You’ve written your essay.
You know what you want to say.
But will the admissions committee get your message?
You’ve chopped and changed the order of the paragraphs. You’ve polished each sentence.
After all that hard work, you’re still not sure whether your essay flows along nicely. Will readers stumble over a paragraph? Or effortlessly glide through your text?
Creating a hypnotic flow doesn’t have to be so difficult.
Let’s have a look at 7 of the most common mistakes I see people make while reading and editing PA school applicants’ essays.
We will also discuss how to correct them.
1. Most Essays are too long
You want to tell everything about your life and you hate leaving anything you think is important out.
How to correct this: If you are on the admission committee and are reading your 75th essay in three days, would you rather read a short concise essay or a long rambling one? I think you already know the answer. I refer to this as “Don’t get lost in the library.” You don’t want who you are to get lost in too many details. You don’t want to be just another book on the library shelf.
2. Paragraphs are too Long
How to correct this: Always put yourself in the admission committees place. If you look at an essay and see large blocks of text, are you inclined to think, “Oh, this will be an easy read.” OR “This is going to be a hard read. Look at all those words crammed into two or three long paragraphs.” You want to make a good first impression on the reader before they ever begin reading your essay. Create more open space by using shorter paragraphs. Break long paragraphs into shorter ones.
3. Applicants Prefer Telling
You want to tell the reader every wonderful thing you’ve done in a long list of accomplishments rather than showing them. This is similar to number 1, but let me explain further.
How to correct this: A picture is worth a thousand words. You need to paint a picture for the reader that will make them identify with you and the patient. This requires an anecdote. Tell them about Johnny (be sure to use his or her name) who came into the hospital unconscious. You came into his room every day and said a few words to him and one day you came in and he was awake or he died or moved his fingers or toes or whatever. Tell us what Johnny looked like and how you felt when he awakened or died. Did you feel like you failed him or that it was the first time you faced death. All these things will grab the admission committee’s attention. Always remember the admission committee has read a lot of these essays and you want yours to stand out from the rest. Refer to #5 below for a more detailed example.
4. Applicants Love to Talk in Glowing Platitudes
What is a platitude? A platitude is a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.
Here are a couple examples:
The first is a statement by a teacher who is applying for a teaching certificate. Sometimes is it easier to recognize platitudes in a field other than your own.
The second is an example of a statement filled with platitudes from one of our PA School applicants.
The example below is from someone who wants to be a teacher. I’m using it because I think it’s a great example of what I’m talking about. You probably won’t want to finish reading it. The point is, don’t write like this when you’re writing your PA essay.
My goals are to consistently and constantly better myself as a teacher. To help achieve this goal, I am constantly looking to my peers for suggestions and will continue my personal strategy to their emulate creativity, procedures, methods, and techniques that I witness or hear of; my current master teacher serves well as an example of how much there is that I can learn. My desire is to be the most effective and proficient teacher I can be. Charged with curriculum that is extensive in classroom time that is limited, I commit myself to achieve the best functioning classroom possible and through my experience as a student teacher, I have seen the benefits of this; through my experiences as a substitute teacher, I have witnessed the deterrents to learning in environments with discipline and behavior are not properly handled with effective routines and procedures. The classroom is a learning community and needs to be addressed as a joint effort of students and teacher. The developmental ages of the students being taught needs to bear great consideration when implementing instruction, I will continue my efforts to understand my students, their motivations, and their shortcomings to the best of my ability. I will continue educating myself, not just in content, but in strategies and means to differentiate and modify so that each individual child placed in my care stands the best opportunity to learn to their maximal abilities.
I have always wanted to be a PA since I was a child. It is the type of profession that will allow me to help people and helping others is the highest calling anyone can have. I have had this desire in my heart for many year beyond my childhood. The medical field offers a person a chance to make a difference in a person’s life. The PA is given a chance to feel like they have made a positive difference in a patient’s life every day. This is why I want to be a PA. PAs also have the advantage of working as a team member with a doctor. I like the idea of having a mentor to guide me. I am a willing learner. Patients need someone with patience. This is something I have in spades. If given the chance to become a PA, I will bring enthusiasm, love, and a caring heart to the job.
Note: All this may sound great to the writer, but there isn’t one example that would lead the reader to believe the applicant is capable of doing any of what he/she says they can do or shows they actually believe in the statement they wrote. They are just generalizations that sound good but mean nothing.
As Shakespeare said in the final soliloquy in Macbeth, It is “a tale… full of sound and fury signifying nothing”
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
How to correct this: If you are on the admissions committee, would you ask this person to come in for an interview? Did they create any images in your head or show you how they will do all the things they say they will do? No, they just put a bunch of words on the paper that sound good, but in the end, makes the reader believe they’re just trying to impress them with glowing platitudes that say nothing. What the reader will probably ask is so what? And who cares?
5. Poor First Paragraphs
The first paragraph has to grab the reader’s attention and give them some idea of what will follow. It is great if you can lead with an anecdote that summarizes what is in the rest of your essay.
Here’s a bad example. “I want to help people and save lives. Becoming a PA will give me a chance to do that. One of my best qualities is that I take initiative and don’t stand back and wait for someone else to do what needs to be done. As a PA I will also be helping families who could have lost a loved one if I hadn’t been there to help.” This is filled with platitudes.
Here’s a good example of an anecdote that shows the same thing. “I heard a car crash and ran out of the restaurant to see what happened. A man was lying on the ground and wasn’t breathing. His wife had her arms around their two little boys and was screaming, “Someone please help.” People gathered around but no one did anything. I ran to him, gave him chest compressions, and mouth to mouth resuscitation. I had never done this before, but I kept him alive until the ambulance arrived, they restarted his heart, and took him to the hospital.
Let’s examine what the anecdote tells us:
- There is an accident.
- No one did anything.
- You take the initiative to do something.
- You saved the man’s life.
- You kept a woman from becoming a widow.
- You kept the children from losing their father.
You said all of that in the anecdote. Your theme for the rest of the essay could easily be how you take initiative (shown through other examples) and how by being a PA you can save lives and help families.
The bad example paragraph said the same thing, but what a difference. Which one would grab your attention? Which applicant would you call in for an interview?
6. Incorrect use of the Word I:
How to correct this: You want to avoid the use of the word I in most cases, but not in all cases. You don’t want to say “I did this” and “I did that.” “I am a dedicated person who will give everything to the job.” “I am hard working and resourceful.” “I inspire my co-workers with my dedication to my job.” etc. What you want to say is “I spent three months working in an orphanage and the children inspired me with their cheerfulness.” OR “I had no idea the experience would change my life.” OR “I have often failed, but failure has made me better at what I do.”
7. Incorrect use of Contractions, Poor Grammar, Punctuation, or Spelling
How to correct this: It is only acceptable to use these when you quote someone. For example:
Johnny said, “And I ain’t going to eat none of this hospital food cus I didn’t ask for it, don’t want it, and won’t eat it even if you force me to.”
We used “ain’t, began the sentence with a conjunction, ended the sentence with a preposition, shortened because to cus, and used the contractions didn’t and don’t.” This is acceptable in a quote but never in the body of your essay.
As you can see, I’ve broken many of these rules myself, but I have the freedom to do so because I’m not applying to PA school.
I wouldn’t call these the seven deadly sins of writing the PA essay, but they are the most common and often fatal mistakes I’ve found in reading and editing essays.
Stephen Pasquini PA-C