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How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant: Steps to Take from High School

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When looking at colleges, an important consideration is how a particular school fits with your career goals. While not everyone enters college knowing what professional path they want to pursue, understanding your career goals is valuable when choosing a school, and can affect everything from the amount of time you spend in college to how much money you spend on it. This is particularly true for students who want to pursue a career requiring specialized training, like a physical therapy assistant (PTA). 


Becoming a PTA only requires an associate’s degree, so students don’t have the luxury of time that those in four-year degree programs have to figure out their career plans. This also means that the decisions you make in high school and early in your college career will affect landing your dream job. If you have hopes of helping people recover from injury and illness, keep reading to find out how to become a physical therapy assistant after high school.


What Does a Physical Therapy Assistant Do? 


A demanding and in-demand job, PTAs help those who’ve suffered injuries or illnesses. Healing holistically using exercise and an understanding of the human body, PTAs help patients restore mobility, build strength, improve flexibility, and manage pain through the recovery process, while working under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. Common activities in the day of a PTA include assisting patients with exercises and stretching, performing therapeutic massages or ultrasound therapy, and educating patients and their family members about treatment. 


How Much Do Physical Therapy Assistants Make?


Physical therapy assistants are well-compensated for their hard work—the job makes the Penny Hoarder list of 10 High-Paying Careers That Only Require an Associate Degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2018, the average salary for physical therapy assistants is $58,040, significantly better than the overall $38,640 median wage reported for all workers.


Perhaps even more promising than wages earned by PTAs is the anticipated spike in demand for them. A host of factors—including an aging population, the obesity epidemic, and medical advancements allowing trauma victims to survive—will create increased demand for therapy and rehabilitative services. The BLS predicts employment of PTAs to grow 27% between 2018 and 2028. For context, 5% total job growth is the expectation for all occupations during that time. 


How to Become a Physical Therapy Assistant: Steps to Take from High School


There are multiple pathways for students interested in a career as a physical therapy assistant, but the most direct route is to enter an accredited PTA program directly after high school. Because the path to PTA is so short, your actions in high school can play a key role in your entering the workforce. 


High School


Use your time in high school wisely and hit the ground running when you get to college. Math and science classes are particularly important to aspiring physical therapy assistants. High school classes in biology, chemistry, and algebra will prepare you for rigorous college coursework. Successfully completing advanced placement classes in Biology and Chemistry will help you in getting into a top-flight program. Many PTA programs require a minimum grade point average, so keep that GPA up to ensure you get into the school of your choice. 


Academic performance is just one aspect in preparing for a career as a physical therapy assistant—PTAs can spend long days on their feet and often are called on to lift patients. Spend some time in the gym to ensure your body can keep up with your brain. 


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An associate’s degree from a college accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is required to work as a PTA. In 2017, there were nearly 350 associate’s degree programs accredited by the CAPTE. During the two-year degree program, students will spend approximately 75% of their time in the classroom and 25% getting hands-on experience through clinical training.


In the classroom, students will study sciences relating to the human body and movement, along with the fundamentals of physical therapy. Common courses include anatomy, biology, kinesiology, medical terminology, physiology, physical therapy assistance techniques, therapy exercises, and pathology.


Students typically begin clinical training between their third and fifth semesters while also still taking classroom-based curriculum. This training is also referred to as clinical practice, clinical education, clinical practicum, or an internship. Regardless of the name, this is where students receive first-hand experience working with patients under the supervision of a clinical instructor (CI), physical therapist (PT), or licensed physical therapist assistant (PTA). 


Clinical training pays a vital role in transitioning from preparation to practice, as students take what they’ve learned in the classroom and begin to apply it in a variety of settings. Students will work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes while receiving feedback, guidance, advice, and additional teaching from mentors.




In addition to an associate’s degree from an accredited program, licensure or certification is required in all 50 states to work as a PTA. To obtain licensure, hopeful PTAs need to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy.


Consisting of four sections and 200 multiple-choice questions, it’s vital students thoroughly prepare for the NPTE before taking it. It is possible to retake the test, but you may only take it three times in a year and six times total. Once you pass the NPTE, you’ll be a licensed PTA.


Continuing Education


Life-long learners are well-suited for careers as physical therapy assistants. In many cases, a PTA’s education extends past the NPTE. Every state has their own laws regulating the practice of PTAs and some states require an applicant to pass an additional exam focusing on the state’s laws regarding the practice of PTAs. It’s also common for states to require PTAs to take continuing education classes to maintain their licenses. 


The prospect of college and what it means for your career can cause confusion even among the most put-together high school students. If you need help with your college search or assistance navigating the complex application process, CollegeVine can help! Sign up today for our free online platform designed to walk you through everything from discovering schools to writing a winning essay.

Short Bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.