You’re applying to AT school! The AT each | moment website provides the factual information you need to understand your options and the application process but what do those reviewing applications think about? We asked some athletic training faculty experienced in admissions for their opinions on navigating the admissions process, obtaining letters of recommendation, how grades are used in the evaluation process, and the pros and cons of retaking prerequisite courses.
Fundamentally, athletic training faculty want to connect to tell you about their programs and help you make the best choice for you. Other advice? Do your research, get organized, and start early.
Jennifer Earl-Boehm, PhD, ATC, FNATA | University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee
Jessica Jochum, PhD, LAT, ATC | University of Indianapolis
Michelle Odai, PhD, LAT, ATC | Florida International University
LesLee Taylor, PhD, LAT, ATC, FNAP | Kansas University Medical Center
Luzita Vela, PhD, ATC | University of Arkansas
Zachary Winkelmann, PhD, SCAT, ATC, CHSE| University of South Carolina
What advice do you have for someone starting the application process for AT school?
Dr. Vela: Applying for graduate school can feel overwhelming, but this is a great time to enter into athletic training. Graduate school requires an investment of time and money so be an informed consumer. First start with generally understanding how graduate education is structured so use resources like the AATE webpage to understand your options. Because education is an investment, you have to understand what you value. There are a few guiding questions to consider throughout the applications process to tie yourself back to your values:
- What type of learning experiences do I need/want?
- What type of learning environment helps me to thrive?
After understanding the answer to these, start to investigate programs with a healthy sense of curiosity and asks lots of questions to understand if the program aligns with your values. Stay open to options throughout the process and create a list of programs that you would like to pursue from there.
Dr. Odai: Review websites and ATCAS for details on each school’s process and requirements and then reach out with specific questions. Introduce yourself via email and schedule a meeting to learn about the program and get your questions answered. [Use our program finder to narrow your search.]
Dr. Earl-Boehm: Do some careful research on the unique features of each school and program as you start the process. You’ll want to try and find good alignment with your personal interests, values, program layout, and location. Start your ATCAS profile early so you know the details of exactly what is needed for each program you are applying to.
Dr. Jochum: Start early and recognize that parts of the process will take longer than anticipated. Reach out to people to write letters of recommendation early and allow them at least three weeks to submit a letter. Additionally, gathering transcripts can be time-consuming. Be sure to get transcripts from every school where you earned college credit; this includes if you took college courses in high school. Work on your personal statement as you wait for these materials to come in.
Dr. Taylor: Start and complete the process as early as possible!
Dr. Winkelmann: The advice I give is to sell yourself and, at the same time, start “shopping” for the best fit for your degree. There are simple things like setting up your ATCAS account, getting your transcripts, and ensuring you meet the prerequisites. At the same time, I recommend students follow the social media accounts of the programs they are interested in, set up one-on-one chats with the program director, visit the campus, and speak to current students. While most interviews will be online, investing time to see a campus in person can be a game changer in decision-making.
Stay organized – create an Excel spreadsheet of each place you are interested in applying to with prerequisites, contact information, the program’s start date, tuition costs, BOC pass rates, clinical education, and things that are green flags and red flags. This will ensure materials are sent on time, communicating with programs to show you are interested, and being mindful of the end goal!
Who should be asked to write a letter of recommendation? Who should be avoided?
Dr. Earl-Boehm: A good letter of recommendation comes from a professor or supervisor with whom you have built a relationship and who can speak to your academic and professional strengths and interests. Think about the standard questions on a recommendation form. Who can respond to these with specific examples of how you excel and stand out among your peers? A supervisor from a work or volunteer setting can be very useful too. Avoid asking individuals with whom you have had very little interaction (e.g., a professor who taught a class of 80 students freshman year) or someone with whom you have a personal relationship (e.g., family member or very close friend).
Dr. Jochum: A letter from someone with whom you did your observation hours can be helpful as that that person can speak to your knowledge of the profession and interactions with those in the clinical setting. Consider asking a professor whom you connected with or your academic advisor. Coaches and employers can also speak to your ability to work with others and your personal qualities. Although your mom would likely write you a nice letter of recommendation, avoid asking family members for letters. Also, avoid asking anyone who really doesn’t know you well.
Dr. Winklemann: I recommend that you have someone from your current institution – this is a must. Only using high school teachers, community members, or people you worked for outside of your undergraduate institution concerns me when reviewing. I would also recommend having a mix of academic and clinical recommenders. It provides a nice balance between clinical and didactic thoughts on the candidate for a graduate program.
There is never a person you should avoid but ensure the person will write you a positive letter of reference. They can remark on your abilities, character, and background. It is sometimes hard to learn more about a candidate who uses their human anatomy professor in a class of 200 students. They did well in class but have yet to build a professor-student relationship.
These letters help us to get to know you better! Make sure you provide the recommender at least 2-3 weeks’ notice, make sure they personalize your letter for each school you are applying to (which means ask them for each school), and be okay with switching them up. If you have a mentor, supervisor, or teacher who is an alum of a program, I recommend using that person for the one application but having a stronger person for others. It shows you have networked!
The letters of reference, if possible, should speak to your empathy, strength of character, interpersonal skills, and curiosity.
Dr. Odai: Yes to faculty members, internship supervisors, ATs you’ve worked with, job supervisors – really anyone who can speak to your potential as a graduate student and healthcare provider and/or your work ethic and qualities that set you apart. No to family members, other students or interns, people who are not tied to information on your resume, or those who will provide generic letters.
Dr. Taylor: Those who can speak to your work ethic, interpersonal communication skills, and potential to succeed are ideal as recommenders.
Dr. Vela: There isn’t a magic formula for letters but there are a few things to consider. Your letters should reflect your academic potential and attributes so you will want to seek out people who can speak to one or both of those areas. You will want to avoid generic letters so provide your references with an update about your life and why you are seeking a degree in athletic training. It’s also a good practice to share an updated resume along with a very clear timeline of when letters are due. It’s a good rule of thumb to have at least one academic letter from a professor but be sure that the professor knows you well so perhaps avoid asking a professor for a reference if your class was very large or you didn’t get a chance for personal interaction. I always appreciate letters from internship/observation hours supervisors because those references can generally speak to your passion for healthcare and your understanding of the athletic training profession. Finally, you can choose the third reference based on your life experiences. For example, a past employer or research supervisor can serve as a very strong reference.
What do you expect students to gain from observation hours? What suggestions do you have for students to gain this experience?
Dr. Vela: My perspective is that observation hours are meant to help a student to understand the athletic training profession so that the student can make an informed choice in pursuing the profession. Through the experience, the student should be able to identify how athletic trainers deliver healthcare, form relationships with patient/clients, and generally work within their environment. I believe that its beneficial to gain observation hours in several environments, when possible, to understand the scope of the profession.
Dr. Odai: We do not require observation hours. However, when students have some experience alongside an AT it does let me know that they “get” athletic training. If they are weak in one area like grades but have many hours of exposure with an AT and a great letter from that AT, I’d consider them more strongly.
Dr. Earl-Boehm: We expect students to gain some knowledge of a typical day in the life of an athletic trainer working in that specific setting. We encourage some observation in multiple settings so a student can get to know more than one area. Students should come to the observation prepared with a list of questions that they would like to ask the AT or AT student on site.
Dr. Winkelmann: The observation hours serve as a means for the applicant to understand the totality of athletic training.
How do you use grades in the evaluation process? What advice do you have for an applicant who may have less-than-stellar academic performance?
Dr. Jochum: I take a holistic approach to reviewing an applicant’s grades. I tend to read an undergraduate transcript like a novel. I look for trends and blips. In reviewing trends, I like to see that the student with a rocky start showed improvement over time. I also compare grades earned within their major (classes they should be interested in) and classes outside of their major, where they may have less interest. I hope to find better grades within a student’s major. When reviewing “blips,” I will note if there was a semester of poorer performance; more than likely, the student has a reason for this decline. If it significantly impacts the overall GPA, I will ask the student about it during the interview. I have also seen plenty of transcripts where students started off in the wrong major; once they switched to the right path, it is easy to see an improvement in grades. I feel that students can address their grades in their personal
Dr. Winkelmann: Currently, we only review applicants with a 2.9 GPA. Our cutoff is a 3.0, but we like to interview candidates with the hopes they can overcome that deficit before officially starting the program. The GPA in the sciences is important to us. We offer cadaver anatomy, so if we notice you have retaken a course, that is okay! However, if you retook a class from an F to a C, it indicates you meet the requirements but may need help. During the interview process, we would like to learn more about that academic journey, if you are willing to share, about how you plan to prepare yourself for graduate-level coursework compared to courses you may have taken as a freshman.
For our program, once you qualify for an interview, we level the playing field by being more holistic with the interview process. We’d like to learn about your areas of needed growth, how you manage receiving and implementing feedback, how you embrace an inclusive environment, and what you need to succeed in graduate school.
We provide a fellowship that is academic-based rather than need-based to out-of-state applicants to get in-state tuition. As part of this process, an applicant’s overall GPA and science GPA play a more critical role.
Reaching out to programs before applying is essential to see if you meet their requirements for consideration. You can set your goals high but aim for achievable benchmarks. There is a home for every applicant –you need to explore your options!
Dr. Odai: I look at grades as a first level review to see if they meet our minimum requirements. Then I look at the application as a whole. I have learned in my many years that grades alone are a poor indicator of success because there are so many factors involved. If an applicant has less-than-stellar results, an explanation can be helpful but an excuse can be harmful. If I consider a student who has not met academic standards, it is usually because another part of the application really stood out.
Dr. Taylor: Use your essay to honestly explain your academic performance. Include an appraisal of what you learned and what will be different to ensure your academic success.
Dr. Vela: Most programs are transitioning to a holistic admissions process. This means that grades are not the only factor in the admissions decision. Other things that programs are considering include any research, service and work engagements to understand your readiness for graduate education. Having said that, grades are an indicator of academic preparedness and are still reviewed. COVID has impacted the learning experience, and possibly grades, for many students who are currently applying for admissions to programs. ATCAS allows a COVID impact statement so craft a thoughtful response if this was the case for you. Programs look for trends so if you had a less-than-stellar semester, can you show improvement through your grades over time? Be honest with programs about your academic concerns and help the program to understand how any setbacks helped you to grow as an individual and how you have identified tangible strategies to improve as a student.
Dr. Earl-Boehm: We use grades as ONE of the ways to determine if a student is academically prepared with the needed background knowledge for graduate school (admittedly an imperfect system). If someone has less-than-stellar grades we strongly encourage them to use their personal statement to “tell us your story.” What has their academic journey been like, and what experiences have they had they line up with the ups and downs of their grades? What strategies/tools have they learned to use to help them be successful? What other forms of lived experiences have given them skills like resilience and perseverance?
Under what circumstances, if any, do you recommend that an applicant retake a course to improve their application?
Dr. Winkelmann: Suppose an applicant has a D or below in any of our CAATE-required or program-specific prerequisite courses. In that case, we highly recommend you apply in the fall and plan to retake the course in the winter or spring term. We would rather see your initiative to retake the class than say, “Well, this is the best I got” – it goes a long way! If you happen to fail a class like music appreciation, we recognize that and move on as long as the overall and science GPA meet our standards.
Dr. Odai: I do this only if it is preventing them from meeting minimum requirements, but timing may become an issue. We do provide conditional admittance if a student is missing a prerequisite course with a completion deadline.
Dr. Earl-Boehm: Very rarely. In my opinion retaking Into to Biology or Intro to Chemistry isn’t going to prepare them more. We have a gross anatomy class in semester 1 so students who were weak in anatomy early in their college career get a deep review right away.
Dr. Vela: I’d suggest retaking a prerequisite course in the sciences if you earned a grade of “C” or lower, if possible. Prerequisite courses are chosen to provide a strong foundational knowledge so that you are best prepared for graduate education. In general, a “C” grade or lower may put you at some disadvantage within a program.
And some final counsel from Dr. Winkelmann:
We want to see a wide range of desirable traits. If you have 1500+ observation hours when applying, it may demonstrate your commitment to sports medicine, but we need to know more about YOU! On the flip side, if you use an application minimum of observation hours, you can still get into the program!
We want to learn more about your commitment to service, cultural competence, empathy, capacity to grow from difficult situations, and the emotional resilience. Get ready to be vulnerable – sharing your lived experiences is essential in the application process, whether through a personal statement or an interview. We want to learn about your journey. This could include previous jobs unrelated to athletic training, leadership roles at school and in the community, military service, research experience, familial history, etc. Your unique life experience brings so much to a diverse learning community, so we look forward to hearing your story!
Join us for the ATEachMoment Virtual Fair on October 25 from 1:00 – 6:00 pm Eastern. This event provides an opportunity for you to explore a career in athletic training and to connect with representatives from AT programs around the country, all in one day. Join us for programming to learn more athletic training, get questions answered about the application process, and discover the school that’s the right fit. Registration for this free event is open now! Register today!