Getting the Grades for PT School

Grades are probably the number one thing that pre-PT students stress about. They determine your cumulative GPA and your pre-requisite GPA, and oftentimes determine whether you’ve made the cut to even be considered for an interview. So it’s no wonder it’s stressful, particularly if you’re not too satisfied with the GPA you currently have.

When I graduated, I had a 3.44 GPA and had only taken one class that could count as a prerequisite for PT school. Originally I wanted to do a PTA program because I did not yet know of a flex program. Then the PTA program fell through and I switched to an OTA program. Happily I learned soon thereafter of the University of St. Augustine and switched back. Prior to this knowledge, I was going to do the smart thing and take only one class a semester because I do work part-time as a personal trainer and have continuing education that I must stay on top of. But because I knew my prerequisite load was going to increase, I stepped it up to two classes a semester.

Now I did not know what I wanted to do during the time I was working on my Bachelor’s. There were various things I wanted to do with my English degree that I no longer cared for; thus, if you are doing your prerequisites while earning your Bachelor’s, you absolutely need to be smart about how you schedule your classes. Do not pile hard class on top of hard class on top of hard class. Try to do a hard class or two among easy ones. And try to get your prerequisites out of the way before starting the main meat of your major.

I had a friend make the mistake of giving herself a heavy load one semester, and she was at a point where she had to choose which mid-term to study for. Needless to say, she ended up flunking the class whose mid-term she neglected.

Now if you were like me and graduated with a different degree and so are doing prerequisites post-bacc, I suggest grouping the prerequisites this way:

Because I work, I didn't feel confident enough to do a full course load of sciences, and it's not something I recommend. But if you can do it, go on ahead, especially if you've already been doing it while earning your Bachelor's. If not, I wouldn't risk it. 

First, I would not take chemistry and physics in the same semester. Both are a little math heavy, although physics is only math. 

Some universities require biology as a prerequisite for anatomy, so get that out of the way. If yours doesn't, it would not hurt to take your bios in the same semester because they will feed off one another and actually help you out. I took anatomy first because the PTA program did not require general biology, so this actually made taking general biology a lot easier and I had no issues with taking it online. Microbiology was also easier too as a result of having taken anatomy and general biology first. 

Try to save your easier classes for the summer. Human growth and development, psychology, and precalculus come to mind. Of course, last summer I had no choice but to take human growth and development and microbiology at the same time, but that summer taught me to prioritize studying in a way I never would have learned if I had only taken one class. I also went through a personal crisis that summer, but I still wound up with A's. 

I got A's in all of my prerequisites, except the one class I took during my Bachelor's. If I had known at the time that I wanted to be a physical therapist, I would have taken the class more seriously. I got a B, but it was anthropology, a class that should have been fairly easy to get an A in. 

Now all of this sounds nice, but how do you go about studying to get these A’s? How do you overcome your weaknesses with, say, rote memorization or even math?

I empathize 100%. When I was a physical therapy aide, I merely toyed with the idea of returning to school because the prerequisites to apply terrified me. Chemistry? I got a B in that in high school and struggled doing so. All I could remember was trying to learn stoichiometry and eventually giving up. I skated by on labs and homework and failed most of the tests. In fact, I got B’s in all of my science courses in high school. Even the one science class, physics, that I put effort in, I still came away with a B. But at some point passion took over. With that passion came confidence. I had no choice, right? Either be confident about what I was about to do, or feel as I did in high school: no confidence and no hope.

So I chose confidence and hope. That’s what you need to do. If you want this thing, there is zero reason to lack confidence in yourself.

When I was taking anatomy 2, my lab partner was someone who lacked confidence, who had test anxiety. I told her how I studied but soon learned it had nothing to do with how she was studying. She was doing everything right. She just sometimes had issues recalling information she knew.

I had to give her a pep talk. I pretty much told her that if she knew the information, there was no reason for her to be caught up in her feelings. A little bit of anxiety is normal, healthy even. Our lab was also before her lecture, so sometimes I would go over information with her prior to the test. This helped her get over it, so to speak. She simply needed someone to tell her she already knew what she was doing. And you know what? She got into the program she applied for and will graduate very soon. You can get that kind of pep talk through classmates and even group studying–but make sure your study groups are kept small so that you do not veer off course.

It also doesn’t hurt to have a fully developed brain, so things you once had difficulty learning magically become easier to learn. Sadly that happens at 25. Stoichiometry is, as I came to learn, ridiculously easy.

Because my anatomy class was the only class I was taking at the time, I was able to devote intense amounts of studying to it. (I would actually recommend taking medical terminology before taking anatomy.) We had notes we printed out, and our professor read off those notes, so the tests only came from the notes. I would make flashcards of every single sentence. I memorized every single card. It was all tedious and reading the notes and making the cards was extraordinarily time consuming. I would not suggest it, even though this method carried me through anatomy 1 and 2.

Even so, rote memorization for the biology classes is unavoidable. However, I did not use the note card method for the first test. I simply changed my method because I was not satisfied with a 90. However, there could have been a variety of reasons I received a 90 and not something higher that have nothing to do with not fully studying the material.

If your textbook has an access code that comes with it, use it unless your professor otherwise spoils you. My microbiology professor spoiled us because she would go through the powerpoint slides and the notes and tell us what we needed to know for the test. That took out a large chunk of stuff so it wasn’t as laborious to study for. Now whether or not you’re lucky to have a professor like this, one thing you can’t get away with is simply reading your notes and expecting to remember them–unless you have a photogenic memory, that is.

You have to engage in active learning. Hopefully by now you know what kind of learner you are. For microbiology, I didn’t have to do note cards thanks to my previous biology classes. Instead I’d take my notes and do a question/answer format since a lot of the notes were definitions-based. I’d draw a single line going down my paper and put the question on one side, then the answer on the other. I then would cover up the answer column and study that way. This method of studying earned me 100s on every test. You can also use Quizlet.

For chemistry and physics, my professors did not do multiple choice tests, so I did not do flashcards for concept/definitions-based questions. Luckily these classes were more math heavy, so it wasn’t so bad simply re-writing the information until I either had memorized it (definitions) or understood it (concepts). I also used the Internet and tutoring when I needed to for things I did not immediately understand in class.

As for the math involved in chemistry and physics, it wasn’t so bad in chemistry, in my opinion, because once you understood it, you could apply it to every problem. Sometimes it was just getting there to understand it, like Hess’s Law, that could be the challenge. Physics, on the other hand, required me constantly doing my homework over and over again up until test day. Every problem required something different, and just when you thought you understood one thing, you’d come across a problem that would rip out of the rug of understanding right out from beneath you.

I could not approach physics the way I approached other classes. For one, I absolutely had to have somewhere quiet to study. I needed every single second, every single minute I had in that countdown until test day. I also realized after test three that memorizing simply would not do. I really did have to understand what I was doing–which is where I also realized I needed peace and quiet to study. This one class also gave me an immense amount of anxiety, so I was re-introduced to coping methods that wouldn’t lead to self-destruction–namely, a lot of positive self-talk. Getting A’s in my prerequisites wasn’t such a challenge until physics came, after all. My dad was my biggest coping mechanism because he reframed my anxiety and helped to bring me down.

Also, for any class you study for, you cannot simply study the day before or even two days before and expect to do well. You might be able to get away with this in your easier classes, but for your science pre-requisites, it’s simply not possible. For your biology classes, you need to try to be ahead. This doesn’t mean studying chapters that aren’t on the next test. This means that by the time you come to lecture, it’s not new material to you and so lecture can serve as a refresher. With chemistry and physics, it’s not as easy to study ahead so follow along and study what you learned that day when you get home. Start any homework you’re given ASAP.

You ultimately have to also be willing to make sacrifices to make the grades you want to make. I aimed for all A’s and got them. I sacrificed time with my husband, leisure time–I haven’t even done much creative writing since starting back at school. When I was earning my Bachelor’s, I didn’t sacrifice much and refused to do so. But this time around I sacrificed what I needed to. I brought my cGPA from a 3.44 to a 3.63. My pGPA is higher than that! That is how you make good grades. Just because you struggle with something does not mean you are dumb or less intelligent than someone who got it immediately. All it means is you learn at a different pace AND that you have a different way of learning. Unfortunately, teachers can’t cater to all styles of learning during class, which is why it’s important to determine your style of learning early on. This will save you enormous amounts of frustration. Believe me when I say most professors aren’t trying to fail you. After all, they get nothing from that. Their style of teaching just may not sync up with you.

Last, most PT schools, as far as I’m aware, really don’t care how many prerequisites you take in a semester, whether it is one or all of them. This is why I urge you to be skilled at scheduling them and getting them out of the way when you can. If you’d feel better taking only one or two, stick with that plan and don’t try to rush getting into PT school. It will come.

My next post will be about whether or not you should re-take certain prerequisites. It’ll be on the shorter side.