PA schools get hundreds if not thousands of applications from prospective PA students each year.
As they comb through these applications to see who may be a good fit for their program, they inevitably come across many similarities among applicants — comparable GPAs, degrees, and types of patient contact experience.
On the receiving end of your application, even the most subjective part of an application, the personal statement, can start to sound like everyone else's. Though thousands of individual applicants are writing them, the same overtrodden themes seem to show up in many PA school essays.
Three of these commonly used themes are typically born out of the writer's desire to "get the reader's attention" or to convey the magnitude of their decision to work in medicine.
But, when PA schools are reading the same phrases and stories over and over again, they lose their impact, no matter how much you mean it.
So, if you want to write an essay that has a real impact and doesn't sound like hundreds of others, here are three themes to avoid.
1. The code blue
If you've been there when a patient suddenly died, I'm sure it was significant.
I've worked in outpatient oncology for my entire career. Though I am well acquainted with mortality, I haven't had many patients die abruptly. And because I haven't been involved in many, I remember every single code I've ever seen.
So, I get that it affects you, especially the first one. It would be weird if it didn't.
But there are a few issues that make writing about a code blue in your essay problematic. First, it seems that most PA school applicants who have witnessed a code are also writing about it, so your personal statement will not be as unique as you are hoping.
Secondly, writing about the sudden death (and possible resuscitation) of a patient breaks one of my cardinal rules of PA school essays: avoiding drama.
The essay is short. Writing about a dramatic event and then gracefully transitioning to discussing your experience as a CNA or volunteer is incredibly tricky.
Trying to will result in wildly divergent tones at different points of your essay, making your story sound fragmented and disconnected.
Lastly, the vast majority of providers, PAs included, are not working in environments where patients are dying in front of them on a daily basis. Some providers are, but most are not.
If your inspiration for working in medicine comes from an event that you're unlikely to routinely encounter as a PA, whoever is reading your essay will wonder if you understand what it's really like to work as a PA.
Instead of writing about a code blue, try this:
Instead of writing about medicine in it's most dramatic moments, consider something about the everyday work of PAs that is inspiring to you.
Maybe you experienced a situation centered on providing patient education, taking time to listen to a patient, supporting another member of the medical team, or advocating for a patient. Could that story better represent the role that PAs take on every day?
Describing a story that less dramatically but more accurately represents the work of PAs will resonate more with those reading your essay.
Your audience knows what it's like to be a PA. If you can show that you understand the primary role of a PA, they are more likely to believe that you're ready to be one too.
2. Being at a "crossroads"
Everyone who has ever applied to PA school has, at some point, decided to pursue the PA career. But, every decision you make along the way is not a showdown.
For most of us, deciding to become a PA does not come as a movie-version magical moment. It's a slow burn. You learn a little about what PAs can do; you take a step, you learn more and make the next step.
Framing your experience as a sort of ultimatum, and especially using the actual word "crossroads," lends unnecessary drama to your story. And it's typically not authentic to your real-life experience.
Instead of being at a "crossroads," use this alternative strategy:
Describe your experience as a series of evolving decisions. If you learned something while shadowing, how did that inspire you? What's the next step you took as a result?
It's okay that your steps are incremental. In fact, it's better. If each experience inspired you to make the next move, it shows that you've made an effort to learn about the profession over time and you've considered what it would be like to work as a PA.
Reading about your progressive, evolving experience instead of a moment of epiphany will be more relatable to your audience and, as a result, seem more genuine.
3. Being "passionate" about being a PA
Aside from my personal feeling that the word "passion" is overused in general, the idea of being "passionate about being a PA" has its problems.
Imagine someone told you she was passionate about skydiving. She loved being in planes, bungee jumped in three countries, was into extreme hiking, and sought adrenaline rushes wherever she could. When you ask where she's been skydiving, you find out that she's never actually been skydiving.
Given her history, she probably would like skydiving. But now it seems weird that she said she was passionate about something that she's never done.
It's equally as strange for someone who isn't a PA to say they are passionate about being a PA, though it may not seem that way until we use the skydiving parallel.
Instead of being “passionate," do this:
Your essay will have much more impact if you focus on the opportunities that being a PA provides rather than the role itself.
Focusing on opportunities will allow you to root your reasons for being a PA in the experiences you've already had, which will significantly strengthen your essay.
By talking about your "passion" for what a PA does, your goal shifts from attaining a role to serving in that role.
A future skydiver can love adventure and heights and look forward to the opportunity to jump out of a plane.
Likewise, a future PA may love connecting with patients, working as part of a team, and look forward to continuing this work and growing these skills as a physician assistant.
Your end goal shouldn't be a position; it should be what that position allows you to accomplish.
Describing the work you hope to do as a PA provider has the added advantage of showing an admissions committee that you understand the role of a PA.
Creating a PA school personal statement can be a struggle. But, much of that struggle comes from trying to infuse drama into an essay.
If you avoid the melodramatic, accept that your actual story is better than a flash of inspiration, and focus on the work that PAs get to do, your essay will stand out for all of the right reasons.