apply for physical therapy residency

How to Apply for a Physical Therapy Residency and Get Accepted

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.

PREPARATION IS KEY. The success of your application will be determined by your level of preparation before you decide to apply to a physical therapy program. This is not something that you can just throw together at the last second. The “want” is simply not enough; it takes months, and sometimes years, of building experience, networking, and demonstrating drive and commitment to the process.

Start to apply for a physical therapy residency program as early as possible.

Determine what physical therapy speciality 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 speciality 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 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.

Contact residents (current or past) of the top programs that pique your interest. If all goes well with your initial conversation with the residency director, or you are still on the fence about whether to apply to that program, speaking with a current or past resident can give you a great perspective on day-to-day tasks. Don’t be afraid to ask them tough questions.
Attend Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) or other national conferences. Above everything else I have done in my career to prepare me for the residency application process, the networking I did at CSM was absolutely the number one thing that aided in my acceptance to a residency program. Use these conferences as a way to meet with potential future employers, residency directors, and attend networking events. Particularly for those students looking to get involved with the Sports Section, TeamMates is an event hosted by the SPTS annually at CSM where “rookies” (students) get to mingle with experienced professionals. Be on the lookout for upcoming details.

Follow-up via email after phone conversations and personal meetings with a “thank you.” Express continued interest in the program, maybe specifying a couple points that particularly intrigued you. Ask to follow-up in the future if you should have any other questions.

The application

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!

Most applications are centralized through RF-PTCAS, while other programs use their own external application processes.

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.

A few more points from a physical therapy resident’s perspective:

Now that you know what programs you are applying to, their deadlines, what is unique to each program, and what each program is looking for, use this as your framework when answering your essay questions.

Know what you want. Know what your goals are. Know why you want to do a residency. Know why you want to do that particular residency. What makes you unique? Why should they pick you above other candidates? Be focused. Be driven. Be passionate.

Have solid references. Use people that support your career goals, understand who you are, and are passionate. It seems like common sense, but people can surprise you sometimes. For instance, I unknowingly made the mistake of asking a colleague I thought I had a good professional relationship with to be a reference for me. When I inquired with a program I was not accepted to about my application, I was informed one of my references was not strong. I later found out that colleague was not a supporter of residency programs. Yea, I don’t know why they agreed to be a reference either. Lesson learned.

Be humble. This is an extremely competitive process. No matter your past experience (whether it’s limited or significant), remember you are competing against the top students in the class.

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 applicants 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 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/essays 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, PhD, 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 to put themselves 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 think 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 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.”

Have any other questions concerning the residency application process? Leave a comment below and I will get back to you!

Stay tuned for upcoming content regarding the application and interview process, and all things you ever wanted to know about residency life.

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I would like to especially thank Ivan Mulligan, Mark Weber, and the remaining residency directors and admissions committee members who took the time to provide such wonderful feedback on this topic. 

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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.

About Shanon Fronek

Shanon Fronek
Dr. Shanon Fronek completed her B.S. in Biology at Wilmington College in 2011 and graduated from the University of Dayton in 2014 as a Doctor of Physical Therapy. Currently, she is working towards becoming a Sports Certified Specialist while completing the Sports Residency program at Saint Francis University. Dr. Fronek also holds a leadership position within the Sports Physical Therapy Section on the Public Relations Committee.

3 comments

  1. D B

    Truly a great article and great service Shanon. I hope and trust you had a most successful Residency.

    Do you have any tips or advice for foreign-trained applicants to residencies (especially sports)? I feel the odds may be “stacked” against a foreign-trained and foreign-based PT, even if they do the NPTE. Any advice for such an applicant?

    Thanks.

    D

    • Shanon Fronek

      Thank you for the kind words.

      That is a very interesting question! My personal opinion – I think it would be awesome to have a foreign-trained PT participate in a residency in the U.S. Maybe that is partly because I’ve always been curious to practice overseas and see how our treatment methods differ.

      First and foremost, as stated on the FSBPT website, I think the biggest obstacle would be showing that you have permission to work in the U.S. and that you are able to obtain a PT license. I’m not sure how residency programs work that out or if any have taken non-U.S. candidates; I would think so? I’m going to look into that. My advice would be to contact the program directors of programs you are interested in ASAP, even if you’re not 100% sure you’ll apply.

      Aside from that, I would think that my advice to a non-U.S. candidate would be the same as for a U.S. candidate. Make sure you meet all the criteria. If not, find out if there is any leniency. Know what your short- and long-term goals are. Know why you want to do a residency and be able to express that clearly. If everything lines up well with the program you’re applying to, I don’t see why you would have any more challenging of a time than a U.S. candidate would. Personally, I would be intimidated going up against someone from overseas because they’d bring a unqiue perspective. =)

      Reference:
      https://www.fsbpt.org/ExamCandidates/NationalExam(NPTE)/NonUSCandidates.aspx

  2. D B

    Shanon thank you very much! Really appreciate your insight. Yes I know being approved to take the NPTE via a credential evaluation is essentially the first step. Thanks for the tips on the rest as well.

    D

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