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What to Do Next: Tips for Reapplying to Physical Therapy School

So you applied and didn't get in.

Here are seven things I wish I knew about getting into a physical therapy program and how to make yourself a competitive candidate while building a resume for the future.

 

I got into a physical therapy program five years after graduating from a university with two degrees. I applied to Doctor of Physical Therapy programs three times and either was rejected right away or didn't make it after interviews or sitting anxiously on the waitlist. If you've gotten the unfortunate rejection mail this year or made it to the final rounds of interviews and waitlists but just didn't make the cut, this is for you. Don't give up just yet.


After each rejection, my dad would make time to call me to tell me to give up. He'd tell me I wasn't smart enough to become any sort of doctor and remind me of my undergraduate degrees (a way to say: time to get a job). It may sound harsh, but to the child of Chinese immigrants who've worked their lives to build financial stability from nothing, these words were that of caution and love.


I was working part time as a physical therapy technician, an afterschool teacher, and taking classes at two different community colleges when I received my first round of rejections. All that time, I was watching my friends get their dream jobs, make Bay-Area-tech income, go on vacations, and do the things they love doing. I felt like I was giving up financial stability and happiness just to work my butt off for a rejection letter.

I wish that it were more evident at the time that what it didn't mean: "You're not good enough." If that's what you're seeing when you get the rejection, the truth is: You're not ready yet.

By the time I received my rejection, I felt desperation to make the cut next time. I had expanded my toolbox. I spent over a year in pediatrics (PT/OT/SLP), I worked with patients who had neurodegenerative disorders in aquatherapy, I was doing an hour of exercise with a patient with Parkinson's weekly, I had volunteered for two separate inpatient/acute care experiences, I completed a year of chemistry within one semester and was completing a year of physics for the second time of my life. I took the GRE and scored well above the competitive ranges. Everything I did was stacking my "PT resume" and knocking down prerequisites for competitive programs. This made the rejection so much worse.


Rejection felt so terrible, that I gave up. Despite being told by physical therapists and colleagues that I should try again, the cost of living paycheck to paycheck, spending all my time on checking off prerequisite boxes was too much.


In fact, I gave up twice. The first time, I went as far as getting licensed to sell life insurance policies with a mutual fund company. If that doesn't sound anything like physical therapy, you're right. I was told I could help people by selling them insurance--which isn't entirely a lie. I quit within the month and went back to working in a different clinic. The second time I gave up, I went through seven rounds of interviews, had lunch with an entire sales development team, and met with the VP of a tech company that would later be bought out by Google. The job was for the taking, but a 20-minute-final-interview turned 1-hour-heart-to-heart later, I walked away with the motivation to continue chasing what I felt was the career for me.


I am happy to report that I'm finishing my second year of PT school, my grades are good (thank goodness because it's tough to keep them high, don't be fooled), I'm learning more than I could've ever imagined and I'm surrounded by the best cohort I could've asked for.





If you didn't make it into PT school yet, don't give up before evaluating the choice further. Here are seven things that I wish I would've considered sooner:


  1. Define what makes physical therapy stand out against other careers for you. If "helping people" is an underlying theme to why you want to choose physical therapy, ask yourself to define this more specifically. How do you picture doing this? Why do you want to help people through PT? Can you picture yourself feeling fulfilled helping others in a different way?

  2. Informal and informational interviews are everything. If you're having a hard time finding what distinguishes physical therapy from other paths (i.e., occupational therapy, speech language pathology, physician's assistant, athletic training, chiropractic practices, etc.), the best way to clear things up is to branch out and just ask. Start contacting different facilities or anyone you might know in DPT programs who can connect you to faculty. Ask them if they have 10-15 minutes to spare to talk about their careers and what their experience has been. Don't make the conversation about yourself, and really listen to what their day-to-day is like, what types of patients they see, what makes them feel fulfilled in their career. Go into these interviews prepared but with an open mind and take time to process if it's right for you. It may also be beneficial to reach out to people in adjacent career paths so that you might feel out the differences between these paths.

  3. Assess whether your interests and strengths set you up for success in physical therapy. PT school is brutal and most graduates collect, on average, over $100,000 worth of debt. Having some interest in it may be helpful to fuel you through the program, but knowing that you can succeed or have the ability to build upon your strengths will help. If studying biomechanics, kinesiology, or other sciences doesn't come naturally, don't worry--just make sure you find the tools you need to make the learning process more fluid once you're in!

  4. Diversify your experience. Ideally, you already have accrued over one hundred hours and have some hours completed in an in-patient setting (typically, most programs ask for about 25hrs of in-patient or acute care). If you've completed that, don't feel the need to stay at one clinic or work as an aide/tech if you aren't able to learn from your job. If you can regularly find time to ask questions about why you're having patients perform certain exercises, adding to your rolodex of therapeutic exercises, having opportunities to work with a diverse population, not limiting yourself to a few modalities--then by all means, keep working at the job. But if you find yourself getting stagnant, I highly recommend branching out to different clinics and volunteering in pediatric clinics, neurological rehab, skilled-nursing, or different specialties. All PTs develop their own style in treating and have a range of expertise, so the best way to find your niche is to experience it.

  5. Build out your resume and keep your core values. I wish someone told me sooner that I didn't have to live paycheck to paycheck while checking off all my prerequisites. In the last year prior to getting into PT school, I worked in a corporate setting full-time, was able to build out my experience further by spending off hours with DI sports performance, and use my new credentials to build up a program that empowered women at the corporate HQ to take up lifting. It was more fulfilling, paid the bills, and helped diversify and strengthen my resume for the future. Whether I got into school or not, I finally had some idea of how to carve out a career and devote myself to lifelong learning. The mindset shift helped open up new opportunities and ultimately set me apart from other applicants.

  6. Go back to school. Take night classes. Commute to different campuses. Take online courses. This part was tough for me to hear. My grades from my undergraduate career were dismal across some of the classes that I took ten years ago. Something that felt a lifetime ago was the bane of my existence when it came to applications--the truth is, your application gets put through a system that will immediately toss out apps that don't meet the minimum criteria. For most programs, there are too many applications to read and the computerized filter is a necessary process. It may seem tedious and daunting to retake classes, but I went ahead and took an entire year of chemistry in one semester then an entire physics series for good measure. I don't recommend cramming all your classes at once, but I knew that I wanted to work full time ASAP and knew that I learn well with a small class size. Retake the classes and ace them, but more importantly, figure out how to change up your learning style for success because you'll need it once you get into the program.

  7. Keep your eye on the prize. The best things take time. Defy the doubters if after all of this you are still convinced that PT is the career for you. If this being a physical therapist is what you yearn for and what you envision yourself doing for decades, then stick with it because this is for the long haul. Take the time to check in with yourself from time to time (go through the other steps again) and be honest to yourself in whether this is the career for you of if there's some other way you feel fulfilled.


Success will look different for everyone.

That's all for now! Wishing you luck this year!





 

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Written by:

Judith Wang

Founder, Project Green Beard

UCSC Banana Slug, SMU DPT '25






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