How hard is it to get into physical therapy school? – Physical Therapy Education Solutions (2023)

As someone who applied more than once before I got in, I can certainly testify that applying to a physical therapy program is a very competitive process. According to the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) as of 2019 there are 256 accredited physical therapy programs. On average each program accepts 45 students out of 440 total applicants for an acceptance rate of about 10.2%.

What criteria do they use to rank students?

Physical therapy school applicants are ranked using a variety of requirements including undergraduate GPA, Graduate Record Examination (GRE) exam scores, observation hours, reference letters, interview performance and extracurricular activities. By having so many requirements PT programs can be sure to get applications from students that are serious about applying. If a student isn’t fully committed, then the chance they will complete all the necessary components is small.

Do I need a Bachelor's Degree?

How hard is it to get into physical therapy school? – Physical Therapy Education Solutions (1)A large majority of the accredited PT programs require applicants to complete a Baccalaureate degree for their application to be considered. PT programs are graduate level programs that award a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at completion. Research presented in the Journal of Physical Therapy Education (JOPTE) in 2015 found that undergraduate degree status was not a meaningful predictor of student outcomes in PT school. Although there is strong evidence to suggest a Bachelor’s degree is not needed, it is a suggested pre-requisite by CAPTE and remains another way to separate PT school applicants. There are however some programs that are designed as a 3 + 3 program which means you complete 3 years’ worth of undergraduate courses and then complete your Baccalaureate degree once you are accepted into the PT program. Most of these 3 + 3 programs are designed to identify and admit students on a fast-track or preferred eligibility status for the PT program. In these cases, there are other specific requirements that must be met when initially and entry is competitive when applying as an undergraduate freshman.

In general, the area of study of your undergraduate degree has minimal impact on your ability to get into a PT program. Recent data shows that students got into PT school with over a hundred different types of Bachelor’s degrees. There are certainly undergraduate majors that might do a better job of providing the foundation necessary to be successful in PT school and that might make a small difference in ranking position. Some degrees focus more on information that is foundational in physical therapy education. According to the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) the top 5 majors accepted into PT programs in 2018 were Exercise Science, Kinesiology, Biology, Health Science, and Psychology. In the big picture, if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree in one of those areas don’t let it discourage you from applying to PT school. My undergraduate degree was Physics!

What is the average GPA of students accepted into PT school?

How hard is it to get into physical therapy school? – Physical Therapy Education Solutions (2)When so many applications need to be ranked, using the GPA is a relatively simple first step. PTCAS reported that in 2018 the mean GPA of applicants accepted into a PT program was 3.57 (on a 4.0 scale). Most programs will have a minimum GPA to be able to apply. On average the minimum GPA accepted is around a 3.0, but different schools have different requirements, so it is always best to check with your program(s) of interest. Because there is a minimum, they can eliminate those applications right of the bat and don’t need to bother evaluating the other criteria used for ranking in those cases. Once the GPA has been considered the admission committee will factor in other requirements to re-order the applicants.

A bit of advice about undergraduate GPA

How hard is it to get into physical therapy school? – Physical Therapy Education Solutions (3)

With the overall competitiveness and requirements for GPA that most PT programs have, if you are considering eventually applying you need to be focused on good grades from day 1 in college. The average GPA of accepted applicants is 3.57. Let’s look at a couple of examples to illustrate my point:

  • Scenario 1: You take a couple of semesters to get your study habits going and earn an overall 3.0 GPA for your freshman year. To meet the average GPA of accepted PT applicants you will need to earn at least a 3.67 every semester for the next 3 years.
  • Scenario 2: You decide to party instead of study your first year and end of with a GPA of 2.5 after 2 semesters. To get to a 3.57 cumulative GPA at the end you will need to average a 3.83 over the next 3 years.
  • Scenario 3: If you are an above average student and manage to maintain a 3.0 (B average) over your first two years, then you will need to earn a 4.0 over your final two years to get to 3.5.

You can think of keeping a high GPA in the same way most of us think of maintaining a low body weight, it is much easier to just do it from the start then to try to recover after you have let it go for a while!

What is the GRE and do I need it?

According to ETS (who created and administers the test), the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) features question types that reflect the kind of thinking necessary for graduate and professional schools and yes, you most likely need it. About 87% of PT programs require their applicants to take the GRE. The test consists of three components, verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Scores for the verbal and quantitative reasoning range from 130 – 170 each (one-point increments), and scores for the analytical writing range from 0 – 6 (half-point increments). Some PT schools have minimum GRE requirements to apply.

In order to be competitive with other PT school applicants you should try to score a 155 or above on the verbal reasoning section, a 155 and above on the quantitative reasoning section, and a score of 4.0 or above on the analytical writing section. You can find more information about the GRE at

Are observation hours a significant ranking factor?

How hard is it to get into physical therapy school? – Physical Therapy Education Solutions (4)Over 70% of PT programs require some observation of a licensed physical therapist in more than one setting to be eligible for acceptance. While it is one of those requirements the PT program will mark that you have completed, it can be a factor that bumps you up or down a few spots. The minimum number of hours vary by program and range from 1 to 200. Remember only 10% of applicants get accepted, so if you do the minimum number of hours it doesn’t say much about your commitment to a future as a physical therapist. If you want to improve your chances you should air on the side of doing many more hours, then the minimum recommended. The other way to give yourself a competitive advantage is to make sure you observe in a variety of environments where physical therapy care is provided. At some point you will be placed in a variety of clinical settings, so it benefits you to have had some time observing in those settings. Example locations include an acute care hospital, a rehabilitation hospital, a skilled nursing facility, an out-patient PT clinic, or in the school system.

How important is the interview?

How hard is it to get into physical therapy school? – Physical Therapy Education Solutions (5)

Not all programs require an interview but the ones that do value it highly. PT programs are not only evaluating your ability to have academic success but ultimately, they are determining your ability to succeed as a physical therapy provider which requires interacting with patients. I can attest that I had classmates that were book smart but struggled when it came to interaction with other people. The interview process is the only way to gauge an applicant’s ability to communicate verbally and to think on their feet. Different programs will place different weight in the overall application on the interview component, but I can guarantee you that next to GPA and GRE scores it plays a vital role.

How are references used in the ranking process?

Just about every PT program will require written reference letters/forms. It goes without saying that most people are not going to ask for a reference from someone if there is any chance they will say something negative. So, with a PT school application you can think of this requirement as a checking the box to make sure it is done. Different programs may have different demands about who your references come from, but most will want an academic reference and a reference from a physical therapist whom you have observed or worked with. Since most programs require observation hours, it would behoove you (GRE word) to try to form some type of relationship with the PT you are observing. It makes it less awkward when you need to ask them for a reference letter.

Are there any other factors?

The criteria listed above will be how applicants are ranked when determining who gets acceptance letters but for those vying for the last couple of spots these factors may earn you an edge. Volunteer activities in your community can make a good impression and may be the deciding factor between two equal candidates. Giving is big part of what we do in physical therapy and a proven track record helps identify those core values in those individuals hoping to be future physical therapists. Another potential way to move up is if you have previous work as a physical therapy aide or in some other medically related job. Previous work experience in the medical field demonstrates the ability to work with people and other medical professionals as part of the healthcare team.

If you want to apply and be accepted to a physical therapy program you better not fear competition. There are a lot of applicants and significantly fewer spots so it will benefit you to embrace the challenge, understand how you are being ranked, and do everything in your power to maximize your chance for success. If you can do those things, then you will be accepted to a PT program and can start working towards becoming a physical therapist.


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