practicing as a physical therapist.


Apply to graduate programs. In the fall of your senior year of college, prepare your applications to graduate school. You should aim to apply to 8-15 programs to ensure that you get into the best fit school for you. For your application, you will need:


  •     Good grades in your prerequisite classes
  •     Experience working with licensed physical therapists
  •     Letters of recommendation from professors and supervisors
  •     Strong standardized test scores on the GRE
  •     Well-written personal statements


Requirements differ by school, so begin creating your school list by spring of your junior year. That way, you still have a few months to gather your required materials. Alternatively, you can take a gap year after college and apply to graduate school the following year. Gaining work experience can be a great way to learn your preferences for a career.


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Graduate School


There are over 300 accredited physical therapy programs where you can earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy. All physical therapists must participate in one of these programs in order to practice. Typically, earning your DPT takes three years.


These programs require a combination of coursework as well as hands-on experience. The education you will receive in graduate school is much more applied than your college coursework, including courses such as Functional Anatomy, Applied Physical Therapy, and Life Span Development.


The goal of your doctorate is to expose you to patients as you learn to apply your scientific knowledge to your practice. While these programs are rigorous and expensive, it can be extremely rewarding to finally work hands-on with patients.


Focus on learning the material, not grades. You will need to know the content you learn in graduate school for the rest of your career. As a result, it’s important to study in a way that allows you to retain all you have covered in class and course readings.


Get hands-on experience outside of class. By this point, you will be sufficiently qualified that lots of groups will want to have you on staff. Consider taking on a part-time job or internship with an organization that needs physical-therapists-in-training. Consider reaching out to organizations like the Special Olympics, The Arthritis Foundation, or the National Football League to supplement your academic experience with hands-on learning.


Take care of yourself to avoid burnout. In graduate school, you are closer to becoming licensed than ever, but you have also been hard at work for years. The late-night study sessions you may have pulled in high school and college are starting to catch up to you. At this point in your schooling, it is important to take a step back and make sure you are setting reasonable goals for yourself. You still have a lot of academic work ahead of you, so it is critical that you find a sustainable work schedule.



Choose your specialization. Once you earn your DPT, you have the choice of whether to be a generalist or specialist. Completing a clinical residency program is key if you want to work with certain kinds of patients. Example specializations include:


  •     Cardiovascular and Pulmonary
  •     Clinical Electrophysiology
  •     Geriatrics
  •     Neurology
  •     Orthopaedics
  •     Pediatrics
  •     Sports Physical Therapy
  •     Women’s Health


This is a great opportunity to gain the specific skills and knowledge that your patients need. Up till now, you will have worked with a wide range of patients, many of whom have conditions you will not see again in your practice.


From residency onward, you get to work directly with the patients whom you feel best equipped to support. Your residency year tends to be very rewarding, since it’s the year when you finally get to practice your profession in the way you hoped you would.


Decide whether to pursue further study. Physical therapy residency programs typically last for one year. After that, you can continue with an additional fellowship in an advanced clinical area, or get started with an employer or private practice.


Physical therapists have the rare blend of working with both body and mind, connecting with people daily, and earning a great salary. If that sounds like the kind of work life for you, keep exploring this field by trying out the steps listed here. And good luck as you search for a great fit career!


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Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.