While working toward becoming a physician assistant, one of the best predicaments to find yourself in is receiving offers from multiple PA programs to join their next class.
While it may seem like an ideal situation, when you're faced with the decision, choosing between several programs can feel like a problem to solve.
When you get into just one PA school, the choice is made for you.
But when you receive multiple offers, the delight of achieving your goal is often mixed with the pressure of choosing and, occasionally, a bit of guilt over feeling stressed about a situation you believe you should make you happy.
However, rather than allowing yourself to be overcome with the pressure of choosing, turning your decision into a process will help you to feel confident in your ability to come to the best conclusion.
Your decision-making process should not only take into account aspects of PA programs but also identify program features that are priorities. This means ignoring the differences that don't mean as much as you might think while elevating those that matter most to you.
Here are the program aspects you should weigh to know you are making the best decision.
Many PA school applicants strongly consider location when choosing where to apply. Usually, they target programs that are close to home or in a place they might like to live.
Focusing on geography is a totally legitimate approach. You can't change a program's location, so focusing on schools in areas where you want to be makes sense.
But when deciding between more than one offer, two considerations are important when factoring in location: 1) proximity to your support system, and 2) where you might want to practice after PA school.
You don't have to stay within a particular radius of people you know and like when choosing your PA school; you can venture out on your own to somewhere entirely new. You can find a new support system wherever you land and also receive support from afar.
But time and money are not in abundance for most PA students. If you'd have to travel to get back to your loved ones while in PA school, consider how far is reasonable for you. Think about how easy it would be to get back and how you'd make the trip.
How essential being close to your support system is to you is entirely your call, but considering its importance will help you make a better decision.
Similarly, there is no requirement to train to become a PA in the area where you eventually plan to work as one. There are plenty of practicing PAs who have trained somewhere completely different than where they expected to practice.
However, training in the region where you eventually practice may give you insights into local hospital systems, where you want to or definitely don't want to work, or connect you with job opportunities as a new grad. You get to decide if those things matter.
It's safe to say that attending any PA school is expensive. But the cost is wide-ranging, and some programs are far more or far less costly than others.
Cost matters. If you're taking out student loans and debating between programs with a 20K difference in cost, it's important to acknowledge that the difference likely equates to 2 more years of student loan payments.
Yes, I know that you can pay them off faster than that, but while most people know they could, in reality, most people don’t.
You can opt for a school that is more expensive, but it's important to recognize the trade-off of doing so. Be sure to factor in expenses beyond tuition -- programs will include other expected fees (books, equipment, memberships) somewhere on their website.
Remember to think through the cost of living to attend any program as well as if distant clinical rotations would be expected as part of the program. A distant rotation tacks on expenses of $2000, on average, per rotation.
Program start & length
The average PA program is 27 months. Most programs will fall within a few months of this average, though some may be longer.
Though a 3-month difference probably shouldn't weigh heavily on a decision between programs, a 10-12 month discrepancy may as it's more likely to have an impact on the overall cost, both on tuition and loss of earning potential as a PA.
Additionally, the timing of the program — when you'd be expected to start a program and when you'd complete it — may influence the start of your future career.
The CASPA cycle is a bit strange; schools may take applications for incoming classes with widely varying start dates within the same cycle. You may apply for programs that start within six months and others that are 15 months away during the same CASPA cycle.
So while one program may be a few months longer than another, when you'd start and, perhaps more especially, when you'd finish are something to consider when comparing multiple offers.
Curriculum & facilities
Though most prospective PAs often don't know what to look for in a program's curriculum (or even to look) before applying, it's something to consider when choosing between schools.
While PA programs all have the same goals, how they deliver content to students (e.g., classroom or small group, case-based or lecture) can vary, both among programs and between courses within the same program.
Who is delivering the material also matters. Make sure you have an understanding of the make up and background of faculty members and their varying levels of participation in the program.
PA students are expected to absorb an immense amount of information in the didactic (first) year of PA school. Understanding how a program dispenses knowledge and who is assisting with this will help you to recognize if it's the best match for your learning style.
On the flip side, nearly all students considering a PA school know about the program's cool stuff — cadaver labs or simulation facilities. While hands-on experiences can aid in learning, be cautious about assuming one program is better than another because of these "perks."
First, these aspects are most important during the first year of PA school. You won't be on campus much after the didactic year. So what may feel like a compelling reason to choose a school over another may, in reality, not be as big of a difference as it seems.
Second, fancy things come at a cost. If a simulation lab adds to the overall expense of a program compared to another without a lab, you'll have to decide how much you're willing to pay for a year of access.
It's okay to pay for what you want, but it's important to acknowledge it as a something you want rather than using it a justification for why one program is better than another.
Getting a feel for a program's culture is a little more nuanced than assessing the location or cost of a program, but it is doable.
A mission statement can sometimes be helpful, but most tend to be relatively general and similar to the next.
Instead, look for evidence of a program's values by finding hints on their website and in their admissions requirements. Is community service an admission requirement? Or do they report an average amount of volunteer work for accepted students?
Do they have an international rotation available or coordinate a mission trip for their students? Is interprofessional education (i.e., co-education with other health science students) incorporated into the curriculum?
Is there an extra-long primary care rotation in the clinical year? What's the plan for ensuring that students are exposed to a wide variety of patient populations?
I've combed through every PA program's website, so I know that some are more revealing than others, but track what evidence you can.
Additionally, having been through an interview gives you a significant advantage in assessing culture and the support you might expect to receive in the program.
What did you learn from current PA students during your interview? Did faculty members explain how the program supports students who might struggle?
You may only be on campus for the first year, but it's an intense year. Feeling included and welcomed by a program will help to get you through some inevitable low points that come with training in medicine.
One of the greatest things about training for a career in medicine is the opportunity to rotation through a variety of different specialties. It allows you to explore many facets of medicine in a short amount of time, which is something that you can't replicate once you start working in medicine.
So, when considering which program might be the best fit for you, it's important to weigh what kinds of clinical rotations you want to experience.
While all programs will cover the basics, like pediatrics, general surgery, primary care, psych, women's health, as required by accreditation standards, the settings where you have these rotations can vary by program.
Some programs are affiliated with academic health centers, which may mean that a good portion of your clinical experiences will be within a particular hospital or health system.
Other programs may incorporate a rotation or more in underserved areas. Some have extra long primary care rotations or opportunities for international rotations.
To understand if there are differences in clinical rotation opportunities between the programs you are considering, it's vital that you get this information directly from the schools.
Don't assume that because a school is in a metropolitan area known for its hospitals that you'll be training at those facilities. Or that your rotations will mostly be in geographic proximity to the program, because they may not be.
If you have particular goals for what you'll be doing in your clinical year or where you'll be doing it, ask the programs for details. Find out what the potential options are for elective rotations.
Ask about the typical balance of private practice, community hospital, and academic hospitals that can be expected, and if distant rotations are anticipated.
What you might be giving more weight than it deserves
Most PA programs allow you to apply with 1-2 outstanding prerequisite courses. If you're accepted to a program before you've taken one but fulfilled all of the requirements of another program that's offered you a seat, it might be tempting to go to the school that requires no additional hurdles.
The exhaustion of PA school prep can be real, but needing to take an extra course before starting a program is a minor (very minor) deal.
While it may mean a little extra time and money at the moment, what if taking the additional course meant you qualified for the program that had tuition that was 15K less than the other? Or seemed like a better overall fit for you?
You can certainly take needing to fulfill additional prereqs into consideration, but if you want to choose your program wisely, be careful about elevating this to the importance level of cost, location, or culture.
Here's a secret about PA schools: No one cares about what PA school you went to.
Employers don't pay you more because of the program you attended. You probably won't be called in for an interview based on the PA program on your resume.
When it does happen, it's because an employer is familiar with the quality of graduates from the program, not because they were blown away by the name of your school.
The only people who believe school name is super important are the people who attended a program that they viewed as prestigious. But, I promise that they are not being paid more for their alum status either.
So, feel free to let the idea of program prestige float away. Your career opportunities will be created by you becoming a great PA, and with over 230 PA programs to choose from, there are plenty of super high-quality places to train.
Once you're offered a spot in a PA program, you'll be asked to commit to the program by placing a deposit down on your seat, which typically runs somewhere around $500-1000.
Programs usually allow you several days or weeks to make the decision, during which you can make your deposit at any time.
If an offer comes from a school that isn't your top choice, wait until the last 1-2 days of this decision window to place your deposit. You might hear back from other programs with offers or interview invitations in the meantime.
Once you do place a deposit, it doesn't mean you have to (or should) turn down other interview invitations or offers.
While your deposit is a chunk of money that you don't necessarily want to lose, it's peanuts in the big picture. If other programs that are still in the running seem like a better fit for you or, perhaps, are more affordable overall, losing 500 bucks may be the wise choice in the long run.
Think of it this way: are you willing to pay $1000 to go to a program you like more or trade your $500 down for a tuition savings of $18,000? If so, keep your options open by not viewing a seat deposit as a final decision in program choice.
Elevating the program aspects that matter most and demoting those that are not as important can lead you to a great PA program choice.
But, there's one more exercise that can help you if you're still on the fence.
Ask yourself: "Did I feel equally as good about the programs I've been accepted to during my interviews?"
The feel you get for a program during your interview is very telling. All other things being equal, if one felt more like home, that's your place.
And if you're still stuck, imagine that each program called you and told you there was a mistake and rescinded their offer.
If one program was taken away as an option, which would you be more upset over losing? That's your place.
If you've worked hard to earn offers from multiple PA programs, not getting overwhelmed by having a choice and focusing on the program aspects that are most important to you will lead you to the right school.
And if you've received multiple offers, others are dying to know your strategy and about the work you've done to earn them. Come share your knowledge in the Be a PA Community and let us know how you've done it!