I am what you would call a "non-traditional" student. I didn't take the fast track to Physical Therapy and have a lot of variety in my background. Getting into a Doctorate of Physical Therapy program is extremely competitive, and since I did not have the proper background I had to learn a lot of the process on my own. In addition to that, I did not have a good undergraduate GPA, and many believe you must have a very high GPA to get into school. But I still got into 4 schools. So if you, or someone you know, is interested in getting into a Physical Therapy program, I am writing this post to hopefully help avoid some of the problems I encountered.
Your background doesn't matter
Having a diverse background might even be helpful. Taking some time to work teaches the importance of showing up on time, interacting with coworkers or customers, and other skills that you can apply to any field. Admissions knows this, but you can remind them in your essay, too.
I studied music and anthropology during my undergrad, became a massage therapist, and held jobs as a line cook, flower delivery guy, music teacher, and even a farm hand. I was all over the place, and none of it included anything particularly athletic. But it turns out, Physical Therapy is a very diverse field- it's not just for athletes. Many people don't know that there is physical therapy for heart health, for neurological rehab, for pediatrics, a hand/wrist specialization, for acute trauma, and there may be more opportunities for specialization opening up in the future.
Typically students study exercise science or kinesiology (the study of movement) during their undergraduate degree, and will have experience in sports. Those who study just about anything else are still considered "non-traditional" although I think that designation is starting to wane as more specializations emerge in the field.
The GPA that counts- Prerequisites
You don't have to have a perfect GPA. As I looked through most schools, their average GPA was around 3.8 which is pretty high for someone looking more around the 2.8-3.0 range. Some schools really weigh this number heavily, but others are starting to realize there are more metrics to look at. This means a couple things to me- I don't have to have perfect grades, but I need to show that I've been busy being a good contributing member of society.
Looking into DPT programs, there are a set of prerequisites that are common across all programs in the country. I picked two programs I wanted to get into and made a list of their prerequisites. I read over that list so many times that even two years later I can recite each of them to you by memory. My goal was, even though I had a low undergrad GPA, I could show I was serious if I got straight A's in my prerequisites. So that's what I did.
Getting straight A's was no easy task. I was not a straight A student in the past. For most classes I took a "good enough" attitude and a C grade didn't bother me. Aiming for good grades showed me the absolute difference in effort required, and understanding of the course material. At this point, I would be fairly comfortable saying that I really didn't learn much from classes that I got a C in during my undergrad. However, classes that I forced myself to get an A in I now feel very comfortable with, and feel like I have a much better grasp on the subject matter.
How to get a great grade for those who are not straight A students: the time to form new habits. Here is what worked for me:
1. Decide it's possible, and I'm going to make it happen. 2. Get a tutor. 3. Prepare for tutoring. 4. Assume I must self-teach the material. 5. Make a schedule and block off time for study.
The first step is fairly self-explanatory. I had to convince myself I could do it. Even when I thought "this is too big of a task, too many things to juggle" then I would turn around and say "well, I'm going to do it anyway, because that's how I'm going to get to my goal. This is what I want to do". Part of that process was becoming interested in whatever subject I was learning. I never had an interest in Chemistry before, in fact I considered myself quite bad at it. So I decided consciously to approach it like a child, a clean slate, and allow myself to be amazed at even very simple things. How amazing is it, how actually amazing, that people were able to look at teeny tiny little objects and realized they were bound together by some kind of force, and they were able to find ways to measure those forces? How actually amazing is it that those little interactions even exist? Once I became interested, I knew the biggest hurdle was overcome. The rest is just putting pieces into place.
The second step I can't emphasize enough. It's so important to get some 1-on-1 time with someone. I can't stand the lecture format where someone just reads the book to you while you fall asleep. It's not a way to learn. Who learns that way? I know some people must because it's still around, but I don't. And I bet a lot of non-traditional students don't learn this way. At all. I could start another post entirely about how much I disagree with the format of lecture in classrooms but that's for another time. Tutors are so helpful, but it requires finding a good one. I know what I'm looking for: sufficient understanding of the subject matter. Many free tutors don't understand the material that well, so I paid for one. The first couple didn't know their subjects that well either, so I paid more for a tutor, and found a good one. Think about how much the class alone is costing, how much the textbook costs, and investing in the local student population seems like a very reasonable investment.
The third step involves struggling with problems before seeking help. Each session I came prepared with a list of questions. I did not expect my tutor to teach me from scratch, I used the tutor to figure out where the flaw in my thinking was. I highly suggest this approach to any student- try to figure out a problems, then when you are stuck, have an outside source available to point out where you have taken a wrong turn. You won't take that turn again. The absolutely underrated power of a tutor. Plus, if I'm getting charged by the hour you bet I'm going to get as much out of the session as I can.
The fourth and fifth steps are just discipline steps. I knew to get straight A's I could not play the blame game, I could not find ways to cheat the system (or I didn't want to), and I wanted to know I'd done everything I could to get that grade. I blocked off my schedule for study time, and set specific goals for each study session. Doing this every single day, even on weekends, eventually lead to study habits that I never had before. The concept of self-teaching became a powerful tool as well. I learned how to look up videos and online programs that I could use to understand material. I know some people can understand it from one read-through the book, but certainly not me. Read, take notes, pull up a video, take notes on that, then attempt to teach the subject to make sure I really knew it well enough. I would teach the wall, it doesn't matter, just explain it to something.
The GRE test is also required, and scores must be fairly good here to be competitive. This one really counts more than anything. My personal approach and suggestion for a cheap way to prepare is to get Magoosh vocabulary, use vocabulary.com to review vocabulary every single day for 30 minutes a day (block it off) and use Khan Academy to prepare mathematics. These are just repetition sections, the equation for success here is simple: put in the time. And yes, it's a LOT of time. The essay portion is hard to prepare for, but searching for examples online might give you an idea. It's a think-on-your toes portion. I don't write great essays, as you can probably see in this blog (hah!) so find some good advice there from a professional. I definitely suggest using at least 3 months of preparation, at a minimum of an hour a day to prepare for the GRE. You can retake it, but just put the time in the first time and get that good score.
Observation hours can be difficult to get. They are important to make sure you know what you are getting into. Admissions wants to know that you've looked at the field in a variety of settings (usually 2 or more settings are required) and you need to spend a sufficient amount of time there (100 hours or more) to get a good idea about why you are really going to school. This is a point where it helped me to think "this is just a step to weed people out. Don't let them weed you out" and that motivated me enough to cold-call half the Physical Therapy clinics in the greater phoenix area.
Many people going into PT have connections in the field, through family members or friends. I had none, really. So I introduced myself as a student wanting to learn and get into a DPT program, and often that was sufficient enough to get involved with some observation hours. Many clinics will not allow student observers, but there are plenty of places that understand that student observation is part of the process to get into school for all students.
I also felt like this was a good opportunity to get to know some of the professionals in the area, so I treated the experience as though I may want to network with the therapists in the future. I tried to be attentive and ask questions when appropriate, which lead to a letter of recommendation from one of the therapists.
Oh yeah. You have to have letters of recommendation. So the above step is pretty much mandatory. I'm pretty awful at interacting with authority figures, so that one was a big step for me into a very uncomfortable zone. I couldn't rely on natural people skills (not my strong suit), so I went with my strength: my background knowledge of anatomy and biomechanics from my massage therapy training. Most therapists actually really enjoy being asked some technical questions: "what muscles are we targeting here, what is the goal of that treatment, what is something you commonly see that you could avoid?"
I had zero preparation going into observation. Nobody tells you how to observe. What do you wear? Do you just stand there for hours? Do you help out? Are you allowed to talk to the patients or touch them? I had no idea, so here's what I learned: at least in Arizona it's pretty much business casual (slacks and a polo shirt), you stand quietly and ask questions when they aren't busy, you can help out with folding sheets and towels, you usually can not touch the patients and you want to keep your conversation with them non-invasive. It turns out it's really situational, in some clinics you can say something as innocuous as "hey how is the treatment coming along?" and get the response "I'm terminally ill how do you think I'm coming along" and that shuts you up pretty quick. Some patients have a great sense of humor about their condition, others are very depressed about it. I feel like the more variety of people you get to be around the better insight you will have into being around a variety of human conditions.
I applied to 18 programs across the country. I knew my chances of getting into my top choices were very slim. I recall having many people go "Oh you'll get in, you are smart, don't worry."
No. Listen. This is difficult. I've seen people with much higher GPA's and test scores get denied multiple years in a row. So I cast a wide net, and I wasn't picky about which school I got into.
To choose the schools to apply to, I pulled up a spreadsheet of prerequisites. These can actually be found in a handy pdf file on the APTA website for comparison. I went through every single program in the entire country, and made a list of the ones that I had or was close to fulfilling the prerequisites for. From there I had to narrow it by minimum GPA. On each programs list, I had to go to their individual website and find their minimum admission requirements. Some required a minimum of 3.2 GPA to even be considered. This is a hard cap, don't bother pleading with them. I didn't meet those, so I had to scratch them off my list. Some have other minimum requirements, and I had to check each of those for every single program I wanted to apply to. I came up with a list of 30 schools I could apply to, then narrowed it down to 18 based on what I thought I could possibly get into based on GPA and GRE scores. I included my top 5 schools as a "just in case" sort of application. Spoiler: I didn't get into any of my top choices. That doesn't matter. I got into a program, and so now I get to go get a degree that I can use to start advancing a career.
Applications are expensive. Just to give you an idea, I spent around $1400 just on applications alone. Of course you have to come up with this money while going to school full time and getting your observation (unpaid hours) and pay your other school costs. Anyway, what I'm saying here is it's a big tidal wave of responsibility and it all happens in a very short period of time. So I had to make extra sure this was exactly what I wanted to do.
Summary of Advice
One of the best things you can ask a therapist is "what would you do differently, knowing what you know now?". Having gone through the application process, here's what I'd tell myself if I could go back 3 years:
Make a list of prerequisites for multiple schools, not just one.
Block off time for studying, invest in a good tutor.
Start getting observation hours early.
Start studying for the GRE early. Take the GRE early, a year before applying if possible.
Apply early. As soon as the application cycle opens in July, get that application out there.
What's going on with me, research articles, interesting little blurbs. This blog is an attempt to consolidate research into an easily digestible format.
Alex Moon has been a Licensed Massage Therapist since 2012, did his undergraduate studies at Utah State, and is currently working on his Doctorate in Physical Therapy.