Top Mistakes to Avoid When Applying to PA School
Being a PA is a challenging yet rewarding career. However, before you can launch this lifelong quest for knowledge and patient care, you must first gain admission to a program. With prerequisite courses, experience hours, deadlines, entrance exams, and an ever-growing list of available programs, this first step of the PA journey can be overwhelming. Here is our list of top PA school application mistakes to avoid so you can succeed from the very beginning!
Mistake #1: Misunderstanding the application process
Before starting your application, it is imperative that you understand the PA school application timeline. One common mistake among PA applicants is neglecting to budget enough time and resources for their preapplication requirements, which often require years to complete.
First, many programs require you to complete a number of clinical experience hours to apply, with a general focus on healthcare-specific positions. These clinical hours could include working as a medical assistant, volunteering in the medical field, training as a certified nursing assistant, and many others. According to AAPA, most students gain about three years of health care experience before entering a PA program, so it’s important to begin planning your clinical hours accordingly.
In addition to clinical hours, many PA programs also require you to take the standardized Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). Some may even recommend you take additional exams, like the PA-CAT or CASPer, to better gauge your foundation of knowledge relevant to PA school. In addition to standardized tests, PA programs also require you to take core science prerequisites. While prerequisites can vary by program, the most common requirements include anatomy, physiology, biology, and microbiology.
Lastly, you will need to invest time in preparing your PA school application using the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). CASPA is a common application for PA schools to streamline the application process and includes a personal statement that you will include with all of your applications. Additionally, many programs require supplemental applications that you must submit individually for each program.
Mistake #2: Spending too little time deciding your top programs
According to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), there are 300 currently accredited PA programs to choose from. Before embarking on the insurmountable journey that would be applying to all of these, consider your individual goals, both professionally and personally.
Do you want to live near your family to lean on for support during rigorous times of exams and clinical rotations? Many students find solace in having an established social support system nearby to both revel in the accomplishments (e.g., correctly identifying atrial fibrillation on your ECG test) and commiserate in the defeats (e.g., running out of time during a competency exam).
Additionally, are you interested in establishing a career in a specific state? Attending PA school in an area in which you wish to later practice can help you network and rotations may even lead to future job offers.
Do you thrive in more personalized settings with small class sizes? Do your future interests lie in family medicine? Surgical specialties? Or, are you unsure and interested in a broad, unfocused experience?
While there are some programs that focus on specified areas of study (e.g., the surgical PA curriculum at the University of Alabama Birmingham), the majority of programs strive to create primary care providers with a wide breadth of knowledge as an homage to the roots of the PA profession. The length of schooling is typically 27 months, and subjects covered must include anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, pharmacology and pharmacotherapeutics, and the genetic and molecular mechanisms of health and disease.
Additionally, you may consider how a program teaches these topics. While some students may thrive in a block-style learning technique wherein body systems are used in isolation to teach these components, others may prefer more traditional curriculums that teach the topic as a whole throughout a longer time span. Take into consideration your preferences and classes in which you have succeeded in the past when determining if a block-based program is right for you.
Mistake #3: Giving yourself a small timeframe to apply
Creating a timeline with dates to achieve specific goals can help you stay ahead of deadlines and ensure you are presenting the best version of your accomplishments for consideration. Consider giving yourself enough time to take any entrance exams more than once to optimize your score.
After writing your preliminary CASPA personal statement or supplemental essays, ask for feedback from trusted sources with ample time to review any suggestions and implement changes. If you aren’t satisfied with your prerequisite course GPA, take additional time to retake classes with lower scores.
While many aspiring PAs are determined to start their postgraduate studies in medicine as soon as possible, it may be wise to take a gap year to hone your clinical experience and fortify your application. This time can also be used to research schools and their reputations as well as make a financial plan for your time in a program.
As the first impression a program receives from you, a rushed application may come off as unprepared or underqualified and can limit your chances of being accepted or even being offered an interview.
Mistake #4: Underperforming in prerequisite courses
In order to present yourself as the best candidate and improve your likelihood of success, you should optimize your prerequisite portfolio. While PA school prerequisites may vary and are dictated individually by programs, the basic scientific principles underlie much of medical learning. The most common prerequisites include entry-level classes such as biology and chemistry with advanced-level classes such as biochemistry, microbiology, organic chemistry, and genetics.
Anatomy and physiology are often required and, if not, are highly recommended, as they are foundational components for health care education. Not only can these classes give you a leg up when starting the more rigorous analogous PA program classes, but they may also give an insight into whether you have the passion and capability to succeed in the medical field.
Whether you thrive or struggle with these undergraduate-level prerequisite courses, keep in mind your underlying goal and strive to absorb and retain the information presented to you in these courses. They are prerequisites for a reason! If you don’t obtain a final grade that reflects your capabilities, retake the course to better your prerequisite GPA.
Ultimately, your application is the first—and sometimes, only—reflection of you as an applicant. In this compartmentalized format, you must not only demonstrate your aptitude for scientific-based knowledge but also your drive and passion that makes you a prolific clinician for future patients in need. Among the topics above to bolster your application, don’t forget the most important aspect of applying to PA school: understanding the PA profession!