Writing the Essay for PT School

The essay is commonly brushed over for people who are scrambling to apply to PT school. I’m in a few groups and have even spent enough time on Student Doctor Network forums to know that not enough people ask about it despite it being a trump card for landing an interview. You can most certainly get in with an average essay, but if you want to stand out or you want to improve your application because something else is lacking, the essay can help your passion shine.

The University of St. Augustine did not require a PTCAS essay (PTCAS is the system they use to handle all applications, for those that are barely just scraping the waters of application submissions). I wrote one anyway not knowing this, but it didn’t hurt. They actually required only a statement of purpose, which asked why I wanted to pursue physical therapy and why I was drawn specifically to their university. I’ll discuss mostly the PTCAS one because once you understand how to write that one, a statement of purpose is no problem; however, I’ll end the post with my statement of purpose so you’ll have a decent example of what one should look like.

When writing either of these essays, you don’t want to treat it like the essay you wrote for the GRE with a formulaic set-up. You want to treat it more like the essays you wrote for your English classes. Now PTCAS might change the topic. Mine was “reflect on a meaningful experience in your life and share how that experience influenced your personal growth, such as your attitudes or perceptions.” However, from what I have gleaned of PTCAS, a lot of their topics demand narratives (as does a statement of purpose usually), so there’s no thesis statement you need to defend.

Let’s start with the PTCAS essay. I’m going to post the one I submitted. I’ll break it down, including what I needed to fix before this became the finished product:

PTCAS Essay

In 2015 I suffered from a mental illness that statistically has the highest mortality rate, especially among young women: anorexia nervosa. Calories dominated my waking mind, and it was easy to hide this illness from everyone thanks to a diagnosed b12 deficiency due to my starvation. Yet, the emergence of uncontrollable binges coupled with purging and a profound self-awareness that there was only one outcome of anorexia, that being death, made me yearn for recovery. If it had not been for a friend who somehow discovered me on a pro-anorexia website, I might not have found it.

So my journey began, beginning with a four-day hospital stay followed by months of meeting with an eating disorder therapist until I regained the weight I lost. The threat of being hospitalized again sat on the table if I lost even a pound. Many of those with anorexia relapse. I did not, likely because I craved recovery. I did not wish to return to the constant hunger, the self-hatred, being cold all the time, and the guilt of why I was even doing this to myself to begin with.

To keep me on the recovery track and to avoid relapse, I joined a recovery forum where we spoke of nothing but recovery and posted recovery meals that ranged from nutritious salads all the way to ice cream. It was not just about putting on weight, but on developing a healthy relationship with food, regardless of its calorie content.
Recovery was not always easy. Some moments I hated it and wished I had not been caught. I also hated always being watched while I ate and never being able to eat in my room. In fact, even though I did not relapse, I almost did by taking advantage of my parents’ treadmill and walking on an incline for an entire hour every day. Needless to say, my parents removed the key from the treadmill and hid it.

Anorexia is a voice, one different for every sufferer. It might tell one person to stop gaining weight because she is fat. It might tell another, like me, to stop eating because you are losing control. Yet, I always remained honest with my eating disorder therapist because he was the only one who understood that even if the eating disorder was something I chose, I could no longer control it without help. Those once a week visits kept me true and kept the voice from controlling me again.

The more I stayed involved in my recovery forum, the more recovery began to influence my life as I searched out recovery blogs. I found one where the blogger became a personal trainer, which is not uncommon among recovering anorectics. As I researched this career more, I began to realize that perhaps this is what I was meant to do. I wanted to promote self-love and a positive body image. I wanted to ensure future clients would seek to lose weight the healthy way so that way they would never hate themselves the way I did.

I threw myself into my studies, earning my certification within six months. I have since gone on to earn a myriad of others, including NSCA’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialty. My first year of personal training showed me what I truly loved, and that was learning about and working with special populations. There is something truly gratifying about restoring the confidence of an injured individual who was afraid to exercise before thanks to said injury. Yet, it was working with these individuals that made me want to do much more: I want the knowledge to actually treat the condition and not just merely teach people how to work around it.

One could argue anorexia is the reason for discovering personal training and thus physical therapy, but I would argue my recovery is the primary influence for making me discover my ultimate purpose in life—to be a practitioner who improves mobility and relieves pain. It is a very different career because self-image is not a factor like it is for those who seek personal trainers. Nonetheless, pain can prevent people from being able to live their lives, and pain can harm someone’s self-esteem. I have seen this in the observation hours I have done. Yet, what I have also seen is the beauty of healing and what it does for a person’s life. I want to take part in that, and every day I thank my recovery for making me discover such a wonderful field. Recovery has made me a much more empathetic person, a trait I know is crucial as a physical therapist.

The struggle with the PTCAS essay is that you are limited with the amount of characters you have. So originally I summarized my whole journey with anorexia, from the development of it to the recovery from it. This didn’t allow me much room to talk about anything else, save for a small paragraph tying it into physical therapy. As you can also see, even though the topic doesn’t outright ask you about physical therapy, you must find a way to tie your experiences into it. As you can also see in the paragraph before the last one, you have to gloat a little bit. That’s not something I did in the first draft. I barely talked about my accomplishments because I spent a lot of time detailing my story of anorexia and how it led to physical therapy. I’m also a modest person by nature.

When I sent the draft off to a friend of mine who was waiting to be accepted into PT school herself and whose mother was an English teacher, she read it and told me the biggest thing I needed to do was focus only on the recovery because it was the recovery that made me discover physical therapy. She also told me I needed to emphasize why I wanted to be a physical therapist. So I had to scrap the entire first draft and start all over using elements from the first draft to influence the second one.

Originally I had a slightly more detailed section on my hospital experience, but that just took up room, so I scrapped it and just said I spent four days in the hospital. I also originally did not have anything mentioned about joining a recovery forum (more sub-forum, but semantics). However, it was important to mention it because it did keep me on track and added a little bit more dimension to my recovery since I had to start treating this as a story. After all, recovery is largely boring, especially if you’re not fighting it.

Instead of briefly alluding to why I developed an eating disorder, I jumped right in as you can see in the first paragraph. It wasn’t important to know why I developed one. It wasn’t even important to know what it was like suffering with one. It’s important to get to the point of this essay immediately because you are so limited with characters. The essay above didn’t have much room left despite my constant proofreading, so I felt like I still wasn’t giving enough attention to my recovery story. But that’s something you have to accept when writing the PTCAS essay–and your readers know this.

Even so, it still needs to be impactful, so hopefully you can use my essay as an example to guide yours. And remember, you’re always free to email me yours and I’ll do my best to make time for it.

But as you can see, I spent about 50% of this essay detailing my recovery journey and the rest of the 50% detailing how it influenced my desire to become a physical therapist.

Now here is my statement of purpose answering why I chose PT and the University of St. Augustine. Some schools may list the word count, but mine didn’t. It turned out to be about 1,000 though.

Statement of Purpose

I am going to be honest and say I never saw myself becoming a physical therapist or getting involved in the field of medicine period. In fact, I never saw myself studying any sort of science beyond the requisite science courses all non-science majors must endure. I chose an English degree because at the time I wanted to be in publishing. I have a few books published through a small press, have some poetry out there, and am seeking an agent, so this seemed the natural route. Science scared me since we were not friends in high school; the language it spoke terrified me beyond comprehension with all its rote memorization and math. Why did I need to know the Krebs Cycle? What was so important about stoichiometry? Plus, when I had to drop an entire semester thanks to a mental health crisis no doubt exacerbated by that semester’s course load, I did not think I was intelligent enough. When I looked at the prerequisites for physical therapy, I was also almost deterred. Now I think it is humorous to imagine going back in time and telling my high school and early college self that one day you are going to enjoy science and math, and you are going to do well in them because you are older, more mature, and more self- assured. Once you find what you are meant to do, your fears become insignificant. You tell yourself every time you feel challenged that nothing will stop you. You will make your future happen.

I did not immediately have physical therapy school in mind when I finished my Bachelor’s. I figured I would do freelance editing; however, I did not like editing novel-length works--it could take an hour to edit fifteen pages--and preferred being primarily a writer. A brush with an eating disorder brought me to personal training. In fact, I wanted to try and make a career out of being one; it was being a trainer, of course, and working primarily with special populations that made me wonder if there was not more out there. I could work around client’s problems, but a large part of me wanted to treat them, as they were limited in what they could do. At the time I was still new to personal training, so I had to have a second job to support me, which was where being a physical therapy aide came in. Even though recovery from an eating disorder influenced my discovery of physical therapy, being an aide solidified this decision because I was able to see high-energy, passionate physical therapists who were unwavering in using their advanced skills to help patients’ varying conditions. I saw these patients being relieved of pain--I saw it in their smiles, the desserts they’d bring in thanks, and the occasional visits to let the therapists know how they were doing. I was also endlessly impressed during every shift by the boundless amounts of knowledge the therapists possessed and how they were not shy in educating their patients on their own conditions. So I started researching physical therapy, what it would take, and then looking into schools. I did not immediately apply to a college to do prerequisites right away. That took several more months before I finally realized I had to because I could not get physical therapy off my mind.

I am choosing the University of St. Augustine because a current student recommended the program to me (I also live about five hours from there). She knows I cannot afford to go without an income for several years, so I was thrilled to learn of a hybrid program with online learning and labs. I also earned my Bachelor’s through an online program, so I am neither intimidated nor unfamiliar with online learning. Perhaps what I like the most, however, is that the University of St. Augustine offers a great degree of assistance both inside and outside the classroom. I saw the video of the anatomage table and am excited to know it can be uploaded and taken home for further study; thus, it is great that St. Augustine remains innovative. The current student also said there is a lot of help available, and there are scheduled times to meet foronline learning activities. Last, I like that the University of St. Augustine offers the orthopaedic manual therapy fellowship, as I was in physical therapy once for my hip and manual therapy was the only modality that helped it; it is the first specialty I’d like to pursue upon graduating and earning my license.

I look forward to a career in physical therapy because I know what my interests are--and those interests will likely expand during my journey through physical therapy school and clinicals. One of the therapists I observed was a scoliosis and Mckenzie specialist. Both methods were fascinating to witness, and since I am a follower of Dr. Stuart McGill and understand back pain is a large cause of disability, I want to help rehabilitate backs and relieve back pain for many people. I would also eventually love to become a teacher and contribute to back pain research. Therefore, I hope to have the privilege of attending the University of St. Augustine to be given this foundation. Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Next post will discuss getting the grade in your prerequisites.