Physical Therapy

About Physical Therapy

Physical Therapists (PTs) develop treatment plans to promote mobility, reduce pain, restore function, and prevent disability. PTs may practice after attending an accredited PT program which may be 2-3 years depending on the program. PTs may be generalists who work with a wide variety of patients, or they may be specialists who focus on a particular population or issue. They can work in hospitals, clinics, rehab facilities, nursing homes, schools, and in home healthcare.

Preparing for PT School

PT schools use a process called holistic review to weigh personal factors, academic preparation, and professional experience when reviewing an applicant’s “readiness” for physical therapy. Put together, these create a picture of you as a whole person. 

In addition to having a clear motivation for the field, completing required coursework, shadowing, experience in clinical and community settings, and hobbies and interests are common admissions factors for PT schools. You may need to take the GRE depending on the program.

Requirements vary from school to school, so it’s always necessary to consult program websites. Consulting APTA’s comparative chart of DPT Program Prerequisites is a good place to start. Pre-requisite courses may include:

PT Required Coursework

TopicCredits/SemestersUW-Madison CoursesIs AP Accepted?
Biology8-10 credits or 1-2 semesters with labsChoose one of the following sequences:

Zoology 101-102 and an additional bioscience course with lab such as Botany 130 or Microbio 101-102

Biology 151-152

Biocore 381-382 AND 383-384 satisfies intro to Bio requirements

*Biocore: Students must apply to enroll in Biocore. For more information, visit their website.
If you have AP credit for Biology, plan to enroll in additional advanced Biology (see Additional Biology section below) once you've finished your intro Biology sequence.
General Chemistry8-10 credits or 1-2 semester with with labsChoose one of the following sequences:

Chemistry 103-104
Chemistry 109*
Chem 115-116 (intended for Chem majors)

*Many accept Chem 109 as equivalent to two semesters of inorganic chemistry; some may ask for a letter from the UW-Madison Chemistry Department describing the condensed nature of Chem 109. See Pre-Health Advising for more information if you have taken Chem 109
If you have AP credit for Chem 103, plan on taking Chem 104 so you have chemistry at the college level
Physics8-10 credits or 1-2 semesters with labs*

*Some schools only require 1 semester of physics
Choose one of the following sequences:

Physics 103-104 (algebra-based)
Physics 201-202 (calculus-based; intended for Engineering majors)
Physics 207-208 (calculus-based; intended for Life Science majors)

* If physics is required for your major, select the sequence recommended by your major. If physics is not required by your major, physics 103-104 is an appropriate choice
Most schools will accept one course at the AP level, but plan on taking at least one course in college.
Social ScienceVaries widely across programs!

May include Intro psych, development, and/or abnormal psych
Intro Psych 202 or 281 (H)
Adult Psychopathology Psych 405
Development - some programs want to see human development across the lifespan. Select (1) course from each group:

Early Development
HDFS 262
Psych 460
Ed Psych 320
Ed Psych 331

Adult Development
HDFS 363
Psych 464
If you have credit for AP psych, plan on taking additional psych.
HumanitiesTake 6 credits of English. Some programs specifically require a Speech courseLearn more: English Requirements for Health ProgramsIf you have AP English, take higher level English classes in college.
Anatomy/Physiology8-10 credits

*Labs sometimes required
Anat/Phys 337 & 338
AND
Anat/Phys 335 OR 435
Strongly Recommended
Statistics3 credits or 1 semesterChoose one of the following:

Statistics 301
Statistics 371
An introductory statistics course in your major department.
If you have AP credit for stats, consider taking stats on campus

Medical Terminology3 credits or 1 semester

Classics 205
Sometimes Required
Statistics3 credits or 1 semesterChoose one of the following:

Statistics 301
Statistics 371
An introductory statistics course in your major department.
If you have AP credit for stats, consider taking stats on campus

Medical Terminology

3 credits or 1 semesterClassics 205
Additional BiologySome schools require a number of credits rather than specific courses. Microbio 101-102
Immunology 341
Kines 314 or 318



Most PT programs require 40-80 hours observing PTs in at least two different settings. You can get these hours while working or volunteering in clinical settings with PTs or through standalone shadowing experiences or conversations.

Learn more about Shadowing

Most PT programs require 40-80 hours observing PTs in at least two different settings. Working or volunteering in clinics, and other healthcare settings gives you a chance to accomplish this while diversifying your experience with patients and healthcare teams. 

Explore Jobs Explore Volunteer Opportunities

Physical therapy programs look for applicants who demonstrate a sustained commitment to serving others in healthcare and community settings. Learn more about service opportunities by visiting our Volunteering page and choose opportunities and organizations aligned with your interests! 

Explore Volunteer Opportunities

Research is an important way to develop skills that help you hone your capacity to learn and begin to contribute to the generation of new knowledge in fields of inquiry. Working in a research lab also gives you the opportunity to cultivate relationships with faculty who can serve as letter writers when you apply to a health professions program. 

Explore Research Opportunities

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required by some, but not all, DVM programs. The GRE is not a content exam meaning you do not need specific classes to take it. The GRE evaluates your writing, reasoning, and basic quantitative reasoning skills. Enroll in CPHA’s Applying to Health Professions self-paced course to learn more about the GRE.

What is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized content exam designed to assess verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills. The GRE is an adaptive exam meaning that the difficulty of the questions you see are based on the number of correct responses you provide. Raw scores are scaled on a range of 130-170 for the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections and 0-6 for the written section. 

  • Verbal Reasoning (27 items) asks you to analyze and draw conclusions from discourse; reason from incomplete data; identify author’s assumptions and/or perspective; understand multiple levels of meaning, summarize text; understand the meaning of individual words, and relationships among words and among concepts.
  • Quantitative Reasoning (27 items) includes algebra, data analysis, quantitative comparison, probability, statistics, and math word problems.
  • Analytical Writing requires you to provide a focused response and assesses the clarity, focus, relevance, and your command of English of that response. 

GRE Exam Overview

SectionNumber of QuestionsTime Allotted
Analytical WritingAnalyze an issue or task30 minutes
Verbal ReasoningSection 1: 12 Questions
Section 2: 15 Questions
Section 1: 18 minutes
Section 2: 23 minutes
Quantitative ReasoningSection 1: 12 Questions
Section 2: 15 Questions
Section 1: 21 minutes
Section 2: 26 minutes
Total Content Time4 hours, 20 minutes
Total Test Time3 hours, 35 minutes

The Analytical Writing section will always be first. The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections may appear in any order after the Analytical Writing section. Section 1 of the verbal and quantitative reasoning section provide the baseline for the difficulty of questions you see in section 2.

GRE Timelines

After completing the GRE, you get an unofficial score and will receive an official score within a month. Since the GRE is not a content-based exam and scores are valid for 5 years, you can take the exam when it suits you. Many students choose to prepare and take the exam during the summer a year before they apply. The GRE is offered year-round at ETS testing sites across the country so finding a test date typically is not a problem. 

Studying for the GRE

There isn’t one “right” way to do well on the GRE, but people who are successful do these things:

  • Assess yourself! You need to be honest with yourself about:
    • Your attention span and the breaks you need
    • Your test stress – you will need longer to prepare if you have high test stress
    • The types of resources that work for you. It’s okay to try new study techniques and tools, but you cannot use all of them. If you convince yourself that you must complete everything in one section before you can move on, you will not make progress. 
  • Carve out regular time to study. You must build this into your schedule. If you study during the regular semester, treat the GRE like a class and block time for it! 
    • If you have low test stress (exams are your superpower!), carve out 10-12 hrs/week over 4-6 weeks
    • If you have normal test stress, carve out 10-12 hrs/week over 8-12 weeks
    • If you have high test stress, carve out 10-12 hours/week over 16-20 weeks
  • You might take a course if you know you need the structure of a course and want some tutoring that often comes with it. However, you do not need a course to do well on the GRE  if you can structure your time. 
  • Practice reading online so you get faster at reading passages; refresh math through pre-calc
  • Take practice exams! Taking a practice exam before you start studying shows you your strengths and weaknesses and allows you to prioritize content. 
  • The module “Prepare for the GRE” on “Applying to Health Professions” has more information on study plans, resources, and tips. Enroll in CPHA’s Applying to Health Professions course – it’s free!

Application Process

PT schools use a central application called PTCAS, similar to the Common App, to collect biographical information, academic information, experience, and letters of recommendation in one place for schools to review. Applications open in July and it CAN be important to submit early if a school does rolling admissions so talk to us in CPHA about timing.  Most schools also give you a chance to submit additional essays that are specific to their school called secondary essays. These essays are a chance to “speak” directly to a school about your interest in their program. 

If a PT program does interviews, they can begin as early as August and go through December. In January, you can attend second-look weekends if you have been offered a spot at a school. Schools (and applicants) finalize their decisions in February and March, and you begin your program in June. The entire application process takes a full year!

Learn more about Applying

Career Resources

  • American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) is the professional organization for Physical therapists, representing more than 213,000 Physical therapy practitioners and students in the United States. APTA works to advance the quality, availability, use, and support of Physical therapy through standard-setting, advocacy, education, and research on behalf of its members and the public
  • The APTA has a variety of sections, including one on Women’s Health
  • Check out the Pre-Physical Therapy Club on campus!
UW-Madison Pre-PT Club Executive Board Members & Future DPTs! (@preptclub.uw)