Last Updated on August 17, 2022 by Laura Turner
Congratulations on your decision to apply to PT school! Observation experiences are an important part of the application process – not only is it a requirement for most programs, but it is also a great way to make contacts within the profession and discover which settings interest you the most. You can check the PTCAS (Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service) website for a complete list of program requirements. Almost all programs at least strongly recommend observation experiences, and some require up to 200 hours of paid or volunteer time. Additionally, many programs require one or more letters of recommendation from a practicing physical therapist. The therapists who supervise your observation experiences can be a great resource for this. It is never too early to start networking and making a name for yourself within the profession. Here are some tips for making the most of your observation experiences and making yourself stand out as a top candidate for admission to PT school:
Set Up Your Experiences
It can be tougher than ever to find observation opportunities due to many facilities limiting extra visitors. It may require some work to get your foot in the door. Your undergraduate institution may have internal resources to facilitate you, especially if they are connected to a hospital system. Check with your academic advisor about pursuing these opportunities and apply early as there may be waitlists. You can also check web pages for hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient clinics, etc. If you don’t find any specific information about volunteering, I suggest finding a “contact us” link and inquiring there. Briefly introduce yourself, state why you are interested in observing at that specific site and ask if they are taking any students. You may get forwarded to a student/clinical education coordinator that is responsible for organizing student observations. You can discuss logistics (dates, hours requested, etc.) with this person. Certain clinics even employ “PT techs” or “PT aides” to assist with clinic flow – this can be a great way to have a paid observation experience and get to know the physical therapists, and their jobs, even better.
However, it is a good idea to diversify your experiences by observing in multiple settings, even if you land a paying gig. If you continue to have trouble with securing observation hours, reach out to your personal network. Chances are you know someone who went to PT, knows a therapist, or can link you with someone willing to help. Connections and introductions are excellent ways to secure opportunities. This is also great practice at networking, which is a skill that will translate to your future job hunt!
Once you have set up an observation experience, it is important to represent yourself well, as a future professional in the industry. Reach out beforehand to find out the dress code and dress accordingly. If in doubt, dress professionally but comfortably. You will likely be standing and moving around most of the time. Certain settings can have a casual feel at times because therapists and patients often get to know each other well. This is a wonderful part of being a physical therapist, and it is okay to be relaxed and enjoy the environment – but, remember to remain professional.
One of the most important parts of being a physical therapist is learning to communicate well with patients to keep treatments engaging. As an observer, this can be difficult at times because you are not actively participating in the treatment. However, this is still a great time to practice your communication skills by engaging patients in appropriate conversations. Hopefully, the supervising physical therapist will introduce you to the patient before the treatment sessions start. Full disclosure – therapists are busy! If they forget, take the initiative and introduce yourself. State why are you are there and ask them permission to observe their session and ask them questions. Most patients are more than willing to share their experiences! However, some patients may feel sensitive about their injury or prefer not to have extra people around during their sessions. That’s okay and it’s not personal. Try to find something else productive to do during this time. Treat everything as a learning experience, knowing you may encounter a similar situation in your future career. Take the time to absorb and learn as much as possible. Think about what you like or do not like about the settings and patient populations you observe. Enjoy yourself!
Physical Therapy is a popular and growing field. It is more than likely that you are not the only student observing in the facility or the only student being supervised. As was stated earlier, it is not too early to start building professional connections and establishing a positive reputation for yourself. This is an excellent opportunity to obtain references for your application. Most physical therapists are friendly and willing to help. After all, they were once in your shoes. However, if you can stand out during your experience, the supervising therapist will be able to write a more personalized, authentic, and thoughtful letter of recommendation.
It’s not difficult to be a standout student observer. Take initiative and be as helpful as possible (within what is permitted as an observer). Undoubtedly, there is a table to wipe down or a piece of equipment to be put away. Don’t wait to be asked – if you have a minute of downtime, go ahead and do this instead of standing idly. Your helpfulness will not go unnoticed. Take the time to get to know other staff members. Ask them questions. Be tactful and respectful of people’s time but show them that you are excited to learn about the profession and all it has to offer. The number one thing to remember is: patients are the priority – and you should act accordingly during the entirety of the experience.
Once you have completed your observation experience, take the time to sincerely thank your supervising therapist, and ask if they would mind you reaching out in the future. Send a written thank-you soon after as well. If you are thinking of reaching out for a reference in the distant future, it may be helpful to check in periodically in order to stay on their radar. It is appropriate to request a letter of recommendation when the application window opens. When sending a request, be sure to remind the therapist who you are, when/where you observed, and most importantly why you enjoyed the experience they helped facilitate. If you were a standout student, the better the chance for a stellar letter of recommendation.
Hopefully, your observation experiences will help facilitate a successful application process, and more importantly, a growing desire to enter the physical therapy profession. Instead of just “checking the box” for your application requirements, truly reflect on the experiences. You can use the positives and negatives to help guide your future choices and interests. As a PT student, your interests may change, but these observation experiences can ultimately help drive your future clinical direction. As a PT student, you will likely be required to have clinical practicums in multiple settings. However, if you know you have a passion for a particular setting based on your pre-admission experiences, you’ll be able to advocate for an internship in that setting.
The admission process for PT school can certainly feel daunting. It is easy to become overwhelmed with admission requirements and the thought of entering a challenging doctorate program. Keep these tips in mind as you navigate your pre-PT journey and know that all your efforts now will ultimately be setting you up for a successful career in physical therapy!
Lauren Calamari, PT, DPT graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina with her Doctor of Physical Therapy. She earned her undergraduate degree in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has experience treating middle school, high school, and college athletes, as well as active adults of all ages. Lauren currently works in an outpatient physical therapy clinic specializing in sports-specific treatment in Baltimore, MD. Her other professional interests include writing, education, and coaching.