Exams You May Need

Admission to undergraduate programs and/or physical therapy schools involves standardized testing. Testing is the best way to get an idea of a person’s knowledge base individually and in relation to others applying to the same programs. They are also utilized in ranking programs and institutions. The tests to get into any four-year college or university are the American College Testing (ACT) and SAT Reasoning Test (SAT). Every four-year college and university accepts both, and you normally take them during your junior year of high school.

The ACT consists of four multiple-choice sections and an optional essay. The English section has seventy-five questions about the technical aspects of the English language. Sixty questions related to pre-algebra, elementary and intermediate algebra, geometry and trigonometry make up the math section. The reading section contains forty questions related to four passages, while the science section has forty questions based on seven passages. The optional writing section provides a prompt about a social issue relevant to high school students. Two people score the essay and give it a 1 to 6, with the final score ranging from 2 to 12. Some colleges and universities do require an essay, so make sure you check the requirements of the institutions you are interested in before deciding to take the writing section. A 36 is a perfect score on the ACT.

The SAT, which used to be called the Scholastic Aptitude Test and the Scholastic Assessment Test, is currently known as the SAT Reasoning Test. The three hour and forty-five minute test contains three sections: reading, mathematics, and writing each worth 200 to 800 points. The test has three sections with three subsections and an “experimental” section, so do not worry if you find yourself taking the same subsection twice. It will not affect your score and is used to develop questions for future testing. The Critical Reading section has passages from different fields of study and personal narratives and questions about them. The mathematics sections contain two twenty-five minute sections—one with twenty multiple-choice questions and one with eight multiple-choice questions and ten grid-in questions that cannot be penalized for being incorrect—and a twenty minute section with sixteen multiple-choice questions. The writing section contains multiple-choice questions on grammar and a short essay in response to a prompt, which is philosophical in nature so that anyone should be able to answer it regardless of their educational background. A perfect score on the SAT reasoning test is a 2400.

The most common test for entering a graduate program is the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). It contains four sections: verbal, quantitative, analytical writing, and an experimental section (so you will take one of them twice). The verbal section mainly tests your vocabulary with questions that ask about analogies and reading comprehension. The quantitative section tests mathematical ability at a high school level. Both the verbal and the quantitative sections are multiple choice and scored from 200 to 800 points. You will write two essays for the analytical writing section, one being an “issue task,” in which you can choose from two topics, and another being an “argument task,” in which you critique an argument. The essays are graded from a 0 to 6 by half point increments. Like in the SAT, the experimental section does not count toward your final score and is used for research. Each institution and program will have a minimum score requirement for each test as part of their admissions criteria.


Anyone who successfully completes physical therapy school and wants to practice in a clinical setting has to be licensed. To be licensed anywhere in the United States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, or the Virgin Islands, you will have to take and pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE). The test is developed and given by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy with the goal of assessing the basic knowledge of individuals who are going to be licensed as physical therapists for the first time.

The Federations of State Boards of Physical Therapy achieves three goals with the NPTE. The first one is assisting regulatory agencies that ensure that physical therapists are properly licensed. The NPTE is the same no matter where it is taken, so its second goal is to provide one method of evaluating all candidates. And the ultimate goal of the exam is to make sure that only people who are qualified to practice physical therapy do so to keep the public safe.

The exam for physical therapists is five hours long and contains 250 questions, 50 of them “pre-test” questions that will not be scored and may be used on future exams. The pre-test questions will not be marked as such and are scattered throughout the exam. The final score is based on the number of correct questions, so it is to your advantage to answer all of them. You will be able to skip questions and go back to them at the end, so do not spend an excessive amount of time on one question. The score can range from 200 to 800, with 600 needed to pass in all jurisdictions.

All 250 questions, created by a committee of physical therapists, are multiple choice with one answer per question. The NPTE covers four major areas of physical therapy including: Clinical Application of Foundational Science; Examination/Foundations for Evaluation, Differential Diagnosis & Prognosis; Interventions/Equipment & Devices; Therapeutic Modalities; and Safety, Protection, & Professional Roles; Teaching & Learning; Research and Evidence-Based Practice. Within all the sections except the last one, the questions apply the concepts to specialty areas, such as cardiopulmonary and neurological physical therapy.

Clinical Application of Foundational Science is going to focus on the basic principles of anatomy, pharmacology, and physiology and how exercise and activity will affect the cardiovascular and pulmonary system. The diseases, diagnosis, and medical management for each of the body systems will be tested in the Examination/Foundations for Evaluation, Differential Diagnosis & Prognosis section. The section on Interventions/Equipment & Devices; Therapeutic Modalities will test your knowledge on how you will manage the patient and the potential benefits or complications that can occur. It also assesses your knowledge of devices you will be selecting for your patients to use and when to use methods, such as electrotherapy or thermotherapy. The section on Safety, Protection, & Professional Roles will ask you questions about how to safely use equipment, what to do in an emergency, and reporting abuse and neglect you might observe in your patients. Teaching & Learning; Research and Evidence-Based Practice will test your knowledge of how to communicate with and educate your patients, and how to design and conduct studies, respectively.

State Licensure Examinations

Once you have passed the NPTE, you will be required to take a state licensing exam, which will obviously depend on where you decide to practice. Every state in the United States acknowledges the NPTE. From that point, the state regulatory boards decide how they will ensure their physical therapists have the skill set to practice competently, legally, and ethically. The state regulatory boards receive complaints from patients. If you violate any of the laws, your license can be revoked temporarily or permanently, and you will not be allowed to practice unless your license is reinstated.

To be licensed anywhere in the United States, you have to have attended an accredited physical therapy program. Most states require that the applicants’ credentials be evaluated by credentialing organizations that determine the qualifications of applicants by verifying their background. In Alabama, International Credentialing Associates, Inc., evaluates applicants. Many states have the Foreign Credentialing Commission on Physical Therapy (FCCPT). Some have credentialing agencies that include the FCCPT, the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy, International Education Research Foundation, Inc., and International Credentialing Associates, Inc.

In Arkansas, California, the District of Columbia, and several other states, physical therapists applying for a license have to take law exams. The regulatory board in Connecticut gives applicants temporary permits so they can practice before taking the NPTE. Most states will grant licensure to physical therapists that currently have a license and are moving to a different state. Colorado requires that a license be obtained from the state within two years of graduating from an accredited physical therapy school and passing a licensing exam, or practicing for a minimum of two of the five previous years before they apply. States like Maine and Louisiana will waive their exam for physical therapists that are already licensed if it was obtained under similar requirements and qualifications.

States also have rules governing physical therapists who received their training in another country because they want to ensure they have received the same training as those attending an accredited program. If English is not a person’s native language, many regulatory boards want them to pass English language exams such as the TOEFL as part of their application for licensing. They also ensure their coursework meets the same standards as any accredited physical therapy program, and the applicant may have to work under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist for a certain period.

There will be processing and application fees associated with applying for licensure and testing that each state mandates. It is also important to keep in mind that requirements can change so when you are about to take the NPTE and deciding where you want to practice, contact the state regulatory board or visit their website to make sure you meet all the requirements before applying for a license in the state in which you want to practice.

Continuing Education (CE)

Once you finish physical therapy school, pass the national and state exams, have your license, and are practicing, you will need to renew it every two years. For most states, continuing education is required for renewal. Continuing education also allows you to keep up to date on the latest in physical therapy (whether it is new techniques or equipment) and reinforce the basics. You will go to seminars and hear experts in your field discuss familiar and unfamiliar ideas and concepts. Laboratories are also usually a part of continuing education so you can get hands-on experience with techniques and equipment you may not get to use in your practice. They will also present new ideas, techniques, and devices that aim to improve treating patients.

Continuing education will be done throughout your career. The American Physical Therapy Association has a page listing all the continuing education courses they offer in all the different areas of physical therapy. In addition to the courses offered, they state their standards and policies for classes that count toward continuing education and how they determine what is considered a high quality continuing education program. Every class that is offered counts toward so many hours of continuing education, and each state has its own minimum number of hours you have to complete to renew your license.

Continuing education can be done through conferences at the state and national level, seminars, and even online. You will sit and listen to lectures and have labs where you get to practice techniques and use equipment. You will hear about new developments discovered through scientific research, reconnect with former classmates, and network with experts in the field. When you complete a continuing education course, you will get proof that you completed it, like a certificate. In some states like Connecticut, you will have to file a certificate of completion with the department of public health, while other states will not require you to report your hours. But make sure to keep a copy of your completion certificates just in case the regulatory board asks for proof. Some states have specific requirements for the types of continuing education classes you have to take, while states such as Maine, Massachusetts, and South Dakota have no continuing education requirements for physical therapists. Arkansas requires that the classes be offered in certain areas of physical therapy, like clinical management, behavioral science, and scientific research, for them to be approved. If you are renewing your license for the first time in Florida, you have to take a one-hour course on HIV/AIDS. Oklahoma requires that three of the forty hours of continuing education consist of ethics education that incorporates the APTA Guide for Professional Conduct and the APTA Code of Ethics. Once you are out of school and practicing, you will have to make sure you keep up with the requirements of your state because they may change. For a detailed list of what each state requires for continuing education, go to TodayinPT.com.