Winona State University

Winona State University
Pre - Physical Therapy Program

The Big Picture

Physical therapy continues to be an excellent career for people who are interested in the direct delivery of health care. You need to be aware, however, that both the educational requirements and the practice of physical therapy are rapidly changing. More and more therapists are working independently and they are taking on greater responsibilities every year. The disciplines within physical therapy are also shifting as they deal with a rapidly aging population, more severe injuries and diseases, the need to provide services to children at younger ages, and many other challenges.

Want to know more about physical therapy? Check out the website of The American Physical Therapy Association

There are about 200 Physical Therapy schools in the United States accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), and a few additional schools are working on their accreditations. All of these grant the degree of Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) including all four in Minnesota (St. Scholastica, U of MN, Mayo, St Catherines), all six in Wisconsin (Marquette, Concordia, UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW-LaCrosse, Carroll), all four in Iowa (Clarke, St Ambrose, Des Moines, U of IA) and all seven in Illinois (Northern Illinois, UI-Chicago, Northwestern, Bradley, Midwestern, Rosalind Franklin, Governors State)

The Bottom Line

The competition for admission to physical therapy schools is now nearly as tough as it is for all other health related programs, including medical school or dental school, so if you are going to get in you need to be among the top students. Graduate schools are not primarily looking for people who are smart. They are looking for people with good time-management skills who work hard and are committed to being successful in both graduate school and the practice of physical therapy. We want you to be one of these people.

The faculty and staff of Winona State University are committed to helping you succeed by offering rigorous classes, strong programs, and excellent academic advising. However, the primary responsibility remains yours. If you are willing to put in the necessary effort for four years, starting with your first day on the WSU campus, you will get into graduate school and make it as a physical therapist. If you are not willing to do the work, you will not get in.

It's your choice.

Your Undergraduate Years

There's no doubt about it - competition for physical therapy school is tough. There are many applicants for every available position, and the average GPA of a successful applicant is about 3.5. Can you make it? Of course - it's just a matter of planning, making smart decisions, and putting in the work. Unfortunately, a lot of students don't take the time to plan out what they need to do until it's too late. That's what this page is designed to help you avoid.

Getting Started:

You need to get off to a strong start academically from the first day of your first semester. That means "A"s with an occassional "B" while carrying a load heavy in science and math. The unfortunate reality is that students who do poorly during their first semester have a great deal of difficulty getting back on track, and most don't make it. If you have strong study skills, great! If not, the University has a number of ways to help you, but you must seek these out. The VERY FIRST time you do poorly on an exam or an assignment, you MUST figure out why and solve the problem. It may be something as simple as increasing the amount of study time (in fact, this is the problem in a large majority of cases), or something as complex as working with a counsellor or an instructor to find alternative ways to study the information. Under NO circumstances, however, can you afford to just say "too bad, but somehow I'll do better on the next exam or the next assignment", because the odds are very high that you won't.

During your first year, you should begin thinking about where you want to go to graduate school and what specific areas of physical therapy most interest you. There are over 200 different PT schools in the United States, Links to which are provided by the American Physical Therapy Association. During your first year of college you should pick eight or ten schools and contact them for admissions information. This will tell you the courses they will require you to take in college so you can begin planning for future years. During your second year you should identify at least five or six schools to which you are likely to apply and learn all you can about them. You might not apply to all of them, but it is far easier to drop a school from your list than to add another one. By the end of your third year, you should know exactly which schools you will be applying to, and you should have gathered an d read as much information about each of these as you can get your hands on. More than half of the PT schools in the United States are public, supported by state taxes and required to take most or all of their students from that state. The remaining schools are privately operated and will accept applications from a wider geographic area. Your best chance of getting in will be at schools in your own state or at the private schools, so pay particularly close attention to the information you receive from these. You will also find that each school will have its own strengths and areas of focus. Some, for example, emphasize the prevention and treatment of sports-related injuries. Others focus more on medical and surgical issues, typically in an older population of patients. Some schools emphasize research, others do not. You need to make a good match between the schools you apply to and the type of health care you wish to practice.

Your Pre-Physical Therapy Advisor:

You are not alone in this. Winona State University has a strong academic advising program to help you at all steps along the way. The first thing you should do is meet with your academic advisor and get to know this person really well. It's important, of course, that you have an advisor you get along with well and trust, and you will quickly identify such faculty members through your courses and through recommendations from other students. He or she will have a lot of information on hand and can guide you to lots more. Stop by regularly to talk over your progress or just to chat. Your advisor will also be writing one of your letters of recommendation when you apply in the fourth year, but won't be able to do this effectively unless you've made the effort to get together. You will need to select a major and be sure you understand and can meet its requirements. Most physical therapy applicants at WSU major in either Biology or Health and Human Performance, but this is not a requirement. Your choice of major is completely up to you as long as you take the courses which you will need to do well on your Graduate Record Exams, meet graduate schools' admissions requirements, and give you a competitive edge against other applicants.


What classes should you take? It's important that you don't overload yourself right away (the transition from high school to college is already difficult enough), but there are a lot of courses you need to take and many of them have specific prerequisites. As a general rule, classes you take during the first couple of years should fit into either your major or your general education / university studies requirements, with an eye toward those which you will need to get into the graduate schools to which you plan to apply.

It is important that you take more challenging courses whenever possible and, of course, that you get A's in these courses. For example: If you have a choice between two levels of chemistry (e.g. Chem 210 or Chem 212 at WSU), take the higher level course and put in the work needed to do well in it. If you have a choice between an English class which requires a lot of writing and revising or a course which does not, take the former one and do well in it. Don't make the mistake of taking a class (particularly a science one) from an "easy" professor. Graduate school admissions committees are looking for students who have chosen more rigorous courses, and they quickly identify and weed out students who took the easier route through college. On the other hand, getting a "C" or "D" in a class tells those admissions committees that you haven't mastered the study skills you will need to succeed in graduate school.

Although each PT program has its own expectations and its own requirements (that's why it's important for you to identify the schools to which you will likely be applying during your first two undergraduate years), there are a number of similarities which allow some generalizations. Almost certainly, you should expect to take:
- A full year of principles of biology and two or three higher level biology courses
- A full year of principles of chemistry, organic chemistry, and at least one higher level chemistry course
- Anatomy; physiology
- A full year of physics
- Introduction to psychology and one or two higher level psychology courses
- Math through calculus
- Statistics
- English composition
- Kinesiology, biomechanics and/or exercise physiology
- Two or three courses in humanities or social sciences
Of course, you will have to take other courses to meet the requirements of specific schools.

Notice that this list goes well beyond what the graduate programs list as their "minimum requirements". Admission is competitive, so if you want to get in you need to be among the top applicants. Since most of the students against whom you are competing have taken these courses and earned mostly A's in them, you will to do the same as well if you wish to get into the schools you have chosen. Keep in mind: requirements and expectations continue to escalate, so within just a couple of years courses such as cell biology, biochemistry and advanced courses in exercise science will probably have to be added to this list. If you are just starting your pre-physical therapy program, it would be wise for you to plan on these as well.

No later than the preregistration period for the fall semester of your third year, sit down and map out all of the courses you will need to take and when you will take them. You will find that many upper division courses are not offered every semester, and most of them will have just one or two sections available. Planning this ahead of time will save you a lot of grief.

Outside of Class:

You may not feel you have time for a lot of extracurricular activities, but these are also an important part of your undergradate preparation for physical therapy school. You need to seek out ways you can get involved in things outside the classroom. All PT programs now require many hours of experience in health care fields (laboratory, clinic, hospital, nursing home, etc.), so be sure you understand what is needed by the schools in which you are interested and get off to a strong start during your first or second year of college. It is particularly important that you can demonstrate good skills in working with patients. Showing them that you are willing to give of yourself through volunteer activities is also expected. Continue to be involved in these activities throughout your undergraduate years, and look for ways you can take leadership roles. Graduate school admissions committees will find it rather strange if you haven't found a lot of things to do, and they definitely do NOT want students who spent all their time hitting the books.

Don't waste your summers! A research internship or a summer job in the health care field will definitely help your application. Unfortunately, it won't pay very much.


About one year before you wish to enter graduate school, you will almost certainly need to take an exam called the Graduate Record Exam. This has three parts:
- A verbal section scored from 200 to 800
- A quantitative section scored from 200 to 800
- An analytical writing section scored from 0 to 6.
Some schools may also require you to take a "subject test" in biology, chemistry, or some other area.

The GRE is similar in style to the ACT or SAT test you took to get into college, but obviously is quite a bit more challenging. Within the US it is offered only by computer (there is no paper version) and you can take it pretty much any time during the year. There are currently many Test Centers in Minnesota and surrounding states, with the ones closest to WSU being in Rochester, Eau Claire, and LaCrosse (although WSU itself has been a test center in previous years). The cost is about $140.00 to take the test, plus you should expect additional costs depending on how many PT programs you have your scores reported to.

Many of the graduate schools claim that the GRE's measure basic skills for which you can't study. Don't listen to them. You should plan to study regularly, five to ten hours per week, for a couple of months before this exam to sharpen your skills. The Graduate Record Examination website of the Educational Testing service provides information about registering for, preparing for, and taking the GRE's.

The Applications

Tell yourself over and over again: All of those pieces of paper you send in labelled "Application to Graduate School" are NOT the main event here. They are only the start of a year-long process, and you will have to do many other things right before you can get that letter of acceptance. Get your brain to put aside all of those statistics and anatomical names for a couple of days and plan out your attack. Be sure you know what to expect during the application process and schedule your time: your advisor can help you with this, but far better will be to talk it over with students one year ahead of you who have just gone through the process. Honestly evaluate your areas of strength and areas of weakness, and find ways to improve the latter. More than one good candidate has been left holding only rejection letters because she didn't plan or wasn't willing to admit she had some weaknesses to work on. Also bear in mind: this can be an expensive process. You will be spending hundreds of dollars over the next year on applications, travel, etc., and you don't need to waste it.

If you haven't done so already by the end of your third year of college, select the schools to which you will apply and be sure you have all the information you can possibly get from each of them. Again, Links to these are provided by the American Physical Therapy Association. Unless your credentials are extremely strong, you should apply to at least five or six schools. These should include all of the PT programs in your state, one or two "safety" schools that are a bit less selective, and one or two "long-shots". Be careful to apply only to schools you are interested in attending - applications, interviews, etc. are expensive.

All right - you are finally ready to go! Each school has its own application procedure, so you will have to read through the information about each program carefully. Some have individual admissions offices for just the PT program, others require you to go through the admissions office of the college or university of which they are part. Be sure you send each school exactly what it requests. If a school wants three letters of recommendation and only receives two, or if they want a particular form filled out and you don't include it, your application will sit on the desk of a secretary somewhere and the admissions committee won't see it until everything is received. Pay attention to the instructions and the details: this is part of what the schools are looking for.

Regardless of the applications deadlines they publish, you should apply early. Most PT schools use "rolling admissions" in which applications are evaluated and decisions made as they come in, so earlier applications are usually given priority by an admissions committee while applications received later are at a distinct disadvantage. Give yourself plenty of time to arrange for transcripts and letters of recommendation to be sent.

Be sure your application presents you at your best. If a school requests a writing sample, as many do, don't send them some paper that you wrote at the last minute for a freshman-level class. Don't request a letter of recommendation from a professor who just had you in one or two classes - select people who know you well enough to write strong, positive letters. When they ask you to describe your volunteer experiences, don't just list them - discuss what you learned and how good you were. You application, in essence, is your chance to sell yourself to the admissions committees. It must show why they should select you instead of that overachiever who always ruined the curve in your classes.

Letters of recommendation can require some special care, and you must start thinking about these years before you will actually be asking people to write them. As noted above, a letter from a professor who only knows you from one or two large classes would be a poor choice since the only thing she could say would be "this person was in my class and got an A". Similarly, a letter from a therapist who knows your parents but doesn't really know you would be a definite negative on your application. Remember: members of admissions committees read hundreds of letters every year, and they are really good at "reading between the lines" to find out if the recommendation is really a strong one. Early in your undergraduate years, you need to identify those professors from whom you might be requesting letters and make sure they know you well and have strong opinions of you by arranging to do a research project with one, serving on a committee with another, volunteering to assist in the lab of another, etc. If you volunteer or work in a PT clinic, identify those therapists and assistants who might write letters and do everything you can to impress them with your skills and dedication. If you volunteer in a nursing home, get to know a couple of the nurses or other professionals really well and be sure they see how well you do your job and take on additional responsibilities. The time to ask if someone would be willing to write a recommendation is while she still knows you well; don't wait until your senior year to ask someone with whom you worked two years earlier. Be sure to keep track of the status of your letters. Many professors and supervisors, particularly ones with busy teaching and research schedules who can write the best letters, put the requests aside and inadvertently forget about them. Don't be afraid to stop by a few days before the deadline and ask if the letter has been sent, but you don't want to pester your writers either. Once you have confirmed that the letter has been sent, a thank you note is in order - you never know when you will need another one. A cookie always makes a nice bribe .....

Many PT schools will ask you to write a personal statement as part of your application. This is one of the most important sections of your application, so take it seriously. Admissions committees will use this to evaluate how well you organize your ideas and express yourself, and to determine your motivations, values, abilities, and experiences. Quite often, they use information from your personal statement when coming up with questions for your interviews. What you write is pretty much up to you, but it should address why you have chosen physical therapy as a career and what qualifications you bring to the field. Make this statement interesting, personal, and unique, and make it as strong as possible to help your application stand out from those of other applicants. This is NOT the time to show your creative writing talents - admissions committees are often heavily weighted with older faculty members who expect you to write as well as they think they do (after all - you are applying to join their "club"). Remember back in high school when your English teacher made you write an outline before you wrote that term paper? Now is the time to use that skill! Before you write a single sentence, write down the specific points you want to make with your personal statement. You should also write a number of preliminary drafts and have others read them for grammar, continuity and flow. Write in first-person and active voice, be concise, and stick to the major points you want to make. Don't trust the spellchecker on your computer - proofread your statement for grammar, syntax, and organization again and again and again and .....

If everything goes right, starting in December or January you will be invited for interviews at schools to which you applied. Some schools invite all applicants, but most will interview only students who have "made the cut" based on grades, test scores, letters, etc. Schedule these interviews as early as your college schedule and finances will allow. You should expect to be interviewed by the director (or perhaps assistant director) of the PT program and two or three other individuals. These usually include at least one basic science faculty member and one clinical faculty member, and may include upper level students as well. First appearances count! Whether you like it or not, your physical appearance will leave a lasting impression on the interviewer. Shorts and a tee shirt, shoes with no socks, bleached hair, tattoos, strange jewelry, etc. can only hurt you. Women should wear a conservative suit or dress. Men should wear a conservative suit with a not-too-flashy tie. One ear ring is OK, even for men, but any other facial jewelry could cost you your application. Have your hair cut a bit conservatively. Take a shower, use deodorant, brush your teeth, comb or brush your hair, wash your hands, clean your fingernails ..... you get the idea. You should also be sure to get to the interview about five minutes early - being late makes a lasting poor impression.

You have a lot at stake in this interview, so don't go into it unprepared! Many schools use the interview to identify and "weed out" applicants who look great on paper but are lacking in such things as communication skills, personality, maturity, and even grooming. Typically, interviewers will try to explore such things as your commitment to a PT career, your interest in that particular school, your level of self-confidence, your ability to reason and solve problems, and how well you keep up on current events in health and health care. They often use information you provided in your personal statement as a source of questions. As much as possible, control the flow of your interview - the interviewers expect that a strong applicant will try to do so. Try to anticipate the questions they are likely to ask and think through the key points of your answers before you even set foot on their territory. Interviewers will also ask if you have any questions, so do your homework and be prepared to ask questions that let the interviewers know you are serious about physical therapy and specifically about their particular school (even if it is your last choice). It is a big no-no to end your interview without this

After you have sent in your application, don't be afraid to update them with information which might strengthen it, but you don't want to annoy them by sending them details of every little thing you have done. Stick to the big stuff (publication or presentation of a research report, receipt of a major award or scholarship, etc) or the stuff they ask you for.

As you wait for those acceptance letters to roll in (which they will, of course, because you have done everything right), relax. Just be sure to keep your grades up and get the rest of your work done. More than a few students who thought their admission to graduate school was a sure thing and started to slack off in their classes have found themselves out of the running.

As you can tell, we are still working on this page and you can help: If you have any advice for pre - PT students at WSU or comments about what did or didn't work well for you, send these on to Dr. Thompson in the Biology Department ( The suggestions above are strictly his, and may or may not represent the views of other advisors.

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