I will be honest; this is not an article I ever thought I’d be writing.
I submitted my first physician assistant application after finishing my undergrad in 2014, and here I am three years later preparing to submit my fourth PA application when the cycle starts at the end of the month.
The PA application process has been grueling and defeating at times; a truth that isn’t mentioned enough on Pre-PA forums or educational websites.
They say experience is the best teacher and with three years of PA applications under my belt, I’d say I’m seasoned enough to provide some insight.
Below are five things I’ve learned about the PA application process.
1. Take the Application Seriously
If you’re a Pre-PA, you’ve definitely heard of CASPA (Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants). Stephen compares CASPA to Amazon because it gives admission directors a friendly platform for assessing and reviewing PA applicants.
CASPA isn’t just the platform PA programs use to compare candidates; it’s also the same one you’ll use to submit your PA application.
You should definitely spend time inside of CASPA well before the application cycle starts. Learn how to maneuver the system and especially understand the instructions before submitting an application because once you submit your application, there are some things that cannot be changed.
Taking the application seriously will greatly increase your chances of landing an interview. I was a bit naïve when I first applied through CASPA in 2014. One of the mistakes I made during my first application was not submitting it as early as possible.
Many PA programs look at applications on a rolling basis, meaning they review applications as soon as they are received. The longer you delay submitting your PA application, the fewer open seats there are.
In 2014, CASPA opened in April, and I didn’t submit my application until August. To put this into some perspective, by August last year I already completed two personal interviews with interested PA programs. Thus, by not taking the application more seriously my first year, I set myself up to fail.
2. Research Schools Before Applying
Another tip for PA applicants is to research schools well before the application cycle begins. In fact, I’d recommend looking at schools at least a year in advance.
Well, many PA programs have unique requirements for candidates.
For instance, one program might accept online science lab pre-requisites while another might not. Other variations between programs could include:
- Minimum GPA requirements: some require 3.2 (11 schools), others 3.0 (80 schools) or 2.8 (4 schools)
- Minimum GRE scores
- Timeframe for pre-requisites to be completed (Fall before application cycle)
- Expiring prerequisite credits (some programs require credits earned for prerequisite courses to be within the last 5, 7, or 10 years)
Because the PA program is so competitive, it’s important that you have as many viable options as possible when you apply for programs. If you research programs and understand the minimum requirements for the schools you are most interested in, you have a year to fulfill any requirement that you have outstanding.
I learned this lesson the hard way after realizing during my first application that I needed to increase my GPA and take additional science courses so that I could become a more competitive applicant and meet the requirements for more PA programs.
3. Get Patient Care Hours
I worked as a pharmacy tech for many years, and still do, which can count as “other healthcare experience” depending on the program. However, to improve my application, I decided to get direct patient care experience which is substantially more valuable to PA programs.
I spent two weeks studying on my own for the CNA exam. Once I passed the exam, I found a job at a local hospital as a nurse technician. Not only does direct contact patient care experience improve your chances of getting into an interview, but it also helps you validate your decision to become a physician assistant.
While schools do have minimum thresholds for healthcare experience, there is no ceiling. In fact, there is evidence that supports a direct relationship between more healthcare experience and acceptance into PA school. If you want to increase your chances of getting accepted, become a CNA, EMT, or other position where you are directly responsible for a patient’s care.
4. Stand Out
This sounds cliché just typing it, but the reality is that PA applicants who find a way to stand out will improve their chances of landing an interview and ultimately, getting a seat in a program.
The PA program is growing more competitive every year -- Glassdoor ranking it the #1 Job in America in 2015 didn’t help, either.
Even though thousands of applicants are vying for a handful of seats, there are still opportunities to stand out. You just have to be willing to put in the extra work or go outside your comfort zone.
Standing out starts with the application.
Because time machines don’t exist, many students cannot immediately increase their GPA or easily work a thousand extra hours at their healthcare job. Thus, they end up hitting minimum requirements but not much more.
Fortunately, CASPA allows students to diversify themselves with letters of reference and a personal statement. In fact, the personal statement may be the single most important part of your application.
Don’t take my word for it though, Stephen believes that his 600-word Physician Assistant essay was the reason he was accepted into PA school.
I have made countless tweaks and updates to my statement. I shared it with friends, other PA students, and complete strangers so that I can get as much feedback and constructive criticism as possible. Don’t be afraid to open up and be vulnerable in your statement. It’s your chance to stand out from the crowd – don’t underestimate the value of a strong personal statement.
I also have to mention that standing out doesn’t begin and end with the essay. If you land an interview, be ready to make a strong impression. My previous interviews have involved a group of 10-30 other students and me. There is a combination of one-on-one interviews and group interviews, depending on the program. Regardless of the structure or amount of competition at your interview, you have to leave a lasting memory.
The best way I’ve found to stand out is to practice a lot before the interview. The more comfortable you are with the potential questions, the more relaxed and confident you’ll be in the interview. Just be careful not to sound rehearsed, practice doesn’t mean memorizing!
5. It’s Not Going to Be Easy
Finally, the last tip I have for those of you considering PA school is to prepare for a tough road. Granted, some students will get in with ease on their first application (I hate you!), but for every one of those, there are a dozen others that don’t receive an interview or are put on a waiting list or rejected. I don’t say this to discourage you, I say this to help you realize that if you truly want to be a PA, then you will take the hurdles and struggles along the way as motivation and lessons, I know I sure have.
I’m going to tell you a really honest and vulnerable story about my last application cycle. I was invited to an interview for a program that was pending accreditation. Now, if you’re not familiar with the ‘pending achieving accreditation’ status, don’t worry, neither was I at first. Basically, this program was awaiting final accreditation from ARC-PA, which is the governing body that oversees the standards and regulations of PA programs in the U.S.
At the time, I was just ecstatic to receive an invitation and didn’t think twice. About a month after the interview I received a phone call that would change my life forever, at least that is what I thought. I was accepted into the program.
The plan was to start January ’17 following earning provisional accreditation status at the end of 2016. However, several months later we received word that the accreditation status was on hold and that we wouldn’t start in January, as we had hoped.
The status was deferred which meant that we’d hear something in March, with a realistic chance of starting the program sometime in the middle of the year. March came, and the news was not good.
The program's accreditation was withdrawn. After spending the better part of eight months in limbo, the other accepted students and I were back to square one. My label as an active PA student, gone in one fell swoop.
This story is just one of the many obstacles I’ve faced on my road to becoming a PA. There are countless other stories of challenges and hurdles that other students have faced far worse than mine. If you glean anything from my experience, it should be that becoming a PA can be a long and challenging road; mentally, emotionally, and financially.
If you’re passionate and driven to be a PA, then you won’t let anything get in your way. The road will not be the same for everyone, and hopefully, you can turn your obstacles into a learning experience.
So, here I am – a seasoned PA applicant with three years under my belt ready to take on the application process once again. While I’m guaranteed to make mistakes again this time around, I’ve certainly come a long way from 2014. If you’re considering PA school, I hope you’ll take heed of the advice above when applying.
View all posts in this series
- How to Write the Perfect Physician Assistant School Application Essay - July 26, 2012
- The Physician Assistant Essay and Personal Statement Collaborative - September 6, 2013
- Do You Recognize These 7 Common Mistakes in Your Personal Statement? - June 30, 2014
- 7 Essays in 7 Days: PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 1, “A PA Changed My Life” - April 14, 2015
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 2, “I Want to Move Towards the Forefront of Patient Care” - April 15, 2015
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 3, “She Smiled, Said “Gracias!” and Gave me a Big Hug” - April 16, 2015
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 4, “I Have Gained so Much Experience by Working With Patients” - April 17, 2015
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 5, “Then Reach, my Son, and Lift Your People up With You” - April 18, 2015
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 6, “That First Day in Surgery was the First Day of the Rest of my Life” - April 20, 2015
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 7, “I Want to Take People From Dying to Living, I Want to Get Them Down From the Cliff.” - April 22, 2015
- Physician Assistant Personal Statement Workshop: “To say I was an accident-prone child is an understatement” - July 28, 2015
- 9 Simple Steps to Avoid Silly Spelling and Grammar Goofs in Your PA School Personel Statement - October 12, 2015
- 5 Tips to Get you Started on Your Personal Essay (and why you should do it now) - October 26, 2015
- How to Write Your Physician Assistant Personal Statement The Book! - May 16, 2016
- How to Write “Physician Assistant” The PA Grammar Guide - May 26, 2016
- 101 PA School Admissions Essays: The Book! - April 2, 2017
- 5 Things I’ve Learned Going Into My Fourth Physician Assistant Application Cycle - April 18, 2017
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