As PA school interview high season wraps up for this application cycle and another cycle waits just a few months away, now seems like the perfect season to address the idea of having "dream" PA schools.
If you're a regular follower of mine (and if you're not, I'm going to safely assume you're about to be), you know that I'm into things being simple and effective — many who enter the PA field share this position.
The PA profession is appealing to those who consider it because it's one that seems attainable and practical. As prospective PAs, we hope to focus our career on patient care and, given that goal, choose a route that can get us there more quickly and affordably than going to medical school.
Yes, there can be more to it than that, but those are foundational or at least high-priority reasons for most. Being a PA would be far less appealing if it took ten years and 5x the cost to become one.
But the very idea of nominating PA programs as a "dream" goes against these principals of practicality.
Calling a program your "dream school" promotes it to a position of being unrealistic, suggesting that maybe you don't have what it takes to get in.
And often this is what applicants mean — their GPA or experience is far off from what the averages are for students accepted by a program, but they're throwing a Hail Mary, sending in their application, and seeing what happens.
I believe it's essential to have a top choice program or programs. I strongly encourage finding "target" schools that can help you carve out a solid plan to prepare for PA school. You can even nominate a "reach" school that might be a stretch for you to get in, but that's still within range.
But merely using terminology different from "dream" matters, even if you're referring to the very same programs.
Because through the words you use, you change something from unattainable to achievable, which can result in a mindset shift. When something is no longer just a dream, it feels feasible and like something you can work toward.
PA programs don't hide what they want from you. They communicate what they're looking for in candidates through their admissions requirements, by sharing the stats on accepted students, and through their program values.
So instead of deeming a program as a dream and throwing out an application to see what sticks, you can work to gain experience or bring your GPA up to be the kind of student that they want.
Aside from messing with your mindset, the second big problem with deeming a single program or even a handful of programs as dream schools is that, without actually attending and going through each of the hundreds of available PA programs, it's impossible to know if you're right.
In fact, given the odds of choosing the single best fit for you out of the dozens of options, you'll probably be wrong. Your perfect PA school might not even show up on your radar during your search.
But that doesn't matter. Because there are plenty of PA schools out there that would be excellent matches for you.
Finding great fits means looking into programs and making sure the culture feels like a good environment for you, that you'll feel supported by the faculty members, that it's in a geographic location where you want to live, and that the curriculum design lines up with your learning style.
You want to make sure a program hits the big criteria for you.
But it's important to keep in mind that you're essentially on campus for a year. For the second year, you'll be on your clinical rotations. The on-campus aspects, like cadaver labs, simulation labs, and classroom facilities, will play a minor role in your second year.
So, when they’re putting so much pressure on a school to fulfill an ideal of being a dream school, prospective students are usually giving justifications, at least primarily, that have to do with the first year.
In the end, PA school, whether it's your top choice, your second choice, top five, or otherwise, is a means to an end.
The real dream should be working as a PA and being able to care for patients for 3-4 decades, not one so narrowly focused on where you spend your time for two years. A PA school is your gateway to the career, not the end goal.
For these many reasons, I encourage you not to put all of the pressure of becoming a PA on a single, seemingly unreachable “dream” PA program.
The phrasing can mess with your mindset as you apply and wait to hear back from PA programs. And it can deter you from creating an actionable plan that would make you into a strong candidate for your top choice programs.
No single PA school is the perfect fit above every other school for you.
So get out there, find quality programs that are a good match for you, and start aligning your efforts with what those programs value to get to the real purpose of getting into any PA school — the opportunity to work as a PA.