The Most Highly Recommended Tools of Current PA Students

Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase, I’ll earn a small commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you. Every recommendation on this page comes from a trusted source, the PA students of the Be a PA Community (with names attached when provided), and I recommend them because I believe they can help you to achieve your goals. 


PA school is expensive and getting more so by the year. So, when it comes to choosing the resources that you’ll rely on as a PA student, you want to be sure that what you select will actually help you. 

If you know my approach to the financial aspects of PA school, you know that I’m an advocate for being intentional and thoughtful about how you spend money during the (probably) lean years of PA training. 

Now that I’ve been a PA for 13 years, there are tons of resources available that weren’t around back in my training days. So, when I’m asked which PA student tools are worth the money, I haven’t had a great answer — until now.

With the help of the current PA students in the greater Be a PA Community, I’ve collected the recommendations of those who are actively completing their PA training. Compiled here, you’ll find the resources that PA students of the Be a PA Community named as trusted tools and recommended most often. 

Favorite textbooks (& textbook-like resources)

Bates' Guide to Physical Examination and History Taking

What is it?

This hardcover textbook provides step-by-step guidance on performing physical exams on patients, including normal and abnormal findings. 

How are PA students using it?

Most students who recommended this resource were in their didactic phase of PA school and relied on the book as a supplement to their hands-on clinical skills labs. There’s also a pocket version, which might be useful to tote around during clinical rotations. 

Sparkson's Illustrated Guide to ECG Interpretation

What is it?

This paperback ECG interpretation guide covers the basics of how to read electrocardiograms including practice 12-lead ECGs. Huge bonus? It’s authored by a PA! So, maybe it’s just that someone is speaking our language, but this guide seems to speak to PA students. It promises to “continue to spark your interest in ECGs for a lifetime.”

How are PA students using it?

Both didactic and clinical year students recommended this resource in equal measure. Some are finding this helpful to learn ECGs from scratch while others are toting this reference along during cardiology, family medicine, and ER rotations. 

Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy

What is it?

First released in the late 1980s, the Atlas of Human Anatomy has been the go-to anatomy resource of generations of students studying medicine for decades. It’s illustrated by physician-artists and is now in it’s seventh edition. If you know any nurse, physician, or PA, there’s about a 99% chance they used a Netter’s product to learn anatomy.

Because there are different kinds of learning style, and some students prefer a variation on the classic Atlas.

Here are a couple of other Netter’s products that PA students love.


Netter's Anatomy Flash Cards

What are they?

These are a set of over 250 double-sided, color-coded flash cards that include detailed anatomical drawings on one side with detailed descriptions of the anatomical structures on the reverse. The cards also include important clinical notes that make studying on-the-go convenient.

How are PA students using them?

The flashcards were the preferred Netter’s product of most PA students, with many touting the portability as a key feature. As one didactic year student put it, “They’re so easy to bring anywhere and quiz yourself. For my class, they seemed to match up perfectly and included almost all of what we had to identify in lab.”


Netter's Anatomy Coloring Book

What is it?

The coloring book version is a bit more interactive than the Atlas or the flash cards. The coloring book allows you to trace arteries, veins, and nerves through their courses and bifurcations or detail muscles at their origins and insertions “from multiple views and dissection layers.” End-of-section review questions are also included so that you can quiz yourself.  

How are PA students using it?

More students reported using the flash cards than the coloring book. But, among those who did recommend the coloring book, they remarked that it helped as a tool to reinforce their learning and more often than not made note of being a “visual learner.”


CURRENT Medical Diagnosis & Treatment

What is it?

CMDT is a paperback textbook that is updated on an annual basis to include the most current guidelines and practices that covers the epidemiology, symptoms, signs, and treatment for more than 1,000 diseases and disorders. Because of the breadth of topics covered, entries are concise but are enough to answer your questions as a PA student or give you enough direction to get started. 

How are PA students using it?

More than one-third of students who shared input for this article reported that CMDT was the primary book they used as a resource. Many used it for their Clinical Medicine courses and for researching general medicine topics. though it was many versions ago, this was my go-to physical resource as a PA student, so I was pleased that so many current PA students reported it to be theirs as well! Others also mentioned finding specific versions — like the Emergency Medicine version — helpful for clinical rotations. 


PANCE Prep Pearls 

What is it?

PANCE Prep Pearls is a paperback study and review guide for the PANCE, created by another PA, Dwayne A. Williams! 

How are PA students using it?
D
on’t let the name fool you, PA students are using this resource for FAR more than preparing for their board exams. As one of the most popular recommendations of the entire survey, PA students report using this book for their Clinical Medicine courses, as a “final review before unit exams,” in “general test prep,” to “keep antibiotics straight for ID,” and more than one PA student said they used the book for “everything.” 

While, so far, I’ve shared the most popular recommendations, I thought there were a few more that were worth passing along.

This first was Learning Radiology: Recognizing the Basics by William Herring. A current PA student shared this recommendation, which they found helpful for a diagnostic imaging class.

I think interpreting X-rays, CTs, and MRIs is one of the things that early-career PAs tend to struggle with. So, it was interesting that someone had a specific course dedicated to the topic, and the resource could help to augment many cases you come across during clinical rotations.

Next, there was a trend among clinical phase student to recommend pathophysiology textbooks, while no didactic year students mentioned one.

I won’t assume that an informal survey is in anyway statistically significant, but if you expect to go a bit deeper into pathophysiology during your clinical year as well, top recommendations included Essentials of Pathophysiology: Concepts of Altered States by Carol Porth and Clinical Pathophysiology Made Ridiculously Simple by Aaron Berkowitz.


Online programs

Smarty PANCE

What is it?

Smarty PANCE is an online membership course focused on PANCE and PANRE review, which follows a blueprint that simulates the board exams. Also — it’s the brainchild of another PA, Steven Pasquini. It includes access to practice exams, video lessons and quizzes with real patient cases, and audio exams to study on the go.

How are PA students using it?

Because of its many features, PA students are using Smarty PANCE in a variety of ways. 

Students reported it being helpful for general clinical medicine topics, as test prep during the didactic year, and to prepare for end of rotation exams during the clinical year. And, of course, students nearing graduation are using it to prepare for their board exams, PANCE. 

“There are topic-specific exams that are great to study for when you are getting close to the exam to see where your struggle and weaknesses are.” - Steph on Smarty PANCE


RoshReview 

What is it?

Web-based program with tracks and annual memberships specific to your phase - didactic year, clinical year, or board prep - to help you prep for exams specific to your current step while preparing for the PANCE. A free trial is also offered. 

How are PA students using it?

Clinical phase students report finding the end of rotation (EOR) reviews particularly helpful for exams, though didactic phase students seem to be using Rosh just as frequently during the first year to prepare for their own exams.

“Their app makes it easy to answer practice questions during rotations.” - Jannette on RoshReview


Osmosis

What is it?

Osmosis is an online learning platform with in-depth videos for health professionals and students, tens of thousands of practice questions and flashcards, and advanced features including study schedules and collaborative tools. It includes flashcards, an iOS or Android app, and the ability to take notes within the system. It’s a paid program with 6-month, 1-year, and 2-year plans available, as well as a free 2-week trial. 

How are PA students using it?

Students who recommended Osmosis report using it to better understand basic science and clinical medicine topics. A few specifically liked the extra feature of being given recommendations on what to study based on their performance on practice questions. 


Picmonic

What is it?

Putting Picmonic into a category is a little tricky — it’s a video resource, many students use it as an app, but it’s also a larger, more comprehensive approach to learning. It utilizes a visual learning approach and system aimed at improving memory recall and improving test scores by committing concepts to memorable images that stay with you. They also guarantee that you’ll learn faster and pass the PANCE, so, if it matches with your learning style, it’s a great pick. It’s a paid program, but the cost is not exorbitant ($168/year, $264/2-years) and you can get some of the content for free. 

How are PA students using it?

Many students report using Picmonic to better understand physiology and pharmacology, though all major PA school topics are incorporated into the program. 


UpToDate

What is it?

UpToDate is a subscription-based service for medical professionals that provides evidence-based information on clinical topics, diagnoses, medications, treatment recommendations, and bascially anything you might be looking for. It’s easy to use, and I’ve yet to meet a medical professional that doesn’t rely on it, particularly for topics that might be outside of their specialty. Though a subscription is required, it’s discounted for AAPA members. 

How are PA students using it?

Both didactic and clinical year students are relying on UpToDate for “background on diseases,” “real clinical insights,” and “for a quick once-over of a disease before you do your deep dive.”

Video resources

Current PA students reported using plenty of video resources to augment their learning. Below, I’ve included the recommendations that were made most frequently.

Khan Academy

The Most Highly Recommended Tools of Current PA StudentslBe a Physician Assistant

Khan Academy provides free, online practice exercises and instructional videos on a wide variety of education topics, including health and medicine. And, you can keep track of your learning through a personalized dashboard on their website. 


Most students report using Khan Academy videos to augment their learning or to help break down more complex topics into easy-to-understand segments. 


Speed Pharmacology YouTube Channel

Best explained by the channel’s YouTube bio: “Speed Pharmacology was born in 2015 with the mission to provide short, simple, and entertaining pharmacology videos for free to anyone with access to the internet.”


Sketchy Medical

Facilitates learning through storytelling videos. Sketchy is one of the pricier recommendations ($369/year) on the list, particularly for those who are leaning toward Picmonic, but some folks love it and find the alignment with their learning style to be worth the money. Before you commit, you can find a few sample videos on YouTube to see if the presentation might be in line with your learning style. 


Ninja Nerd Science YouTube Channel

The Ninja Nerd Channel was a super popular recommendation among the PA students surveyed. With simple white-board based lessons that last around 10-25 minutes, future PAs reported often used them to learn anatomy and pathophysiology as well as immunology and pharmacology topics. One endorser shared that the video topics “were clearly explained and easy to follow. Plus being able to speed up/slow down when needed is great!”

“GREAT supplements for when you just don't understand.” - Haley



Beloved apps

3M Littmann Learning Institute

iOS / Android

“AMAZING for starting off with murmurs and lung sounds.” - Steph


Quizlet

iOS / Android

“Great flashcard app for memorization!”

“Quizlet has saved me so many headaches.” -Allison

“Our PA class has a class folder with Quizlets for each lesson. If I am traveling, I can easily review material on my phone.” - Kadie


UpToDate

iOS / Android

App version of the beloved UpToDate database. This was repeatedly name as one of the favorites of clinical phase students while out on rotations. 


Epocrates 

iOS / Android

Like UpToDate, Epocrates delivers current safety, diagnostic, and treatment information and is used as a resource for a large number of topics. Most students favor the free version and rely on it for fast drug references. You’ll need to register for an account to download the app. 


MDCalc 

iOS / Android

App version of a calculator used for medical equations, algorithms, scores, and guidelines (think: creatinine clearance, corrected calcium, weight-based fluid replacement). Many clinical students named this as a major resource while out on clinical rotations. 



Favorite medical equipment

I’m going to let the current PA students give it to you straight. 


“Buy a good stethoscope and then buy the cheapest version of everything else.” - Steph


“Spend good money on a stethoscope. For other equipment, I would say it’s ok to spend a little less as you don’t use them very often.” 


“I paid a little more for a Littmann stethoscope, and I do think it makes a difference compared to the stethoscope our school offered.”


“Buy used medical equipment (otoscope/ophthalmoscope, tuning forks, reflex hammers) from past students. You can buy your own stethoscope.” 


“A doc that I worked with before PA school advised me not to get a fancy medical set, just to get the basics for school and that was great advice — you don't need a panoptic ophthalmoscope set for school!”


“Get a really good stethoscope!”


“Spend the extra money for a stethoscope.”


“Definitely spend the money in a Littmann stethoscope since you will be using it a while, not so much on a medical kit since most employers have them already.” - Adriana


“I use Welch Allyn and love it. I also love my Littman Cardiology 4.” - Lisa


And, also, wait until you know for sure if your program has any requirements for this:

“I would suggest waiting until hearing from your program. My program provided us with all of the medical equipment we needed (part of the tuition).”


“My program regulated what equipment we had to buy.” 


In summary, get a good stethoscope. It doesn’t need to launch a rocketship, but make sure the quality is good. The LIttman Cardiology 4 is my favorite and comes in as many colors as you can imagine.





Preferred tech

While I asked PA students what tech they’re relying on (laptop or tablet), what I found most helpful in their answers was learning why they preferred what they used.

Understanding why PA students use what they use may give you insight into what might be helpful to you, so I’m keeping these recs in their words too. 

HP Spectre x360. I love it! I use it as a tablet to write all my notes in OneNote.  That way I get to hand write but have my notes online.” - Stacy

“Dell laptop. I’m a handwritten learner so did not invest in a tablet.” - Jannette

“Laptop for PPT slides, iPad for audio recording of the lectures and listening back.”

“Laptop 100%. The few people in my class that use a tablet have some accessibility issues with our software.” - Haley

“Laptop only! I'm one of a few in my class who doesn't also have a tablet.”

“Laptop for everything, I like to type as opposed to write because it's faster.” 

“I use a tablet for taking notes in class, but have a laptop that I use for typing up study guides and assignments.” 

“I'm using a 2-in-1 laptop so I have both features.” - Adriana

“iPad (Notability for note-taking) and a MacBook Air.” - Kadie

“An old MacBook Pro. It works fine for everything I need. Many students in my class have an iPad to take notes on (makes them look prettier), but I don't find it is necessary and wanted to save money where I could. We are required to have a laptop to be able to download the software for our exams — so keep this in mind before buying a new tablet instead of a laptop.”



Organizing class notes

Most of the responding PA students favored using Google Drive or Microsoft OneNote as the main organization system for their class notes. Here are some of the more detailed strategies that were shared (read: these people seem uber-organized and you should consider their advice). 

“OneNote is amazing. I import the PDF version of all our PowerPoints and take notes directly on them (and because everything is in the cloud I can access them from anywhere). I made a disease chart (also in OneNote) and include every disease we cover (basics, etiology, epidemiology, pathophys, clinical presentation, diagnosis, and treatment) so it's all in one place and easy to review. Just the act of putting the information in the chart is a great review in itself.” - Organized PA student

“I like to make Google Docs and Google Slides. I will upload the professors PowerPoint onto Google and take my notes on there with my roommate (mostly for anatomy and patho). For clinical medicine, I am in a group of 3 other people and we like to compile all of our notes and info from PowerPoints, CURRENT, and PANCE prep into a condensed PowerPoint. While we are making it together we review and ask each other questions.” - Haley

“We always have "learning objectives" for each section, or outlined in the syllabus. I take notes in class and then retype them following those objectives. It helps highlight the most important information. Except for gross anatomy... that is just way too much information to rewrite. For cases like that, I will make study guides only on the things I am most confused about. 

For Clin Med, I like to make excel sheets with the disease, brief pathology, symptoms, treatment and a picture if applicable).” - Together didactic year student

“Microsoft OneNote. It makes loading lectures and typing straight on them super easy. Plus you can record lecturers using the app. A lot of students in my class write on their tablet with the OneNote app, and sync their OneNote notes to their laptop.” - Abby 


Lastly, I wanted to share something from behind the survey scenes that didn’t fit a category, which was perhaps my favorite recommendation of the entire bunch:

“Utilize each other. Can’t stress this enough.”
— Haley

Thank you to all of the current PA students who are members of the Be a PA Community for contributing their recommended resources!