Worrying about what others are doing to prepare for PA school can seem like a pastime among future PAs.
Is their experience better than mine? Should I get a certification too? How did they find shadowing so quickly?
While it's advisable to at least meet the average experience of the typical student admitted to PA school, trying to design your plan around what may have worked for others can leave you with a fairly average application.
Applicants who are across-the-board average, particularly on the low side of average, don't often get into PA school. And they definitely don't have multiple offers from their top-choice PA programs to choose from.
So, instead of learning what others are doing and mimicking their plan, what if you created a better one? What if instead of competing with other applicants, you started creating a strategy that eclipsed their efforts?
Doing so takes a shift both in strategy and in mindset.
In this post, I'm breaking down the actions you can take to do just that. Most people either won't or are not willing to take these steps. But, if you do, you can stand out from the many other applicants and clear your path to PA school.
When preparing for PA school, a good plan will take time to execute. If you only look for the fastest way to do something, like how to find a direct patient contact role that doesn't require certification, you may be missing the big picture.
In the long run, earning a certificate may make you eligible for more job opportunities or for positions where you could have the ability to gain more hours in the long run.
That's not to say getting a certification is always the answer, but it does mean that you have to "begin with the end in mind."
How many volunteer hours do you hope to have at application time? Who would you love to write your letters of recommendation? Where do you want to apply to PA school?
If you understand your end goals, you'll be able to work in reverse to devise a plan that gets you to those targets.
Putting arbitrary deadlines on how long you have to take prerequisite courses or choosing to apply to the only five schools where you meet the requirements likely means that you're applying to PA school prematurely.
Though programs will have application deadlines each cycle, there’s no overall deadline when it comes to applying to PA school. You can take time to create a better plan and hold off on applying until the next cycle, or until you are ready.
If you are patient, you'll have a stronger application. Rather than rushing to meet application deadlines or trying to find programs based on what classes you've already taken, you'll be able to choose programs based on where you want to go.
And, you'll have a better chance of your application getting noticed.
Don't be for everyone
Preparing for "PA school" as a single, general entity is a thing of the past. There are now hundreds of PA programs across the country, each with their own mission, values, and admissions requirements.
Sure, there’s plenty of overlap. Many prefer, if not require, patient care experience, prerequisite courses, and are looking for similar qualities in future PAs.
But there is a saying among PA educators: "If you've seen one PA program, you've seen one PA program." A single PA program does not speak for all of the others.
Preparing well for any and every PA program is not possible. And you shouldn't try to pull off this impractical feat if you want to get ahead of your competition. Trying to be a good candidate for every program will keep you from being an excellent match for a few.
To set clear, attainable goals and to gain experience that will be highly valued by a PA program, you must identify target PA programs. Having target programs will allow you to know the average accepted student stats (GPA, patient care hours, volunteer work, GRE scores) for that particular program.
You can then create a plan focused on gaining experience that will help you to meet or exceed the average accepted student for those programs.
Additionally, having target programs will allow you to assess the values of a particular program. Maybe they focus on working in underserved communities, have a student-run clinic, or demonstrate their program values by having extra-long primary care rotations in the clinical year.
Find out what makes a program tick. Then sync up your plan to become their ideal student. Starting with a handful of specific programs will make things manageable.
By creating a plan that is concentrated on select PA programs rather than "PA school" in general, you will be employing a strategy different than most other candidates, which will give you a significant advantage at application time.
Do what others aren't willing to
Now we're getting to the part where you can really separate yourself from the crowd.
Preparing for PA school isn't easy. Most people who consider it won't follow through.
For those that do, it takes a few years of dedicated prep before they're ready to apply. And before that point, hurdles are inevitable.
But, your willingness to work through them can make a huge difference in your application, which will be noticed by PA schools.
Finding a PA to shadow can be difficult, but the benefits of shadowing are huge. Even when PA schools don't require it, they do wonder if you have a realistic view of the profession if you haven't seen a PA work.
Additionally, they wonder why you haven't shadowed. Did you not think it was important? Or was it tough for you to find someone? If it was tough, why couldn't you find a way around it?
At the heart of what PAs do is problem-solving. If you give up on the problem of finding shadowing, programs wonder how easily you'll give up on other, harder issues.
What may be difficult or more time-consuming for you is also difficult and time-consuming for others. If you rule out PA programs because they require a couple of extra courses, other prospective PA students are doing the same. If you scale down your list of potential schools to ones that don't require the GRE, you are in the company of many others.
But, if instead you see things that might be a little tougher or take a little extra time or require that you to put yourself out there just a little more as opportunities, you can separate yourself from the pack.
Do what others aren't willing to do and you'll create experiences and an application that will be appreciated by PA programs.
There are plenty of elements that go into a "competitive" PA school application. But, even when you're a great candidate, on paper, you look like a lot of others.
Typically, most of the experience that makes it onto your application has been specifically geared towards getting into PA school. Yes, being a CNA or EMT is valuable, but we're all wise to the fact that you did it with the hope of getting into a PA program.
So, when you have experience that doesn't appear to directly benefit you, it stands out. Activities that don't earn you direct patient care or health care experience hours can seem more authentic because they don't have as much impact on your application.
Imagine you are with a PA program and review hundreds or thousands of applications. After looking through so many similar applications, the ones that stand out are those that have unique, even quirky, experiences.
If you want your application to "be different," find some uncommon ways to serve others that won't be on the applications of thousands of other PA school hopefuls.
Maybe it's working at a local food bank, volunteering with a suicide prevention hotline, helping to organize a community parade, or bringing meals to seniors.
Getting un-selfish will help add variety to your application, give you a break from the PA school prep grind, and, perhaps, give you a new perspective on how fortunate you are to be worried about a graduate school application.
Shifting your strategy and mindset to the big picture can help you create a plan for PA school that goes well beyond the technical details.
Having patience, targeting specific schools, being willing to push through the unpleasant parts, and expanding your experience will help to set you apart from other PA school candidates. Are you in?