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How to Avoid Application Essay Mistakes: 10 Questions Answered by PT School Admission Committees

Spending weeks of writing and editing your application essays can easily leave you feeling emotionally and mentally drained. I’ve been in the same boat of working tirelessly through what seems like constant writer’s block. Unfortunately, I repeatedly asked myself the same question: “Is my essay what the admissions committee is looking for?”

I had the pleasure of speaking with 4 individuals involved with the admissions process through their respective physical therapy programs. While each program will have differing opinions on each of the following questions, overall each of the 4 individuals wrote similar answers for each question. The following answers are direct quotes (with minimal editing).

I truly hope that this post helps guide you through this stressful time, and I wish you the best of luck with completing your essays!

 

1. What are qualities that you typically look for in an essay?

  • Make sure you answer the question or theme the essay is requesting.
  • Your essay is another way for the admissions committee to learn about you, your personality, and your thought process. So make the essay personable and not stiff.
  • It should convey a personal touch without being overly casual or assuming a personal relationship with the reader.
  • It should, in some way, stand out. Realize that whomever reads the essay has probably read many others before yours and has many more to read after, so finding a way to be unique is always a plus. 
  • We look for evidence of maturity and learning within the content.
  • It should concisely and clearly tell whatever story the applicant wants to share.
  • I encourage genuine vulnerability. Every single person has a pretty cool story to tell and it just has to be told with honesty.
  • A demonstration of resilience. This often can come out in an essay (assuming the essay is read) but usually so much better in an in-person conversation. One typically needs at least a fair amount of resilience to be successful, not only during PT school, but also in professional life. Students who easily break when things get hard, or who cannot get beyond a poor grade or even a failed performance – those students are the ones who tend to struggle the most. So, hearing about failures or life crises or getting knocked down…then hearing how the student recovered, grew, and moved on – that can be powerful.

Be okay with revealing failures, fears, anxieties, or emotional pain. Those are not weaknesses, they are reality. In fact, I’ve found that students who have NOT really experienced such things are the ones who will struggle living this profession. They have a lot of trouble empathizing with patients. They often (not always) judge.

 

2. What advice do you have to improve how well an essay is written?

  • Focus on spelling, punctuation, grammar, logical thought processes, concepts flow together, nice organization. 
  • Minimal to no writing errors (grammar, punctuation, organization).
    • Sometimes it’s the small grammar errors that are the most distracting (for example, using “their” vs “they’re” or “there”)
  • Be succinct and do not ramble.
  • The essay should start strong and finish strong.
  • The first 2-3 sentences are very important, re-work these many times over.  They should “grab” the reader’s attention.
  • Make sure to include transition sentences to flow from one paragraph to the next.
  • The last paragraph should tie everything together. 

Pro-tip: Personally, I find the Grammarly add-on (or website) valuable and it’s free!

 

3. Do you have a preferred essay format, such as the typical 5 paragraph essay?

  • Not really. As long as it addresses the question and flows nicely, that matters more than structure or format.
  • We do not have a required format or amount of paragraphs. Everyone has their own writing style, however, we suggest an introductory paragraph, followed by the body of the essay, and then wrapping up the essay with a conclusion type paragraph seems to read best.
  • In full disclosure, when an applicant uploads their essay to PTCAS, all of the formatting is removed.  The essay shows up as one big paragraph regardless of how the applicant has formatted it.  Basically like the TextEdit program (Mac). I believe the intention of this is to standardize the applications, but I don’t think any applicants realize this. They might change this for the upcoming cycles, I’m not sure, but as of this past cycle, the way that PTCAS displays the essays are all in one big box of text.

 

4. What are some things to avoid when writing an essay?

  • Going off on tangents that distract from what you want the admissions committee to learn.
  • Tell us your own thoughts and beliefs but do not sound opinionated.
  • We want to learn about you from your writing. Avoid talking too much about yourself without answering the essay question.
  • Avoid humor, because one person’s style of humor may be offensive to another person.
  • Avoid shallow or superficial answers.
  • Avoid abbreviations that aren’t first spelled out (including common texting abbreviations – yes, I’ve seen them be used).
  • Avoid sounding overly dramatic or embellishing reality.
  • Avoid focusing on one aspect of PT without recognizing that all PT programs must graduate generalists (practitioners who are capable of evaluating and treating all genres of conditions).
    • If you want to specialize in sports PT, you should do your homework and acknowledge how limited those opportunities are.
    • If you want to work with pediatric patients, you should go beyond explaining that you really like working with kids (caring for children and managing their care for any given condition are two VERY different things).

Avoid slang or cliches such as “I want to help people”, “Physical therapy is my passion”, and “I had ____ and physical therapy changed my life.”

While all those things could be true, none of those statements matter to me unless I know the “why” attached to those statements. Those of us who read essays have heard these phrases (and many others) many times. Applicants need to make it personal. They need to convince me by getting real and describe the depth of meaning attached to their experiences.

 

5. Is there anything that could cause a student to be immediately rejected?

  • Not for our program. The essay is just one of many components to determining acceptance or rejection.
  • If the student doesn’t answer the question or if the response is longer than the guideline (e.g., one page or a certain word count) we may reject outright for not following directions.
  • If I pick up on arrogance, professionalism concerns, or any disrespect toward health care providers, that’s a big red flag for me (and I know it is with others). For example, I’ve read essays (and also heard during interviews) students criticizing PTs for what the student perceives to be poor care, poor patient interaction, or the like.
    • While it’s fine to point out some example of issues observed that may not have been good/ideal experiences, saying things like, “I don’t know why any patient would want to be seen by that PT,” or ” That PT was just lazy and didn’t really care what his patients were doing in the gym,” or “The PT was so old school that none of the other PTs in the clinic had any respect for her,” is not cool.

Being critical or assuming of other profession is not appropriate. For example, “All the nurses want is for PTs to do the work with patients so they don’t have to,” or “Doctors are pretty ignorant about what PTs can really do.” Again, direct quotes, and those are not acceptable or appropriate.

 

6. Does your program weigh the PTCAS essay and the program-specific essay differently?

  • We have the PTCAS essay and our own program essay. We weight them equally.
  • We use the standard PTCAS essay question and typically ask an additional question, so 1 or 2 essays are required.  They are not weighed differently.
  • We have a holistic admissions process, meaning that we look broadly at applicants and value/weight life experience and life story so that we admit a diverse group of students.  To the extent that essay answers tell the applicant’s story and that story is interesting, diverse, and revealing, the essays impact our admission decision.
  • The weighting of essays is very program dependent. Our program doesn’t formally weight (score) the essay at all and, to be honest, it is likely not read unless the applicant is granted an interview. Rating of the quality of an essay, particularly its message, can be highly subjective, and programs need to show CAPTE that the application process is as objective as possible.

 

7. Do you have any specific feedback regarding this year’s PTCAS essay?

  • The particular essay topic for this year may seem quite vague to students attempting to write it, but honestly, that affords a lot of options. It gives an applicant greater opportunity to stand out or appear unique while allowing (in fact, requiring, a personal touch). Thus, there’s no right or wrong about its content.

What is written is likely less important than how it is written. No matter what the content, if the essay contains many spelling or grammatical errors, is poorly organized, does not connect thoughts or concepts well, or demonstrates tendencies toward either arrogance or passivity, it will probably not make a good impression on the reader.

 

8. How do you successfully answer “Does your academic record accurately reflect your capabilities?”

  • When answering the essay on academic record, be honest and open. There are many reasons why even the best students have a bad semester or perform poorly in a class/subject. But always include what you have done to become a better student and prevent the recurrence of the issue.
  • Applicants can use this question to tell their story, which is important.  I suggest that applicants be honest about what was going on in their life that may have caused their grades to be lower.  The ability to thrive during hardship situations is an important quality of a professional and we would look for this ability in our applicants, even if it resulted in lower grades.
  • Be absolutely honest and own things that didn’t go at planned (without making excuses). More importantly, indicate how reflecting on less-than-optimal outcomes led to a change in behavior, thought, perspectiveor approach. It is incredibly rare that students make it through PT school without some type of stumbling block – faculty really want to know that an applicant is able to recognize when things are not going well, reflect on why, then do something to turn it around (usually a component of this involves asking for help – which an astounding number of students are reluctant to do).

Honesty is always the best policy.  All applicants should “tell their story” and it’s what makes each applicant different.  Overall, I think that persistence is recognized and repeatedly getting up after being knocked down is a statement of the applicant’s character.  We all have a story, tell it!

 

9. What advice do you have for re-applicants?

  • Re-applicant essays should not submit the same essay. Many programs keep the prior application for reference and to see what has been done to improve their application. The essay may have been one of the areas that needed improving.
  • For re-applicants, I suggest they ask programs to which they applied for feedback on their essays for the purpose of improving them.  We provide this type of feedback regularly to applicants who plan to re-apply.

 

10. Do essays often come up during interviews?

  • Prior to interviews, faculty read the full application including the essays. Frequently the essays come up during the interview many times as a starting point and sometimes for clarification of a comment for you to expound upon.
  • Essay answers may come up in an interview, but there is no guarantee that they will.
  • For our program, the essay will be read by faculty who will conduct interview of the applicants granted one. Those faculty may certainly bring things up from the essay and ask the applicants to expand upon topics that werewritten, or weave content of the essay into interview questions. For those programs who do not opt to use interviews, the essay may be the only personal aspect of the entire application and could be a decision-making factor between two applicants who have the same scores for GPA, GRE, and the like.
  • We do to some extent. During our applicant interviews (which will be onsite) we will also ask each applicant to do some type of writing with pencil and paper, probably just a paragraph on a random topic. The purpose will be to see if the applicant can construct this paragraph (with all the writing qualities stated above) without the help of a word processor. Our reason for doing so is that faculty are increasingly finding that numerous students struggle with basic writing (accuracy, structure, and concept), having learned to rely on electronic programs for correction of errors. At the doctoral level, it’s tough to consider that acceptable.

A high-performing student with excellent numbers is attractive, but I’ve met a number of students who are incredibly book smart who either have no life experience outside of school and studying (and thus are very ill prepared for the life experiences of a profession like PT) or who have considerable difficulty with human interaction (interaction with books/notes is easy). That’s just one reason our program has implemented interviews – so we can hope to tease a bit of that out with personal interactions.

Would you like to improve your essay to the next level?

Check out the editing services from Pre-PT Grind! I have been editing essays for Pre-PT Grind since August 2018, and you wouldn’t believe the progress that every single essay has made after just a couple revisions. Make sure that your essay is top notch before applying to PT school! Email [email protected] for more information. preptgrindlogo

Were you surprised by anything that you read, or do you have any of your own advice to share with other students? Comment below!

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