A Guide for Applying to Doctor of Physical Therapy School // PTCAS Application, Observation Hours, Recommendation Letters, Interviews, and More!

Hello, everyone! I have decided to share the ins and outs of my experience with applying to Doctor of Physical Therapy School since the 2017-2018 application cycle just launched! I have a lot of friends that want to enter this competitive field, so I feel like sharing this post will help them and hopefully any others who have the aspiration to become a DPT. 


MY STORY

So, let's start with a little bit about my background. I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science and a concentration in Exercise Science from Virginia Commonwealth University (Richmond, VA). I graduated in exactly four years and had originally planned on applying to DPT school during my senior year. But with the hustle and bustle of classes, work, stressing about graduation, etc., the application deadline was quickly approaching and I was nowhere near being ready to apply yet. I seriously give so many props to those who have been able to be a full-time student, work, and fulfill other demanding responsibilities, all while having the time to study for and take their GRE, obtain all of the required tech/observation hours, and fulfill all other application requirements before graduating. With that being said, I graduated in May of 2016 and decided to work for a year as a physical therapy technician to gain more experience/observation hours, study for and take my GRE, save up money for school (DPT school is not cheap people), and begin applying in the summer of 2016.

I studied only for about two weeks for my GRE (and just took it once), which as you'll probably notice, is reflected in my score that I include a few sections down. I was satisfied with my barely-above-average scores and was confident that the rest of my application criteria would outweigh this certain criterion. I've never been a fan of standardized tests like the GRE. They give me such terrible anxiety and most of the information is stuff that you probably haven't seen in YEARS. Once you've got all of the vocabulary words and math formulas down, there's really only so much more you can do to retain new information. Most people that retake the GRE are only able to raise their score by a few marginal points. So, although the GRE is certainly an important criterion for DPT school, don't beat yourself up over not getting the score you had hoped for. Make up for it with killer stats in all of the other application criteria.

I applied to three schools, all of which are in Virginia - Virginia Commonwealth University, Radford University, and Shenandoah University. All three of these schools' deadlines were on October 3rd, 2016. I submitted the school-specific supplemental requirements a few weeks before the deadline, but submitted my actual PTCAS application on the day of the deadline. I found out on November 7th, 2016 that my application was no longer under consideration for Radford University. Radford holds interviews, so not being offered one confirmed my denial into the program.

On November 18th, 2016, I got offered an interview at Shenandoah University. My interview took place on December 17th, 2016 (I'll share more about that in a separate section). I found out just a week later that I was placed on the waiting list. There were 983 applicants and there are spots for 40 students at their main campus in Winchester and 20 students at their secondary campus in Leesburg. I was #14 on the waiting list, so essentially I was one of the top 74 applicants out of 983 and had a very high chance of being accepted in the following weeks to come.

In the meantime, I got a letter from VCU on February 6th, 2017 stating that I had not been accepted into their program. I was distraught, heartbroken, and my whole body went numb after reading the horrible reality that my #1 choice and dream program had denied me. It didn't feel real and weeks passed before I could even bare to tell any of my closest family and friends the news. I got asked about it constantly, mainly because everyone was so confident in me and 'knew' that I would be accepted, but always just said "I'm not sure, I'm still waiting to hear from them" whenever it was brought up. Then, a few weeks later on March 10th, 2017, I found out that I had been accepted to Shenandoah and everything began slowly falling into place.


MY STATS

  • Undergraduate cumulative GPA: 3.6
  • Undergraduate major GPA: 4.0
  • PTCAS prerequisite GPA: 3.6
  • GRE score: 149 for verbal, 147 for quantitative, and 3.5 for writing
  • Certifications: ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C) and Adult, Child, and Infant First AID, CPR, and AED
  • Recommendations: 1 from a licensed PT, 1 from a professor in my undergraduate major, and one from my employer
  • Observation hours: 2500+ in outpatient and 75 in inpatient
  • Activities: Exercise Science Club, VCU Run Lab human research study, American Red Cross volunteer, Richmond Road Runners volunteer, outpatient internship, and strength and conditioning internship
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HOW TO APPLY

Anyone that wishes to apply to DPT school must do so through the Physical Therapy Centralized Application Service (PTCAS) website. Once you have created a new account, most of what you will need to complete for the application process will be done through this site. References can be completed entirely electronically through PTCAS. GRE scores must be uploaded to PTCAS, but sent to each school individually through the GRE's Educational Testing Service. If you have any questions that cannot be answered from information available online, do not be afraid to call the PTCAS help line! I actually called them quite a few times to the point that it felt necessary to save their number in my phone haha - which is (617) 612-2040, if needed.


DPT SCHOOL CHECKLIST

  • Fulfilled prerequisites
  • Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
  • Recommendation letters
  • Transcript(s)
  • PT observation hours (can be as a paid tech or a volunteer)
  • Essay
  • Personal statements
  • Supplemental materials

Once you are set on applying to DPT school and know that you want to make your aspiration of becoming a physical therapist become a reality, start working towards this right away. Devote yourself in school and make sure that your prerequisite grades/overall GPA are the best that they can possibly be. Excelling scholastically is wonderful, but also take the time to become engaged in your school and community as much as possible through clubs, societies, events, volunteer work, research, and certifications. Get a good idea early on of who you'd like to write your future letters of recommendation because this is a very important criterion for admissions committees - they want to know that not only do you believe in yourself and your abilities, but that others have the confidence to recommend you as someone that is more than capable of being trusted to hold the outcome of many individuals' quality of life in your own hands one day.

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OBSERVATION HOURS

Try to get observation hours in as many settings (at least 2 are required) as possible! Don't put all of your eggs in one pot! ... (or something like that?) If you have worked as a tech for 2 years and have thousands of hours in that specific setting - well, that's great - but schools want to see that you have taken the initiative to obtain as much experience as possible in different settings. Your observation hours must be supervised by a licensed PT and can be outpatient or inpatient, including acute care centers, skilled nursing facilities, or rehabilitation hospitals. Choose places where you will be able to see a wide array of exposure to different specialties, especially ones that interest you, such as orthopedic, sport, neurological, cardiovascular, pulmonary, women's health, pediatric, and/or geriatric physical therapy.

Be vigilant about getting in to observe/volunteer, because trust me - it will not be easy. You may have to contact the same place over and over again before you are successfully able to set up your hours. Once you begin observing/volunteering, be sure to try to engage yourself as much as possible, let your personality shine through, and make a lasting impression - especially if you are seeking a future recommendation from one of the therapists. You can only do so much, but take the initiative to ask questions and learn as much as possible in your time there. No therapists want a bump on the log just standing around taking up their time and space, because they likely have a very busy schedule with an extensive list of patients to see. You can also use this time to connect with patients and work on your communication skills. Some programs require an electronic signature, while others do not. However, just to be on the safe side, I recommend getting all of your hours electronically signed/verified through PTCAS. 


THE INTERVIEW

Once you've submitted your applications, you will slowly start hearing back from different schools. If a school holds interviews, you'll likely hear back from them a lot sooner than schools that do not hold interviews and solely make their decision based on application scores. It will be a very nerve-wracking process and I can tell you right now you'll probably check your email 100 times a day until you hear something, but just remain patient, confident, and trust the process.

 Some schools hold interviews for eligible applicants. Not all applicants are offered an interview, but being offered an interview doesn't guarantee acceptance into any program. Like I stated above, there were 983 applicants for Shenandoah's DPT program this year and I believe only around 150 or so applicants were offered an interview. You must be able to stand out on your application before you are given the opportunity to be interviewed by any programs.

Shenandoah University is about three hours away from where I currently live. One of my best friends drove up to Winchester with me for the day to keep me company, help me mentally prepare for the interview, calm me down when I started freaking out about how nervous I was, and then proceed to dance like a fool with me right before I walked inside to actually shake those nerves away with a solid 60 seconds of non-judgment dancing.

A few weeks prior to my interview, I started to brush up on my interviewing skills and practiced aloud with friends, family, coworkers, and other professionals in the PT field. These are some of the questions I prepared myself to be able to answer without hesitation:

  • Tell me about yourself.
  • Why do you want to be a physical therapist?
  • What kind of experience do you have in the field?
  • What do you think is the most challenging aspect of becoming a physical therapist?
  • How do you see physical therapy evolving in the future?
  • How did you select our program and why would you like to attend it?
  • What strengths and skills do you possess to become a successful physical therapist?
  • What are some of your weaknesses?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  • What would you consider to be your biggest failure in life?
  • What motivates you to do your best? How do you motivate others around you?
  • What do you think is the most pressing issue in this field today and how will it be overcome?
  • What career would you pursue if you weren't doing PT?
  • What will you do if you are not accepted to PT school this year?
  • How would you explain your doctoral degree to a patient if they asked for clarification?
  • What are qualities you have found in your observation hours that make up the most successful physical therapist?
  • How do you manage stress/heavy course loads?
  • Where would you like to specialize?

My interview was about four hours long, which included a tour of the facility, an orientation with information about the program, my actual personal interview, and a period of time where refreshments were served and applicants had the opportunity to connect with current students in the program. Seize this opportunity and ask candid questions about what it is really like to be a DPT student. Engage yourself as much as possible!!

Do your research beforehand and make sure you know all of the important information about the programs you are applying to. Have questions prepared for the faculty and current students. Although you will likely find out a lot of specific information about the program during the orientation portion, it is very useful to know about the class size, the faculty and their interests, current students, community and global initiatives, spectrum of specialties covered, NPTE stats and passing rates, and a little bit about the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) prior to your interview day. This information can be discussed and utilized during your personal interview to make relatable conversation with your interviewer and show that you have not only prepared well for your interview, but have already invested yourself in learning about the program. It will also be beneficial to brush up on some basic anatomy because a friend of a friend got asked to draw and label the brachial plexus during their interview. It's okay if you are unsure of how to respond in tough, on-the-spot questions like these and in the event that you are, the committee uses this tool as a way to see how well you are able to respond to stressful/uncomfortable situations.

My most important tip for interviews is to just BE YOURSELF! It's natural to be nervous - I mean the interview has the potential to make or break you and determine the next, most important three years of life. But try to keep your cool and just be yourself. Funny story - I borrowed a pair of my best friend's old glasses to wear to the interview to 'look smarter.' She has terrible vision (sorry if you're reading this Brooke), but they were an old pair of glasses, so I thought that I would be able to get away with wearing them and still be able to see. Yeah... no. I put them on right before I walked inside the building and literally EVERY SINGLE THING was a blur. As I walked up to the sign-in table, I began grabbing papers that I could barely read and the admissions coordinator that I had been emailing and speaking with back and forth for months greeted me and expressed how happy she was that we finally got to meet. Yeah... I couldn't even read her name tag and it took me a minute to even realize it was her. Needless to say, I'm an idiot and I took the glasses off immediately after that.

The interview is where the admissions committee gets the opportunity to find out more about you and why you would make a great addition to their program. Your goal should be to set yourself apart from all of the other applicants. Most of the students coming in look very similar on paper and have all done well scholastically with impressive GPAs and GRE scores. So, the interview is where you MUST stand apart from the masses. Do this by expanding on extracurriculars or in stories that you have where you exhibited a quality that will benefit you as a clinician. A lot of times these are stories that may be hard to come up with on the spot, so start thinking of some examples to discuss early on and practice speaking aloud to someone. Most interviewers want to see that you have the ability to hold a conversation and show genuine interest and passion in becoming a DPT. I'm not going to lie - I did get a few tough questions during my interview about things like direct access and what the differences are for a PT practicing with a Doctorate Degree versus one practicing with just a Master's Degree (umm... what????). But try to just answer the questions in a brief way and let your personality shine through. The interview is the program's first indication of your people skills and how well you will be able to communicate with future patients.


THE 10 BEST TIPS I CAN GIVE YOU

1. DEADLINES, DEADLINES, DEADLINES!!!
Applying to DPT school will test your ability to meet deadlines. Make sure you know the deadlines for the schools you wish to apply to and whether or not they are firm are rolling. Nobody likes a procrastinator (even though we all secretly are one on the inside, whether we want to admit or not). Don't wait until the last minute to submit your materials because processing in PTCAS can take up to 5 weeks, or longer. However, I am a bit of a hypocrite when I say this because I submitted my PTCAS application on the day it was due. As long as you submit the PTCAS application by the schools' specific required deadline, it will be accepted and reviewed. But, it will take longer for those schools to receive your materials from PTCAS and will put even more stress on you then you probably already don't want to have to worry about.

2. Know the prerequisites for the programs you want to apply to!
I cannot stress this piece of advice enough. DPT programs require a thorough background of science and math classes, so make sure that you fulfill all of the required courses for the programs you wish to attend. ALL SCHOOLS DO NOT HAVE THE SAME PREREQUISITE REQUIREMENTS -- I REPEAT, ALL SCHOOLS DO NOT HAVE THE SAME PREREQUISITE REQUIREMENTS!!! Although I wish all schools could be uniform when it comes to their prerequisite requirements, this is probably something that will not happen for a very, very long time (if ever). Some schools require more biology credits than others, while some schools may require more chemistry, English, or psychology than others. Most schools require at least the grade of a C or better for all prerequisites. However, obviously As and Bs are preferred. So, if you have a lot of Cs or have failed courses completely, consider retaking them.

3. Be smart when choosing who you ask to write you a letter of recommendation!
Most programs require three letters of recommendation, with at least one of them being from a licensed physical therapist. Your other options include physical therapy assistants, professors, teaching assistants, academic advisors, supervisors or employers, or other healthcare professionals. Choose wisely and ask early with a formal request, either through email or in-person. Give them the most recent version of your resume, highlighting all of your most notable skills, experiences, and accomplishments. Ask for a reference from someone who can speak highly of you and your abilities and be able to thoroughly explain how/why they are confident that you will be successful in this field. For example, it's certainly better to ask an adjunct professor that knows you very well and can go on and on about your abilities, opposed to asking the most prestigious/respected professor in your major that knows all of the faculty in the specific DPT program you are applying to, that has only had you as a student for one class and needs to be reminded what your name is.

4. Become acquainted with your desired programs' faculty and staff!
This is a very competitive program and while although 'who you know' can't always guarantee you'll get what you want, it can help you get what you want. Ask questions, attend events, and give yourself an opportunity to become more than just a name and score on an application once it comes time for the applicant pool to start being narrowed down by the admissions committee.

5. Don't try to 'fluff up' your application with irrelevant information!
PTCAS specifically tells you not to include high school experiences, so make sure not to include them on your application. I had a lot of extracurricular activities that I took part in during high school that would showcase me as an even better candidate, but these could not be included on my application. So, I tried to search in the smallest of nooks and crannies to find more and more things to add to my application to make the list more extensive (of course I wanted to include how I have this really super awesome blog that I run all by myself with tons of neato colorful photos on it... but yeah, that didn't happen). Instead, I kept all of the information concise, relevant, and professional. Avoid any 'fluff' because if you just rattle off a bunch of random things that have no meaning to you/you vaguely remember because you were forced to do it as a school requirement for extra credit just one time, it will likely serve as a detriment in the future (i.e. being unable to elaborate on it during an interview). 

6.  Submit your applications before all of your requirements are complete (if you have the option to)!
Some (but not all) programs allow you to still be in the process of completing your requirements while your application is already in review, such as taking classes or finishing your observation hours. Most schools do not allow this for taking the GRE, submitting letters of recommendation, or sending supplemental materials. Every program is different, so make sure you do your research and know if you have the option to complete some of the requirements after submitting your application. If the programs you are interested in do allow it, then you will be 'provisionally accepted' and just have to have them all completed by that school's set deadline (which is normally around the time that the program would start). Shenandoah required four more biology credits than what I had upon graduating, so I just finished taking an online biology class that just needed to be completed by the first day of classes with the letter grade of a C or better.

7. Give lots of time and thought to your PTCAS essay!
The PTCAS essay prompt for the 2016-2017 application process was, "What is professionalism in the aspect of being a Doctor of Physical Therapy student?" The essay prompt this year is the exact same - which is both good and bad. Good, because you can get advice from previous applicants on how to tackle this question. But, as you can tell, this prompt is pretty vague and can be difficult to elaborate on because the essay is supposed to be where we're able to tell our story and showcase our abilities - not write 4,000 words covering the definition of professionalism. So also bad, because it may be tough to get started and last year's thousands of applicants already answered the exact same question. So, admissions committees have already seen a lot of the same responses and you will now have to work extra hard to stand out and not write identical things they have already seen before. Avoid cliches like "wanting to help people" and "wanting to enter this field because of a sport-related injury experience." The admissions committee already knows these things hold true. Step outside of the box and draw from experiences and stories that have shaped you to be able to truly thrive as a physical therapist. Keep it clear and concise, with excessive detail only where it is necessary. Proofread your essay over and over and once you believe that it is ready to submit, have a few others proofread it for you, as well. The essay is a very important part of the application process for programs that do not hold interviews because this is how they get to learn the most about you/your experiences and what has fueled your fire to want to become a physical therapist. Last but not least - DON'T FORGET TO ANSWER THE ACTUAL QUESTION THAT WAS ASKED!

8. Take advantage of school-specific supplemental essays!
Not all schools require their own supplemental essays apart from the mandatory PTCAS essay. But if they do, seize this opportunity and make it the best it can possibly be! The mandatory PTCAS essay prompts are often more generalized than school-specific supplemental essay prompts, in which you are often having to tie the body of your essay back to a specific (but broad) question. The supplemental essays are geared more towards finding out specifically about you/your goals and this is where you get to focus on YOURSELF! Try not to reuse information from your PTCAS essay in your personal statement, because the admissions committee will see both. It might be difficult to get your mandatory PTCAS essay going. But trust me, once you do, you'll likely have to start deleting information once you get close to the end to fit the character count. Your supplemental essay is the place where you can use all of the information that you wanted to include in your PTCAS essay, but could not. A specific program will include a separate supplemental essay if they want to know more about you apart from the question being asked in the mandatory PTCAS essay. But again, always make sure that you are answering the specific question that was asked.

9. Don't forget about the supplemental materials/school specific questions!
Most (but not all) programs require additional materials before you will be eligible for their program. This includes, but is not limited to, an additional supplemental fee, application, in-state or out-of-state tuition forms, prerequisite forms, transcripts, and personal statements. Also, do your research and see if the programs have minimum requirements for GRE scores, GPAs, observation hours, etc. You can apply to any school that you want to. But if you do not meet their minimum requirements for all application criteria, then your application will not be considered (found that out the hard way lol) - I submitted my application for Old Dominion University (ODU) before realizing that my quantitative GRE score was ONE POINT below the minimum requirement (UGH!!!!!) Even though all of my other GRE subjects met the minimum requirement and all other application criteria excelled, my application could not be reviewed. This will save you a great deal of time and money in the long run!

10. Be financially ready to apply!
Applying to DPT school costs a pretty penny, so be prepared and save up. Here are the costs I had to pay during the application process/will pay for tuition:

  • GRE exam: $205.00
  • GRE study materials (books and flashcards): $50.00
  • Sending GRE exam scores to schools: $135.00
  • PTCAS fee to send application to 3 schools: $230.00
  • Supplemental application fees: $95.00
  • Sending transcripts to PTCAS: $25.00
  • Non-refundable program deposit: $500.00
  • American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) membership: $90.00
  • Clinical lab equipment kit: $261.00
  • Background check: $52.00
  • Parking pass: $115.00
  • Books for my first semester: ~$800.00
  • Estimated tuition for a 3-year private institution: $87,000.00

*You probably saw that tuition estimate and said "WHOA, GOOD LORD!" However, private institutions have more money coming in, and therefore are able to give more financial aid to students. I'll be able to get roughly $65,000.00 in financial aid for all three years from Shenandoah University.*


WHAT IF I DON'T GET ACCEPTED?!

I know it will be heartbreaking, but keep your head high and try not to become discouraged. This is a very competitive field and many extremely intelligent, competent, and passionate applicants get denied every single year. If you wish to reapply to the same programs you've previously applied to, take the initiative to reach out to members of the program. If you are persistent in showing that you'll stop at nothing to become a part of their program, they'll likely take the time to briefly sit down with you and give you a list of some things you can work on to strengthen your application for the following application cycle. Take this advice and run with it. Research events and information sessions that they are holding and make yourself a known name/face to the faculty and staff of the program.

Also, once you have submitted your application through PTCAS, I highly recommend printing it out so that in the event that you do not get accepted, you can sit down and look at every single component of your application to see where you may have gotten low scores. You can even ask some of the physical therapists you've worked with to go over your application with you to see what recommendations they may have regarding strengthening different components of it. After all, they've gone through this whole process too, so they'll likely have some valuable information and advice for you moving forward!

I didn't get accepted to my #1 choice and almost declined my offer from Shenandoah because I wanted to attend that program so badly. But I am SO glad that I did accept the offer because they have a wonderful program and I am about to start a brand new, exciting experience. My #1 choice for DPT school was also the same school where I got my B.S. Degree. So now, I get to move, branch out, make new connections, and be exposed to a whole new atmosphere/kind of scenery that I would not have been able to had I waited and tried to reapply during the current application cycle. Things don't always work out the way we want them to, but often times these are blessings in disguise.

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LET'S WRAP THIS THING UP

Well, I put a lot of effort into this post and included just about every single important thing I could think of regarding my experience with applying for DPT school. It's a long, tough, mentally exhausting process and every program is competitive. So, if I could help at least just one person gain more confidence/knowledge by sharing my experience, then it looks like all of my blabbing paid off! If you already applied or plan on applying, I wish you nothing but the best of luck! We're all in this together.

Please, please, PLEASE if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in a comment below - it can be anonymous if you prefer!!

Thanks for reading!
XOXO