In 1986, as a tenacious high school athlete at the top of her class, I decided to become a Physical Therapist. My love of science, sports and desire to improve my own healing time were the deciding factors. Like all ideas I get into my head, I wouldn’t let this dream go. In 1992 I graduated from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas with my Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy. At just twenty years old, sleep deprived I had met my goal and was much humbler than when I started my journey. I could perform wound debridement, teach an amputee to walk, and transfer a 250-pound stroke patient by myself, but couldn’t buy a beer at the local bar.
Using that same tenacity, I would earn an MBA from Texas A&M University and a Doctorate in Physical Therapy from University of St. Augustine. I started my own business twelve years ago and run a successful Physical Therapy practice with two clinic locations. I work with hungry students every day wanting to get into Physical Therapy school. They’re all good kids and good students; but how do they get in P.T. school? How do they set themselves apart from the masses of good students?
In the past ten years I have advised and helped no less than twenty students gain acceptance to a P.T. program. They all graduated and they all have successful careers. It is not easy, and as you probably know; statistically it is more difficult to get into P.T. school than it is to get into medical school. It can be a long journey but if you want it and work hard enough, you can get accepted to P.T. school. This is how.
1. Observation hours and work experience needs to be quality not necessarily quantity.
If you are serious about P.T. school plan ahead. Start your observation hours in high school or at the very latest as a freshman in college. As soon as you commit to becoming a P.T. start observing. By planning ahead, you can observe or volunteer a few hours per week. Choose a variety of P.T. settings such as an acute hospital, outpatient orthopedic clinic and a pediatric clinic. Expose yourself to a variety of patient diagnoses. Working with athletes is only a small part of Physical Therapy. Most Physical Therapists find themselves in a geriatric driven business because of our aging demographics and baby boomers having total knee and total hip replacements. When you are observing take notes or create a journal outlining your experiences. Research what you saw and experienced in each clinic setting. Become an expert in a certain diagnosis or musculoskeletal dysfunction and ask appropriate questions.
2. Form a relationship with the Physical Therapist you are observing.
If you create a good impression with the Physical Therapist by asking intelligent, well thought out questions; he will remember you. Have some talking points that make you stand out and show your dedication to the field of Physical Therapy. The Physical Therapists should know what your GPA is and how you did on your last Anatomy test. He should know your involvement in the community and a little bit about you personally. This only takes a few minutes each time you observe or volunteer. If you communicate with the Physical Therapist with email or texting, include a picture of yourself. Wear a name tag to observe so that the Physical Therapist knows your name.
3. Make yourself useful.
It takes precious time to support a student program, so don’t be a burden. Be willing to perform menial tasks like folding laundry, cleaning treatment tables or taking the trash out. Don’t be that anonymous person taking up space and getting in the way. Believe me if you make our work more difficult, we will remember this when you ask for a favor. Be observant of what the support staff are doing and jump in. Check the laundry or supplies without being asked. This type of proactive behavior is what will set you apart from the masses. Let them know you are dependable by showing up on time. Never have your phone out or text while observing; it is disrespectful to the Physical Therapist and the patients. Not only is it a HIPPA violation to share patient information on Facebook or Instagram; it is a good reason to get yourself kicked out of the clinic. Don’t embarrass yourself.
4. Letters of recommendation can make or break you.
If we do not remember you, it is hard to write a letter of recommendation. Make sure the Physical Therapist knows you before you ask him to write you a letter. You can provide the Physical Therapist with a resume and written biography prior to requesting a letter of recommendation. If you have quality observation hours, have formed a relationship with the Physical Therapist you are observing and have made yourself useful; getting an excellent letter of recommendation will not be a problem.
5. Get an “A” in every science class.
There are a number of universities that use a weighted average scoring system narrowing the applicants to a reasonable number of applicants to interview. Bottom line, you have two tests on the same day: one in History and one in Chemistry; get an “A” on the Chemistry exam. I have had students who scored a “B” in a science class; re-take the same class to get a higher grade and finally make it to the interview process. Some universities have done away with the interview process all together. You are accepted to those programs based on testing, GPA and recommendations. Take a light class load when you have a science class with a lab. Science classes are time consuming and it does you no good to take 21 hours of classes to get a “B” in Physics because you spread yourself too thin. Take the summer to get a big science class out of the way. Concentrate on that one class if you know it will be a challenge. Devote yourself to Chem. I and Chem. II and forego the summer job if possible. It will be worth it in the end.
6. Do your homework when it comes to prerequisites.
Make sure the science classes you are taking will transfer to the Physical Therapy Program you are applying to. Some science classes will not transfer because they are not designed for science majors or do not have a lab. Don’t try to cut corners only to find out you have to re-take a class and miss the deadline for submitting an application to the program of your choice. Meet with the guidance counselor at your university and review the requirements for the program together.
7. Research the Physical Therapy school prerequisites.
Each Physical Therapy program is slightly different. Don’t assume because you meet the prerequisites of one program, you will have met the next program’s prerequisites. When possible take a road trip and tour the Physical Therapy Program campus. Meet with the head of the PT program or their guidance counselor. Have your transcripts and a copy of the course description available. Ask what they are looking for in an applicant and ask how to best make yourself competitive. Know something about their program and ask questions.
8. Interviews are the most important.
If the P.T. program requires an interview, it will be the most important part of the application process. Once you make it to the interview, you must set yourself apart by making eye contact and speaking in a concise, passionate manner. Everyone interviewing will have close to a 4.0 GPA and have stellar test scores, so the interview will be the deciding factor. Know yourself and be genuine. There are a number of Blogs and websites that will tell you how to dress, so I recommend reading them and remember you should look like a doctor. Remember body language is just as important as the spoken word. Be engaged and strong. Have an intelligent opinion about healthcare and current events. Try to avoid cookie cutter response, but be honest and forthright.
9. Do it as early as possible.
Start preparing your application packets one to two semesters early. Most application packets are intimidating and time consuming. Ask for letters of recommendation at least six weeks in advance for the Physical Therapist to prepare. You do not want to make the Physical Therapist feel rushed when he is writing your letter of recommendation. Most universities are using the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) which is an online application and electronic recommendation process. PTCAS also allows the Physical Therapist to verify observation hours. When the PTCAS application process is completed you will get an email confirmation of completion.
10. Know how to write a good essay.
First, you must have substance. Keeping up with current events in healthcare and Physical Therapy is imperative to writing a good essay, so study up. Capture the audience with a good thesis. You get better at most things by practicing, so practice writing and get feedback from someone who writes well. Being able to express your opinion in writing is very important in the field of Physical Therapy. We need researchers and grant writers in our field.
I hope this information helps all the students aspiring to get accepted to Physical Therapy School. If you are interested in volunteering or observing visit my website www.newstridept.com; and follow me on Instagram @traci_mccloskey and Twitter @newstridept. Good luck and don’t give up.