What I Wish I Knew Before Starting PT School

Last Updated on April 19, 2023 by Laura Turner

Starting physical therapy (PT) school can be a daunting experience. It’s a lot of change that occurs over a short period of time. New place, new people, new classes, and a new schedule…it can be overwhelming, to say the least. Moreover, with all the new information you are learning from classes, it’s hard to know where to start or how to prioritize what to learn.

That said, facing challenges like this is all part of the process, and there is so much growth and opportunity to be had if you approach the transition with an open mind. In this article, I wanted to discuss some key points to remember when starting PT school. As a first-year student, these are the things I wish someone had told me before I started, and now I hope they can be useful to you.

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Being able to apply information is more important than getting a high grade

During undergrad, I developed the habit of studying to pass a test, then passing the test, and then immediately moving on to the next. Sure enough, my GPA was terrific. And a high GPA = getting accepted into PT school, right? Well, yes. But what I soon discovered during my first year was that you can have a high GPA but still not apply the material you learned.

To be genuinely successful in PT school, it’s essential to understand how each piece of information can be applied to affect someone’s outcomes and well-being rather than memorizing facts or figures. This may seem obvious, but it is a concept that takes time to internalize, especially when one has spent the majority of their time in undergrad focused on getting the A rather than actually retaining the information and being able to apply it in a real-world setting. With that in mind, ask yourself why the topic is being taught. Pay close attention to discussions about the clinical relevance of techniques and concepts. Ask questions and reach out for help. It takes time to shift your mindset and view things from the perspective of “how/when can I apply this to help someone in real life,” but it will be worth it (especially when you begin your clinical experiences).

If you are still unconvinced — remember that in the end, when you apply for a job, no one is going to ask you about your grade in Applied Physiology.

Good enough is good enough

During my first week of PT school, almost every professor and every second-year PT student I spoke to said to me, “good enough is good enough.” This was our motto.

I suggest you adopt this slogan as well. As a student, you will have moments of self-doubt and feel like you need to know everything. However, it’s essential to recognize that you can’t know everything, and it’s ok. Overwhelming yourself with a desire for perfection can lead to burnout and stress – and that’s the last thing you need as a professional in training. So don’t think of every assignment as something that needs to be absolutely ideal; instead, try to focus on prioritizing the important things. Of course, strive to learn and do your best – but when it comes down to it, good enough is ultimately good enough.

PT school is very hands-on

Literally speaking, PT school is indeed hands-on. You will be shown skills such as basic palpation, joint mobilizations, lung auscultations, manual muscle testing, etc. It takes time to master these techniques. Don’t be afraid to ask for guidance from your instructors or fellow classmates.

More importantly, practice these skills whenever you can and take advantage of the labs that your school offers. No book can replace the hands-on practice of manual skills.

Patient communication is important, and you get better with practice

You will have lectures on the basic fundamentals of delivering patient-centered care. Concepts such as active listening, building rapport, and asking open-ended questions are some of the topics that will be discussed. However, you won’t really master these skills until you start interacting with actual patients.

During my first clinical, I had a million things on my mind. You would think I have questions such as “Which functional measurements should I take? What exercises should I include in their home exercise program?”….etc. While these things were on my mind, here is what was also happening in my head: “Okay, I said hello. Now what? I hope I’m not being awkward. I hope the patient doesn’t think I’m being awkward. Does the patient know they are the first patient I have ever had? OMG, do not tell them that!”

Yeah, don’t judge. You will feel nervous during your first interactions. It’s normal to feel this way. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect right away. As you continue interacting with patients and getting supervisor feedback, you will grow your communication skills and confidence. Until then, use your basics: be respectful, professional, and empathetic. If there is any confusion, don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Above all, be patient with yourself.

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Final words

Did you notice a common theme in all the above points?


You will be exposed to new concepts, techniques, and ideas you haven’t seen before. You will do things that you haven’t done before. You may have to change your mindset. You may have to set aside your ego. You will make mistakes.

This isn’t meant to discourage you. Quite the contrary, it should empower you. In my 16 years as a student, this past year has been the most growth I have ever experienced. Embrace this discomfort and use it as an opportunity for growth. It is through these challenges that you will become a better practitioner. In my opinion (and that of US News and World Report), PT is one of the most rewarding careers out there. And that initial hump is so worth it.