Pre-PT School Hacks: 8 Ways To Increase Your Acceptance Rate

It is the time of year where students and young adults across the country send in their applications to Doctor of Physical Therapy or Physical Therapist Assistant programs with the dream of joining the profession of physical therapy.  Some individuals are shoo-ins to get into their desired school of choice, while many others anxiously await the verdict that will be dealt to them.  I am writing this post to help the people that are worried that they will just miss the cutoff or feel there is no hope of getting into school.  These people know they are meant to be in this profession but are not given a fair chance because of a low GPA or some other circumstance.  This post is being written to show prospective students that there is hope and to clear the air of all the false claims on the Internet that you cannot get into physical therapy graduate school with a GPA less than a 3.0.  Point blank, those individuals did not try hard enough.  If you are reading this now, you will have almost a full year to bolster your application for next year's selections.

Over the last few years, I have mentored several students and shared the hacks that can transform one's application from one that gets ignored, to one that gets questioned and explored.  With that being said, I truly struggled with the idea of sharing my knowledge in this post.  The main reason is that I am worried this information might get into the hands of the wrong individuals who are looking for a handout and have no intentions of contributing to the growth of the profession.  

People who have met me know that I am very passionate about the profession and want to take it to a place it deserves to be.  In the past, I shared this information with like-minded individuals who deserved to be here.  Today, I share it with everyone with the hope it reaches more of those people who deserve to be here and less of the slugs that will bring the profession down and treat being a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) or a Physical Therapist Assistant (PTA) strictly as a job and not as a career.  My rationale for sharing this post is that the people with drive will follow my advice, while the others will continue to be lazy.

Before I share my secrets, you should understand my story and how I obtained them.  It all started as an undergraduate at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  My grades after my first two years were very bad.  There were plenty of reasons why I struggled but that is neither here nor there.  I was in my junior year when I realized that my dream of physical therapy (PT) graduate school might have slipped away from me.  That year I decided to take a 5th year in order to earn a second degree in biology, which would go along side my psychology degree.  There were a couple of reasons for this decision: 1) I needed a backup plan if PT didn't work out 2) the market for jobs was better for biology than psychology if I wasn't able to get into PT school 3) it offered me an opportunity to continue to raise my GPA.

My undergraduate GPA following my 5th year was a lousy 2.74, and that was after I achieved better than a 3.0 from my junior year on.  There was a time where I gave up on my dream of becoming a DPT because I knew my GPA was too low.  Also, I knew that schools preferred experience in the clinic and I only completed the basic requirement of 100 hours of volunteer experience in an outpatient orthopedic clinic.


Left Image: Undergraduate GPA following the completion of 5th year
Right Image: Graduate GPA following completion of 3 year doctorate program


The only reason I continued my journey was because of my father.  I'll never forget the phone conversation we had that essentially changed the course of my life.  He said,

"If you don't go back to school now, you never will."

And he was absolutely right.  I would have gotten comfortable in some career other than PT and would never tried to apply.  That week, I was able to leverage my volunteer experience into a PT aide position, which set in motion a cascade of events that ultimately positioned me for a chance to land a seat at a physical therapy graduate program.  Now that you know my story, I give you my pre-PT school hacks to gain an edge in the PT school application process.  

1) Boost Your GPA

Let's get the most obvious point out of the way.  My limiting factor was my GPA, and I assume that is the primary factor that holds most applicants back.  There is a reason GPA is the primary benchmark for determining the quality of applicants.  Most graduate programs require that you maintain a 3.0 while you are enrolled.  From an institution's perspective, it is a reasonable assumption that an undergraduate who struggled to maintain a 3.0 will have the same difficulty as a graduate.   

Programs require students to maintain a 3.0 as part of a mechanism that ensures quality clinicians are being produced.  Accepting students with suspect GPA's in undergrad inherently takes on more risk.  The chances are naturally higher that these students might not perform at a high enough level academically to graduate. 

There are two important consequences that occur in the event a student does not make it through the program.  First, it takes a spot away from another qualified candidate who could have made it.  Second, it negatively impacts a very important statistic.  This statistic is the programs graduation rate, which is a key marketing statistic along with first time pass rate for the board exam.  Decreased statistics in these areas decreases the marketability of the program and makes investors (students) less willing to commit their money to these institutions.

Let's discuss how we can improve our GPA now that we understand why GPA is held so highly in the eyes of universities and colleges.  There are two ways you can improve your GPA.  One is to retake classes that you did not perform well in.  Two is to take new classes that can positively contribute to your GPA.  Classes that are related to the health professions are encouraged but not mandatory.  This is an excellent opportunity to explore business classes or another interest that will contribute to your personal growth.

Another thought to consider in this process is where will you be taking these classes?  Classes at Rutgers were not easy due to every class being based on a curve, which turned the classroom environment into survival of the fittest (or in this case survival of the smartest/ most prepared).  In comparison, the classes I took at a local university were smaller, much less difficult, and achieving a higher grade was more doable.  An added bonus to taking easier classes was that it afforded the opportunity to work full or part-time.

2) Land a PT Aide/ Tech Job 

I would rank becoming an aide or tech the highest priority of all the items on this list.  Working as an aide or tech will give you invaluable insight into the profession that you cannot achieve as a volunteer.  There is something to be said for being in a clinic on a daily basis.  You will naturally pick up on the physical therapy culture, mannerisms, and interactions the therapists have with patients, how problems are solved from a managerial standpoint, and acquire an appreciation for all the behind the scenes tasks throughout the facility that keep daily operations fluent.  Seriously, I could write a post on what I learned as an aide or tech, but I wont bore you with that. 

In the long-term, becoming an aide set me apart on my clinical affiliations from some of my other classmates who did not have that experience.  I knew the way clinics worked and didn't feel like I was entering a foreign environment.  Also,  I was comfortable interacting and conversing with clients and didn't have to figure those skills out.  This allowed me to have the difficult conversations with patients a lot sooner than some of my counterparts.

There are other perks to being an aide, but these will be touched on in the corresponding points below.

3) Higher GRE Scores

Getting a higher than average GRE score is a must if you have a low GPA.  The reason being is that you have to throw doubt into the applicant reviewer's mind that you are, well, not an idiot.

The GRE was based on a total score of 1600 when I took the test in 2010 and 2011.  At the time schools were asking for a score of 1050.  This seemed like a middle of the road score and not an essential requirement to be accepted.  With that in mind, I knew I needed at least a minimum score of 1100.

The first time I took the test I flat out choked and earned a score of 930.  I was pretty devastated to say the least.  I knew that I needed to take the exam again but improving my score more than 270 points seemed impossible.  The next few months, I focused on other areas discussed in this post.  Once I felt the time was right, I began to develop my game plan for the GRE.

Developing a game plan took some time as I researched test strategies and test prep books.  What I found out was the book I used to prepare for the GRE was one of the easier books on the market.  Essentially, the questions were much harder when I took the actual exam, and I did not feel prepared in the exam.  My lack of proper preparation led to panic and a terrible test score.  

Another strategy that I discovered was to buy books for each section; at the time the sections were math and verbal.  Buying individual section test prep books will allow you to find your test taking weaknesses, which might not present themselves when only using an overall test prep book.  Also, you pick up on patterns within the test when you are continuously taking tests and understanding the material.  These patterns can guide you to the answer without truly knowing the answer, which especially holds true in the math portion. 

I researched all the hardest test prep books for math, verbal, and overall.  I purchased three books and burned through all three books two months prior to the exam.  I recommend at least three months of studying, but two months was sufficient for me since this was my second time taking the exam.  To my astonishment, I was able to raise my score 370 points, which brought my total to 1200.  This was exactly what I needed.  It created doubt.  Doubt that I was not an idiot.  Doubt that maybe there was a reason why I had a low GPA.  Doubt that forced the reviewer to further explore my application.

My recommendation for books going into 2019 would be the OFFICIAL GRE SUPER POWER PACK, 2nd Edition by ETS and GRE by ARGOPREP.  ETS is the company that creates the GRE and this power pack includes all three books that I suggested (overall test guide, math guide, and verbal guide).  If you are looking for a more advanced prep that has secrets and to the point strategies for harder questions than I suggest GRE by ARGOPREP.  This also includes the added bonus of online prep.

One last note, I think it is a complete waste of time memorizing vocabulary words.  Some people will swear by it.  But the time it took to memorize a huge stack of note cards did not yield much return.  I memorized a stack of cards that was 2-3 inches thick and how many of those words did I see during the test?  2 words. 

4) Attend Open House Events

Attending a desired programs open house sounds so trivial, but it is not.  The information shared at these events is more than just a marketing campaign for the institution or an opportunity to see if you like what is being offered.  You can find out valuable information about their application process and what they are looking for in their candidates if you listen carefully and ask the right questions.  Also, tours around the campus are usually led by students, which give you a chance to pick their brains for application tips.

This is not as important if it means you need to spend money to fly to another state or across the country.  Explore local institutions to get a general understanding of what schools want.

5) PT Volunteer Experience

Volunteer experience is part of the application requirements for DPT programs.  Typically, it ranges from 50-100 hours in any type of physical therapy setting.  I am telling you right now, this is not enough time if you are behind the eight ball in some type of way.  One of the reasons I encourage becoming an aide is because it forces you to be in the clinic allowing this number to quickly grow.  Plus, you will get better quality interactions with clients and therapists and better opportunities to learn as compared to a volunteer.  

Finding these opportunities will be challenging.  Contacting facilities and asking to speak with an office manager or rehab director is the best approach.  Types of physical therapy settings include outpatient, acute care PT, inpatient or neuro rehab, sub-acute rehab, aquatics, and pediatrics.  There are many other specialties but these are a few of the basics.

Once I applied, I had experience in three different outpatient clinics from big to small and participated in a shadowing program for acute care PT at a local hospital.  My total hours were over 2400 with 24 being in the acute care setting.  The amount of time in each isn't as crucial as taking the initiative to observe these settings.

6) Non-PT Volunteer Experience

Non-PT volunteer experience is a huge piece with our profession and an easy way to add another layer to your application.  Volunteering is what PTs and PTAs do.  We go into the community to promote the profession and help worthy healthcare related causes.  You are demonstrating that you have the qualities the profession is looking for by volunteering for community events.

Rutgers DPT Program volunteering at MS Bike Race 

Non-PT volunteer experience is easy to complete since you just have to search for events and sign up.  There are no interviews or connections needed to participate.  I suggest that you look for healthcare related events when searching for volunteer events.  This is not mandatory and contributing to any cause is always a good experience.  In the past, I have participated in the many events the MS Society holds each year, Life Rolls On, and many cancer awareness events that included walking or running.

Rutger DPT Program Volunteering at Life Rolls On in Wildwood, NJ

7) Recommendation Letters

Quality recommendation letters are absolutely necessary, but not as hard as one might think to obtain.  You will come in contact with many amazing people along your journey.  It is up to you to start establishing relationships with these people.  This doesn't mean to be a kiss ass but to genuinely engage these people and demonstrate that you are working hard for your dream.  Your passion and dedication will show through over the course of time, which will positively influence their decision to write you a letter.  Additionally, the stronger your relationship, the easier it will be for them to write you a quality, impactful recommendation.

Typically the standard number of recommendation letters is three to fulfill your application requirement.  You can obtain letters from anyone who you feel is an influential person and/or can speak best on your behalf.  Explaining my rationale on the individuals I chose might give a clear picture of who to choose.

When I applied, it was acceptable to have two letters from physical therapists and one from another individual.  In my two years prior to PT school, I worked as an aide in two different outpatient facilities.  It was a natural fit to get one letter from each facility; one being the manager/ physical therapist who had 20+ years experience and the other being a physical therapist who was a new grad of about 2 years.  While they were both therapists, they offered completely different perspectives due to them being at different stages in their careers.  You cannot control what goes in the letter but you can influence the direction of these letters.  Having a new and an old school view of how they perceive me provided a better summary of the assets I bring to the profession.   

Another point to consider when choosing therapists for your recommendation letters is the school that they attended.  There is power in attaining a letter from former alumni, which can further improve your odds of getting accepted.

The third letter is always a wildcard but it is important to choose wisely.  The person I chose was Dr.  B, the dean of the Health Profession Department at Rutgers.  Dr. B was both my histology professor and the dean who guided me through the process I am sharing with you.  Our relationship evolved over 4 years as we continued to meet every couple months even after I graduated.  I prioritized and worked very hard to get a recommendation letter from Dr. B.  My grades were very bad and I could not think of a better person to speak on my behalf than one of the top people at the university.  I highly advise that you take this route and get a recommendation letter from one of the deans at your undergraduate university if your grades are below a 3.0.

8)  Personal Statement & Interviewing

I'm not going to discuss how to write a personal statement or tips on nailing your interview.  This is up to you to figure out; however, the best advice I received on improving these skills was to go to the Rutgers Career Services office (Yes, you can still go as an alumni but might require a small fee).  They gave me guidelines to writing my personal statement and proofread my work.  It is highly encouraged to have as many trustworthy people proofread your work.  Additionally, their services had an interviewing program with sessions lasting about 30 minutes.  I learned so much each session and it took my interviewing to the next level.  Practicing interviewing in an uncomfortable situation increased my confidence, which showed during my graduate school interviews.

 One additional note regarding the personal statement, don't hold back when writing it.  This is your time to tell your story.  Tell them how bad you want this and let your passion show through in your writing.  Admit your mistakes, don't make excuses, explain how you have matured, and demonstrate how hard you are working to achieve your dream.

This concludes the list on how to strengthen your application.  If you want this bad enough, you will follow the formula that I have laid out in front of you.  Stressing over the uncertainty of your future will be inevitable.  But keep pushing forward and trust me when I say, "If I can do it, you can too!"


- Craig P. Bowen, PT, DPT 




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