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How to Prepare for Physical Therapy School As a Career Changer

So you’re interested in becoming a physical therapist. What do you do next?

Getting into a doctor of physical therapy program is becoming more competitive each year. According to the centralized physical therapy application system, the cumulative undergraduate GPA of accepted applicants during the 2010-2011 cycle was 3.49. A scary number for us old folks is that the post-baccaleureate GPA of accepted applicants was 3.70. The widespread use of a centralized application system has also flooded PT schools with record amounts of applications. The average candidate submitted an application to five schools. Several schools in my regional area received more than 1,000 applications. My program received over 800 applications for forty seats! Obtaining a seat in the program isn’t impossible but it’s certainly not something  to take lightly.

Additionally, applying to any graduate school program is a grueling process. The PT application “season” starts more than a year before you can get on campus. So if you’re ready to apply in the summer of 2012, your program would begin in the fall of 2013. It typically isn’t something that career-changers can “just try to see if I get in.” A long period of time must be devoted to preparing the application — a challenge in itself.

The first step is to make sure physical therapy is a good fit. Physical therapists can go home at the end of the day knowing that they tangibly helped another person. It’s an extremely rewarding field with a myriad of opportunities. But make sure you will enjoy it. Get in touch with PTs or physical therapy assistants in your social network. Ask them questions over coffee or via e-mail about the profession, their day-to-day, or any other insights they can share. Observe a physical therapy practice for a full day. It’s nice to say that you’ve had X number of hours, but you won’t receive the full benefit if you only pop in for an hour or two. You’ll get to see a larger variety of treatment protocols, as well as observe clinicians’ normal day. As a friend stated, “it’s easy for people to put their best foot forward for two hours, but much harder to do in eight.” Essentially, gather as much first-hand information as you can.

Do your best in post-baccaleureate courses, once you’ve decided on physical therapy. A competitive applicant is strongly distinguished by a high GPA. To admissions committees, nothing predicts future academic success more than past academic success. Since the average accepted applicant GPA is a 3.5, if you have a GPA higher than a 3.8 I think you’re sitting pretty. If you didn’t perform particularly well in undergrad, do your absolute best in post-bacc classes. Because similar career-changing applicants are notching an average post-bacc GPA of 3.7, and likely a significant upward GPA trend, shoot for a 4.0 in your post-bacc coursework.

Only ask references for a letter of recommendation if you know they will put forth effort. Plainly, don’t ask a bad writer to serve as a reference. Sometimes it’s difficult to pinpoint which physical therapists are good writers, as SOAP notes don’t require proper syntax. In this case, ask the PT who you think will both put forth the greatest effort and who knows you the best. Admissions committees scan hundreds of recommendations, so try to find a reference who will provide a thoughtful, accurate recommendation.

Lastly, perform well on the GRE. A good GRE performance (80th percentile and above) may hint that you may not be as stupid as you look. Although, I have a feeling that the GRE doesn’t weigh heavily in most program’s admissions algorithms. So don’t sacrifice too much course studying for GRE studying.

Ultimately, high GPAs will get your application reviewed but personalized letters of recommendation and exceptional GRE scores can also help your cause. I do not believe that a large amount of observation or work hours have as positive an effect as it seems. But I don’t have any statistical evidence of this; this is purely my opinion based on going through the process and talking to classmates and friends who have gone through it too.

The programs I visited had matriculating career-changer percentages between five and twenty percent. So there are more hurdles for people like us, but it can be done. Good luck and please contact me with any questions!


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