PT School Observation Hours and Letters of Recommendation

Every school requires a different amount of observation hours. I received a little over 400, even though my school, I think, required just 80. In my opinion, you’d want to get more than the minimum if there’s a part of your application that’s a little weak. For me, I’m an over-achiever and so wanted to be beyond average in every part of my application so that way the only question there’d be is when can I expect the interview. But in reality, you really only need to do the minimum hours unless you only have one setting. I’d recommend getting a minimum of 2 settings, and ideally a minimum of 3.

I did in-patient and out-patient. I actually did do an assisted living facility as well, but I could never get my hours confirmed because the only PT who was there that I observed no longer worked at that clinic; it was rather difficult getting a hold of him.

Observation hours aren’t difficult to land, but the best ones to get are through referral because it ensures you’re being sent to a place you’ll most likely enjoy. I knew people who once considered being physical therapists but changed their minds because of the settings they observed in and the dispassionate physical therapists who occupied them. I could only pity them because if they had had the right experience, they likely would have been in PT school by now.

My outpatient hours came from my being a PT aide. A few years prior, I had actually applied to be an aide since I was in desperate need of a job; however, I never heard back most likely because nothing in my resume indicated my inclination toward the field–I only had a mere fascination with it at the time. This time around, however, I was a personal trainer, which most likely indicated I’d take the job seriously. It also indicated that I could be molded for the field of physical therapy.

I had an interview at Walmart that same day after the PT aide interview. The interviewer told me he wanted to hire me on the spot since he saw how I interacted with members when I worked at the Y. I told him I needed to think about it because I really wanted to work as an aide, even though it paid less. I immediately went home and sent an email saying I needed to know about the job because otherwise I’d have to accept the job at Walmart. I received the offer a few hours later.

This is another way you can get hours and get paid for it. Being an aide doesn’t look any better than doing observation hours, however. The job responsibilities are very different, and as an aide, you don’t have as much time to ask questions to assist with your learning. Yet, I loved that job and credit it for being the reason I’m pursuing this field.

My in-patient hours came from a friend who had extensive physical therapy on his knees at the VA. He got me the information for the head PT and even let the head PT know about me. Then the assisted living facility came from a physical therapist within the VA. So I never needed to do any cold calling or approaching or even emailing. I also had other connections from being a personal trainer, but I didn’t need to use any of them.

Now some colleges require an internship, which makes getting hours all the more easy, especially if you live in a big city where it’s competitive to observe. Just don’t waste that internship on something else, because I do know pre-PT students who ended up observing elsewhere and had to scramble hours together at the last minute with no connections to go off. It’s great to see what other professions there are, but if you’re heavily set on PT, choose PT as a setting to observe.

Now when I was researching letters of recommendation, one of the biggest concerns students seemed to have was how to conduct themselves in a manner that allowed them to get said letters. As an observer, there isn’t a whole lot that you can do other than wipe down mats and fetch equipment. If you’re at a hospital, especially the VA, you could be sent to prosthetics to fetch equipment and could even learn how to put some of the equipment together.

In any case, you first and foremost need to be alert to what is going on around you. Sometimes it can be overwhelming being in a clinic, especially if there are a lot of therapists. My advice is to choose two therapists and latch on to them. (If you’re in a small clinic with only two or three therapists, latch on to all of them.) Be willing to do everything they tell you to do, and ask as many questions as you can about what they’re doing, when appropriate. Show a keen interest in the profession.

I always made it a goal to ask at least one question during any session of observation hours. And I say one because I only got my letters of recommendation from the in-patient setting. By the time I began to observe in this setting, I knew a lot more than I did when I was an aide as far as why certain exercises were being used. But, of course, there was still so much more to learn. Yet, some days were very slow and it was hard to find a question to ask. But the question is there, which is why it is important to pay attention. This can be accomplished by knowing what your attention span is for these kinds of things, so if you can only do three hours at a time, only do three hours. Not all days are going to be exciting.

Ultimately, you want to make yourself an asset, and then asking for letters will not be difficult.

I actually wanted to plan out how I was going to ask for the letters because I was nervous. Who wouldn’t be? Despite knowing they’d say yes, I still didn’t feel ready. I still felt like I had more to offer that way my letters would blow the decision committee out of the water. But one physical therapist, who I had a more casual relationship with because I just started to get to know him and he had a smaller patient load, just told me to do it. In fact, he said he was going to do it if I didn’t. So I turned on my personality, joked with both of the therapists that I was temporarily imprisoning them (no lie), and asked. And of course they said yes. No biggie. Do whatever you have to do to psyche yourself up to ask. Also, don’t be discouraged if they say no. This is why you should do more than one setting, so that way you have a handful of therapists or more that you can ask.

In summary, try to observe in settings that were either recommended to you or you received referrals for. If you have neither, simply start visiting or calling places. Build relationships once you start, and I would ask for the letters once you begin to apply for peace of mind. It’s not that I thought the PT’s would lose them, but it’s much easier to get everything gathered when it’s fresh. You also have a good reason to stay on top of the letters since you will need them soon. Otherwise, you could end up in my situation where the physical therapist in that assisted living facility couldn’t even recall who I was despite the assistant rehab director knowing me personally.

Next post will discuss how to draw on leadership traits that will give your application an extra boost.