Many components go into demonstrating to PA programs that you are a well-rounded candidate. But creating a plan that incorporates all of those components and efficiently executing that plan is no small feat.
Most pre-PA students have a sense of everything they will need to accomplish—complete prereq courses, obtain patient care experience, improve their GPA—to be competitive for PA school. However, many of those same students don't see the gaps in their plan until application time is upon them.
When it's time to apply (or re-apply) to PA school, you may come to realize, for the first time, that your plan missed something. As a result, you might rush to make up the deficit, lose confidence in your competitiveness, and delay your application beyond your planned submission date.
Doesn't sound like you? It rarely does, until it happens.
This time of year, I hear from many prospective PA students who have been consistently taking steps toward PA school, logging quality experience hours, and plugging away at preparing their personal statements.
Yet, when it comes time to compile it all into an application, they seek me out in a panic, asking if it's too late to fix something that they missed something.
There is a common theme with these applicants, and there is a straightforward approach you can follow to keep it from happening to you.
Here's how it happens and how to avoid falling into this common pattern.
How it happens
We agree that there is a lot to do to get ready for PA school, correct?
Whenever that first realization hits, it can be overwhelming. However far you've made it in your prep, once you recognize everything else that you still need to do, your decision-making ability can become paralyzed.
You know you've got to move forward if you're going to hit your goal, so you decide to focus on one thing. If you're like most people, nearly 100% of the time, you'll pick something that is the most comfortable to you.
That doesn't mean you're picking the easiest task from your list. It may actually be a difficult task for other people. But, you will almost always choose something that allows you to work in an area of strength, which will seem manageable to you even if it seems overwhelming to others.
How does that work?
Well, let's say you're a natural introvert who loves organization and you need to find a PA to shadow. From your large pre-PA to-do list, you're more likely prioritize creating a spreadsheet of your experiences and getting a head start on your CASPA application than you are to try to make connections with five PA prospects to ask them if you can shadow.
Because the act of asking may be uncomfortable for you, you're also more likely to give up trying to find shadowing opportunities if you've been turned down a few times. When application time rolls around, your CASPA application will be perfectly organized, but you won't have the shadowing hours you hoped you'd have to include on it.
Sometimes, it just so happens that where you choose to focus your time is right where it deserves to be, at first. Maybe you have 20 credit hours worth of prerequisite courses to complete, so you decide you'll focus on getting the courses done first, then "worry about" patient care experience/finding references/deciding on target programs "later."
Starting your plan with what may take the longest to complete isn't a bad approach. But, this strategy can lead to a sort of tunnel vision, where you only focus on the courses at hand because it feels like you are doing something productive.
And you are. But if you don't move beyond this step, you're staying where you are comfortable and ignoring other important aspects of preparing for PA school.
How to avoid (or fix) it
Start with the full picture.
As intimidating as the big picture may be, you have to start with it to create a complete, well-rounded plan. Keep in mind you won't have to do everything at once, but you do need to know what that "everything" is.
To help you set your big picture, download my 6 Pillars of PA School Prep Checklist to ensure the major aspects are part of your plan.
Identify what will be personally difficult.
What on your to-do list is something that you are dreading? Not because it's hard work or it will take a while to accomplish, but because it makes you uncomfortable?
If it's asking for letters of recommendation, what can do in advance to cultivate relationships that will make that future ask less anxiety-filled for you?
If it's finding the time to take a course that would qualify you to apply to more PA programs, what could you cut out of your week or rearrange in your schedule to make it happen?
If it's putting forth the effort to figure out where you'll apply, how can you create a plan to accomplish this incrementally over the next two weeks?
Take the time to admit what you're probably avoiding because it's difficult for you and decide how you can overcome the obstacle. Otherwise, it may come back to haunt you at application time.
Create start dates.
One inherent problem with the "I'll focus on X now and worry about Y later" plan is that you begin to see preparing for PA school as a linear process. You feel productive, so there's less urgency to move onto the next task until the one you are working on is complete.
There is a saying about the three rules of starting a business that I think also accurately describes PA school prep:
It costs twice as much as you expect.
It takes twice as long as you expect.
You are not the exception.
If you want an efficient pre-PA plan, any component of your plan should not depend on the end of another. "I'll start looking for shadowing once I'm done with biochem" is a recipe for it taking two months longer than you expected to find someone to shadow.
Instead, create start dates for your tasks and goals. If you plan on opening your CASPA application by June 1 instead of after you've accumulated a total of 300 volunteer hours, you'll open your application by June 1.
Setting start dates for each component of your plan will help to keep you moving forward and prevent your timeline from derailing when a single task that takes longer than expected.
Expect the components of your plan to overlap.
If you've ever waited tables, you know there's a rhythm to it. Tables are seated in a staggered fashion so that each one is at a different point in their meal as you wait on them.
Your ability to be a decent server would be stunted if every table needed to order drinks or pay their tabs at the same time. Alternatively, you wouldn't get much done if you had to wait for a table to finish their meal, pay, and leave before another table was seated.
Your pre-PA school plan should aim for a similar well-balanced flow. You cannot (and should not) start all of the components of your plan at once. This would lead to chaos.
Instead, plan start dates for your major tasks and goals that roll out over time. In doing so, you'll be better able to manage several responsibilities at a time as some will be further along in their progress than others.
Once you understand everything that goes into preparing for PA school, the temptation to "just start somewhere" is real. And the reality is that most people will take a few steps before they zoom out and assess their overall plan.
But the important part, regardless of where you are now, is taking that step back to see things from a well-rounded perspective.
Acknowledging where you have (or are likely to have) shortcomings will help you to create a plan to efficiently and effectively prepare for PA school, with the added bonus of avoiding any application-time surprises.