If you believe physical therapy is the right career for you, you should prepare for the application process as early as possible. Get to know:
The Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service (PTCAS). This is the application system used by most PT schools. It also is a considerable resource for prospective applicants regarding the application process.
The Admissions Traffic Rules for Applicants created by the American Council of Academic Physical Therapy (ACAPT). These are the rules you agree to when you use PTCAS to apply to one or more PT schools.
Study the following steps that might help you become a more competitive applicant for physical therapy school.
6 Steps to Apply to Physical Therapy School
Becoming a physical therapist requires obtaining a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) and passing the licensure exam. To get your degree, you first have to be admitted to PT school, and this takes several steps.
1. Complete a bachelor's degree
A basic physical therapy school requirement is a bachelor’s degree. However, there also are combination programs in which you can complete three years of undergraduate and pre-physical therapy classes and then advance into a three-year professional DPT program.
Though you are not required to have a certain major, you might benefit from obtaining a bachelor’s degree that is directly relevant to physical therapy. Common degrees are exercise physiology, kinesiology, or biology. This ensures you have already taken the anatomy, physiology, biology, chemistry, physics, statistics, and other required courses. If you already have a bachelor’s degree, you may need to complete post-graduate work to be eligible for PT school admission.
Passing the prerequisite courses is not enough to make you competitive for PT school. The mean cumulative undergraduate GPA for accepted PTCAS applicants was 3.57 for 2017-18 and 3.59 the year before. Most PT schools have minimum GPA requirements. You should review this requirement as early on as possible to not only provide a goal but also determine which programs may fit you best.
2. Take the GRE more than once
Many Doctor of Physical Therapy programs require you to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). PT schools that require the GRE may have a minimum acceptable score, though some programs do not require a GRE score, or they may offer waivers based on different factors.
There are many study guides and online or in-person programs available. The GRE covers verbal reasoning (130-170 points), quantitative reasoning (130-170 points), and analytical writing skills (0-6 points).
If you are uncomfortable taking standardized tests, plan to take the GRE practice tests before scheduling the real examination. You can take the GRE every 21 days up to five times within a 12-month period. Then, through ScoreSelect, you can decide which scores are reported to the PT schools you want to apply to.
You should review each program's GRE requirements, including minimum scores and the last date to take the test for your application.
3. Complete physical therapy observation hours
Physical therapy school requirements commonly include a certain number of hours of volunteer or work experience under the supervision of a licensed physical therapist. Even if observation hours are not required by a certain program, they are highly recommended to ensure you understand the physical therapy field and whether this is the right career for you.
Your goal should be to obtain a significant number of PT observation hours in a variety of practice settings, such as:
Acute care hospital
Subacute rehabilitation facility
Long-term care facility
Skilled nursing facility/nursing home
Private physical therapy facility
Private outpatient clinic
Preschool, elementary, or secondary school
Industrial/occupational health programs
In-home physical therapy services
4. Choose several PT schools to apply to
Attend information sessions, in-person or online, that can provide you with more information regarding which PT school is right for you. There are over 200 PT schools accredited by CAPTE. Not all these programs will be right for you. For example, you may prefer to obtain your Doctor of Physical Therapy online. It is advisable to apply to several back-up physical therapy schools in case you are not admitted to your first choice.
Factors to consider when choosing which DPT programs to apply to include:
Course scheduling flexibility
Campus setting or hybrid online setting
Physical therapy curriculum specialties
Length of program
Size of university
Size of the department
Size of the PT school’s entering class
Tuition and other fees
Opportunities for financial assistance
Opportunities for mentorship
Extracurricular activities at the university or in the area
University student demographics
5. Obtain professional and academic references
Different PT schools have different reference requirements, which you can find through PTCAS, though you should always check with the program itself. Some programs require references from specific types of individuals, such as a licensed physical therapist or professor. Programs, on average, require three references, though some require more.
When you are preparing to apply to PT school, you should keep the need for references in the back of your mind. Your goal should be to build strong professional relationships with two or more licensed physical therapists through your observation hours. It is also smart to develop strong academic relationships with professors who teach prerequisite courses for PT school.
6. Gather supplemental materials
Besides the typical transcript and GRE requests, physical therapy school requirements differ from one program to the next. For each PT school that you wish to apply to, confirm all the eligibility requirements, necessary supplemental materials, fees, and deadlines.
A common supplemental material is a personal essay or statement of interest. If your prospective PT school requires an essay, do not leave it to the last minute. Get started on the essay well ahead of time to ensure you can get through multiple drafts and have two or more people review it for grammatical errors, content, and flow.
The essay should not read like a resume. Instead, your PT school essay should demonstrate your understanding of the PT field, your skills that you bring to the school, and your career goals. You may choose to focus on an experience that impacted you and your future as a physical therapist.
3 Tips to Prepare for the PT School Interview
After submitting your PT school applications, there is an additional step before a program might admit you—the physical therapy school interview. Whether an interview is required, the format of the interview depends on the program. You may be required to attend an in-person interview performed by a faculty member, student, or physical therapist. You may be required to participate in a one-on-one, group, or panel interview.
To prepare for the PT school interview, you should:
Find out what to expect the day of the interview. You can research this online, contact a current student or alumnus of the program who you know, or contact the program itself.
Look up common questions. Preparing for this interview means practicing your answers to the myriad questions an interviewer may ask.
Hold mock interviews. Ask friends, relatives, and classmates to interview you based on the common questions. Treat each mock interview like it is the real thing: Dress appropriately, mind your posture, and try to answer the questions as you would in the real interview.
Take Plenty of Time With Your PT School Application
The final and most important tip for getting into a DPT program is to give yourself plenty of time to apply. If you only have a few months before application deadlines when you decide PT school is the right path, then consider applying the following school year and spending the next year building a stronger application.
PT school is nothing to rush into, and a quickly assembled application might meet the minimum prerequisites without making you a competitive applicant. It is better to take your time and retake classes to earn a higher grade, study for and take the GRE more than once, and obtain an abundance of PT observation hours in several settings.
Taking the PT school application process as seriously as you would the DPT program improves your chances of being accepted by your top choices.
Prepare to Become a Physical Therapist with USC's Online DPT Program
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