You've written your essay.
You know what you want to say.
But will the admissions committee get your message?
You've read through countless PA school essay samples. 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.
Personal statement tips: make it concise. Have people who KNOW you read it and have someone who doesn't know you well (and works in the medical field) read it. Showcase your unique abilities and don't forget to answer the main question… Why do you want to be a PA? And make that answer good! Because you will be asking yourself that when you have three exams in one week and you're running on 15 hours of sleep! - Julie Staton, PAEA
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 committee's 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, which has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful.
Synonyms: cliché, truism, commonplace - trite, hackneyed, stock phrase.
Here are a couple of 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 an excellent 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 continuously 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 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 a 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 teachers. 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 years 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,
- Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28
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 must 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 the 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 hardworking 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.
- Duke Pasquini (editor of essays)
The Physician Assistant Personal Statement Collaborative
If you are struggling to write an effective personal statement or you have an essay that is in desperate need of help, consider signing up for our Physician Assistant personal statement collaborate. We have worked with 100's of applicants to date and the results have been amazing.
If you are interested, you can read more about the essay collaborative or submit your essay for review here. We have helped many applicants not only complete their essays but actualize their dream of admission to PA school. This is why we do this in the first place.
View all posts in this series
- How to Write the Perfect Physician Assistant School Application Essay
- The Physician Assistant Essay and Personal Statement Collaborative
- Do You Recognize These 7 Common Mistakes in Your Personal Statement?
- 7 Essays in 7 Days: PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 1, “A PA Changed My Life”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 2, “I Want to Move Towards the Forefront of Patient Care”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 3, “She Smiled, Said “Gracias!” and Gave me a Big Hug”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 4, “I Have Gained so Much Experience by Working With Patients”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 5, “Then Reach, my Son, and Lift Your People up With You”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 6, “That First Day in Surgery was the First Day of the Rest of my Life”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 7, “I Want to Take People From Dying to Living, I Want to Get Them Down From the Cliff.”
- Physician Assistant Personal Statement Workshop: “To say I was an accident-prone child is an understatement”
- 9 Simple Steps to Avoid Silly Spelling and Grammar Goofs in Your PA School Personel Statement
- 5 Tips to Get you Started on Your Personal Essay (and why you should do it now)
- How to Write Your Physician Assistant Personal Statement The Book!
- How to Write “Physician Assistant” The Definitive PA Grammar Guide
- 101 PA School Admissions Essays: The Book!
- 5 Things I’ve Learned Going Into My Fourth Physician Assistant Application Cycle
- 7 Tips for Addressing Shortcomings in Your PA School Personal Statement
- The #1 Mistake PRE-PAs Make on Their Personal Statement
- The Ultimate PA School Personal Statement Starter Kit
- The Ultimate Guide to CASPA Character and Space Limits
- 10 Questions Every PA School Personal Statement Must Answer
- 5 PA School Essays That Got These Pre-PAs Accepted Into PA School
- 7 Questions to Ask Yourself While Writing Your PA School Personal Statement
- 101 PA School Applicants Answer: What’s Your Greatest Strength?
- 12 Secrets to Writing an Irresistible PA School Personal Statement
- 7 Rules You Must Follow While Writing Your PA School Essay
- You Have 625 Words and 2.5 Minutes to Get Into PA School: Use Them Wisely
- What’s Your #1 Personal Statement Struggle?
- 31 (NEW) CASPA PA School Personal Statement Examples
- How to Prepare for Your PA School Interview Day Essay
- Should You Write Physician Associate or Physician Assistant on Your PA School Essay?
- Meet the World’s Sexiest PA School Applicants
- PA School Reapplicants: How to Rewrite Your PA School Essay for Guaranteed Success
- How to Write a Personal Statement Intro that Readers Want to Read
- PA School Reapplicant Personal Statement Checklist
- How to Deal with Bad News in Your Personal Statement
- Inside Out: How to use Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling to Improve your PA Personal Statement
- Ratatouille: A Pixar Recipe for PA School Personal Statement Success
- Personal Statement Panel Review (Replay)
- Mind Mapping: A Tool for Personal Statements, Supplemental Essays, and Interviews
- Start at the End: Advice for your PA School Personal Statement
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Would starting a personal narrative using a story about a death and how you felt helpless be ok? Then go onto talk about how I want to be able to do more to help patients. Thanks!
Stephen Pasquini PA-C says
Of course Collin, there is no “wrong” way to start your essay. But the “right” way will always be the opening that resonates with you, tells your story, and provides the PA school ADCOMs with a glimpse into the person behind the numbers.
Here it recommends that when ‘painting a story’, a prospective student should include the patients name. Does this violate HIPAA? I don’t believe that admission officers would be impressed by violating the privacy of a patient that they have worked with.
Stephen Pasquini PA-C says
If you are discussing a situation that would violate HIPAA then certainly you would not use the patient’s real name. But, it will be to your advantage to use “a” name. This injects humanity into your writing and gives it a sense of validity. The admissions committee doesn’t care if that name is Maria or Jane or Samantha. The goal is to discuss a situation that is close to you, that affected your decision to become a PA. It comes across better this way most of the time, it is easier to read and makes your case stronger.
If you sit down for an interview and the admissions directors said, “Kelsea, we loved your personal statement, but we noticed you used the patients name in your essay do you realize this is a violation of HIPPA”. You would say “Of course that is why I didn’t use my patient’s real name, I wanted you to understand just how important this patient was in my decision to be a PA but I would never compromise my patients privacy!”