3 Ways to Kill Your Chances in a PA School Interview

There are so many things you can do to improve your PA school interview performance—question-style strategies, practice techniques, and mock interview sessions.

While there are plenty of actions that can take to improve your PA school interview, there are a few key things to avoid.

And if you do nothing else, evading these three interview killers will significantly amplify your performance.

Here are the three things you should avoid in your PA school interview.

1. Going in cold

There's plenty of excellent interview advice floating out around for prospective PA students. And there's some that, at best, is downright questionable. But no other advice is as problematic as this tidbit: don't prepare for your interview or your answers will seem unnatural.

There's a giant chasm of difference between sounding prepared and sounding rehearsed. You definitely don't want to sound as if you are reading off note cards, but you want to come across as prepared.

PA school faculty members like to know that their program is important enough to you that you did some research on it. They want to know about your experiences and how these have influenced your career decision. They want to understand why you want to be a PA and expect a decent answer to this very significant question.

Preparing for an interview means that you've taken the time to consider these things. Your responses shouldn't sound as if they are a rehearsed speech and should be flexible enough to adapt to different variations of the question (i.e., why do you want to be a PA? vs. what are you most excited about in becoming a PA?).

But, there are no bonus points for sounding as if you're in an improv class.

I've interviewed a lot of near- and new-grad PAs. We never hired a single colleague who seemed to be "winging it." We wanted people who were deliberate in their decision to apply to our department and had thoughtful reasons for wanting to join us. PA programs want this too.

Of the pre-PA clients whom I have worked with on interview prep, every time they were told, "You seem really prepared," in a PA school interview, they were offered a seat in that program. Slightly nervous+prepared will outflank calm+playing-it-by-ear every time.

Appearing prepared for an interview is your way of telegraphing that both the program and profession are important to you. Don't make the mistake of skipping it.

2. Removing yourself from your responses

The purpose of the PA school interview from a program's viewpoint is to learn more about you. While it's helpful for you to demonstrate your understanding of the PA profession, too many interviewees deliver their responses from a generic, rather than a personal, perspective.

What do I mean by that? Take for instance the most common interview question: Why do you want to be a PA? A typical response might be something like this:

“I want to be a PA because I have a great interest in medicine and want a career that allows me the flexibility to change specialties. PAs also have the opportunity to collaborate and work as part of a team.”

So... why do you want to be a PA? This response is pretty typical, and it says nothing unique about the person delivering it.

As an interviewer, I wouldn't really understand why someone delivering this response wants to be a PA, just that they have a handle on some of the key characteristics of PAs.

Without any information about why these characteristics are essential to you, how they might be linked to your experience, or how they help to serve your future career goals, hundreds of other interviewees could have the exact same lukewarm response.

But, when personal information is woven into an answer, it becomes unique and provides a more authentic, more believable answer.

"I've been interested in medicine since gravitating towards science in high school and majoring in biology in college. By shadowing PAs in dermatology, orthopedics, and primary care, I developed a broad interest in the different specialties PAs work in and would love a career that allowed me the flexibility to work in different areas of medicine. In my role as a CNA, I have benefited greatly from the mentorship of nurses and my more experienced coworkers and am excited about a career based on collaboration, which I feel would allow me to continue to grow and build my skills over time as a PA."

3 Ways to Kill Your Chances in a PA School InterviewlBe a Physician Assistant

It's the same basic answer, but your interviewer now knows a ton more about your motivation, and you had the opportunity to highlight some of your pre-PA experiences.

This technique can be a bit harder whenever the interview question is more abstract and not directly related to your own experience. In these situations, the more unsure you are of the value of your experience or a particular topic, the more you tend to remove yourself from your response.

A question like, "What do you think is the most important characteristic for a PA to possess?" can quickly devolve into a generalized explanation of why compassion is important for all healthcare providers.

"I believe compassion is the most important trait for PAs and all healthcare providers. It's important for patients to feel taken care of and understood. I think that patients are best cared for by providers who show compassion and understanding regardless of the circumstances of the patients."

And if you deliver a response like this, devoid of your presence, the question that will be screaming in the minds of every faculty members in your interview will be, "Why do you believe that?" They want to know what in your background or healthcare experience or life experience is driving that belief, not just that you think it.

When you give an answer that doesn't provide a window into your perspective, you're delivering a vague response that anyone else could give, and you've missed the chance to allow a program to get to know you better.

But, the same kind of response paired with your own experience will be unique to you.

Here's a reworked version:

"I believe compassion is the most important trait for PAs and all healthcare providers. In my experience as an EMT, even when we had a busy night, I learned that patients were more compliant and receptive to help when I took a few moments to explain my actions before performing them. Even when it was something most patients would be familiar with, like getting a blood pressure reading, I'd walk a patient through what I was going to do before doing it. I believe this made them feel more respected and cared for, and it showed me how I would want to be treated as a patient. As a PA, I hope to continue to pause and acknowledge the patient and their concerns before providing care to demonstrate my compassion."


"I believe compassion is the most important trait for PAs and all healthcare providers. I have shadowed PAs in primary care and the ER. Though these were very different environments that moved at difference paces, I saw that patients seemed the most content when providers listened to and empathized with them. I think the providers who did this best were also the most satisfied in their roles, and I hope to be that same kind of provider as a PA."

Adding in some personal perspective is nothing magical. It's simple. And there won't be a soul there who has the same answer as you because your experience is unique. Staying present in your response and responding from your perspective allows faculty members to feel like they know you better and provides a window into your background and motivation.

3. Mistaking emotionlessness for professionalism

Getting a little jittery during a PA school interview is normal. But, often, when people try to tamp down the nervousness and appear professional, they come across as very serious. Like no-other-emotion-will-see-a-ray-of-light-during-this-interview serious.

However, being super stoic isn't usually the best approach. Your potential future instructors and fellow students are okay with you being human. They usually prefer it.

If they don't feel the same anxiety (and many of your fellow interviewees will), then they at least understand how you feel.

And cracking open the door a bit on your state of mind and non-interview-day-personality can be welcomed. If you trip on your words a bit, a simple "I'm sorry. I'm so excited to be here and a bit nervous that I'm stumbling through my response. Let me try saying that again," is super-duper relatable. Acknowledging your circumstances and current mental state out loud can help ease the tension you feel just a bit.

If something makes you want to smile, go ahead and smile. If you're confident in a response you're about to deliver, it's totally reasonable to give a heads up to your interviewers: "I'm so glad you asked me that because my shadowing experience had a big impact on me, and I'm happy for the opportunity to share it with you."

If you need a moment to think, ask for one: "That's a great question. Do you mind if I take a moment to gather my thoughts? I want to make sure I explain my experience the way I intend."

"Cracking" is fine. We're not talking about an inappropriate level of sharing, just a little hiccup moment that can be kind of endearing to someone who's getting to know you.

Your ability to ask for a pause, laugh at yourself, or acknowledge the weird circumstances of a PA school interview can give you the opportunity to show a program that you're not afraid of the awkward situations that surely await you in your future as a PA.

These moments can also be an opportunity for you to gauge whether the program is a good fit for you—is this a group that happily gave you some grace or did they stare blankly at your definitely hilarious joke?

Doing some preparation, remaining present in your responses, and showing a little emotion can help you to avoid a few of the biggest pitfalls that might be encountered in a PA school interview.

With these minor adjustments, you'll be on your way to showing a PA school admissions committee a more detailed picture of who you are and that you're ready to become a physician assistant.