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Tips for Choosing a Physical Therapy School

Helpful Tips for Choosing a Physical Therapy School

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.

Tips to Choosing a Physical Therapy SchoolChoosing a Physical Therapy Program is a major decision for your future and probably putting undue stress on yourself thinking about it. It may seem like there is so many schools to look at and you are unsure where to start. We hope that we can help turn the search into a fun experience with some helpful tips to think about before you begin the wading through schools. Physical Therapy is a great profession and it really does not matter what school you get into but there are some things to think about before applying to Physical therapy School. 

Physical Therapy School Cost Does Matter… A Lot

The overall cost of physical therapy education is increasing at an alarming rate making cost one of the top priorities when choosing which school to attend. Simply put it is my single largest frustration with the profession today. Student loans and large amounts of debt have a profound impact on life after school that it’s important to consider it now. Picture of throwing money because physical therapy school is expensive

The average debt for Physical Therapists coming out of PT school $142,489.

Student loan debt delays starting a family, buying a house, and increasing mental stress to makes ends meet once you graduate. Also, it’s important to think about having to pay student loans off for the next 25 years. For most of you reading this, that is longer than you’ve been alive. About 43% of survey respondents said that debt had a high impact on their choice of PT program according to the national physical therapy association.

Keep in mind that your salary after school will be the same no matter which school you go to. You’ll get the same salary whether you go to a private school or a public PT program. If you are debating between two programs, definitely choose the less expensive. 

Apply Early and to More Schools Than You Think You Need To

I know that applying to schools is time-consuming and expensive but it is worth it to apply early and often to multiple schools. Identify your top 3 schools and when their deadline is and apply as early as you can. Some schools have rolling admissions and you may get accepted much earlier than you thought and save you from applying to more schools. Schools take note of the candidates that have strong applications when they get them and it’s best to grab their attention before the deadline when everyone else applies.

filling out a physical therapy school application

Once you have applied to your top three physical therapy schools, apply to your next top 3. I’ve been told by many people that getting into Physical Therapy is more competitive than med school because of the smaller class sizes and fewer schools. There aren’t enough spots for everyone. By applying to your second 3 schools you can cover yourself if you get denied or waitlisted. 

As an example, I got waitlisted at my first choice and waited because they hinted the waitlist normally moves beyond where I was ranked on the list. The waitlist didn’t move one spot and I had to scramble late to find schools still accepting applications. I got in quickly applying to the remaining schools but which I would have been more proactive.

Save a Year - Look for a 3+3 Physical Therapy Program

For those prospective students who haven’t started or are just starting undergraduate school, look for a 3+3 program to save on both time and money. In a 3+3 program, you go to undergrad for 3 years and then straight into Physical Therapy school for 3 years for a total of 6 years.

By doing one less year of school could save you upward of $50,000, let you graduate earlier, and allow you to start getting compensated a year earlier. 

Not to mention you can save money by staying in the same living accommodations as an undergrad. You don’t have to move across the country. It saves you time, money, stress, and travel to interview and apply for PT school after college. For those that went straight into college at 18, you would be graduated with a Doctorate level of education at the age of 24! That’s pretty impressive.

National Rankings Aren’t Important

All of the PT schools across the country must have a similar curriculum because they have to be accredited through CAPTE which is the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. They help regulate and determine what’s most important for schools to teach across the country. You are going to the same basic education no matter which school you go to. The national rankings are mostly based on the amount and type of research being performed at that school and are ranking by academic peers in the industry, not necessarily the type of therapists being produced. The current PT school rankings by USnews can be found here. a picture showing rankings

Trust me, the national rankings of PT schools don’t matter for 99% percent of people going to PT school. 

Also important to consider, that as a hiring manager at a PT clinic it has never mattered to me where someone went to PT school. Yes, even you USC, it’s not important. When I’m hiring interviewing someone what matters more to me is:

  1. You passed the licensure exam
  2. You have an active license with no complaints in my state
  3. Is your personality going to fit in with our current team
  4. Where and what settings your clinical rotations were
  5. What’s your work ethic like and what creative ideas or programs are you interested in taking on

When are Physical Therapy School Rankings important? If your goals are to get involved in research. Some people want to get into PT school to run research labs, write research articles, and even pursue a PhD. Start looking at the PT school rankings if this sounds like you.

Pick a School in a Location You Want to Live

You may have heard that it “doesn’t matter where you go to school because you are going to be inside studying the whole time anyway.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, you spend nearly all day in class or studying but I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to get away from studying both mentally and physically. 

What is Your Stress Reliever

If your stress reliever is running, think about a great running community like Flagstaff. If you are a die-hard mountain biker then I don’t think Kansas is a great place to go. If you like the beach consider that. When you do get the time to get away make sure that you enjoy it or it will be a long 2-3 years. 

In the same realm, think about the cost of living in the area. Most people live off their student loans and are thus required to take out larger loans to make ends meet in more expensive markets. The cost of living in New York or Seattle is greater than the cost of living in Phoenix or Montana. 

Weather plays a huge role.

If you are from where it is sunny nearly round and you go to the Pacific Northwest where it rains all winter long it can be a difficult change. Are you looking to study at the pool or the beach? Maybe you hate the heat and start melting inside once it gets over 80 degrees then I don’t recommend the 4-5 schools in Phoenix. All of these play a role in the location.

Look at Previous DPT Class Statistics

Acceptance Statistics 

physical therapy school statisticsBefore you apply to a Physical Therapy program look at the acceptance statistics for the previous class, this will tell you a lot about what that school values most in applicants. Some may even list the order of what they deem most important. For example, if you look at the website for the Physical Therapy Program at Eastern Washington University they list what their previous acceptance class statistics were and also list the order of what they look for. 

Some schools such as Eastern Washington place a large emphasis on GPA, while others place a large emphasis on experience and being well rounded as a person. This can help you save money on where you apply if your GPA is between the 3.3-3.6 range. 

Board Exam Pass Rate

You ultimately want to pass and be a licensed Physical Therapist Right? Be sure to look at your top school’s Board exam pass rate. Almost all of the schools share them. Here is an example from Washington University in St. Louis which had a 97% first-time pass rate and a 100% ultimate pass rate in 2018.

Do a Tour In-person or Virtual

I recommend touring the campus of your top 5 choices if possible. The websites of each of the programs make them all look perfect but it’s nice to see how it is in person. For example, one of my top choices was located downtown in a larger city, and I had to walk by a homeless camp to get to me an interview from the nearest hotel. 

Physical Therapy School Tour

On another visit, I got to tour the up and coming facility that would be opening a year after I started. Those pictures hadn’t made it online yet and the new facility looked amazing and state of the art

If you can’t go in person see if you can get a tour via Zoom or check what they have on youtube. Here is a virtual tour of Creighton’s Physical therapy program. Keep in Mind they will show you only the school highlights and you may not get the full story but it all helps.

What Is the Layout of the Physical Therapy Program?

Despite all of the physical therapy programs teaching similar content, there is a difference in how they structure their courses within the 3-year curriculum. Some of the big changes to look for that might matter to you when you look at schools:

When do you go out for Clinical Rotations

This is an important aspect that you might not have thought about. Most schools do 2 years of didactic education and then the final year of Physical Therapy school is going out on rotation to get hands-on experience. There are a handful of programs that sprinkle their longer clinical rotations in throughout the program. Here is an example from Franklin Pierce University Doctor of Physical Therapy Program that lists out their schedule. 

For example, if you have to go out on an 8-week clinical after your first year, it’s difficult because you don’t know much at all. You have a very basic knowledge at that point and it’s a pain to travel and find housing that early in the program.

The majority of programs wait until the 3rd year to send students out for the longer rotations which I very much prefer. You have the knowledge base to make the clinical experience more meaningful.

When does the Program Start

Most of the PT programs start in August and follow the “typical” scholastic timelines. No, you won’t get summers off, those days are over. If you plan to graduate in May then starting in August is plenty of time to finding housing, get financial aid, and get textbooks, etc. 

Some programs start in early June. The main advantage of this is that you can finish school and graduate in December or early spring as compared to ending in May for the August starting schools. This allows you to get it over quicker, take the licensure board exam sooner, and potentially get a jump on the job market. There is a flood of new graduate candidates therapists that hit the market every May and June.   

Do you have to go Back for Classes After Clinicals

This would never make or break a decision but it can make housing tough. One school that I had a student from had their students go back for a 4-week professional capstone class once they completed their final rotation. If all of your rotations are out of state for the past year you are not going to maintain housing near your PT school. Plus, you are ready to be done and graduated after finishing the 3rd and final year. It would be extremely difficult to concentrate on that 4-week class.

In Review

Applying to a Physical Therapy School can seem like a daunting task. There are so many options, they all look similar, yet different, and it’s a life-changing decision. By starting early and critically thinking about the important topics you can get through the tough process and into the school of your dreams. Happy Applying and good luck!

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