How to Write Standout PA School Supplemental Essays

October 28, 2022
If you’re applying to PA programs, you likely already have a handle on the requirements for your CASPA application. But what about any supplemental applications? It can often be difficult to navigate each program’s individual requirements for supplemental applications, including different essay prompts and additional fees for each. If you’re wondering how to make your PA school supplemental essays stand out from other applicants, here’s everything you need to know to get started.

Many years ago, when I was a pre-PA applicant, I impulsively added a school to my CASPA application at the last minute without thoroughly researching the school’s requirements. Surprisingly, I received an email a few days later informing me that my application would not be considered complete until I finished the supplemental application and paid an additional fee. I distinctly remember clicking the link in the email and feeling overwhelmed as a new browser window opened and three additional essay questions popped up. Rather than completing the essays, I promptly closed out of the browser window and didn’t look back. 

Now, I think back on this moment and wonder: What if this school had been the perfect fit for me? What if it was one that I hadn’t impulsively added to my application, but rather one that I had meticulously researched and had my sights set on for years? I would hope that after years of completing prerequisite coursework, obtaining patient care experiences, and polishing my personal statement, a supplemental essay wouldn’t be the obstacle standing in the way of a school that I desperately wanted to attend.

What are supplemental essays and how are they different from your personal statement?

As a reader of many applications over the past few years, it’s clear that supplemental essays aren’t simply there to add additional steps to the application process. Supplemental essays allow a program to ask questions that are more targeted to their specific program (e.g., “Why did you apply to our program?”). It helps the application reviewer further delineate whether you’re a good fit for their cohort, and it also gives you another opportunity to demonstrate who you are.

The prompt for your CASPA personal statement is “Please explain why you are interested in being a PA.” This question is general and nonspecific, as your response is included in your application to every program where you apply. In contrast to your personal statement, supplemental applications are not a required component of every program. Additionally, some programs may have a supplemental application, but no supplemental essay. Some programs may include one supplemental essay, while others may have multiple essay prompts. 

What are the general requirements for PA school supplemental essays?

Supplemental essays are typically shorter than your personal statement, though this can vary. While CASPA personal statements have a character limit of 5,000 characters (including spaces and punctuation), supplemental essays are often shorter than personal statements, varying from 250–2,000 words based on the program and prompt. Some supplemental applications may have short answer questions requiring a response in 50–100 characters rather than a full essay. 

Additionally, supplemental applications often have an additional fee. You should thoroughly research schools of interest so they can appropriately budget for this added expense. 

The delivery of supplemental applications and essays may also vary by program. Some may need to be submitted at the same time as CASPA. Some programs may automatically send the supplemental application to students via e-mail as soon as their CASPA application is received, while others may only send it out if an interview invitation is offered. You should work quickly to complete the supplemental essays and pay attention to deadlines, as these may differ from the program’s posted application deadline or may differ from applicant to applicant based on when their application was received and verified.

If you’re required to upload a document with your responses, standardize your formatting (12-point, monospaced sans-serif font, such as Arial). Also, pay attention to specific uploading instructions regarding document type (.doc vs. .pdf) and naming the document.

What are some common questions that PA programs ask as supplemental prompts?

While supplemental essay prompts vary from program to program, there are some common themes that pre-PA students should expect:

Prompt ThemeSample Questions
Program interestWhy did you apply to this program?
Why would you be a good fit for this program?
What do you like about this program?
Program missionWhat about our mission speaks to you as an applicant?
How will you uphold our mission as a graduate of our program?
Program diversityHow will you add diversity to the cohort?
What experiences do you have in working with diverse populations?
Future interestsWhat is your five-year plan?
What specialty interests you the most?
Professional commitmentWhat type of contribution will you make to the profession as a PA?
What are the biggest issues facing PAs today?
How will you be a leader for PAs?
Community engagementWhich of your volunteer experiences have been most impactful?
How will you engage your community as a PA to better the health and wellness of its members?
As a student in our program, what service learning initiatives could your class create to engage our surrounding community?
ResilienceWhat is the most difficult thing you’ve had to overcome?
How have you handled hardship in the past?
MiscellaneousIs there anything else you’d like the admissions committee to know?
If you’re a reapplicant, what have you done to improve upon your application?
Please use this space to explain any area of your application that may need additional explanation.
How do I start brainstorming ideas for these prompts?

Begin early—ideally before you submit your CASPA application. It may be helpful to create a “brainstorm notebook” with pages dedicated to potential supplemental essay themes. Keep your notebook with you at all times and jot down ideas as they come to you. This process was helpful to me during personal statement writing as I often find inspiration on my walks home from work. 

Ask yourself the following questions as you brainstorm:

  • What are my future goals?
  • What am I looking for in a PA program?
  • How have I been shaped by my experiences?
  • Which aspects of myself will set me apart from other applicants?

What are some tips for writing my PA school supplemental essays?
1. Plan ahead

Identify which schools have supplemental essays before you submit your application. Keep track of deadlines for supplemental essays and plan ahead. Then, budget your time to complete your supplemental essays as soon as you receive your essay questions.

2. Get familiar with the program

Familiarize yourself with the programs to which you applied and their missions. Peruse the website, attend info sessions, and participate in pre-PA events. You want to have a good grasp and understanding of what the school is looking for in a student and make sure this matches what you’re looking for in a school.

3. Make it different than your personal statement

Don’t copy and paste your personal statement! You should be covering different material than you do in your CASPA personal statement. Remember, this is your opportunity to supplement your application, not repeat it using different words.

4. Be specific

Highlight your answers with experiences and clear examples. Your answers should demonstrate your research and understanding of the program along with your ability to tie them to your own experience, interest, values, and goals. Also, be sure to avoid generic statements or vague language.

5. Tell the truth

Don’t write based on what you think the program wants to hear, especially if it conflicts with your true interests and values. Honesty is the best policy!

6. Proofread

You don’t need to pay for proofreading services—have a friend or family member read your essays and provide feedback. Consider recording yourself reading your essays and then playing it back. You may discover “sticky” areas, redundancy, or sections that are in need of smoothing over. 

7. Tailor to each specific program

Don’t reuse a supplemental essay without first revising it to align with that specific program’s essay prompt. Even though supplemental essay questions may be similar across programs, prompts will still have enough variation in their wording that it is obvious if a response was reused. I’ve personally seen students submit an essay to one program with another school’s name in it!

8. Clearly answer the prompt 

If the question is asking about the program’s mission, don’t ignore the prompt and use the open space as an opportunity to explain a failure on your transcript or another unrelated experience. Supplemental essays are often scored based on a specific rubric, so if you don’t answer the question a reviewer may be unable to score you.

9. Avoid buzzwords

Make sure that in an attempt to tailor to a specific program, you aren’t simply regurgitating language from the program’s website. There is a time and place for buzzwords, but using too many of them will distract from your essay and make it feel less personal.

10. Demonstrate who you are

Remember, your supplemental essays are an opportunity for an application reviewer to get to know the real you! It’s always frustrating when I’ve read through an entire applicant’s package and I still feel like I don’t know anything about them. Above all, the best way to stand out in your essays is to expand upon what makes you unique, the same way that you would in an interview. You got this!

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By Jennifer Comini, PA-C

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