Conquering the PA school application process is a rite of passage for every future PA student. As anyone who has tackled the CASPA application in the past can attest, it's not something that can be done in an afternoon.
The CASPA application is broken down into four parts: personal information, academic history, supporting information, and program materials. While this may appear straightforward, if you open up the "supporting information" section and the menu unfurls, you'll start to see what takes so long.
But, that doesn't mean you are required to spend hours figuring out what to include or mulling over what to write in the sometimes-intimidating "description" section of each entry.
In this post, you'll learn exactly how to approach that application blank space.
The section that expands, and expands...
The "supporting information" section is where you'll list volunteering, patient care experience, health care experience, non-health care work, shadowing, and extracurricular activities.
For each entry, you'll add experience type, organization information, supervisor information, beginning and end dates, experience details (compensated/volunteer, weekly hours, total hours) and, finally, a description of your responsibilities in the role.
This open "description" section is what starts to slow applicants down. While the other details are straightforward, the wide open blank space is your only opportunity to add subjective information about your experience.
For this reason, many applicants are tempted to expand on their experience in narrative or emotional ways. But, this is not the place for mini, unsolicited supplemental essays.
Trying to squeeze in unnecessary impassioned information will only exhaust you and anyone else who will eventually be reading through your application.
Your description of any experience should be factual. List what you observed, accomplished, or learned without describing how you felt about it.
Your personal statement is the place to describe the impact of your experiences. The blank space is just about the facts.
So, what does that look like? Let's cover what to do for the most common experiences you might include in your application.
If you struggle to understand what to put for your experience, it can help to break ideas into bullet points. Describing your experience in succinct points will help you to collect your ideas and avoid "fluffing up" your experience with unnecessary information.
For example, instead of:
"As a CNA, I conducted various patient care activities and tasks. In a med/surg unit, I effectively help nurses, PAs and doctors to take care of patients with diseases, injuries, and those recovering from surgery. My tasks included, but were not limited to, taking patients' vitals signs and blood sugar checks. I maintain a neat and clean environment for each patient. This was my first experience working with patients and it ignited my passion for helping others."
Pull out the highlights:
Direct patient care duties included taking vital signs, blood glucose monitoring, and answering patient calls.
Maintained a clean environment for each patient and followed standard precautions.
Stocked supplies for patients on isolation and followed appropriate isolation precautions.
Worked closely with nurses, PAs, and physicians to appropriately implement care plan for patients and discuss any of my duties that required clarification.
Learned the importance of taking time with each patient and that each patient has different needs and expectations.
This gives a much clearer picture of the applicant's experience. It also avoids the "not limited to" statement from the original. If something is important enough to mention in the description, you should give specific details. Otherwise, leave it out.
Redefining the description as we did also can help you to see the distinct skills or experiences you may have gained from a role. This can be really helpful when you've held several similar positions.
If you've had a few CNA roles, you want to convey any new skills you gained in each position. Considering not only what you did (like take vitals), but how you interacted with patients, worked as part of a team, or lessons you learned in a particular role will help you to distinguish one position from the next. Describing your background in this way will allow the person reviewing your application to better understand the breadth of your experience.
Also, the last bullet point takes a vague statement from the original paragraph and describes a direct lesson. This takes an idea that is an inspiration and turns it into something more concrete, which is more factual and applicable to future practice.
You don't have to avoid sentences completely in your descriptions, but overall, your descriptions should be direct and to the point, whether you are using bullet points or not.
Describe the type of practice and provider (e.g., dermatology, PA) you observed. Include any procedures you watched (keep it short) and the types of visits (follow-ups, new patient evaluations, presurgical assessments) you witnessed.
Feel free to add information you gained from your observation or in discussion with the PA, but remember to frame it as a fact rather than a magical moment.
Patient care experience (PCE) & health care experience (HCE)
Describe your duties and patient responsibilities, which may include taking vital signs, drawing blood, charting, and transporting and assessing patients. It's essential that this information is accurate as a PA program may reclassify your experience from PCE to the less-favored HCE if your described level of responsibility does not meet their standards for PCE.
It's equally important not to overstate your duties in a role as PA schools will see through this and question your integrity.
Remember to include skills that may help you as a PA or PA student that might not be directly caring for patients, like training new employees, being familiar with billing or diagnosis codes, or working with other types health care providers.
The level of detail you should include for a volunteering entry depends on the relevance of that experience to a career in medicine.
If you volunteered at a 5K run, we don't need to know that you helped fold chairs, handed out race bibs, or passed Gatorade to participants. But, if you were instrumental in coordinating a blood drive or participated in a medical mission trip, you should provide some more detailed information about that activity.
Even if a community service activity was outside of the medical world, the skills you gained from it might still be relevant. Maybe you led a team of volunteers or you worked with another organization on a project, either of which shows a higher level of responsibility in your role requiring skills that could help you in a future career as a PA.
Remember not to overstate your role. If you showed up for the day to volunteer, keep the description simple and don't embellish.
Other non-health care related employment
Like listing volunteer experience, how you describe non-health care related work can be vague or specific, depending on the circumstances.
By definition, these experience will be non-health care related, but you can be the judge on what skills may be useful to your future as a PA.
If you were a server at Applebee's and are dying to list it on your application (there's no mandate that you MUST include it), just say you were a server. (I'm not bashing servers. I paid most of my way through college by waiting tables, but describing the skills I gained as being genuinely relevant to work as a PA would be a stretch, and it would look like one on an application.)
However, if you worked in marketing for five years, you probably worked with a team and developed projects in a professional setting that, though outside of medicine, will help you to succeed as a PA.
Think about how what you've done in the past can align with what you will do as a PA. Without making a huge leap, expand on those prior experiences that helped you build skills that will be useful in the future.
One last note: Some of your experiences may be long ago, and maybe you can't find your supervisor's information or specific details about the experience.
First, judge where it's relevant enough to include. If it is, do your best to add in the details. Your recent experience is most important, so don't stress if you can't find the phone number for your boss from six years ago.
You should, however, always say "yes" to authorizing contact with the organization or individual when prompted on the CASPA application, even if you don't have all of the details available. If it's important enough for you to include, you should allow it to be verified. It seems strange if you don't.
Pretty straightforward, right? When you're faced with the CASPA experience descriptions, just stick to the facts and only include what's relevant.
The application process is painful enough. Make this part easy by not stressing over the blank spaces.
If you want a second look at your application by someone who's seen hundreds, check out my Application Bundles for one-on-one guidance through the entire application process.