If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that we need highly qualified medical professionals of every type.
Because they’re so important, medical professionals face one of the most difficult roads to degree and accreditation. And with good reason. Not only is there no room for error when working on the human body, but there’s the constant need to keep up with evolving practices and innovations.
For that reason, it’s a challenge for anyone going into a medical field – not just doctors and nurses, but physical therapists as well.
As health specialists, physical therapists help you manage illnesses or injuries to bones and muscles, neurological systems, the heart and lungs, skin, and more. Physical therapists work with people of all ages and from all walks of life, sometimes helping to prevent future problems and sometimes working to correct a previous issue.
Because physical therapists serve such an important role, they enjoy a lucrative and stable career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people working as physical therapists make an annual salary that averages $91,010 per year.
Even better, the field is expected to grow by 18% over the next few years, which means that there’s going to be a demand for physical therapists. Once you graduate, you’ll have a good chance of finding a job.
But graduating is the hard part, as is finding the right physical therapy school. Because they are fundamentally medical schools, physical therapy schools ask a lot of applicants. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the process.
This guide takes you through each and every step. We’ll tell you which classes you should take, how to take the GRE, how to fill out your application, and so much more.
So if you’re ready to meet the challenge and make way toward your reward, read on!
Course Prerequisites for PT School
Although most physical therapy schools will accept applications from those who hold a degree in any subject, it’s undoubtedly true that some classes will prepare you better than others. As a physical therapist, you’ll be both a scholar and a practitioner, which means you’ll need skills in both areas.
While each school has its own culture and expectations, it’s important to remember that they are fundamentally graduate schools. They should be a continuation of your intellectual journey, not a brand-new start. For that reason, the courses you take as an undergrad matter a great deal for your application.
In most cases, schools prefer applicants who have taken the following: two semesters of general chemistry with lab, two semesters of biology with lab, two semesters of physics with lab, one semester and lab of human anatomy, and one semester and lab of physiology.
Many programs also like to see certain specialized courses, such as kinesiology, pathophysiology, exercise physiology, two semesters of statistics, and two semesters of English composition.
Two semesters of a foreign language can be beneficial, especially if you’re looking to secure employment where that language is common among the patient body. Likewise, most schools prefer students who have taken psychology and another social science class.
While that’s a lot of classes, it’s important to remember that these are considered the basic expectations from physical therapy schools. In other words, most students applying to the program will have taken these courses, and you will not stand out by having these courses on your transcript. High grades and strong letters of recommendation will help improve your chances.
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) Requirements
Because physical therapy school is fundamentally a graduate school, most programs require scores from a standardized test. Namely, they want results from the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), a test standard for graduate school applications. Although some institutions require GRE subject tests, most programs only want scores for the general GRE.
The general GRE covers knowledge common to every college student, no matter their major. The six sections of the test assess skills students will use in graduate school: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking.
The analytical writing section asks students to draft two essays in one sitting and on a time limit. Students must explain a complex topic for the first essay. For the other essay, the writer must make a persuasive argument.
The program on which test-takers compose the essays has no spell check or grammar check program, requiring the writer to draw from their own knowledge. After completion, two readers grade the essays on a scale of 0-6, awarding a final grade from an average of the two.
Each of the verbal and quantitative sections has 20 questions, which must be completed within 35 minutes. Data interpretation, comparisons between figures, and fundamental arithmetic problems make up the quantitative portion of the exam. In the verbal part, students engage with a piece of text and demonstrate their understanding of vocabulary.
The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are graded differently than the other parts of the GRE. The measures in those are section-level adaptive, which means that the computer selects the second operational section of a measure based on your performance in the first section. In other words, if you get a question right, you’ll be given a slightly more complex question next; if you get a question wrong, you’ll get a somewhat easier question.
After completion, exam proctors calculate a raw score according to the number of questions answered correctly. That raw score is then converted to a scaled score through a process known as equating, which accounts for minor variations in difficulty among the different test editions as well as the differences in difficulty introduced by the section-level adaptation.
PT School Extracurricular Requirements
Imagine yourself getting ready to submit your completed application for physical therapy school.
You’ve taken all of the required classes and you’ve earned good grades. You have strong scores on the GRE. Your personal statement essay is compelling and your letters of recommendation come from leaders of the field.
Before sitting back in victory, ask yourself one question: “Am I the only person with these accolades?”
In most cases, the answer is “no.” Many other people who are applying to the PT school also have really good materials. So what can you do to make yourself stand out?
One of the best ways to distinguish your application are extracurricular activities, those unique bonus things you can do that aren’t required but are interesting.
Before we get into the type of extracurriculars that help an application, let’s point out a couple that does not. According to the American Physical Therapy Association, history as a Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) does not increase your chances. In fact, fewer than 2% of students in PT school were PTAs, which makes clear its unimportance to applying.
Also, although it may be personally satisfying to shadow a physical therapist, such activities carry little weight on an application. Shadowing is just following around a professional. It might help you get a good letter of recommendation, but it won’t be distinctive on your application.
Likewise, paid or volunteer experience doesn’t stand out because most programs require a certain amount of hours interacting with patients.
What stands out? Any extra time working with patients or leading an organization.
If you can perform procedures, or even take charge of a patient’s care and treatment, then you’ll have an advantage over most other applicants. There are many ways to gain this type of experience, such as getting an internship, volunteering at a local clinic, or volunteering for a senior care center.
You don’t need to be performing brain surgeries. Just taking care of patients is enough to make an impression.
These activities will be even more impressive if you act as a leader in any of your situations. If you’re directing other volunteers or taking charge of the process, then you’ll demonstrate other unique qualities.
In short, the best way to stand out is to take initiative and take care of patients.
Physical Therapy School Interviews
Let’s say you’ve created the perfect application. You have great test scores and a strong GPA. Your essay is compelling, and your letters of recommendation are impeccable.
You should be an easy in, right?
Well, maybe. There is one more hurdle to clear: the physical therapy school interview.
A school interview is exactly what it sounds like: a conversation with representatives from the school about whether or not you should join the program. In most cases, interviews are the final step before a decision is made and an offer is extended.
A lot of students worry about school interviews. They try to prepare by figuring out who will be present for the interview, and doing research to discover their research interests and expertise.
To be frank, that’s a waste of time. Not only is the specific interviewer subject to change at the last minute, but it’s also putting the focus the wrong way. An interview isn’t about the person asking the questions; it’s about you, the potential student.
The specific wording of questions will change according to the person doing the asking, but most interviews come down to these three questions: Why you? Why us? Why now?
To put it another way, schools want to know why you are the right person to go to that program at that time. The questions will sound different, but that’s the basic point.
If you come to an interview ready to tell your story, to explain your history as a physical therapist, and prepared to say how the school will help you advance your goals, then you’re in good shape. All of your answers are just building on that point.
You should come expecting the interviewer to ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Your answer should highlight your journey and the program’s role in helping you continue it.
Once you have that foundation in place, you’ll be ready to start formulating your own questions. An interview isn’t just about the school interrogating you; it also gives you a chance to learn about them.
One of the most important things you can do is to verbally express your interest. But after you tell the interviewer what you think about the program, it’s your chance to learn more. If you come with a set of questions, you’ll show that you care about the school and are engaged in what it has to offer.
For that reason, strong questions are just as important as good answers. Both responses work to prove that you’re the right person for their program.
Essays & Personal Statements
At first glance, the personal statement essay is very scary. It asks you to write one or two pages in which you explain why you should be accepted into the program. Instead of just showing your credentials to the physical therapy school, you need to tell the reader that you belong.
The questions programs give you as prompts can be broad and somewhat overwhelming. For example, students applying to the physical therapy program at Claremont McKenna College were asked, “What personal characteristics and motivating factors have led you to pursue the profession of physical therapy?”
But if you slow down and take the personal statement essay one step at a time, it becomes much more manageable.
First of all, let’s talk about the structure. For people who hate to write, two single-spaced pages is a lot to cover.
But despite their very high stakes, personal statement essays follow the same structure that you used when writing five-paragraph essays throughout high school.
First, you’ll write an introduction, which lays out the general idea of your essay and includes a hook to grab the reader’s attention.
Next, you’ll provide several body paragraphs. These will all feature evidence for your claims, such as anecdotes and details.
Finally, you’ll end with a concluding paragraph, which reminds the reader of your main points.
In most cases, your essay will be about five paragraphs and no more than ten.
While the content of your personal statement for physical therapy school needs to be more complex than the stuff you wrote back in high school, it does not require a lot of research or expertise.
As you can see from those sample essay prompts, the schools want you to write about yourself. You get to be the center of attention.
Before you begin drafting your essay, take a moment to reflect. Why do you want to study physical therapy? What events or influences brought you to this point of study?
After that brainstorming, you begin focusing on your essay. Construct a narrative in which certain events in your life bring you to the school to which you’re applying.
It might be tempting to spend most of your time describing an important teacher or a physical therapist who you want to model. But the school isn’t trying to learn about them. They want to know about you, so keep your attention on yourself.
Think of the personal statement as a chance to tell a story. You are the main character of this story. The story will follow your early days, when you first learned about physical therapy, and will continue through your high school and undergraduate days.
At the end of the story, you should tell the reader how the school to which you are applying is the next step, the thing that will bring you to the happy ending, where you become a successful physical therapist.
When you look at it that way, the personal statement isn’t scary at all. It’s a chance to talk about yourself and your passions. It’s the best way to make your case for acceptance into the program of your dreams.
If you’re like most students, you’ve probably been told time and again that grades are important. If you don’t get a good grade in a class or on a test, then you can kiss your college dreams goodbye.
As powerful as that logic might be for teachers, the truth is a bit more complicated.
Yes, grades do matter, but not quite in the way your teacher suggested. In fact, most physical therapy schools don’t even list minimum grade point averages in their requirements.
Does that mean that schools don’t care about GPAs? Not at all.
For one, schools like students with high GPAs because those look better on ranking sites such as U.S. News & World Report. These rankings help the school in everything from fundraising to recruiting, so they want a higher spot.
More importantly, GPAs serve as good indicators of a student’s commitment to their studies. Students with high GPAs appear to be hard workers, who take their studies seriously. A low GPA suggests that the student doesn’t devote quite enough time and energy to their school work.
For that reason, average GPAs are more important to students than minimum GPAs.
On average, students in PT schools have a GPA between 2.74 and 3.2. If your GPA falls between those numbers, then you can probably handle the workload required of a program.
If your GPA is around 2.5, then schools will question your ability to keep up with your studies. They may pass you over for someone more in line with their averages.
For that reason, it’s important to contextualize your GPA. If your grades are falling a bit short, explain yourself in letters of recommendation or in your personal statement essay.
Schools look to GPAs to determine the type of student you will be. If your grades aren’t telling the right story, you’ll need to emphasize your abilities in other parts of your application.
Letters of Recommendation
As you’ve no doubt have found, every part of your application to physical therapy school carries weight. Admissions committees will be reading your personal statement, assessing your test scores, and even looking at your GPA. But few parts of an application carry as much weight as letters of recommendation.
Simply put, a letter of recommendation is a letter written by an expert to recommend a student for inclusion in a program. Think of it as party etiquette. If a person with good taste tells you to watch a particular movie or to try a certain restaurant, you’re more likely to trust them.
The same is true of a letter of recommendation. If a recommender is trusted by a committee and has good things to say about you, then they’re more likely to consider your application.
That sounds simple, but there is definitely an art to securing a good letter of recommendation.
On a basic level, letters of recommendation should come from someone who is respected by the committee, who knows you well, and who has seen your best. Don’t ask your English teacher to write a letter to recommend you to physical therapy school, because their word doesn’t carry as much weight in that program.
Also, don’t ask a prof to write you a letter if you earned a B or lower in their class, as they haven’t seen your best work.
To get a good letter, work to develop a relationship with a respected leader. This could be a science teacher in one of the required classes listed above or a licensed physical therapist with whom you’ve worked.
As with any relationship, it takes time and effort to connect with a potential recommender. Take several classes with them or volunteer in their practice. You want them to see everything you have to offer, so they can write eloquently about it in the letter.
Letters of recommendation can offset weaker parts of an application, so be sure to take them seriously. With some hard work and networking abilities, you can secure a letter that’s sure to make an impression.