How to Ace Your PA Clinical Rotations

March 17, 2023
Transitioning from the didactic portion of the PA program to clinical year can be a whirlwind. At this time, you will go from sitting in class all day to working a full 40-hour week. Although there is a reduction in the number of exams you may have to take, there is definitely no shortage of work to do. 
But there’s no need to panic. Countless PA students have walked the path before you, using some of the following strategies to survive (and thrive!) during clinical rotations.

Tip 1: Make a study plan for each shift.

In addition to working clinically full-time, you will have to balance prepping for your upcoming rotations, studying for end-of-rotation exams, and getting ready to take the PANCE. All of this in conjunction with normal everyday life is a lot to handle, so I advise making a study plan each rotation to ensure that you are ready to manage your time well.

Tip 2: Meet with your preceptor before day 1.

Prior to each of your clinical rotations, you want to make sure you are adequately prepared. For starters, I recommend reaching out to your preceptor before the rotation begins. You should reach out to roughly one to two weeks prior to the first day. 

This is not only helpful to introduce yourself and build rapport, but it also allows you to ask any questions you may have. Important things to make sure you know prior to your first day include:

  • Where to meet your preceptor
  • What time to be there
  • How to contact them when you arrive 

They will also often provide you with some details on what to expect and let you know anything else you should bring along.

Tip 3: Familiarize yourself with the drive & the facility.

Before starting your clinical, I highly recommend driving to the facility so there are no surprises on your first day. This is especially helpful when rotating at larger hospitals, as finding where you need to park can sometimes cause confusion. First impressions are everything, so it is important that you arrive at least fifteen minutes early on the first day. 

Tip 4:  Dress to impress.

You also want to make sure you show up looking professional. If you do not know what to wear the first day, I recommend always wearing business casual attire unless you are told otherwise! Be sure to have comfortable shoes on, and I would advise these be closed-toed. 

Tip 5: Come prepared with this gear.

Even if you follow all the above recommendations, you may still show up to the first day with some unanswered questions about what to expect on the day-to-day of the rotation. I opted to carry a backpack with me on my clinicals, because it was comfortable and allowed me to carry everything I needed easily.

A few things to always bring with you on rotations include: 

  • Stethoscope
  • Pen light
  • Reference material
  • Pens
  • Pocket-sized notebook. 

The small notebook is important to log your patients and to write down things for you to reference/ look up later. I also recommend packing a lunch on your first day because you do not know how long your day will be or if you would have time to leave the facility to get lunch. 

After your first day, you’ll likely have a better idea of what your days will look like, but come ready for anything on day one so you are never unprepared.

Tip 6: Ask your preceptor to re-evaluate expectations.

Within your first few days, you should ask your preceptor to review their expectations. Most PA programs will have the preceptors fill out evaluations at the end of each rotation; this is important to review with your preceptor early on to make sure you can focus on developing skills in the areas you are expected to. That way when it is time for them to review you as a student, you will hopefully have gained clinical experience in all of the required areas. 

You can also request a mid-rotation evaluation, so your preceptor can give you feedback halfway through the rotation that you can work on for the remainder of your time there.

Tip 7: Stay off your phone.

While there are many things you should focus on doing during your clinical rotations, there are also some really important things to avoid. For starters, do NOT spend any unnecessary time on your phone. 

Some students may have reference material on their phones, such as popular apps such as Epocrates or UpToDate. These can be very useful, but you should let your preceptor know if you are using your phone for this because you do not want to give off the wrong impression.

Tip 8: Be open and honest about your knowledge gaps.

Another thing to remember while on clinical rotations is that you are not expected to know everything. There will undoubtedly be times that you are either pimped with a question you do not know or your preceptor asks you details of the HPI you accidentally forgot to ask the patient. When these things happen, it is important that you are honest and forthcoming about not knowing the answer. 

Never make up physical exam findings or HPI questions that you did not complete. When it comes to pimping, if you do not know the answer then be honest about it! 

Tip 9: Write down important information.

Make sure you write anything down your preceptor tells you so you can reference it later and/or look it up at home; you want to make sure that if that topic is ever brought up again you have done your research. Overall, you are learning and your preceptor is there to help you do so!

Tip 10: Stay engaged, passionate, and ready to learn!

Treat every clinical rotation like it is a job interview from day one. No matter if it is your dream specialty or least anticipated, you should always have the “don’t knock it before you try it” mentality. Ensure that you are engaged throughout the day, asking appropriate questions, and taking every learning opportunity you can. 

Remember that every person in the room has something they could teach you—the nurses, the techs, the pharmacists, and so on. Anything you learn can one day be helpful for you in passing the PANCE and, more importantly, in your future career as a physician assistant!

Additional Resources

These strategies provide a great foundation to tackle the beginning of clinical rotations, but what if you’re on the lookout for even more resources to help you through this difficult time? Don’t forget to check out the Rosh Review blog, packed with hundreds of free guides written by healthcare professionals.

Better yet, take a look at Rosh Review’s PA clinical products! From Rotation Exam Qbanks to PANCE study bundles, these personalized tools are purpose-built by healthcare professionals to guide you through the unique challenges of your clinical years.

Rosh Review is the leading Qbank provider for PA programs across the United States. Whether you’re a pre-PA student or PA-C, Rosh Review has something for you along your PA journey. Start a free trial today!

By Olivia Graham, PA-C

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