Student Post

What Makes A Good PT Student: A Personality and A Dream

Matt DeStefano, SPT Class of 2017
Hometown: Glen Head, Long Island, NY
Undergraduate: SUNY Albany
Degree: Psychology

What does it take to get into PT school and become a PT student? Well that would be: good grades, PT experience, worldly experience, letters of recommendation, interest in physical therapy, certainly good interview skills, and other traits akin to what makes a good candidate to any other medical program. Throughout PT school I have been beat down many times by the stress and rigor of medical school, but a common thread is weaved throughout the fabric of my student being: I have continually picked myself up from my lowest places and turned distress into eustress. I want to share with you what I believe MAKES a great PT student.

Getting good grades is great. The feeling of mastering a concept makes you feel like you’re becoming one with the cosmos (OK everyone is different). But here is one lesson I have had to accept: you can’t learn everything! And you certainly won’t remember everything you’ve learned in school. Instead of hopelessly trying to remember every vibration that enters my auditory canal, or every photon that graces my retina with its presence, I have begun to focus most of my attention on the exact things that make me most excited about PT, and the things that are most related to my area of interest (Outpatient Orthopedics – Sports PT). I understand that we are working towards a degree as a PT generalist in order to serve our future patients in a variety of settings. Here is my student life-hack: Instead of trying to remember everything, which is impossible, I focus more intently on the things that make me tick as a PT student. This helps me retain the information way easier, and it also adds to the positive feedback loop of learning through excitement. If you’re stoked on what you’re learning about, it doesn’t really feel like work, and it reminds you why you came to school in the first place. In addition, by focusing on these things that interest you, it helps to add context to your education which is a HUGE bonus, which makes retaining the information a whole lot easier (“Why did Paul Mintken tell me in lecture to put my hands here again?” – Duh, because if you actually put it into the clinical context, you’ll remember that any other hand position simply hurts!)

Another question I ask myself to stay motivated is this: Why did you come to PT school in the first place? For me, I was interested in athletes and sports physical therapy. When I take a step back and remember why I’m excited about PT, and I start filling my time reading and learning about sports-related topics, student life seems to make more sense. I also notice my stress levels decrease. PT school is a daunting road, but when you take the time to focus on things that actually make you smile, you’ll find it’s a whole lot easier to travel down the road and continue learning 🙂

Finally, I wanted to talk about another aspect of my academic career that has allowed me to survive and prosper as a PT student.

School consumes your life. There is no questioning that. Sit in class for eight hours per day, five days per week, read papers on your bus ride home, get home, eat dinner and maybe eat your papers too. There is ALWAYS something to do as a PT student, most of which is self-directed study, and because of this can make a student anxious to always be studying. I want to encourage all of you when you get in this state of anxiety to remember you are not defined as a student, but a complex individual who has many passions. For me, I have a passion to climb.

I’m a climber. I love to climb and I use it as a release from school. It keeps me sharp, clears my head, and keeps me from burning out. As a successful student, it is imperative that you have an activity that you enjoy, UNRELATED to school, that you can turn to a few times per week to unplug and show yourself some love. For me it’s climbing, but for you it might be hiking, mountain biking, or maybe just reading comic books. Whatever it is, make sure you completely disconnect from your student brain, and fully engage in your extracurricular activity. And DO NOT let yourself feel guilty for taking some time off.

I’ll be honest with you, I probably take more time away from schoolwork than most students, but my mental clarity is top notch as a result. There have even been times right before a comprehensive exam or even a final exam when I have dropped my books, grabbed my climbing shoes, and headed for the climbing gym, only to feel very confident in myself leading into the test. And it has paid off every time! You’ll be surprised how beneficial some “you time” can be, especially in those stressful moments of “Oh no I need to cram for this exam!” Put the book down and go have some fun! You deserve it, and your brain will thank you too.

You might be asking, “But where do you find the time?” The answer is that the time is always there, you just have to make it. Because school is so time-consuming, you have to hold yourself accountable by telling yourself, that you will have x, y, and z finished by a certain time or date in order to go play. By doing so, you can then enjoy your activity guilt free, and reap the majority of the benefits. However, sometimes I don’t meet my self-administered deadline, but I still go play. Trust yourself. Your brain needs it, and your body needs it. Go have fun and all is well. Don’t sell yourself short. Throughout my whole academic career in PT school so far, I have promised myself that I would climb at least twice per week, and I have held myself to it with excellent results.

What does this look like? I have a routine to climb in the gym a few times per week or I make plans to go climb outside on the weekends, and take trips to various climbing areas around CO, UT and CA. By making climbing a priority, I’ve become a more efficient student, but if nothing else, I’ve become a much HAPPIER student. I also share my passion for climbing with my girlfriend, so taking time for myself also affords me time with the person I love, adding a double bonus to my extracurricular life. Do what makes you happy and do what you love.

The bottom line to all of this is simple: follow your true interests within the PT curriculum, and make time for yourself to let loose from school and have fun. We are human after all, and it is not healthy (at least for this human) to bury yourself in school work all the time without taking time to get out and play. It’s a delicate balance, but it is possible. You just have to tell yourself it’s possible, and that it’s important, and everything else will fall into place. In school, we are feeding our brains, but don’t forget to feed your mind, body and soul. You’ll thank me later.

Thank you for reading 🙂


Matt DeStefano

Instagram: @basebklyn1 & @theclimbingpt

Where is Matt now? – I wanted to share a little extra information related to my musings above. All of my extracurricular attention to a sport that I love, has really started to pay off. I am currently collaborating with two other students to partake in an independent study elective looking at rock climbing injuries and PT interventions related to climbing. Additionally, I have started to teach some injury prevention classes at local climbing gyms in my area. I am also using my business project assignment to research how I can make a personal dream come true: To become “The Climbing PT”. Before starting school, I worked at a climbing gym in San Diego, and my dream is to return there as the in-house PT. By allowing myself the time to climb during a stressful curriculum, I’ve been able to dream big and put my education in perspective related to my future. I have fostered the energy and the determination to put my education to work for me in setting the foundation for making a dream a reality. PT school is not all about the books. It’s about finding yourself and paving a road that YOU want to travel. Follow your passions and make time to have fun!