It was about 7 years ago today. I was sitting at an empty table at the far end of my restaurant tired after doing a crazy lunch rush on my own. Peering through my laptop, I was keen on figuring out how to become a physiotherapist in Ontario (the province I live in).
Did I have all my prerequisites? Yes. Did I surpass the minimum sub-GPA required to get into Ontario schools? Affirmative. But apart from these things I struggled with finding out how to align myself with the right mental toolkit to become a physical therapist.
Did my background in sports help me? Should I try to volunteer at a nearby clinic if possible? How should I get reference letters from professors that wouldn’t even recognize my name? I remember looking for solid advice as to what’s needed and never really finding it.
I figured if I went through this struggle, then many others after me will do so as well. After thinking about what I’ve learned from experiences pre-physio school, during school, and having a career afterwards, I developed a blueprint to give my unique take on what really helps applicants get a seat in one of these highly competitive schools.
Reverse Engineer “THE HOW” to get to the “THE WHY”
The belief when applying to school is that you must figure out “why” you want to become a physiotherapist. Here’s a hint on what 90% of applicants say: “I was badly injured one day, and through physiotherapy and rehab I was able to overcome and blah, blah, blah”.
You’re not going to like this, but here’s how I interpreted it: “I don’t know why I want to do this so I’ll create a narrative that I think the application board will salivate over”. I get you’re trying to look good, but what good is it if you have to lie yourself into it?
For the longest time, I had no idea what I wanted with my career. I originally thought I’d do medical school but realized I didn’t care enough to get ready for it. A master’s degree in laboratory medicine might be nice but I hated doing labs so that was off the table
And then it happened. I graduated and had no idea what to do. What does one do in this case? It led me to a confusing time in life when I opened a shawarma restaurant and worked as a staff accountant… until that didn’t work either.
After a bunch of soul searching, I stumbled across Physiotherapy as a career option. I thought it would be a cool way to make some money and I had all the pre-requisites. That was literally my “why” initially. But deep down inside I wanted to put my bachelor’s degree to use given how hard I worked for it.
How to Become a Physiotherapist
I only realized my “why” after a few years as a seasoned clinician. The “how” was always right in front of me. I knew I could sleep at night making money through the work I did with people. How did I do it? By empowering them, educating them, and showing them the unlimited capacity of the human body and brain.
I reverse engineered this to realize that my purpose is to help people become better versions of themselves by using their bodies. This didn’t start when I was on my laptop looking for career options. I had always pursued the optimal way to achieve my health and performance goals, even as a kid.
I began training earlier than my peers. Nutrition piqued my interest because of its effects on performance. While my teammates ate whatever they pleased, I carefully forged a diet plan that would help fuel me before games and help me recover after games. The best way I can translate the above as advice is to dig down and find out why you really want to become a physiotherapist.
It’s fine if it’s for money or prestige, just don’t tell the schools that. The next step is what I did 4 years into the job: reverse engineer what I was doing into “why” and eventually realize the “how”. Because of my title, I am a leader in health optimization and recovery. It’s “how” I can make a difference the matters the most to me now.
BLUEPRINT on the EXTRACURRICULARS needed for physical therapy
The extracurriculars are your way of showing how you stand out amongst your peers in the talent pool. These do a couple of things to help you look good: One is they’ll show the judges your ability to juggle school with other obligations. Second is they’ll separate you from the pack, at least if you choose to do the right things.
Of course, it’s probably important to get your volunteering in at your clinics/hospitals, but that’s just about what everyone else is doing. What unique things will you do that transfer well to the field of physiotherapy? For me, it was education.
I had a couple of semesters teaching university-level grade 12 calculus (out of all things). So how did I land this opportunity? A friend’s father had a private school and needed someone who could teach the course. They knew I was a bit of a math wiz too which helped my case.
Before I knew it, I had 10 kids waiting for me to teach them arguably the toughest course they’ll ever face in highschool. Why do I think this was a game-changer for me? It showed that I can take something as complex as calculus, break it down, and teach it back to younger minds so they could grasp it better.
What I learned about physiotherapy in the first few years of working was that I was literally doing the same thing. I took complex concepts relating to the patient’s injury and taught it back to them so they fully grasped what was going on. The importance of this can never be overstated.
The better someone understands about their injury (including details about the mechanism of injury, timelines, recovery process, and prevention) the better their clinical outcomes get. If you want an edge with your extracurriculars, put yourself in a position to teach people.
BLUEPRINT on the ACADEMICS needed for Physiotherapy
You’ll need a degree of some sort, and it doesn’t matter which degree. As long as you can get your pre-requisite courses within the 3-4 years of your degree, you’re good. Now here’s another thing no one will tell you. You’ll always have elective courses you can choose from throughout your degree.
Don’t use them as an opportunity to boost your GPA. Instead, think about important skills you’ll need as a physiotherapist and choose courses that will help build them. Not sure which ones to take? Don’t worry, I got you covered. Here are 2 courses I know for a fact none of y’all are taking but will make a significant impact if done.
English Writing and/or Reading Courses
English was another game-changer for me. It was instrumental in me getting into Western University’s Masters in Physiotherapy program. They were the only school out of the five in Ontario that required an English credit. Luckily for me, I took Canadian Short Stories and came out with a decent grade.
I originally took the course since it was convenient for my schedule, short stories don’t take long to read, and I figured why not try something different? Little did I know at the time how much this would influence my career.
Having proficiency in the English language is paramount for our field. Writing is a big part of our job because of the mountains of charting, medical notes, programs of care, insurance papers, recommendations, and so forth we do on a daily basis.
On the flip side, we need to be able to read and interpret medical data such as imaging reports, physician/surgeon dictations, referrals, and more. It’s no wonder why Western University found me as a suitable applicant when they noticed the lone English credit on my transcript.
Philosophy is something I didn’t technically take as a course during my bachelors at the University of Toronto. Looking back, it definitely would have helped with my application. However, I took a few online courses on my own time, one being from Yale University on “The Existence of a Soul”.
Knowing what I know now, this played a huge part in how I navigated through the interviews (or the interrogation process as I called it). Having a philosophical approach to working out problems helped me explain my way into physiotherapy school.
Regarding the interviews, many applicants are not initially thinking about the ones they’ll need to do for physiotherapy school. Multiple Mini Interviews, MME for short is something they must hurdle through. It’s a painstaking 16 stations with grilling professionals and long-form questions about anything from healthcare to bullying.
Your objective is to basically talk your way into a solution. There is no one-set answer to these, although they’re looking for a solid position with supporting arguments. This is where the philosophy experience really helped.
GPA Needed to Become a Physiotherapist in Ontario
Now it’s important to note that because of Physio School’s competitive nature, you’ll need a very good GPA to even be considered. Make sure you have a minimum of at least a 3.8 GPA cumulatively over your last 2 years of school, a stat known as your sub-GPA.
That’s typically the cut-off point for most schools when examining applicants. Schools typically admit less than 10% of applicants, and a smaller percentage follow through in attaining their masters in Physiotherapy.
What to do with these blueprints
Use them as a guide since I wasn’t the prototypical applicant.
What I’m really trying to emphasize here is that you need to think outside the box to separate yourself from the pack. Find out how physiotherapists do their job so you can reverse engineer the reason why you want to become one. Think about skills you’ll need outside of biology such as communication and critical thinking, and find elective courses to help build them. Try unique extracurricular activities that transfer well to our field such as teaching.
The application process is a tough one so use this blueprint as your little advantage over the rest of the applicants. I promise they won’t see you coming.