Applying to a PA Program: Hands-on Experience is Invaluable
My path to becoming a physician assistant was not a straightforward one. As a freshman at Hamilton College, I was solely focused on taking only pre-med requirements. However, during my sophomore year, my advisor, Philosophy Professor Richard Werner, looked over my transcript and desired classes for next semester, and suggested I slow down on the prereqs. He pointed out that I was not taking advantage of everything Hamilton and its liberal arts education had to offer. After all, one of the reasons I was so attracted to the school was because it lacks core requirements. Rick recommended I explore some of my other academic interests, which ultimately led me to minors in art history and religious studies.
For those of you considering becoming a PA, my first piece of advice is to take advantage of Hamilton’s open curriculum. College is the last time you will be able to take classes simply because you enjoy the material and want to learn more. If you are passionate about a subject matter that has nothing to do with being a PA, now is your time to explore it. Additionally, not only will you get to explore your academic interests outside of the sciences, but also this will make you a more interesting PA candidate. Having a background in psychology, art history, and religious studies made me a more well rounded applicant and diversified my transcript. And while you are probably thinking “what do religious studies and art history have to do with becoming a PA?” I’d tell you that studying different religions has made me more aware of the complexities of treating patients from various religious backgrounds and studying art history has strengthened my attention to detail.
When I first met with Leslie Bell, Hamilton’s pre-health advisor, she suggested I make an Excel spreadsheet of the schools I was interested in and their requirements, due dates, and other important information for applying. My Excel spreadsheet quickly became my best friend during the application process. Applying to PA programs is tricky because each program has a different set of requirements and due dates. Some require organic chemistry while others require biochemistry. Then there’s the outlier program that wants genetics or medical terminology or physics. I would recommend picking 8-10 schools that you are most serious about and completing the requirements for those schools.
Aside from completing the required classes, the other major piece of the academic puzzle for applying to PA programs is your personal statement. The personal statement may be the most important 5,000 characters you ever write. It can be the deciding factor between being offered an interview and being denied admission. Start early and utilize the career center! Even as an alumna, I worked with the career center for several weeks, both over the phone and through email, in order to make my personal statement the best piece of writing it could be (Thanks Janine Oliver! You’re a lifesaver).
As complex as figuring out the prereqs can be, at least applying is easy with the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). CASPA will also become your best friend once it opens in late April. My most important piece of advice would be to ignore the application due dates on CASPA. This sounds counterintuitive, but the due dates can actually slow you down and harm your chances of getting an interview. The minute the application cycle opens, start working on your application. There are four sections: personal information, academic history, supporting information, and program materials. Each section is very detailed and will require a lot of time to input all of the information, and that’s not including each program’s individually requested materials and supplemental essays. The application due dates for my desired schools were all August 1 or September 1 so I thought I had all the time in the world to complete my supplemental essays and submit my applications. However, many PA programs are rolling admission and the earlier you submit your application, the better chance you have of being invited for an interview. In this case, the early bird gets the worm. CASPA opens in late April and I would recommend submitting your applications by the end of May regardless of the school deadline.
If you are like me and did not have the hands-on experience that PA programs require prior to applying (e.g. medical assistant, EMT, paramedic, nursing assistant), then finding a good job after graduation is necessary for your application. Especially because you are likely to be working for at least a year in order to reach the required number of hours. PA programs are looking for candidates with a great deal of experience and responsibilities in their job including patient interaction, taking vitals, and obtaining lab specimens and performing preliminary diagnostic lab tests. However, experience does not directly translate to number of hours. Someone who has only 200 hours of experience but has an interactive and patient-centered job may be a more attractive candidate than someone who has 2,000 hours with very little patient interaction. It is important to recognize what your job title and responsibilities entail to ensure they meet the requirements for the PA programs you are applying to.
I have worked as a medical assistant in pediatrics since graduation and I completely understand why this is requirement. My job has not only provided me with the essential and necessary skills to become a successful PA, but it has clarified that medicine is absolutely the right career for me. While I had always known I wanted to work in medicine and decided on becoming a PA through internships in college, working and getting hands-on experience can be invaluable for those of you who may be on the fence about working in medicine. Internships can be pretty limiting, especially in the medical field, but real hands-on experience will be able to help you make the decision if medicine is the right career for you. As a result, this confidence will shine through during your interview and is an attractive quality in PA program candidates.
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My last piece of advice is for the interview process. The interview is arguably the most essential piece of your application. This is where your personality comes out and you bring to life everything they have been reading about you. Like a job interview or your interview for Hamilton, preparation is key. The book titled How To “Ace” The Physician Assistant School Interview by Andrew J. Rodican, PA-C was recommended to me by a PA friend and I found it to be the perfect preparation for my interview. Depending on the school, there are many different types of interview styles and questions and it is best to know what you are walking into ahead of time. Do your research about the school. Comb through their website, read about who will be interviewing you if the school tells you ahead of time, and remember to ask questions. You are interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you. But remember that you can over prepare and do not forget to step back and show your interviewers who you are. Do not be afraid to be yourself and trust that you belong here. Interviewers will see that and they will trust in you too.
Most importantly, have fun! While the PA program admission process can be daunting, especially if you are at the beginning, it is an incredibly rewarding journey. Hamilton has prepared you to flourish. We have been given all of the resources and skills to succeed. Believe in that and believe in yourself and you will be just fine.