Illustration of a person standing at a fork in the road. Each road leads to a school house, but each path is dotted with hazards and pitfalls.

How to Prepare for Physical Therapy School

Rizing Tide Team

Journeying toward a doctor of physical therapy (DPT) degree is an incredibly rewarding pursuit. DPTs change their patients’ lives each and every day, offering support and a helping hand to many people who are experiencing life lows. But the DPT journey itself is far from effortless. From crafting a perfect application to surmounting serious financial barricades, aspiring physical therapists must prepare to face an array of challenges.

Challenge #1: Completing Prerequisites 

For undergraduates who plan to go directly into DPT school, prerequisites are likely low on their list of worries. But as Rizing Tide enters its fourth year of collecting scholarship applications, we’ve seen a surprising number of career-switchers and later-in-life students. This subsect of aspiring DPTs must carefully ensure they meet the prerequisite requirements for their chosen graduate program, and often take standalone courses in biology, chemistry, physics, anatomy, and/or physiology. 

Solution: Plan ahead and rack up experience. 

The best move for any student is to carefully note the prerequisites of each program they apply to, as requirements sometimes vary from program to program. (This resource is an excellent place to start!) Some DPT programs also ask students to go above and beyond by completing volunteer hours or shadowing inside a physical therapy clinic. Even if a school does not ask for additional experience, adding these activities onto an application often enhances its competitiveness.

Challenge #2: Using PTCAS

The next major hurdle on the road to a DPT program is submitting an application through PTCAS (Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service). As its name implies, PTCAS acts as a centralized application service for most DPT programs across the United States. In other words, it’s supposed to make the application process easier by letting candidates apply to multiple programs with a single application. Convenient, right? However, this convenience comes with its own challenges, particularly in terms of cost.

In recent years, PT applicants have expressed concerns about the costs associated with the PTCAS application. PTCAS currently charges $165 for the first program applicants apply to and $65 for each additional program. Some programs even require students to pay an additional fee when applying through PTCAS. These costs add up—especially when students apply to multiple programs to cover their bases during a competitive admission process. In the 2021–2022 admissions cycle, DPT applicants applied to an average of 5.3 programs in PTCAS. That’s roughly $425 in application costs! 

Georgina Orozco, a student physical therapist and 2023 Rizing Tide Crest scholar, applied to seven DPT programs before ultimately deciding to attend the University of California, San Francisco/San Francisco State University. “I applied to seven different DPT schools because I delayed my application by a year to be able to support my mother during her cancer treatment. Since I delayed a year—and knowing the competitiveness of DPT school admission—I applied to several schools to increase the likelihood of being accepted in my first round of applications,” Georgina said. 

Georgina’s mindful application strategy cost her $555 dollars.

Solution: Get a head start to avoid fees. 

While it may be tough to totally avoid application fees, some students may be able to reduce the price tag through fee waivers or financial assistance programs. At the beginning of each application cycle, PTCAS releases a limited number of fee waivers to qualified (i.e., low-income) applicants, who may secure one on a first-come, first-served basis. That said, these waivers cover only the initial application fee, leaving applicants responsible for the cost of applying to multiple programs. Other financial aid options, like scholarships or grants, could cover application costs—though recipients may need to work out a deal with the charitable organization to facilitate this. 

Challenge #3: Financing DPT School 

Of course, financial considerations extend far beyond the admissions process. DPT programs sport hefty price tags that can scare away even the most ambitious students. In 2019, in-state DPT programs averaged a cost of $66,000, while out-of-state and private programs averaged $112,000.

Solution: Tap every resource available to you. 

The best move prospective DPT students can make is to explore every (and we mean every) avenue available to help finance DPT school. Investigate national scholarships and grants. Ask your university’s financial aid or DPT program head to point you toward any local or school-specific opportunities they know about. Ask also about your university’s financial aid packages and work-study programs. And finally, ask a financial advisor to research types of student loans with you—if possible. The world of student loans is vast and confusing (and sometimes predatory). The more help a student gets navigating its waters, the more likely they are to stay afloat.  

These are the tactics Georgina used to manage her graduate school expenses. “In undergraduate school I received several scholarships to cover the cost of my education. I saved leftover money to fund my graduate school preparation and applications. I also waived the application fee for the UCSF/SFSU DPT program and for the first PTCAS application due to my low-income status.” 

Challenge #4: Balancing Coursework

Even after a student is accepted into a DPT program, the challenges don’t end—they evolve. PT school is known for its demanding curriculum, combining rigorous classroom lectures with hands-on clinical learning experiences. Students are immersed in subjects ranging from musculoskeletal and neurological rehabilitation to pharmacology and human motor development.

Solution: Build good study habits—and ask for help!

Time management, resilience, and a passion for the field are crucial for success in PT school. But beyond balancing coursework, clinical rotations, part-time work, and family responsibilities, students must also make time for relaxation and decompression. Burnout is a serious concern for DPT students, and many Rizing Tide scholars have learned that their mental health simply cannot take a back seat.  

Building a community with peers and classmates is another great way to balance DPT coursework, and attending office hours could mean the difference between a passing and failing exam. 

While the bar for getting into DPT school—and staying there—may seem high, aspiring physical therapists can meet and surpass the challenge. With a little bit of knowledge and strategic planning, students can embark on a transformative experience into the world of physical therapy—and help countless patients for years to come. 

About the Author

Rizing Tide Team

Rizing Tide is a scholarship program designed to empower a new generation of BIPOC leaders in the physical therapy profession. We partner with PT and PTA students, PT residents, and industry leaders to advance diversity and inclusiveness in the physical therapy workforce and inspire better—and more accessible—patient care.