How to Prepare for the PTCAS® Application: A Guide
The process of applying and gaining admission to a physical therapy (PT) program can feel daunting when you’re first figuring things out. It’s not enough to be just an excellent student; you’re expected to volunteer, shadow practicing physical therapists and write stand-out essays as well.
You’ve already come a long way on your path to your goal of becoming a physical therapist. The last thing you want is to stumble and throw your plans off track with a poorly executed application. So how can you make yourself stand out as a PT school applicant?
The first step is to know what’s expected in an application. In this article, we’ll walk through each section of the Physical Therapist Central Application Service (PTCAS)® with recommendations from Rasmussen University Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Minnesota Program Director Dr. Carl DeRosa and other practicing physical therapists to help get you up to speed.
What is PTCAS?
PTCAS is a standardized online application system operated by the American Physical Therapy Association® (APTA®). This system allows you to apply to more than 250 physical therapist programs with one application. Though programs may elect to give students a supplementary application, this will typically be submitted via PTCAS as well.
While an online application portal might not seem like a big deal, it’s a crucial piece of the process. Programs are unlikely to consider your application if you don’t adhere to the requirements listed on their PTCAS page. These requirements are not uniform across programs and can change, so you may want to keep a spreadsheet of specific programs’ requirements and update it each year.
It takes some effort, but getting to know the PTCAS system while you’re still taking classes and gaining experience can help you discover gaps in your application and take action to fill those long before you apply to PT school.
“PTCAS really helps students get themselves organized. It’s hard to make a mistake on PTCAS,” says Dr. DeRosa. With that in mind, we’ll walk you through how to start thinking about your DPT prep within the structure of PTCAS.
When should I submit my PTCAS application?
There are several dates to note. These dates vary, so you’ll have to keep close track of them the year you apply, but you can generally expect a time frame similar to this:
- PTCAS opens: End of June/early July
- First regular admissions deadline: October
- Remaining admissions cycle: 15 deadlines on the 1st and 15th of each month from October until the cycle closes
- Application cycle closes: End of May
Keep in mind that this is a rough timeline, and it’s best to keep track of the programs you’re applying to on your own. "Priority" and "final" deadlines will vary depending on the institution.
It may be advantageous to apply early if you’re applying to programs with rolling admissions. These programs usually review applications once a month and send out interview requests or acceptance notices in batches.
If you are truly set on a program and are willing to commit to attending the school if accepted, it may be worth applying as an “early decision” candidate. Early decision admissions decisions are usually sent to applicants by mid-September. Applicants may be accepted, denied early admission or returned to regular applicant status for further review.
Keep in mind, it can take up to five weeks for PTCAS to verify your file once it’s complete, so apply early!
What’s included in a PTCAS application?
1. Personal information
Here, you’ll fill out contact info and some biographic information. This information cannot be changed after you submit your application, so make sure it’s completely accurate before submitting. You don’t want to miss a call due to a typo!
2. GPA and scores
Here’s where you’ll submit your undergraduate transcripts. Be sure to have a copy of your official transcript on hand for reference.
After you enter all of your classes, PTCAS will calculate your GPA for programs to review. If your GPA is calculated lower than any of your preferred programs listed minimum requirement, take the program off your list. You’re paying for each program you apply to, so don’t waste your money applying if you’re clearly coming up short.
Most schools require a 3.0 or higher, but it’s also a good idea to reference the program’s last cohorts to see what their students average—some may be much more competitive than their listed minimum requirements.
You can also self-report your Graduate Record Examinations (GRE®) score in this section. Your official score will also be sent to the program you apply to. When registering for the GRE, you’ll want to make sure you have the GRE reference number for these programs to facilitate this.
While undergraduate GPA information and GRE scores are certainly a big factor for most programs, they aren’t everything when it comes to gaining acceptance.
Reference letters, essays and letters of recommendations can also go a long way when it comes to the selection process. “Applicants who bring charisma, unique insight and fresh perspectives to their admissions interview stand an excellent chance of being accepted into a program,” notes Dr. Heidi Jannenga, PT and founder of the Rizing Tide Foundation.
Next up in the application is a section for personal references and letters of recommendation. While it might feel a little awkward initially as you ask others to sing your praises, these letters are still an important way for programs to learn more about prospect PT student candidates.
Before you start reaching out, you’ll first want to know the requirements of your preferred programs. While some programs require only two, many experts recommend having four to five on file in PTCAS. An established physical therapist or professor are often the strongest types of references, though other healthcare professionals, supervisors or advisors can provide quality references.
Keep in mind, the quality of recommendation can make a difference. Make sure you select references who can speak to your maturity and dedication. Additionally, it may help to provide your references with a “brag sheet” or a resume, so they can easily reference your accomplishments when preparing these letters.
This can be a time-consuming process, so asking far in advance of any application deadlines is key. Some references, like professors, may have dozens of letters to write and may not be able to take on any last-minute requests—so plan accordingly.
4. Observation hours
While not all programs require observation hours, they are highly recommended. Not only do these demonstrate your interest in and your knowledge of the profession, shadowing a physical therapist can help you become more confident in your career choice.
“We’re looking for a cohort that has explored a lot of different health professions to make sure this is what they want to do,” says Dr. DeRosa.
Some programs may specify the settings and types of experiences required. These hours can include outpatient, inpatient and home health settings. In general, the more variety, the better! You can contact physical therapy clinics, hospitals and long-term care facilities to find observation opportunities. Contacting former professors and joining a pre-PT club at your university or a pre-PT social media group are other great places to start for building connections.
Though in-person hours are generally preferred, virtual shadowing is also an acceptable option. PTCAS requires that these hours be verified by a supervising licensed physical therapist, and many online shadowing organizations will help you with that. Additionally, they may require that you complete and turn in case study assignments.
This section of the application is your chance to let the programs know what your life looks like outside of just academics. Here’s where you’ll want to highlight extracurricular club involvement, leadership opportunities, employment, research and volunteer hours.
Programs are often looking for students who show a record of community involvement. “Students like that bring a breadth and depth of life experience that makes the whole cohort better,” notes Dr. DeRosa.
6. Achievements, licenses and certifications
Here, you’ll list any and all achievements. These include a few different categories:
- Credentials: Common options include first aid certification, basic life support, certified personal training and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Awards: Any prizes you’ve earned in sports, academics or other areas
- Honors: Special designations like appearing on the dean’s list or a membership in an honor society
While stats like GPA and observations hours help admissions provide a quantifiable look at your fit for the profession, the essays give programs a chance to get to know your story. The PTCAS application process gives you several chances to explain your journey in your own words. Here are the types of essays you may need to write during the application process:
- PTCAS essay: This short essay involves answering a prompt that typically focuses on why candidates are choosing to pursue a physical therapy career.
- Academic record essay: If you feel your academic record doesn’t accurately reflect your capabilities, you had a lower GPA than you hoped for or you just had a rough semester grade-wise, this is your chance to explain how the experience made you a better DPT candidate. Try to avoid excuses and instead focus on your growth.
- Reapplicant essay: If you’re reapplying to a program, how have you strengthened your application since then? This is your chance to showcase the hard work you’ve been putting in since the last time you applied. You can submit different essays for each school you’re reapplying to. It’s a good idea to reference any feedback they gave you during the previous cycle and address specific concerns.
- Supplemental essays: These are program-specific essays that will be filed under the supplemental application section. It’s important to note that not every program will ask for additional essays, but if they do, there’s often a lot of emphasis placed upon them.
While it can be tempting to gloss over this section if writing isn’t your strong suit, resist that urge. Get help from your school’s writing center and ask for input from a trusted advisor.
8. Supplemental applications
The documentation for the supplemental applications section can vary substantially depending on the program. For some, it may be a matter of simply uploading documents and answering demographic questions, while others may require full essays or interviews with program faculty. Some programs may request proof of any credentials you added to the achievement section, so be sure you can get digital copies of those to pass along.
Additionally, some programs may require applicants to complete supplemental essays. Typically, these essay prompts are specific to the school and may cover topics like ethics, morals, community service or school culture
Some programs take an extra step into getting to know their applicants through interviews. While some conduct them on campus, many have adopted virtual options since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No matter the format, candidates should be prepared to discuss their career choice and personal experiences. While there’s no universal interview experience, most programs aim to structure these sessions in a way that helps them better understand your thought process and how you may handle challenging situations without clear-cut “correct” answers.
Apply with confidence
Preparing your application to PT school is undoubtedly a time-intensive process. Now that you have a stronger grasp on what to expect, you can start taking the steps needed to get ready.
It’s a great idea to start keeping track of your accomplishments for each section of the PTCAS application and comparing them with the requirements for the programs you’re most interested in. From there, you’ll have a roadmap for your strengths and areas of improvement.
If you’re ready to start researching program options, start with the Rasmussen University Doctor of Physical Therapy program page and our article “What to Expect in a Hybrid Doctor of Physical Therapy Program.”
PTCAS, American Physical Therapy Association and APTA are registered trademarks of American Physical Therapy Association Corporation.
Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a registered trademark of Educational Testing Service.