12 Things to Consider When Choosing a PT Program

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So you want to apply to PT school huh? Awesome sauce! Don’t know where to apply? I’m here to help! Applying to PT programs can get super expensive, so you want to make sure that you have thoroughly done your research, and you are only applying to programs that you would actually attend if you were accepted.

As you probably know, most of the PT programs in the U.S. utilize PTCAS. If you are unfamiliar with PTCAS, it is the Physical Therapist Centralized Application Service. It is an online portal that allows you to upload all of your information to one place online, making it very easy to apply to multiple programs with the click of your mouse. No snail mail! If you want to know more about PTCAS, feel free to check out my “PTCAS 101” post!

When I was deciding what schools to apply to, I knew that I only wanted to apply to programs in my home state of NC. PTCAS has a Program Directory on their website, and that is what I used to find programs that I wanted to apply to. You can sort the programs by name or by state, which is very helpful. In addition, this list includes programs that do not participate in PTCAS if you are interested in applying to any of those as well. The U.S. News also has a “ranking” of PT programs, and you could also use that as a program guide if you’d like. Some people believe in these rankings, while others don’t, so the decision to consider them is totally up to you! Lastly, schools also have official program websites with lots of information. If you just google the program name, I’m sure this will be one of the first hits.

Okay so back to PTCAS! When you click on a program within the PTCAS Program Directory mentioned above, you’ll be directed to the program’s PTCAS page. This page will have a ton of helpful information, including general information (contact information, class size, start date, percentage of in-state vs. out-of-state students, etc.), deadlines (deadline type, whether or not they participate in Early Decision, etc.), requirements (hours, GRE, GPA, etc.), and course prerequisites (what classes they require and accept).

Now that you know how to actually find PT programs to apply to, let’s talk about the factors you should consider when choosing a program!

1. Location

Location is probably a very important factor for most people. Do you want to be near the beach? On the east coast? In the cold? Close to family? You will be spending three years in this place, so you want to make sure that you’ll enjoy it. When considering the location of a program, you want to also think about that area’s cost of living. My program is pretty close to home (only about 30-45 minutes away), and that was a huge factor in my decision-making process.

2. Accreditation

According to the APTA website, “The Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) accredits physical therapy programs to assure quality — both that the quality of your course work is high and that the schools produce people qualified to serve the public. In order to take the licensure exam, you must have graduated from a CAPTE-accredited program.” Attending an accredited program is very important. Why waste your money at a program that’s not accredited? You won’t even be able to become licensed when you graduate! If choose to apply to a newer program that is not yet accredited, you’re going to have to trust that they will become accredited before graduation. In my opinion, I would only consider established programs, to avoid any uncertainty.

3. NPTE/Graduation Pass Rates

The National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE) is a certification exam that you will take after graduating. You must pass this exam to become licensed. Of course you want to actually be able to practice after graduating, so be sure to check out each program’s NPTE pass rates. Evidently first time pass-rates aren’t publicly reported, but here is a list of the 2013-2015 Two-Year Ultimate Pass Rates for each program by state. You could contact the programs you are interested in to find out more specific information regarding NPTE pass rates. Some schools may also share their graduation rate, which is also something to consider.

4. Start Date

Some programs have winter/spring start dates (January-May), while others have summer/fall start dates (June-August). Depending on when you are applying and whether or not you are taking time off beforehand, you may not be able to make a winter/spring start date. For example, if you are applying during the fall of your junior year of undergrad, you obviously won’t be able to attend a program that starts in January, because you will still be in school. Now if you are taking a gap year, then this is totally feasible.

5. Course Prerequisite Requirements

Every PTCAS program will have their prerequisite requirements on their PTCAS page. This will include the course’s subject, credit hours, and lab requirements. The program’s PTCAS page will also include a list of accepted courses that would fulfill each prerequisite requirement. Check and double check this information to make sure that you have taken/will take all of the courses that your programs require. You don’t want to be rejected for simply not taking the correct courses. In addition, most programs only allow a few courses to be “in-progress” when you submit your application, so don’t apply to programs that you cannot realistically meet the prerequisite requirements for.

6. Observation Hour Requirements

Most PTCAS programs have observation hour requirements, whether that be 40 hours or 150 hours. Some programs even have setting requirements, so make sure that you are checking the program’s website/PTCAS site to ensure that you meet their requirements (schools are usually pretty straight-forward and specific in regard to this information). On a program’s PTCAS site, they will list their hour requirement, their hour recommendation, and whether or not they accept/consider paid hours. They will also specify if they require a certain amount of outpatient or inpatient hours. Some schools will even accept hours that are in-progress, while others will not. Check with the specific program to find out. Overall, I feel that it is better to have more hours than the program requires, to really show that you have taken the time to learn about the profession. For example, my program didn’t have an observation hour requirement, but they recommended at least 100. I ended up with 138 hours to be safe. They also didn’t have any setting requirements, but I made sure to observe in a variety of settings (outpatient orthopedics, inpatient, skilled-nursing/home-health/geriatric, and outpatient pediatric).

7. GPA/GRE Scores

On a program’s PTCAS page, you will be able to find GPA and GRE information. Schools will usually list a minimum GPA and an average GPA of accepted students. There will most likely be an Overall Undergraduate Cumulative GPA, and a Program-specific Prerequisite GPA. Some programs may also list other GPAs, like Natural Science, Math, Combined Science and Math, etc., along with any other information they would like you to know. If you are applying with a lower GPA, make sure that your GPA isn’t too far off from a program’s average. GPA isn’t everything of course, but sometimes programs use them as a “weed-out” factor. I wouldn’t suggest applying to programs if you don’t meet their minimum requirements. It is better to be safe than sorry, and you don’t want to waste your money. For example, my program didn’t have a minimum GPA requirement. Their average Overall Undergraduate Cumulative GPA was a 3.60, while their average Program-specific GPA was a 3.70. My Overall Undergraduate Cumulative GPA was a 3.82, while my Program-specific GPA was a 3.65. Programs will also list their GRE codes, the oldest test date they consider, and any additional information they would like you to know regarding GRE scores. Some programs will list GRE averages and minimums (if they have them), while others may not. You may have to dig deeper to find this information (like check their official website). Make sure that you meet a program’s GRE minimum if there is one! Also be sure to find out if schools average multiple GRE test results, or if they “superscore” (use the highest score).

8. Tuition

Money definitely doesn’t grow on trees, and PT school is not cheap. When choosing a program, you want to be sure that you will be able to pay for it if you are accepted. Tuition can vary, especially between public and private institutions. In-state vs. out-of-state tuition may also vary at certain programs, so you must consider that as well. According to the APTA, the mean tuition rates per year for DPT programs in 2013 were as follows:

  • Public In-state: $14,427 (range: $3,387 to $45,340)
  • Public Out-of-state$29,157 (range: $8,425 to $65,156)
  • Private$31,716 (range: $19,500 to $94,020)

Most students take out loans (federal and private) to cover the cost of tuition, but there are also scholarships, and other options that the specific program may offer. Almost everyone will graduate PT school with some kind of debt, so don’t stress about this too much. Loans have lots of repayment options, and if you are passionate about this profession, you will find a way to pay for your degree.

9. Curriculum

Does the program emphasize problem-based learning? Does they teach by body system? By body part? Will you have the opportunity to take elective courses? Is group work required? What about research? How many credit hours will you be taking each semester? These are all questions that you should find out the answers to before choosing a program. For example, my program emphasizes team-based learning, so we participate in a lot of group work. This really attracted me to the program, and was one of the reasons I chose it. If you don’t like group work, then you want to make sure that you are not applying to these types of programs. Research each program’s curriculum and find out the types of classes that you will take, and what those classes will entail.

10. Class Size/Student-to-Faculty Ratio

Class size may or may not be a factor for you. Do you want to attend a program with a large class size, or do you want to attend a smaller program? My program is on the larger side (about 82 students). Because we participate in team-based learning, we are broken up into smaller groups to form closer relationships with each other. I think that the formation of smaller groups sort of “combats” our large class size, and makes everyone feel like more of a family. Now on to faculty! Do you want your faculty to really get to know you? Do you want to form personal relationships with them? If so, then you probably want to apply to programs with a good student-to-faculty ratio. You could speak to past or current students to find out how the student-faculty relationships were as well. I made sure to do this, and at my program the relationships are great! The faculty actually know the students’ names, and have an “open-door” policy. I really loved this about my program.

11. Values/Mission

The values and mission of a program are very important. This will heavily influence how the program is run. Read each program’s mission statement. Find out what they value. Are they a research program? Do they value diversity and inclusion? Do they participate in community outreach? Are they big on global health? You definitely don’t want to attend a program with values that don’t align with your own, so keep these things in mind. My program is 100% committed to promoting diversity and inclusion, which is something that is really important to me. This was another big reason I chose my program.

12. Clinical Experience

You want to find out what type of clinical experiences your programs offer. How early are you in the clinic? Are you able to travel abroad? Do you have to stay in-state? Do you get to choose your rotations or are they chosen for you? How many rotations are required? How long are rotations? In my program, we have three 12-week clinical internships at the end of our 3rd year. Thankfully, we have some say our internship locations (we have a “Match Day” with a lottery system at the end of our 1st year). Most students choose to go to three different clinical sites; however, 24- and 36-week clinical options are available as well. Our program also has clinical sites all over the U.S., so we can essentially go anywhere we want. In addition, we have one-week clinical internships at the end of each semester during our 1st and 2nd years, so that we are able to practice our clinical/hands-on skills early.

According to the APTA, other things you may want to consider when choosing PT programs to apply to include:

  • Faculty composition and cohesiveness (years working together)
  • Student demographics
  • Facilities (e.g., classrooms and labs)
  • Campus setting (e.g., rural, urban, suburban)
  • Size of the university
  • Employment rates
  • Length of program
  • Extracurricular activities

All of the information mentioned in this post may or may not be posted online, so I would suggest interacting with past students, current students, faculty, admissions coordinators, etc. if possible. Making a spreadsheet with each program you are interested in and all of these factors is probably a great idea as well. I didn’t do this when I was applying, but I sure wish that I would have. It would have saved me lots of time, and I wouldn’t have had to constantly visit each school’s PTCAS page or official program page 6387429332 times. I have created an excel sheet template that you guys can use if you’d like! It’ll be linked below:

PT SCHOOL FACTORS/REQUIREMENTS – EXCEL SPREADSHEET

I hope this was helpful, and gave you some insight into what to consider when choosing PT programs. Obviously there are probably lots of other factors that you personally may consider when choosing. Everyone is different, but I tried to discuss the most common things you should think about. Overall, you want to be happy with the programs you choose, so take the time to do this research. If you ever need any help or advice, you know I’m here! Good luck (:

❤️

 

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