Physical Therapist Assistant with a patient

How to Prepare for PTA School

The Complete Study Guide to Help You Prepare for PTA School, Complete Your Program, and Pass the NPTE® Exam

Physical Therapist Assistant with a patient

If you’re thinking about a career as a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA), it’s a rewarding profession in a growing medical field. Many prospective PTAs are attracted to the idea of directly caring for patients, helping them recover from injuries and resume their daily activities. Appearing in spot 5 in our list of 17 Best Entry-Level Medical Jobs in 2022, a career as a PTA offers an attractive average salary* and an excellent job outlook (more on that later).

But the first thing you need to do to become a PTA is to find out how to prepare for PTA school and choose one. You’ll also want to know what PTA school requires and how to study to pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE®). That all starts with searching for an accredited school and program that fits your needs.

This guide provides you with essential tips, tricks, and resources to choose a PTA school confidently. As you get ready to apply for PTA school, you’ll also want to read about what makes the PTA program at Brookline College a great choice.

Why Become a Physical Therapist Assistant?

If you’re looking for a career where you get to help people recover from physical injuries or illnesses daily, working as a Physical Therapist Assistant may be for you. Most PTAs perform their jobs in the offices of Physical Therapists or physicians, hospitals, nursing care facilities—or providing home healthcare services. Some of the tasks PTAs perform include:

  • Working directly with Physical Therapists to assist patients
  • Helping patients stretch and exercise specific muscle groups
  • Speaking with families to find the best at-home techniques
  • Moving patients from wheelchairs or walkers to the physical therapy area
  • Completing administrative tasks, like scheduling appointments
  • Teaching patients techniques like balance training

For more details on this career, read our article on How to Become a Physical Therapist Assistant.

It’s a rewarding career in many ways. In May 2021, the average salary* for PTAs was more than $61,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $80,000. Another reason to become a PTA is its highly positive job outlook. That’s because overall employment for PTAs is projected to grow by 24% over the next decade, much faster than the average for all occupations. This means you’ll be in high demand.

Find the Right PTA Program for You

If you’re feeling good about a PTA career, it’s time to learn how to prepare for PTA school. Finding the right school for you requires some careful consideration. First, you’ll want to choose a school approved by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE).

By searching the directory of accredited institutions with PTA programs on the CAPTE site, you can find PTA schools based on the credential awarded and the type of program. This will help narrow your search for an institution that meets your desired PTA school requirements.

Once you identify a few schools, the next step is to decide which program will best fit your needs. For example, is the program in-person, online, or blended? Is the school a large university, or is it a smaller, more intimate school? If you have questions, you can make an appointment with a representative at the school to learn more about the program, the student culture, and financial aid.

Associate degree programs for PTAs generally take about two years to complete. However, some accelerated programs can be completed in a shorter time. For example, the accelerated PTA program at Brookline College can be completed in as few as 80 weeks.

PTA school costs can vary greatly. Community colleges can cost as little as $2,500 per year, while private colleges will cost as much as $10,000 per year.

Physical Therapist Assistant with a middle-aged woman

How to Get Into PTA School

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) states that there are no standard admission requirements for PTA education, although the most typical PTA school requirements for admission include the following:

  • Competitive GPA (high school transcript or GED)
  • Volunteer experience in a physical therapy clinic
  • Letter of reference from a physical therapist

APTA launched the Physical Therapist Assistant Centralized Application Service (PTACAS) to help simplify the application process. Applicants can apply to multiple PTA programs through this service using a single application. However, not all PTA programs accept the PTACAS application at this time.

After you apply, it may take a few weeks to hear back with an acceptance or rejection. Once accepted, you’ll prepare to start your program at the next available start date (Brookline enrolls students one time per year into their PTA program). Once you are accepted, it may be a few weeks or months before you start your program.

If you don’t get accepted to the first program you apply for, don’t worry. You can apply again for the next enrollment date or apply for other PTA schools.

What Are the PTA School Prerequisites?

The APTA states that you must graduate from a CAPTE-accredited PTA program and pass your state-administered national exam to work as a Physical Therapist Assistant in the United States. Most PTA associate degree programs require graduation from high school, completion of GED, and official high school and/or college transcripts.

You may also wonder what to study before PTA school. Prerequisite coursework will vary by school and may include classes like biology, anatomy/physiology, psychology, and Algebra. Ask a school counselor or program advisor at your prospective school for a complete list of prerequisites.

Some programs may require you to take an entrance assessment exam or require an interview. For example, Brookline College requires that prospective students pass the ATI-TEAS assessment examination. TEAS (Test of Essential Academic Skills) is a comprehensive exam to determine students’ readiness for PTA school.

The TEAS exam tests students in four subject areas: Reading, Math, Science, and English/Language Usage. More challenging questions are given more weight, but the score needed to pass varies by school.

You’ll also need to be up to date on your immunizations. Typically, this means you’ve completed your Hepatitis B, MMR, Meningitis, IGRA blood test, Tdap, Varicella, and Influenza (this may vary by school).

Is PTA School Hard?

How hard is PTA school compared to other degrees? Like most college programs, PTA school requires you to attend classes, study, and take exams. Your program will also require you to complete lab work and clinical education experiences. So, when you wonder if it will be hard, the answer is that it will be challenging and require a high level of commitment.

But remember that your fellow PTA students are in this with you. You’ll enjoy peer support as well as guidance from your instructors. You’ll also enjoy access to study resources provided by your school. But don’t worry if things don’t go as planned at first. You can do poorly on one test and still make up for it on the next one.

Following are some tips that will help you get through your program fully prepared to take your required national exam.

PTA School Tips

Surviving PTA school is easier when you plan out the best way to accomplish your goal. This involves choosing the right school for your needs, getting familiar with the school’s program format, and following a study plan. Following are seven tips to help you through the process.

Group of adult students wearing masks

1. Find an Accredited PTA Program

If you’re still deciding, visit the CAPTE website for a directory of programs accredited by CAPTE. You can search for programs by state. Listings include the institution name, program director, email contact, accreditation status, and degree offered. This will help you compile your short list of schools you want to consider.

2. Ask Questions at Every Stage

Asking good questions will help you at every step of your PTA school journey. As you talk to school representatives, don’t be afraid to ask questions about their program. This is your chance to compare programs. Even after you choose a school, ask questions during the admissions process. Ask your instructor questions in class. Ask questions when you’re in the lab or a clinical setting. And ask your peers questions as you study together.

3. Review the NPTE Content Outline

Early on, take time to review the content outline for PTAs and become familiar with the material on the test. This outline breaks down the names of each focus content, summarizes each, and shows the number of questions about each topic you can expect to see when you take the NPTE exam.

4. Stay Organized

You’ll be juggling a lot of balls. You’ll have your classroom time plus labs. About 25 percent of your studies will be in a clinical setting. You’ll need to set aside time to do homework and manage your work schedule if you have a part-time job. Then there’s food, sleep, and exercise. Taking time to map out your plan will not only keep you organized, but it will also prove you can succeed in PTA school.

5. Network with Physical Therapists

You may have already spoken with a Physical Therapist, worked in a physical therapy office, or asked a PT to write you a letter of recommendation. Keep networking during your schooling. Make it a goal to learn something new or ask a question to each Physical Therapist you meet in class or the clinic. Once you graduate, your networking will pay dividends.

6. Make Healthy Choices

You may not realize how important good health is to your schooling. But getting enough sleep each night and eating a well-balanced, sensible diet will go a long way to keeping your mind sharp and your body refreshed. Regularly exercising helps you deal with homework stress while keeping you in good shape.

7. Work on Your People Skills

Yes, you’ll be helping patients with physical stretching and mobility every day. But you’ll also be asking them questions, educating them about their treatment options, and teaching them how to build strength. Use every opportunity you can to build your people skills with instructors, lab assistants, patients, and other students.

What Is the NPTE?

The National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE®) is the exam you must pass to become a licensed Physical Therapist Assistant in the United States. The NPTE is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT).

The PTA exam consists of 200 questions and measures your knowledge and abilities to function as an entry-level PTA. The multiple-choice questions are written by Physical Therapists and PTAs from all parts of the country and cover the major areas of practice.

Once licensed, you can maintain your professional competence by completing your Jurisprudence and Ethics Assessment, skill and knowledge self-inventory, and a health practice self-inventory.

How to Study for the NPTE

After graduating from an accredited program (or from an equivalent non-accredited program), you’ll be qualified to take the NPTE exam. This exam is required to receive your PTA license in the state where you plan to work. Following are some tips that FSBPT recommends to study for and pass the NPTE.

Study Exam Content Areas

Once you graduate from your PTA program, you should again review the content outline for PTAs. Reviewing the specific content you’ll be tested on will help you know where to focus your studies.

Take the Online Practice Exam

Taking the NPTE practice exam and assessment tool (PEAT®) allows you to practice with a timed exam that looks and feels like the actual exam. You can also opt to see a demonstration of the exam that gives you the look and feel of the exams administered at Prometric test centers.

Read the NPTE Candidate Handbook

Review all the information you’ll need about the exam and how it is administered in this handbook. This will help you feel confident as you prepare for the exam.

Review Helpful Hints

Finally, review the helpful hints for taking the exam, which includes things like checking your ID, scheduling early, confirming your appointment time and date, verifying directions, and asking any questions you may still have.

African-American medical student in a hallway

Get Started on Your PTA School Search Today

If a physical therapist assistant career sounds exciting, it may be time to start your search for a PTA school. The tips, links, and resources in this article will help you begin your search immediately. Once you’ve identified a short list of possible schools, you’ll have the information you need to make a great final decision.

To start your search, take a few minutes to read about what makes the PTA program at Brookline College a great option.