How to Be a Successful PT Student

Physical Therapy school is one of the most challenging and rewarding programs in medicine. As you start PT school this fall, you’ll find yourself surrounded by some of the sharpest students in the country. After all, with an acceptance rate around 50%, Physical Therapy school is extremely competitive.

But even though you’ve managed to stand out among the 20,000+ PT school applicants, you’re in for a challenging 3 years as a physical therapy student.

As a non-traditional PT student, I started a DPT program already having completed a masters degree. I knew grad school would be a challenge, so creating strong study habits from the start helped me to stay focused and to learn challenging material very quickly.

A Day in the Life of a PT student.

Most Physical Therapy programs are ‘full time,’ which means you can expect to be in a classroom for 6 to 8 hours a day. While there are some hybrid PT programs out there, the expectation to participate in about 6 hours of classroom training a day is the ‘norm.’

My Morning Routine in PT School

Most classroom days started at 8:00 AM for the students in our PT program. If you happened to be on a clinical rotation that semester, you could expect to start your day whenever your clinic was open.

For me, a typical commute was about 25 minutes, so I made it a habit to get up around 6:00 every day and tried to leave the house by 7:00. By the time I made it to the classroom, I usually had about 30 minutes to spare.

Early on as a first year I realized how much this time could compound in my benefit. Those 30 minutes before class became my focused review time where I would read through the previous day’s lecture notes, flip through Netter Anatomy notecards, or even outline some of the key points to memorize for an exam. If I could rewind the clock, I would use that time to review concepts on Picmonic, especially during our first year anatomy class! For example, with the Picmonic app, you can study with images, text, and even stories to help the concepts stick even better. As you look through your PT anatomy notes, you can easily search for topics on the Picmonic app and quickly supplement your studying.

DPT Tip: Create a Morning Routine

I think everyone can create some sort of routine in grad school. I usually recorded classes on my iPad and played it back during my 25 minute commute or while I worked out.

What to Expect from 8:00 to 5:00?

Your day in the classroom can span from 8:00 to 5:00pm, but may have some variability from week to week depending on your program.

Traditional ‘in class’ PT programs will often include a mix of classroom and lab experiences broken up with a lunch hour around noon.

While every PT program uses technology differently, you can generally expect to learn through a powerpoint lecture or with paper handouts.

If your programs provides digital copies of the PDF handouts or powerpoint lecture, get in the habit of downloading those before the class starts and upload them into a notetaking app like Notability.

I relied on Notability for almost every class, even if the lecture notes weren’t provided digitally. Personally, I found that it was easier to type my notes in the app instead of writing notes by hand. Plus, many note taking apps like Notability allow you to record the lecture and include quick playback features so you can easily reference a point in the lecture when you go back and review your notes.

Creating Systems Outside of the Classroom

So class is out and you’re done for the day. It’s 6:00pm and you just finished eating a quick dinner. Your success in Physical Therapy school is usually determined by the work you put in outside of the classroom, so creating strong study habits early on is essential.

Most evenings I would try to study for 1 to 2 hours, as it seemed to help the information to ‘stick’ better instead of cramming before exam day. Some days I would focus on reading while other days I worked on flash cards. The spaced repetition method of studying was most effective for me as the volume of material in PT school can seem overwhelming at times.

DPT Tip: Use 10 Minute Blocks to Your Advantage

I always kept my phone ready to swipe through flashcards during 10 minute blocks of downtime. Having a ‘go-to’ study app can be a great habit to start early on, especially if you want to maximize your study time. The Picmonic app can be a great tool for reviewing concepts in those 10 minute time slots.

Developing Your Skills in the Clinical Setting

Part of your Physical Therapy school experience will include clinical rotations that will challenge you to apply the knowledge you’ve learned in the classroom. While it’s great to be in the clinic for 2 to 3 months at a time during your second and third year, it’s important to continue learning throughout your clinical experiences. This is especially true for students in their 3rd year of PT school as they prepare to take the NPTE boards exam.

The hands on experience through your clinical rotation will help to link the classroom knowledge to your clinical practice. But while you’re in the clinic, you may find it difficult to sift through all of your lectures and notes in order to get a quick refresher on a certain concept or condition you see in the clinic.

Two of the most effective resources I’ve used and recommend to PT students for reviewing academic concepts in the clinical setting are MedBridge and Picmonic.

MedBridge for PT Students

With over 1700 continuing education courses, the education library at MedBridge is likely to have a quick refresher course on any physical therapy topic you need. In addition, the home exercise builder is one of the most valuable resources for students to use as they learn how to provide effective treatment plans in the clinic.

Picmonic for PT Students

For students who are audio-visual learners, Picmonic is one of the best resources to study for the NPTE. Whether you set aside 10 minutes or a few hours to study, you can learn challenging concepts quickly and remember them when it’s time to take your boards.

Finding Success in Physical Therapy School

In order to be successful in Physical Therapy school, it’s helpful to create routines and study habits that fit your learning style. Look for ways to maximize the downtime (even if it’s only a few minutes a day) and use technology and online resources to supplement your learning. Use technology to support your studying and don’t be afraid to ask for help from your classmates and your instructors. You’ve put so much work to get into PT school! Keep the momentum going to finish strong!

Tim Fraticelli, MBA, DPT is a Physical Therapist and founder of PTProgress.com, a career development website for PTs that focuses on finding success in and out of the clinic. You can learn more at PTProgress.com.
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