The Fast Track to Physical Therapy Studies

by Adam Muri-Rosenthal, Ph.D.

As of 2020, a rule established by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) went into effect according to which a DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy degree) would thenceforth be required of anyone practicing physical therapy. High school students considering physical therapy as a profession should thus take into account that, in most cases, they must first complete a four-year undergraduate degree and then move on to a three-year DPT program in order to become licensed. Generally, students wishing to pursue this track will want to look for an undergraduate program that allows them to successfully complete the prerequisite coursework. Most often this will be a program in biology, exercise science, health science, or similar. Information about DPT prerequisites and the undergraduate majors that most aspiring physical therapists pursue can be found here.

However, there is another, quicker way to the DPT: expedited programs known variously (depending on their specific characteristics) as direct entry, bridge, or 3+3 programs. A number of universities offer the possibility to apply directly to an undergraduate program that paves the way to its DPT program, in many cases shortening the total length of studies from seven to six years—which is why they are often known as 3+3 programs. As we will see, however, there are some important factors to keep in mind when considering these programs:

  1. Admission to the graduate portion of these programs is not always guaranteed, and if you intend to pursue one, this should be one of the first questions you ask before applying. The answer will vary. In some schools, even students enrolled in the undergraduate PT program must compete for spots in the DPT program. This is true, for instance, of Hartwick College in Oneonta, NY, which guarantees only “preferred acceptance” at its partner institutions, the Sage Colleges. On the other hand, Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, PA, prides itself on being a true direct entry program—students admitted as undergraduates are automatically admitted to the DPT program. Naturally, certain minimum requirements must be met in order to continue, but such is the case in any undergraduate program.

  2. Expedited DPT programs are still a bit of a niche, and many of the schools that offer them are smaller institutions accustomed to primarily serving their regional populations. One such school that I spoke with, Husson University in Bangor, ME, lists admissions representatives only for New England. It is thus clear that, generally speaking, their applicants do not hail from much farther afield than Maine. There are exceptions, of course, at some schools with more geographically sweeping reputations, such as the six-year BS/DPT program at Boston University, the BS/DPT bridge program at Drexel, and Ithaca College’s program. (Incidentally, Husson and Drexel do not guarantee admission to the DPT program, while BU and Ithaca do.)

  3. Similarly, institutions offering these programs tend to fall into the “less selective” category of universities, with acceptance rates of 60% and above. Prospective students must bear in mind, however, that the PT program at such schools is often more competitive than others. The average GPA of successful applicants to Marymount University in Arlington, VA, for example, is 3.30, while the average SAT score is 1065. However, Marymount recommends that applicants to the Physical Therapy Scholars program have a minimum GPA of 3.5 and a minimum SAT score of 1100. And like other schools offering such programs, Marymount pays close attention to the math and science GPA, which should also be 3.5 or above.

  4. When applying to these programs, always ask about the first-time pass rate and the all-time pass rate for the certification exam. Most of the schools that I spoke to were understandably proud of pass rates of over 94%, with some boasting pass rates of nearly 100%.

  5. It’s also a good idea to ask about facilities: a good physical therapist requires intimate knowledge of the workings of the human body and most programs still teach using human dissection labs. Traditionally, cadaver dissection has been considered the gold standard, although there are signs that this is beginning to change.

At most schools, applying to DPT expedited programs is fairly simple: you simply indicate an interest in studying PT on your application and the admissions office automatically considers you for their expedited program. As with everything, though, this varies, so check with the admissions offices of each school to which you intend to apply!

Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of expedited physical therapy programs is that they are limited to a relatively small number of schools. Some candidates, particularly those with very high GPAs and test scores, may prefer to apply to undergraduate and graduate programs separately. Candidates should also take into consideration that around 80% of students change their minds about what they want to study once they get to college, and how such a change might affect them were they to enroll in an expedited DPT program. However, these programs also offer two big advantages. First, they shorten the total length of time (and thus the cost) to the DPT. Second, programs that guarantee admissions to the DPT from the beginning allow you to enjoy your course of studies and even experiment with coursework outside your comfort zone without jeopardizing your chances of being admitted to a DPT program.

NOTE: This article first appeared here on the website of our colleagues at Distinctive College Consulting.