Wondering how to apply for a physical therapy residency program...and get accepted?
Despite the growing number of physical therapy residency programs, with increasing interest from students and clinicians pursuing post-professional training, the applicant pool is becoming more competitive each year. With limited spots for interviews, and as few as a single spot offered per program, there is a lot of pressure to have a perfect application when you apply for a physical therapy residency. This article will provide step-by-step guidelines for how to apply for a physical therapy residency from start to finish, featuring feedback from admissions committee members and directors of sports residency programs and what they specifically look for when reviewing applications.
Start to apply for a physical therapy residency program as early as possible.
Determine what physical therapy specialty you think it is you want to pursue, and know what you are looking for in a physical therapy residency program. They are all unique.
Review all programs in the specialty area you are interested in. Keep an open mind to all types of residency programs, whether they are accredited, in candidacy status, or are developing. A directory of all residency and fellowship programs can be found at ABPTRFE, the accreditation body for the American Physical Therapy Association for residency and fellowship programs in physical therapy.
Make a list of those programs that meet the criteria you are looking for, then organize the programs by their application deadline date, paying particular attention to your top 5.
Make networking a priority from the beginning.
Reach out to the appropriate contacts from your top 5 programs. A phone conversation is extremely worthwhile and can provide valuable information for when you do apply for a physical therapy residency program.
Ask what they are looking for in a candidate. Not only can you use this information to your advantage in your essays, but this can also be extremely helpful in weeding out programs that might not be the right fit for you. As mentioned earlier, each program is unique and is looking for specific qualities in a residency candidate. If you don’t fit the mold, don’t waste your time and money applying.
Consider your point of contact. Do you see yourself being able to develop a collegial relationship with this person and vice versa? When you make these calls, your point of contact will likely be the person with whom you will be in frequent contact throughout the residency program; they may even be your mentor. If the conversation does not go well, odds are that the program may not be the right fit for you.
Don’t forget that making these phone calls is also a good way to start getting your name out there.
Follow-up via email after phone conversations and personal meetings with a “thank you.” Express continued interest in the program, maybe specifying a couple of points that particularly intrigued you. Ask to follow up in the future if you should have any other questions.
For those of you who think you'll apply for a physical therapy residency program, but have not yet familiarized yourself with the application process, START NOW!
Captivating the admissions committee members' interest is likely best achieved through your essays and having strong recommendation letters. But determining the most relevant information to include and highlight in your application can be challenging. Here are some tips from myself (current sports resident), as well as residency directors and admissions committee members to help you submit a strong application.
What residency directors and admission committee members are looking for:
Q: Are there particular sections in a candidate's application that you tend to focus on over others?
A: Although each section requires equal attention, the resume and recommendation letters were most consistently mentioned amongst reviewers.“ I look for recommendations from clinical instructors or professors that really connected with the applicant, and display what their quality attributes are. If a recommendation letter is just average, it’s a huge red flag,” said an anonymous contributor. But, "I [also] look for passion. I believe it takes tremendous personal drive to complete a residency and sit for a specialist exam.”
Graduate school transcripts demonstrating high academic performance are another considerable component of the application. While some programs place greater emphasis on academic performance, other programs utilize this information to help determine an applicant's ability to pass the board exam (since some new graduates may be practicing under a temporary license).
Reviewers also mentioned they are looking for someone who is willing to go above the minimum expectations. Examples included demonstrating professional involvement in activities across all three years as a student (not just preceding the application), creating service activities (i.e. triathlon), and starting a journal club.
Q: What are the top 3 things you are looking for when reviewing an application?
A: Answers varied to this question across the board. Reviewers are generally looking for applications that demonstrate they are self-motivated and willing to take initiative to seek learning opportunities; self-reflective; driven to succeed; have a desire to improve; willingness to learn; and flexibility. Applicants should also demonstrate effective communication skills, both professionally and with the general public, as well as exhibit the skills of an exceptional employee. Applicants should have an understanding of what residency education is and an understanding of the residency program. Finally, have a vision for where you see yourself in the future. Your personal statement/essay is a good place to elaborate on these skills, experiences, personal qualities, and goals.
Q: What is the most important component of the application process that can make or break a candidate from getting an interview?
A: The expectation is the same as with applying for a job. Being cordial and polite in communications, and meeting deadlines are standard expectations. Mark Weber, PT, Ph.D., SCS, ATC, and former Sports Residency Director, states “submitting a sloppy, poorly written application, that does not provide the reviewers with a sense that you have the ability to function at a high level is the surest way to not get an interview.”
Q: Do you have any suggestions regarding what NOT to do or include in the application?
A: Address your strengths in a way that does not come across as cocky or arrogant, and demonstrate in a positive way how to address weaknesses, says Mark Weber. Along the same lines, Ivan Mulligan, PT, DSc, SCS, ATC, and Director of the Sports Residency Program at Saint Francis University, states “the application is a way to make your first impression. I suggest to candidates put themselves in a reviewer's position. When completing the application or reviewing the application prior to submission, an applicant should ask the question does this information assist in showing my strengths and the reasons I want to complete this program.”
Q: Are there any common misconceptions that applicants place more value on that are not as significant?
A: One residency director replied, “I think it’s a pretty standard process overall and I think each piece of the application has merit. The biggest thing I need to see as a director is a passion for success, a commitment to fulfilling the program, and an applicant in person that matches their application on paper.” Mark Weber adds, “Other than an indicator of potential success on the board exam, we did not use PT school grades as part of our candidate consideration. In other words, we would not select a candidate for an interview over another simply because they had an A in a particular class.”
Q: Do you have any other advice concerning the application/review process itself?
A:"Do your homework," was a pretty consistent trend among reviewer responses.
Ivan Mulligan states, “When you are applying or interviewing, remember this is not just the program interviewing a candidate but also the candidate interviewing the program. Do your homework about the program and determine if this the facility or program is one that you would enjoy working and learning.”
Mark Weber responds with, “Do your homework on the residencies you think you are interested in. Contact them before you apply as this allows you to: (1) Find out what their residency strengths and weaknesses are and what opportunities are above the minimum requirements the residency emphasizes. From there you can decide if the residency will help you meet your career plan goals. Do not approach this like it is a clinical rotation. (2) Develop a relationship with the residency. If you're ‘tied’ with another applicant for an interview slot and the residency ‘knows you’ while the other candidate is just someone on paper, more often than not they will select the one they at least have had some contact with. If you get an interview make sure you actively engage and are genuinely pleasant with all persons you interview with, not just the ones that you think are the most important. Coming across as being aloof or arrogant can really sink your chances. Finally, remember you are likely going to be competing with others that have just as strong an application and interview as you do. The selection decisions are usually very difficult to make. This is actually a very good problem for residency training to have as it means the pool of highly qualified candidates is quite deep. Unfortunately, it does not make the decisions or impact on the non-selected applicants any easier.”
Looking for details on what a career as a new grad physical therapist will be like? Download our New Grad Physical Therapist Report!
Please note this content is not meant to serve as a representation of all residency programs, and that no candidate should rely solely on this information during the application process. As previously stated, all residency programs are unique and should be contacted on an individual basis.