PT School: 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting PT School

Getting into PT school isn’t easy. And even if you’re among the 50% of applicants who are accepted into Physical Therapy school, you’re in for a challenging 3 years. 

I started PT school after having already completed a masters degree in business, so I thought I had a pretty good handle on this grad school thing. 

However, I quickly learned that PT school would be the most challenging 3 years in academics that I’d ever had. 

Whether you’re thinking about PT school or just starting a new Physical Therapy program, here are three things I wish I knew before PT School. (Especially #3 – I’ll let you in on how much it cost me to become a physical therapist.) 

1. Hard Work is More Important Than Intelligence 

I mentioned earlier that I started PT school with a business degree; that’s right – you don’t actually need a biology or kinesiology degree to get into PT school. To learn more about the undergrad majors I recommend for PTs, check out the video below.  

I was surprised by how challenging the science courses were within the program. I’m talking about courses like Advanced Cell Biology 1 & 2, as well as Neuroscience and Physiology. 

And at first I thought, “Oh, woe is me – I’m just a business major trying to learn all these sciency things. I’m at such a disadvantage.” 

But then I realized that all my friends who were biology and kinesiology majors didn’t coast by these science courses in PT school. They were challenged too. (Except for one person – there’s always going to be that one person. Forget them and please don’t ever compare the time you spend studying to the time they say they spend – or don’t spend – studying.) 

The fact is, advanced graduate courses in science are not easy, and in PT school you’ll be surrounded by a lot of smart people. Whatever you do, don’t confuse hard work with being smart. 

Hard Work vs. Intelligence

Intelligence is no substitute for hard work, and in fact, being told you’re smart can actually work against your diligence. 

There was a study a while back titled:  “Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance” The researchers found that the students who were praised for their intelligence cared far more about performance goals (how they did in the moment) than learning goals. This is in contrast to other students who were praised for their effort or hard work.  

The students who clung to their intelligence displayed less persistence and overall less enjoyment than students praised for hard work. 

These “smart” students thought of their intelligence as a fixed trait or something that couldn’t change, whereas the “hard-working” students believed their efforts could lead to further improvement and development. 

Look, you might have a friend in the program who seems to be smarter than you in almost every subject. Forget about it. Your job is to work hard and put in the time and effort you need to learn the material. Your goal is not to match the number of hours someone else spends for the program. That doesn’t matter, and it’s the first lesson I wish I knew before starting PT school. 

2. Teach Others What You Know

The second lesson is that when you teach others what you know, you’ll quickly learn what you don’t. How many times have you studied a lecture and felt like you had a pretty good idea of the material, only to take the exam and realize how much of it you’ve totally forgotten? 

Welcome to Physical Therapy School!

And this is where the concept of Peer-Assisted Learning comes into play. Research shows that your classmates can actually help you better retain the material you learn in school. 

Now before you say, “Tim, but I study best when I study alone,” hear me out. I’m not telling you the key to success in PT school is to study in groups. 

Go ahead and study by yourself. But when you feel like you know the material, find someone or a group of people and try teaching them what you just learned.

Peer-Assisted Learning is more than a theory. An interesting study of first-year medical students at the University of Calgary found that student instructors achieved better test scores compared to students who did not actively teach small groups. 

The study noted an increase in time spent studying among student instructors preparing for lectures. This makes sense, because naturally your mindset shifts when you know you’re about to teach others the material. You might spend a little extra time on the subject in order to make sure you teach it correctly. 

Other studies mentioned in the article show improvements in overall boards scores and GPAs for medical students who acted as peer instructors.

In PT school, I often studied in groups of other students, at times learning from others and at other times teaching them what I had learned. From my experience, I think peer-assisted learning is one of the best ways to retain material for the long term.  

So if you think you know something, try teaching it to someone. You’ll quickly learn what areas you need to review again. 

3. Graduating with $187,000 in Student Loans isn’t Ideal

The average annual tuition for private physical therapy school is about $37,000 a year – and tuition is rising every year. Add at least $1,000 a month for living expenses and you’ll come close to $147,000 for the total cost of your DPT program

That was the case for me, and when I graduated PT school, I still had leftover debt from my undergraduate and previous grad school loans. In total, I finished school with over $187,000 in federal student loans. 

This amount of debt wouldn’t be so debilitating if PTs earned a higher wage. But the average starting salary for PTs is just $67,000 – nearly half of what the average PT owes. 

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying you should choose a career solely for the money you’ll earn. But you do need to consider your debt-to-income ratio, and more generally, what this load of debt will mean for you in the long run.

Let’s talk dollars and cents. Say you graduate with my debt balance of $187,000. You land a job earning $75,000 each year – not bad for a new grad. 

But the minimum payment on your loans under a standard 10-year repayment will be over $2,100 a month. That will cut your pay by $25,000 each year for the next 10 years.

In other words, your debt will turn your $75,000 PT job into a $50,000 job very quickly. 

Final Advice for PT School

The best advice I can give future students is to strongly consider a state school when applying to physical therapy programs. As of right now, the median state school tuition is $18,000 a year, which is 50% lower than what private universities charge across the country. 

And a cheaper school doesn’t mean an inferior education. Once you’ve finished your program, you’ll pass the same boards and hold the same license as the private-school PT who spent close to $200,000 on their degree. 

If you’re already in PT School, my advice to you is to keep your expenses at a minimum. Above all, avoid taking out extra loans if you don’t have to. 

For more helpful insights on PT School, check out the PT School YouTube Playlist – I’ll see you there!

Tim Fraticelli DPT, MBA, CFP®

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of PTProgress.com. He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.