How to More Wisely Approach “Negativity” in a PA School Interview

In exploring PA school interview tips, you might come across advice to “not be negative” during your interview.

While not terrible advice on its face, the general plan of avoiding negativity neglects major considerations of a PA school interview.

In an interview, you have control over how you respond but not over what's asked. Because negative topics or ideas might be part of a question, not incorporating them into your answer may make your responses seem evasive.


By merely trying to avoid “negativity” in a PA school interview, you'll feel ill-equipped to handle any kind of question that comes your way. And, you'll probably feel like you're hiding the truth at times, which will feel crappy and also mess with your confidence.


However, with a more nuanced strategy that considers how and why negative themes pop up in a PA school interview, you can feel good about managing unfavorable topics and delivering answers that are (and sound) a heck of a lot more genuine.


Making a case for “negativity”

By the time you're a PA school applicant, you'll have undoubtedly battled through some tough times in your life that have helped you to learn valuable lessons and grow into a stronger person.


If you're focused solely on how to avoid negativity in a PA school interview, you'll miss out on the benefits of talking about these less than ideal situations or demonstrating your killer decision-making skills.


PA programs care about maturity. More mature students are easier to teach and are more competent providers from the start.


When you're not afraid to discuss negative topics, you'll have a greater opportunity to demonstrate your maturity. You can show how you willingly engaged in a difficult conversation or intervened in an uncomfortable situation.


Talking about less than ideal situations gives you the chance to highlight the lessons of a tough experience and to show your growth.


Someone willing and able to manage the sometimes tricky dynamics of human interaction will be seen as a problem solver and an individual able to hold their own during challenging patient encounters.


You don't have to have been a hero, just a person able to learn through experience.



Teasing out “going negative” from negative topics

Now, before you go all-in with an embrace of the “negative” in a PA school interview, let's clarify what should and shouldn't fall into this space.


How to More Wisely Approach “Negativity” in a PA School InterviewlBe a Physician Assistant

There's a difference between discussing difficult subjects and having a negative tone in your response — what I call “going negative.”

Going negative is when you frame your response to a neutral question pessimistically.

It’s when your tone, not the question being asked, is what creates the negative vibe.

When you go negative, you’re opting to express an idea that could be framed more positively in a less favorable light.

Let’s take a few examples.  


Negative tone: As an MA, I just take vital signs, but…
Sans-negativity: As an MA, I do the preliminary assessment of patients and…


Negative tone: I was only able to observe a PA once…
Sans-negativity: While observing a PA work...


Negative tone: I don't want to have to spend four more years in school followed by a residency…
Sans-negativity: I can fully train and begin serving patients in just a few years...


When you go negative, you're inviting gloominess into a response that isn’t necessary to sharing your basic idea.


Becoming a PA is an exciting prospect. The work you do to become a PA or practice as one should be an opportunity, not a default choice pitted against some other one. When a more positive spin on the same idea is possible, use it.


However, negative topics, unlike going negative, don't stem from how you frame your response but, rather, are incorporated into a question by your interviewer.


A question with a negative topic may directly involve some unfortunate reality, like “Do you think smokers should pay more for health insurance?” Or, you may get a question inviting you to share a negative experience, like “Can you tell me about a time when you overcame a struggle?”


In either case, if you hope to answer the question being asked, it's essential to incorporate the topic into your answer and to be authentic in your response. You can address tough subjects without sounding negative.


Answering these questions head-on can do wonders to communicate your maturity level. And you can also use the opportunity to discuss your values or lessons you've learned through experiences to lend personality to your answer and allow an interviewer to get to know you a bit better.


Cruising through the “negative” questions

The first rule of answering a PA school interview question? Answer the question.


Yep, it's that simple. Or, at least it starts that simple. Your first step to a solid response is to make sure that your answer covers the question being asked, rather than the one you WISH had been asked.


So, that might mean you wade into “negative” territory when the question calls for it. But, as we outlined above, sometimes you can inadvertently create a negative tone even when a question seems innocuous.


And the question that makes well-intentioned future PAs go negative most often is the first (and most obvious) question asked in many PA school interviews:


Why do you want to be a PA?


While it's full of opportunities to discuss the many wonders of being a PA, this question often entices candidates to explain their choice to become a PA through the lens of what they don’t want in a career: extra years of schooling, the inability to change specialties, not being able to “do enough” in their current role, or shockingly short visit times with patients.


However, crafting your response to this question is a shining example of how you can express the same ideas in more positive ways:

Not having to do a residency becomes → having specialty flexibility.

Not having to go to school for two more years becomes → being able to train and serve patients as a provider in just a few years.

Not having enough time to spend with patients becomes → being able to spend the majority of my time in patient care.


Remember, the question is why you want to be a PA, not why you don't want to be something else. For every reason “why not” something else, there's a more positive “why” to being a PA.


Watch for any tendencies you have to go negative for questions that aren't about negative topics. This habit will only become more pronounced under pressure, so you've got to work on kicking it before the actual interview.


Now, what about a question that is clearly tapping into something negative? Like:


What do you think is the most challenging part of being a PA?


Keep in mind that despite the negative facade, these kinds of questions can be huge opportunities to show your maturity. This one, in particular, gives you the chance to show that you've contemplated deeply on what it will be like to practice as a PA.


So, don't throw away the opportunity by talking about something superficial, like how the physician assistant title doesn't match the role.


Because do you *really* want to tell your interviewer that explaining what “PA” means will be the hardest part of your day? Harder than delivering terrible news to a patient? Or acting quickly in an emergency? Or having your work take a toll on your mental well-being?


Go for substance. Use the invitation of a difficult subject to talk about something that matters. Match the depth of your response to the intensity of the question. Doing so is how you can leverage a negative topic into an opportunity.


If you've made it this far, you're brave enough for the ultimate negative topic question:


What's your greatest weakness?


This is a great time to remind yourself of the first rule of PA school interview responses: answer the question. With a real answer. And a real weakness.


When I work with PA school applicants in mock interviews, this is the point where I tell them that things are about to get pretty uncomfortable for a moment, but I promise it will pay off.

Because when you hit on the real weakness and can explain your way through it, it's huge. Not a veiled strength (I'm looking at you, perfectionists). And not a weakness that isn't “that bad.”

The real one. The one that when you say it, your interviewer knows it's true. Because sharing that weakness can show genuine insight into your understanding of what kind of PA you'll be.

When you can share the truth, explain how you continue to work on your weakness, and how you see it potentially affecting you as a PA, you'll be doing what most other applicants are too afraid to do in an interview, and the pay off in authenticity is immeasurable.


The last kind of common interview question that might incorporate negative content is a story-asking question, like:

Can you tell me about a time when you overcame a struggle/had a disagreement with a coworker/had a problematic patient interaction?

These kinds of questions can be gray areas for negative topics — they might not necessarily demand that you cover a prior unpleasant experience or might not call for the worst one.

But, while you could play it safe, your responses to these questions can be avenues to share experiences, lessons, and insights that are incredibly valuable to a future PA.

What you're comfortable sharing in your responses is your call, but the life experience and wisdom you gain from an encounter, especially a trying one, can be helpful information for your potential future mentors to weigh when considering if you're a good fit for their program. 

When working toward a career in medicine, you're aspiring to work in a field that prides itself on honesty, ethics, and full disclosure. It's full of professionals and patients who have made mistakes and struggled to get where they are today.

By better understanding where to bring the positivity or speak openly about negative topics in a PA school interview, you'll be allowing others the chance to see you as a real person who has learned valuable lessons that will serve you as a future PA.

And there's no substitute for that kind of authenticity.