Physical Therapy School Requirements, Future & Careers

This article is a transcribed edited summary of a video Bob and Brad recorded in February of 2022. For the original video go to

Brad: Paul Reuteman, Physical Therapist, is here with us today, he drove over from La Crosse. What are we going to talk about today?

Paul: We’re going to be talking about physical therapy school and admissions.

Brad: Anybody out there interested in becoming a physical therapist, this information is going to help you out with a lot of questions that you probably have. I know this is going to be good. He’s going to talk about what it takes now and what future school are evolving and changing to fit the needs of students, right?

Paul: Today’s student, correct.

Brad: Let’s get some of your background first, how you know this.

Paul: I’ve been at University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, and their physical therapy program for the last 20 years as a full-time faculty. Then, also for the last 10 years now, I have been the chair of the admissions committee at UW-La Crosse. Prior to that, served on the committee for about five years. So, I have about 15 years of admissions experience working with reviewing applications, identifying how or what applicants look strong, what applicants don’t look strong, and then providing them admission to the PT program.

Brad: So, your part of the decision-making on the individuals who you say, “I think this is a good person for our PT school, this person maybe not.”

Paul: Yes, I’m one of four on the committee that make the final decisions, but yes.

Brad: Okay, and this information, you’re at UWL, I’m an alumni there as well, but I think this information will kind of fit across the whole United States, right?

Paul: Yes, every school had kind of unique admission standards, but for the most part, there are specific things that a lot of the schools really look for these days in the applicants of their program.

Brad: So, did you have a place you wanted to start? If there are people out here who are just thinking about “Do I want to be a therapist of not?” Or they know they want to, and how to apply. You go ahead.

Paul: Right, I think the best place to start with anyone who’s interested in applying to PT school is on a website called PTCAS. It’s a centralized application website. It’s very similar to a lot of the other healthcare professions now that have a centralized application where you fill out one application and then you can submit it to many programs across the country. What it also provides for you is all the programs that enlist into PTCAS and gives you some details about those programs in terms of how many students do they accept, whether admission standards, just some baseline information about what they look for in their applicants.

Brad: Typically, can you go to a PT school? Do you have to have you bachelor’s first, or can you do a three year, not get your bachelor’s, and then roll into the PT school?

Paul: Good question. So, a lot of the programs right now are of the traditional four years of an undergrad degree, and we’ll talk about what the best or ideal undergrad degree is. Then it’s three years of PT school. So, it’s a total of seven years.

Brad: And then you get your doctorate.

Paul: And then you become a Doctor of Physical Therapy, and you can practice as a Doctor of Physical Therapy.

Brad: So, you get to be called doctor.

Paul: You do, you still must complete a licensing board exam for the state that you work in. That’s almost with all healthcare providers must complete a licensing exam. Once you complete the PT school, then you’re qualified to sit for that exam.

Brad: This is different than a PhD?

Paul: It’s different than a PhD. This is considered a clinical doctorate. So, you have some coursework that mimics a PhD, but not the extent of the research that you would get with a PhD. Instead, what it does though, is it trains you to become a clinician in the field of physical therapy and work in a variety of different settings.

Brad: Right, I know I’ve had students from UWL work with me. I’m telling you, you guys do a good job because I’m thinking, these people were farther ahead in their knowledge and skills than I was when I was with you, because they had an extra year and good instructors like you, I’m sure.

Paul: Right, right.

Brad: If someone listened to this and say, “Wow, that sounds good.” And you have any like personalities, or you said, people that you’re looking for.

Paul: Right, so I think what we should probably start with is if you’re interested in physical therapy school, you need to start thinking about what the prerequisites are to get into or to apply. So, majority of PT schools have prerequisites that they require you to take prior to applying to the PT program, and the majority of those are science courses. So, biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy and physiology, psychology and statistics. Those are kind of like core foundational prerequisites that most PT schools require. Each PT school has its own unique requirements as well. That’s where you’re going on to PTCAS, you can identify what those prerequisites are, or if you so choose, go on to each PT programs website, and on each website, they’ll have the list of the prerequisites that are required. That’s the first thing. Second thing is then start deciding, what is a good undergraduate degree for you to pursue. That’s always one of the major questions. If they’re, let’s say a freshman in college, and they know they want to get to the PT school, they always ask what is the best undergrad degree? I’m going to tell almost everyone across the board right now, the best PT degree to get into is the one that most interests the person. If I tell everyone to get a biology degree and they hate biology, boy, they have a long four years ahead of them. So, choose any sort of ungraduated degree that is of most interest to them as long as they meet those prerequisites for the PT program, it doesn’t matter what your undergraduate degree is.

Brad: So, I’m going to go off the edge. What if someone’s interested in, well, psychology? Now, there’s a lot of psychology involved with treating a patient. So, that would all fall in the place too?

Paul: Yes. At UW-La Crosse, we’ve had cake design as their undergraduate degree.

Brad: No way. There’s no such thing.

Paul: There is such a thing as cake design.

Brad: I must investigate it.

Paul: They went back to school to get their prerequisites. They kind of went a different route than most people go. Let’s say, we’ll use psychology. So, if you choose psychology as your undergraduate degree, then you just must make sure that you also hit those sciences in your studies to satisfy the requirements to get into the PT program.

Brad: And pretty much for every school across the nation, I’m assuming GPA, they want to have a high GPA?

Paul: Right, so some of what we’re trying to do at UW-La Crosse, we’re trying to now develop a holistic approach to evaluating those people who are applying to the program. So, that does include GPA. Your prerequisite GPA, which are the grades that you get in those prerequisite courses, but then your overall GPA as well. So yes, that does apply. A GRE score, the GRE is kind of the equivalent of an ACT for grad school. So, some PT programs are requiring a GRE, some are not. So, at UW-La Crosse, we still require a GRE. It’s a standardized way to assess all students on an equal level, right? Then the holistic part of it is, what types of outside opportunities or experiences has the student engaged in? We look for leadership, we look for healthcare experiences. We look for any sort of interaction with people who, let’s say, have physical or emotional or psychological delays that require some sort of interaction with the student and those individuals. It just prepares them much better to become a physical therapist in the future. So, it’s not just grades and it’s not just standardized exams, but it’s also what have they done to kind of improve their ability to work and interact with individuals.

Brad: So, and I’m assuming, like you said, if you’re in the medical field, if you’re a physical therapy aide, I think would be ideal because then they have a direct experience of what a day-to-day work is for a therapist.

Paul: Yes, but the unfortunate thing is there’s a lot of people interested in physical therapy school that don’t have the opportunity to work as a physical therapy aide. So, people think, “Ah, then I shouldn’t get any other jobs.” Really, it’s any sort of opportunity that they’re working with people. The ideal would be everyone to become an aide for a period, but that’s just not realistic.

Brad: And I can give you an odd ball example of how someone got into therapy without any medical history. That’s myself. I worked in industry, worked on the large industrial equipment, electrical equipment for ten years. Sold my part of the business and went to school to be a PT. I didn’t even know what a PT did, really. I worked my way into it and I was passionate about school. I don’t know what happened, you know? But here I am.

Paul: But you displayed that you’re able to hold a job for 10 years. You displayed that you’re in a leadership position that you’re able to manage a business. All those things are things that we look for now, not just how good you did in your undergraduate studies.

Brad: My point is, if you think you want to be a PT and you’re somewhere else in a completely different world, it can be a benefit.

Paul: Yes, it can be a benefit. We’ve had a lot of people who’ve decided that the career, that path that they’re following right now, is not for them. They’ve chosen to go a different career path, such as yourself. They do have to go back, get some of the prerequisites, and once they complete those, then apply to the PT program.

Brad: Oh, and I do want to ask because I have a feeling there’s going to be several physical therapy assistants out there wondering, “Well, I’ve been doing this.” Does that help quite a bit, or does that depend on the individual?

Paul: It does help because they have that perspective of what the profession is, yes. The unfortunate thing is that a PT assistant degree does not qualify them to apply to the PT program. They still must go back and get extra training and some of the advanced sciences before they can apply. So, that’s the challenge. We love it though, when PT assistants apply to our program because they do have that background, but we don’t get a lot of them because it is kind of a challenge to go back to school once you’ve been out practicing for a while.

Brad: Well, you know Aaron Cast. He worked for us as a PTA and then we lost him. He was one of my best employees, but he did take the extra classes. For a year, year, and a half at least, before he could even apply.

Paul: He did a great job.

Brad: Yeah, and he’s been out working. He has kids and everything.

Paul: We don’t want to tell him he’s a good PT, but I guess we just did.

Brad: Yeah, he might be watching this. He’s done a few videos. He got certified for lymphedema.

Paul: Did he? Okay.

Brad: Yeah. He did some videos with us, very helpful. Very, very nice.

Paul: Neat, good.

Brad: Well, that’s interesting. Is there another point we want to bring up?

Paul: If you are searching our PT programs right now, do your homework. There’s a lot of different opportunities out there, and options that exist. I mentioned, UW-La Crosse is the traditional four plus three. There is an avenue where you can go a three plus three. So, three years of undergraduate degrees and then get undergraduate degree work and then go to PT programs, so it cuts a one-year off. There are a lot of schools that are kind of adopting that hybrid program now.

Brad: So, when you’re a junior, you’re applying.

Paul: You’re applying as a junior, yep. Those are specific to a specific undergraduate degree. And again, there are some programs. If we talk about the State of Wisconsin, Marquette, Carroll, have those opportunities where you can go three years and then apply into a PT program in your fourth year. So again, UW-La Crosse has that option as well and some of the other state schools do as well. Then there’s some unique hybrid programs that are out there now with smaller, private institutions where it’s more intended for those individuals who maybe are choosing PT as a second career, or maybe don’t want to uproot and live in a different location where they can take a lot of the coursework online, and then they have to go to the university, maybe three, four times a year, spend about a week and a half, two weeks there to do a lot of the hands on course work. Those are unique. Those are starting to pop up a little bit more across the country, but you’re going to have to do your homework on those to find out where they exist.

Brad: Right, right. It is a matter of sitting down at the computer and start searching for all these schools and see what your options are.

Paul: Yes, those programs aren’t for everyone though. There’s not as much of the face-to-face interaction that you get with a traditional program such as ours. So, I’m a little biased of course and I think those are probably a good route to go, but for some people who are more self-directed learning, they might succeed in these hybrid programs.

Brad: Sure. I remember when I was in school, a year behind me, there was a woman, she had two or three children that were in middle school, and she went back to school, and she did outstanding. I can think of another PT that worked for us, she left to become a PT too, and she had two or three kids. There are these people who are motivated, they’re smart, and you don’t have to be a traditional student.

Paul: Exactly. We do call them “non-traditional students” and we really enjoy having those non-traditional students in the classroom because they provide a certain amount of leadership to the class because they’ve been out, they’ve been working. They know what the world is like out there. They have a positive influence on a lot of the students who’ve been doing the more traditional route going from undergraduate degree right into PT.

Brad: Do you have many non-trads or is that rare?

Paul: We have a class of about 45 and I would tend to think somewhere between five to 10. We have non-traditional every year.

Brad: When I was a non-trad and then we had two or three others, she had one woman, she was 53 years old, went back to school.

Paul: We’ve had a few. Not many of that.

Brad: Yeah, that was kind of rare, I think.

Paul: You do remember that when you were in PT school, Brad, they were still writing on chalkboards.

Brad: That’s true.

Paul: I think you had to go back behind the building and clap the chalk dust.

Brad: Yeah, that was if you were bad. So, what about job future growth?

Paul: Future growth right now is positive still. There’s been more PT programs that have been popping up, which obviously means there’s going to be more PTs in the job market, but....

Brad: Always a “but”.

Paul: Our professional organization has kind of been keeping an eye on this and at least right now, it looks like there’s still a positive job market that will exist for the next 10 to 15 years as the age of the population continues to grow. There’s going to be a need for physical therapists.

Brad: And as far as wages because everyone wants to know how much you’re going to make. Can yo