The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Massage School

How do you choose a massage school that is right for you?  There are over 300 massage schools in the United States, and they are vary from each other in many respects that are often not apparent.  So, let’s look at eight key decision points for choosing a massage school, starting with the simple and concrete items and ending with more abstract items:

  1. Hours. The first thing you may want to decide is what state you plan on working in after you get your massage license.  If you plan on going to school in the same state you’re planning on working in, you can skip this step.  But if you plan to be in a different state, you’ll need to make sure that the school provides the hours that you’ll need in the state you’re getting your license in.  This means not just the total hours, but the specific hours required for each topic, which varies widely between states.  Pro tip:  If you plan on getting licensed in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Texas, Tennessee, or Massachusetts, you should pay extra close attention.  If you’re not sure where you want to be licensed, then you may want to avoid any school that offers less than 750 hours, as that’s a minimum for meeting the requirements in multiple states.
  2. Price.  Obviously you have to be able to afford it.   See if there are loans, scholarships, financial aid, or payment plans.  And keep in mind that the sooner that you’re licensed, the sooner your earning potential goes up, so a loan can be a smart move to take you to the next step.  Also note that many schools that offer financial aid also start with very high tuition, so you may be better off going to a less expensive school that doesn’t offer financial aid.
  3. Exam preparation. 1/3 of graduates fail the MBLEx the first time they take it.  Ask the school what their graduates’ passing rate has been in recent years and go to a school where the passing rate is higher than average.
  4. Homework. How much homework does the school require?  Some have a lot and some have none.  Neither is better or worse, but if there’s a lot, make sure that works for your schedule.
  5. Focus.  Do you want a school that teaches many different skills or spends most of the time practicing the same skills?  You are likely better off with a school that offers a variety, and then you can go train more in your favorite areas after you graduate.  Finding a good match between what they teach and what you want to learn is ideal, but don’t exclude a school because they don’t offer a topic that you can easily study later on.  Learning a variety of other skills might expand your horizons.
  6. Academics.  Does it matter to you that the curriculum is academically sound?  In recent years the field of bodywork has been transforming rapidly due to numerous cultural shifts and an acceleration of research on massage and chronic pain.  Some massage schools have kept pace with this growth and others are still teaching very outdated ideas.  It’s difficult to determine from a website or a phone call, but some things that would indicate an outdated approach include teaching that massage is not ok for cancer patients or pregnant women, that massage techniques can mold fascia or muscle, that massage removes toxins, that poor posture or tissue imbalances should be fixed to alleviate pain, and an overzealous emphasis on a special technique.  Try asking about some of these things.  You can go to a school that teaches outdated ideas and still be a great therapist, but if educational quality is key for you, then it’s best to find a school that has an updated curriculum.  This is far more important than whether a school is accredited since a school can be accredited while still teaching outdated ideas.
  7. Instructors.  A great deal of your experience is going to be based on how well the instructors teach, and this is also difficult to determine ahead of time.  Instructors should either have lots of experience or be very good teachers, if not both.  How many different teachers will you have?  Is a variety important to you?  If you won’t have many teachers, it’s more important to see if you can sit in on a class to find out if you enjoy who is there.  Asking current students how they like the teachers might be helpful, though student opinions often change significantly over time.
  8. Culture.  Each school has its own unique culture.   At some schools, everyone becomes good friends and spends time together outside of class.  At other schools, students come to class with little social involvement.  Which do you prefer?   How important to you is it that the social atmosphere feels close-knit or fun or serious or a mix?  Does the school promote a deep appreciation for the human body and for clients, or does it feel more like memorization, protocols, and to-do lists?   Are you being taught a recipe of things to DO to a client, or are you being taught how to BE with a client and how to listen?  How much respect is present amongst students and staff?   Is there a trauma-informed approach to working with clients and facilitating the classroom that promotes a culture of mutual acceptance?   These cultural elements might be more important than all of the other considerations, though if you’re immersed in one culture, you may have no idea how it could be different or what you might be missing.

Choosing a massage school should be much easier process if you use these eight considerations as a guide.  Realize that your perfect choice and the most practical choice may not be the same thing.  The perfect choice might set you up for greater success, or your success might be determined more by other factors in your life.  Regardless of which you choose, massage school will likely offer meaningful and enriching experiences that you’ll be able to take with you after you graduate.

Mark Olson, Ph.D. LMT is the director of the Pacific Center for Awareness and Bodywork, a trauma-informed and neuroscience-based bodywork school in Kauai (www.awarenessandbodywork.com).