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Physical Therapy

Physical therapists provide services that help restore function, improve mobility, relieve pain and prevent or limit permanent physical disabilities of patients suffering from injuries or disease. They restore, maintain and promote overall fitness and health. Their patients include accident victims and people with disabling conditions such as low-back pain, arthritis, heart disease, fractures, head injuries and cerebral palsy, among others.

Therapists examine patients’ medical histories and test and measure the patients’ strength, range of motion, balance and coordination, posture, muscle performance, respiration and motor function. They develop plans for treatment strategies and the anticipated outcomes. Treatments often includes exercise, especially for patients who have been immobilized or who lack flexibility, strength or endurance. Physical therapists encourage patients to use their muscles to increase their flexibility and range of motion. More advanced exercises focus on improving strength, balance, coordination and endurance. The goal is to improve how people function at work and at home.

Physical therapists can also use electrical stimulation, hot packs or cold compresses and ultrasound to relieve pain and reduce swelling. They might also use traction or deep-tissue massage to relieve pain and improve circulation and flexibility. They teach patients to use assistive and adaptive devices, such as crutches, prostheses and wheelchairs. They also can show patients how to do exercises at home to expedite recovery.

Physical therapists document each patient’s progress, conduct periodic examinations and modify treatments when necessary. Physical therapists often consult and practice with a variety of other professionals, such as physicians, dentists, nurses, educators, social workers, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists and audiologists.

Some physical therapists treat a wide range of ailments; others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports medicine, neurology and cardiopulmonary physical therapy.

Physical therapists should have strong interpersonal skills so they can educate patients about their physical therapy treatments and communicate with patients’ families. Physical therapists also should be compassionate and possess a desire to help patients.

Education and Training

Each physical therapist needs a degree from an accredited physical therapy program and a state license, requiring passing scores on national and state examinations. Only master’s degree and doctoral degree programs are accredited, in accordance with the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. The doctorate degree is the new educational standard for the field and is the required entry-level degree. The doctoral degree programs typically lasts three years.

Physical therapy education programs start with basic science courses such as biology, chemistry and physics and then introduce specialized courses, including biomechanics, neuroanatomy, human growth and development, manifestations of disease, examination techniques and therapeutic procedures. Besides getting classroom and laboratory instruction, students receive supervised clinical experience.

Preparation at UC Merced

Among the undergraduate courses that are useful when a student applies to a physical therapy education program are anatomy, biology, chemistry, social science, mathematics and physics. Before granting admission, many programs require volunteer experience in physical therapy departments of hospitals or clinics.

Specific course prerequisites vary for each school, but the following courses will fulfill all that are generally required. It is each student's responsibility to know the specific requirements of the school to which they will apply. 

One year of chemistry CHEM 2 – General Chemistry I and
CHEM 10 – General Chemistry II
One year of biological sciences

Effective Fall 2023:
BIO 11/11L - Introduction to Molecular Biology (with lab) and
BIO 12/12L - Introduction to Introduction to Organismal Biology (with lab)

Prior to Fall 2023:
BIO 1/L –  Contemporary Biology (must take lab) and
BIO 2/L – Introduction to Molecular Biology (must take lab)

One year of physics PHYS 8 – Principles of Physics I or
PHYS 18 – Principles of Physics I for Biological Sciences and
PHYS 9 – Introductory Physics II or
PHYS 19 – Introductory Physics II for Biological Sciences
One semester of physiology BIO 161 – Human Physiology
One semester of anatomy BIO 164 – Human Anatomy^
One semester of statistics BIO or MATH 18 – Statistical Analysis of Scientific Data or
MATH 32 – Statistics or
PSY 10 – Analysis of Psychological Data
One semester of introductory psychology PSY 1 – Introduction to Psychology
One semester of abnormal psychology PSY 142 – Abnormal Psychology

^Course currently unavailable at UC Merced. May be taken at community college.  Check with intended schools for more information.

GPA Calculator

Professional and graduate schools, and the application services they use, expect you to report all attempted classes as part of your overall GPA calculation. Please refer to the "course work" sections of the instruction manuals -- available below -- for how to accurately compute your Math-Science or Science GPA and overall GPA based on your professional goals.

PTCAS for applicants to Physical Therapy Schools:

  • Overall Cumulative GPA: all undergraduate, graduate, and professional courses.
  • GPA for Each Institution Attended: may differ from the college or university transcript due to grade standardization process
  • Academic Status GPAs: are based on a student's registration status at the time the courses were taken: freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, graduate, and post-baccalaureate undergraduate.
  • Upper-Division GPA: includes junior and senior courses identified in the "course level" field of the coursework section.
  • Science GPA: includes anatomy and physiology in biology, biology, chemistry and physics courses.
  • Combined Science and Math GPA: includes all courses in the science GPA, plus math courses.
  • Course Subject GPAs: are calculated for every PTCAS course subject.
  • Core PT Prerequisite GPA: is based on the courses identified as core PT prerequisites by the applicant in the coursework section. Core PT prerequisites may differ from program-specific course requirements. 


The majority of schools require students to take the Graduate Record Exam. It is each student's responsibility to be aware of the specific requirements of the school to which they are applying.

California Schools


All states require physical therapists to pass national and state licensure exams before they can practice. They must also graduate from accredited physical therapist education programs.