Here are some pointers for writing essays when you apply to physical therapy school. Please know that there isn’t a single best way to write your essays and everyone will answer each prompt differently, so do what works for you!
Essays are challenging to write, especially without any guidance. I learned everything about writing essays from the wonderful people at the Student Doctor Network Forums. I had about 10 revisions of each of the 7 essays I wrote, had several people read them each time, and still had trouble writing some of them.
How to Start Writing Your Essay
1. Organize Your Thoughts
Write down the essay prompt, either on a computer or by hand. Read it a couple times, even out loud, until you have a good idea of what it is asking.
Then write down any thoughts that came to mind. They can be related to the prompt, or you can just write down what you like about the physical therapy profession or any specific experiences that stand out to you.
It doesn’t matter if you’ll actually end up writing about them. Don’t worry about your grammar or if it is written well. Just write down all of your thoughts into bullet points, or just a few words or a sentence for each idea.
If you are having trouble coming up with ideas, there is a section at the end of this post just for you. There are a lot of questions that may help you come up with ideas for your essay, so go check them out!
2. Turn your ideas into paragraphs
Write more about each point that you wrote down. Try to form a paragraph and relate it back to the prompt. If you’re struggling on writing more than a sentence or two about the bullet point, then maybe one of your other ideas will be better to include in your essay.
3. Choose 2-3 things to talk about
Now that you’ve written as much as you can about each bullet point, you should start to see a general direction to keep writing your essay. What are your favorite topics? What ideas can relate to each other to make a cohesive essay? What ideas answer the prompt the best?
4. Form a Complete Essay
Now that you’ve chosen your favorite paragraphs, format them into one essay. Now you can add an introduction paragraph that briefly mentions these paragraphs and your overall topic. Then you can add a conclusion.
5. Edit Your Essay
Now that you have a complete essay, you can read it from beginning to end. If it doesn’t flow well between each paragraph, add some transition sentences. If you don’t answer the prompt very well, rewrite some sentences. Keep editing and rewording until the essay is finished.
How Do You Format Your Essay?
You can format your essay however you like! I recommend that you have an introduction, some body paragraphs, and a conclusion. However, you don’t need your typical “5 paragraph” essay. Some supplemental essays may also have a shorter length, so you might only write two paragraphs.
You can indent each new paragraph, or just put a space between paragraphs instead of indenting, unless the school states that there is a specific way they want you to format your essay.
General Tips for PT School Essays
I know that writing your essays is not as simple as those 5 steps. It can take weeks and be mentally exhausting. However, I’ve included a bunch of tips to help guide you to writing a great essay.
- Be careful what you write about patients. If you choose to write about a patient, don’t include any specific personal information like their name, ethnicity, or occupation, or you will be violating HIPAA. Describing their general age, condition, gender, what setting you observed in, general occupation if it relates to your story, and what interventions were used is perfectly fine.
- Don’t use contractions. I just did, but that’s besides the point! Contractions are too casual, so avoid them if possible.
- First-person speech. It’s ok to say “I” and talk in first person. You’re writing about yourself, after all! Just make sure that you vary your sentence structure so that you don’t begin every sentence with “I”. There is never any reason to say “I think” in any sentence. It sounds unprofessional, so just delete it.
- Focus on the positives. If you had any negative experiences, setbacks, or mistakes, don’t spend too much time writing about them. Explain yourself in a couple sentences, but focus on what you learned and how you’ve bettered yourself. Don’t dwell on the past, but try to focus on the positive results.
- Try to avoid clichés. Almost everyone can write about how they want to be a physical therapist because they love to help people, or because they got injured and need physical therapy. You can briefly write these things, but you need to have other, more personal experiences that you can write about. Be sure to set yourself apart from others.
- Why have you chosen each school? For supplemental essays for a specific school, make sure to mention why you want to go to their school, if it fits into the prompt. It’s good to show that you’ve done your research and are excited to attend their program for specific reasons.
- Answer the question. It’s self-explanatory, but it’s so easy to get caught up in what you’re writing and go in a direction that doesn’t answer the original prompt. Make sure everything that appears in the essay helps to answer the prompt in some way.
- Have others read and edit your essay. Family members, friends, classmates, college writing center, or people on the Student Doctor Network Forums can all help your essay. It’s so beneficial to have an outside perspective on essays, especially because the admissions committee reading your essay won’t read it in the same way that you do. Try to have as many people critique your essay as possible.
- If you ask for help online, don’t post your entire essay for everyone on the internet to read. Make a new thread or comment on a current essay thread, and send an email directly to the person willing to read your essay. There are people that might steal your essay and use it as their own, so be careful who you send it to.
- Take a break from writing. Constantly thinking about your essay, rewriting, and editing is exhausting. It’s helpful to take a few days from working on your essay, and then come back to it with a fresh start.
- Try writing in different environments. I wrote mostly at home, but found that I got stuck with my writing. I started to write at coffee shops, which helped me be more productive. Try working at a library, outside, at a friend’s house, or in a different room in your own house.
- Essays can take weeks to write. Make sure you start early enough so you aren’t stressed out from trying to meet an upcoming deadline. Start working on your essays as soon as possible.
- Be careful when writing multiple essays. The PTCAS essay is sent to every school, so don’t copy and paste the same paragraphs into any supplemental essays. However, if two different schools have an essay prompt that is similar, then feel free to similar paragraphs.
- Essays are weighed differently by each school. Some might not even read the PTCAS essay, others care more about their supplemental essays, or some schools do not care much about a well-written essay.
- Maximum character length. You don’t have to write 4498 out of 4450 characters for your essay to be great. Shorter is fine if you can get your point across. Aim for the character maximum, but it’s fine to have several hundred less than that.
- What if you wrote too much? Worry about the essay length after you have written your thoughts down. When you are finalizing your essay, remove the repetitive information and anything that does not support the prompt, for starters. Then you can try rewording your sentences so they get straight to your point.
Tips for Specific Essays
If you’re stuck with writing your essays, see if you can answer these questions. You don’t need to answer all of them or any of them to write a great essay. A lot of these questions will overlap and be useful on other prompts, so make sure to read through everything if you need help.
Hopefully these questions will get you out of any writers block you may have.
You can find the essay prompt on the PTCAS Essay page, or on their Facebook page once it is released. When I applied in 2014, the essay prompt was released in early June, and the PTCAS application opened in early July. This gave me an entire month to write my essay before I could even start my PTCAS application.
The essay prompt changes every year or every several years, so I can’t give great advice for this. These are some tips from past essays, so hopefully they help.
- How have your life experiences shaped who you are?
- What observation experiences can you talk about?
- Are there any patients that have influenced you?
- How has an experience impacted how you want to want to practice physical therapy?
- Who are the most influential people in your life?
- When did you know that you wanted to be a physical therapist?
- When have you been on a team or worked in a group? How was the team approach better than working by yourself?
- Where do you see the field of physical therapy going, and how do you fit into that picture?
- What sort of physical therapist to you see yourself being?
- How would you treat your future patients?
- What dream goals do you have?
- What character traits are important to have as a physical therapist
- What experiences have strengthened those traits for you, or what traits are you currently working on?
- How has your time spent as a patient affected how you will be a physical therapist?
- Are there any specific therapists that you wish to be like, or any therapists that you don’t want to become?
- Why will you be valuable to this profession?
- Are you interested in teaching, research, owning your own business, traveling, working for a nonprofit, or volunteering in another country?
- What challenges have you overcome in your life?
- What are some of your major accomplishments?
- Why do you want to be a physical therapist?
- What things have you done that helped you grow as an individual
- What activities have you participated in?
- Who are some influential people on your life?
- How have your family, friends, or peers shaped who you are today?
- How would other people describe you?
- What 5 words describe you the best?
- What character traits are important for a physical therapist to have? Do you have these traits, or how are you improving them?
- What is important to you?
- How will your experiences make you a successful physical therapy student/physical therapist?
- When did you know that you wanted to be a physical therapist?
- How did your upbringing shape your personality, and how will that make you a better physical therapist?
- How have your experiences led you to the physical therapy career instead of other health care careers?
- Is there a central theme about your life experiences?
- How can you contribute to the field of physical therapy and your future patients?
- Describe your life experience as it is related to your culture.
- Is it hard to understand others who are from a different culture?
- Do you have a culturally different perspective than your peers?
- Does your culture have a different set of health care beliefs, or have you encountered another culture with different beliefs?
- Have you had an experience in life where you felt like your culture created a barrier for you?
- Have you volunteered for an economically disadvantaged population?
- Do you have trouble relating to higher socioeconomic classes?
- Have your experiences helped you relate better to certain people?
- Have you witnessed any social, cultural, or economic barriers when observing in a health care setting?
- How have you learned from any of these experiences?
- How does recognizing, understanding, or appreciating diversity make you a better physical therapist?
- Have you worked with individuals with disabilities?
- How do these experiences support that you will be able to work with diverse patients when you are a physical therapist?
- Have you retaken any classes?
- Did you retake the GRE?
- Do you have additional observation experiences?
- Did you observe in any new settings or see a different patient population?
- Did you have any additional work experience?
- Where you involved in any groups or team sports?
- Did you volunteer?
- How are you more prepared to be a successful student?
- Have you improved any personal skills?
- Have you worked with individuals that are different or gave you a unique perspective?
- What have you learned and how have you improved?
- How did these new experiences change your perspective, improve your application, change your personality, taught you something new, made you grow, or support your desire to become a physical therapist?
Does Your Academic Record Accurately Reflect Your Capabilities?
Most people say that you should only answer this section if something major happened in your life that was out of your control, like an illness, personal injury, family emergency, death of a loved one, etc.
Don’t use this area to write a list of excuses for why your grades weren’t as good as you wished. Examples of excuses: Explaining that you weren’t mature enough, didn’t study hard enough, partied too much, took too many difficult classes, or went to a challenging university. Those are excuses because you were responsible and they could have been avoided or handled better. If you are eager to explain yourself, you can try to add a sentence or two into your PTCAS essay.
A lot of people had lower grades at the beginning of their college career, so if your grades improved over time and your transcript shows that, you don’t need to write an essay to explain yourself. It takes a while to learn how to succeed in college, and admissions committees understand that.
Unfortunately there isn’t much information about physical therapy school essays. I found these resources for general essay writing, grad school essays, and med school essays, but they’re mostly applicable to physical therapy school too!
PTCAS Essay Prompt
Essay Workshop 101
Writing the Personal Statement
Before You Write Your Personal Statement, Read This
Writing Your Medical School Personal Statement: Tips and Myths
Writing the Personal Statement for Medical School
Student Doctor Network Forums:
Supplemental Essays character limit
PTCAS Essay question for 2015-2016 application cycle!
This year’s personal statement prompt?
Should I or should I not write about this in my essay?
Does your personal statement have to be 4500 characters?
The critically appraised topics (CATs) on this site were created by students in the Pacific University School of Physical Therapy doctoral degree program. Information on the program can be found here. The CATs on this site have been evaluated by Pacific University PT faculty, but have not undergone additional peer review.
While these CATs provide a valuable summary of the best available evidence at the time of writing, readers are encouraged to use the CATs on this site as a starting point for further reading and investigation, rather than as definitive answers to the clinical questions posed.
Submissions from 2015
Does the Bobath/ neurodevelopmental technique (NDT) improve gait quality in acutely post stroke individuals?, Victoria Haddad
Hippotherapy and gross motor function in children with spastic cerebral palsy: A critical analysis of the available literature, Joe Oelfke
Efficacy of utilizing an eccentric-based exercise program in the treatment of subacromial impingement syndrome, Ricky Pitman
Does the use of Balance-Based Torso-Weight increase gait velocity in people diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis?, Sarah Tomscha and Christina Dodini-Marquez
Submissions from 2014
The effect of high-intensity strength training as compared to standard medical care on muscle strength, physical function and health status, in patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis Functional Class II, Meghan Biggs and Carrie Yap
The Effects of Focus of Attention on Ambulation in the Acute Care Setting, Anna Botterill
The Efficacy of Upright Standing with Supportive Standing Frame Compared to No Standing Frame When Combined with Traditional Physical Therapy Intervention on Postural Control in Sub-Acute CVA with Significant Hemiplegia, Anna Botterill
The therapeutic efficacy of thoracic spine manipulation when combined with common conservative interventions for patients with mechanical neck pain, Tony Braga
Comparing the efficacy of spinal stabilization exercises and McKenzie (i.e. repeated movement) exercises in the treatment of chronic low back pain as measured by disability scores and pain reduction, Laurel Charbonneau
The efficacy of short wave diathermy in decreasing knee pain in female patients with knee osteoarthritis, Laurel Charbonneau
The therapeutic efficacy of the Ponseti method of serial casting for children with clubfoot, Jamie Ford
The Effect of Pre-operative Exercises, Education and Pain Control for Patients Undergoing a Total Hip Arthroplasty, Shawnae Huffsmith and Evan Liu
Differences in Functional and Pain-related Outcomes for Patients Following Total Hip Arthroplasty Performed Using a Posterior versus Anterior Approach, Anne L. Jeffery
Comparing the Treatment of Low Back Pain in Working Adults Using the McKenzie Method or Manual Therapy to Decrease Pain and Increase Function as Measured by Effect Size, Number Needed to Treat, the Visual Analogue Scale and a Standardized Functional Outcome Assessment Tool, Anne Jeffrey and Ashlee Roderick
Aquatic vs. Land-Based Exercises as a Viable Treatment for Knee Osteoarthritis, Kelsey Kallioinen
The effectiveness of soft tissue manipulation as compared to a home program in decreasing pain and increasing range of motion for individuals with temporomandibular disorders, Krystyna Owens
A comparison of strength training to standard care at Khayelitsha Special School in improving motor function and strength in ambulatory children with cerebral palsy, Leah Rybolt
A comparison of exercise intervention to standard care in decreasing fall risk for patients with Parkinson’s disease, Leah Rybolt and Monica McPartland
The Effects of the Inclusion of a Bobath Based Approach in the Rehabilitative Treatment of Patients Post Stroke Resulting in Hemiparesis, Lauren Wagner
A comparison of early skilled therapeutic exercise vs. usual standard care in the treatment of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) following an acute exacerbation and how it affects future hospital readmission, R. Stephen White
The Effects of Botulinum Toxin Type-A on Spasticity and Motor Function in Children with Cerebral Palsy, Stephanie Yamamoto
The effects of Tai Chi on balance and gait in patients with mild to moderate Parkinson’s disease, Stephanie Yamamoto and Hannah Schonau-Taylor
Treatment Methods to Reduce Pain and Cobb Angle for Patients Diagnosed with Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis, Kristen Zaporowski
Submissions from 2013
The Effectiveness of a Nursing Staff Education Program in Reducing the Use of Physical Restraints as Measured by Physical Restraint Intensity in Patients Residing in a Long Term Care Facility, Shandrea Hubbs
The effectiveness of high intensity interval training in improving VO2 max for performance gains as compared to standard endurance training in athletes, Krystyna Owens
The Effectiveness of Patellar Taping Combined with Exercise on Pain in Adults with Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS), Kristin Paruszkiewicz
Submissions from 2012
The Predictive Validity of the Test of Infant Motor Performance on School Age Motor Developmental Delay, Meredith Brunette
The diagnostic accuracy of patient subjective history compared to the gold standard of urodynamic testing for diagnosing genuine stress urinary incontinence (GSI), Gina Clark and Lauren Murphy
The Effectiveness of Warm Water Pool Therapy as Measured by the Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire in the Outpatient Setting of Middle-Aged Women who have Fibromyalgia, Sara Hieter and Sara Garfinkel
The Effectiveness of an Aerobic Exercise Program as Measured by the Six Minute Walk Test and Subjective Fatigue Scales in Patients with Multiple Sclerosis with a Primary Complaint of Decreased Walking Ability Secondary to Fatigue, Shandrea Hubbs
Early Intensive Gait Training vs. Conventional Low Intensity Gait Training in Individuals Post Stroke, Healani Leite-Ah-Yo and Bethany Banke
Neck stabilization exercises compared to physical therapy modalities to decrease insidious neck pain in adults treated in an outpatient setting, Emily Nichol
The effectiveness of the McKenzie method in treating back or neck pain in adults as compared to manual therapy and education as measured by a decrease in pain, Krystyna Owens and Angela Zielinski
Diagnostic Accuracy of the Thessaly Test for Predicting Meniscal Tears in Patients aged 15 to 50 as Measured by Sensitivity, Specificity, and Likelihood Ratios, John Peixoto and Alexandra Tarpo
A comparison between minimally invasive and traditional surgical approaches to total knee arthroplasties in improving functional outcomes and reducing pain levels in adult patients, Heather Robinson and John Eng
Submissions from 2011
Trigger point therapy. Is it effective for pain and improving patient function?, David Cieslowski
Efficacy of segmental versus global core stabilization exercises for patients with chronic low back pain (LBP), Hui En Gilpin
Diagnostic Accuracy of Orthopedic Special Tests for Meniscal Injury, Alison Horn
Functional Training as Compared to Resistive Strength Training in Older Adults with Functional Deficits, Kristine Hostager
The efficacy of traditional approaches with and without hip strengthening in the treatment of patellofemoral pain syndrome, Marissa Loosli
The Use of Interferential Current and Therapeutic Exercise in the Treatment of Acute Low Back Pain, Ashley Mildren
Using the Nintendo Wii Balance Board™ + Wii Fit™ software to decrease the risk of falls in the geriatric population, David Peterson
The effect of continuous passive motion on knee flexion, pain, and function after total knee arthroplasty, Cheryl Rudisile
Is continuous flow cold compression therapy better than ice and/or compression alone for the treatment of post-operative Total Knee Replacements?, Shane Rushing
The Effectiveness of Casting and Botulinum Toxin A for Treating Equinus Gait in Children with Cerebral Palsy, Amy Smith
The effects of mirror therapy on upper extremity rehabilitation following hemiparesis after a stroke, James Webster
Submissions from 2010
Efficacy of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) to relieve severe pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis (OA), Hui En Gilpin
Comparison of hospital-based versus home-based cardiac rehabilitation for patients following an acute cardiac event, Alison Horn
Thoracic Manipulation in the Treatment of Patients with Mechanical Neck Pain, Kristine Hostager
The effects of body weight support treadmill walking for older adults with lumbar spinal stenosis compared to standard back stabilization exercises, Ali Jakubowski
The effects of manual therapy and exercise for adults with temporomandibular joint disorders compared to electrical modalities and exercise, Ali Jakubowski
Chest physical therapy (chest PT) for adults over the age of fifty years suffering from acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Karla Krasnoselsky
Gait Speed as a Fall Predictor for Elderly Patients in Rehabilitation, Kirsten Meyer
The Effect of Intensive Suit Therapy Compared to Traditional Physical Therapy on Gross Motor Function in Children with Cerebral Palsy, Ashley Mildren
Regaining Glenohumeral Motion lost to Adhesive Capsulitis…do Mobilizations Help?, David Peterson
The Influence of Early Physical Therapy on Hospital Length of Stay, Cheryl Rudisile
Is Kinesio Tape effective in relieving musculoskeletal pain in the geriatric population?, Shane Rushing
Electrical Stimulation for Quadriceps Strengthening in Patients with Spinal Cord Injury, Amy Smith
The Effect of Body-Weight Support Treadmill Training on Gait Speed for Patients with Incomplete Spinal Cord Injury, Erin Tagami
Submissions from 2009
Comparison of treadmill training with partial body weight support to traditional over ground ambulation for gait training in acute and subacute patients post-stroke, Hui En Gilpin
Effectiveness of the canalith repositioning procedure (CRP, or Epley maneuver) in treating adults with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), Kristine Hostager and Alexandra Jakubowski
The Effectiveness of an Aquatic Therapy Program in Improving Health Related Quality of Life for Children and Adolescents with Cerebral Palsy, Ashley Mildren