Whether you've read my blog for years or just found it today, you can probably guess that many of the topics I cover are born out of the questions I'm asked by pre-PA students, clients, and those on the fringes of exploring the PA career.
Over the years, the same questions have come up a lot. For some, I've dedicated multiple articles to exploring the topic. For others, a short, simple answer does the trick.
And because you may share the same questions as many other future PAs, I wanted to compile them all in one place and give you definitive answers for each.
We'll start with the two I get more than any others.
"I can't seem to find shadowing opportunities, what can I do?"/"Do I really need to shadow?"
Let me answer these in reverse: yes, you need to shadow. There are too many opportunities that you sacrifice by not shadowing.
You may work with PAs as an EMT, MA, or CNA, but while you may see what a PA does in passing, it's not the same as directly witnessing how they interact with patients and spend their day.
If your role does not involve you being at a PA's side for hours at a time, you're missing part of the picture.
Now for the first part: how to find shadowing. Most people who ask this question have skirted around the edges of finding a PA to shadow, but rarely have they done a full-court press.
You might have to do a more targeted search, ask more people than you're comfortable with, or get a little creative in your approach. But, if you're willing to put yourself out there (as outlined in this article), you can find shadowing opportunities.
"How can I get into PA school with a low GPA?"
The short answer is that you can't get into PA school with just a low GPA. Yes, you can get a PA school to look past a low GPA, but they have to be able to look to something that mitigates the number.
First and foremost, this involves your most recent work. You have to show some willingness to climb out of the hole you've created, even if doing so is pricey, inconvenient, and doesn't do much to improve your GPA.
You can't expect a PA school to overlook poor academic work if it's the most current you have to show.
Secondly, you have to develop an overall strategy for proving your academic ability and creating an otherwise-solid application. For more on how to be competitive for PA school with a low GPA, check out this full-length article.
"Does opening a CASPA application in the cycle before I'm ready to apply look bad?"
No. No one but CASPA knows if you open up an application. If you open an application to start plugging in your experience before you're ready to apply (and I recommend that you do), no one will be the wiser.
Also, programs will only know that you ever applied to PA school if you apply to their particular program more than once. If you applied to other PA schools before but not to their program, they will not have access to that information.
[As a side note, the often referenced idea that applying to PA school more than once decreases your odds of acceptance is not at all true.]
"What class could I take to impress PA programs?"
There is no single class that will impress a PA program. Your application is vast and contains many years of information and work.
While you should complete all of the required program prereqs, no one class will boost the odds of a program inviting you for an interview.
There are a number of classes that could help you prepare for PA school (here are my picks), but that's not the question around this topic that I'm usually fielding.
"What's the best degree to get for PA school?"
PA schools tend not to have a degree preference, though a strong science background is always good. But as long as you cover the prereqs, any degree will do.
However, the most common undergrad degree for eventual PA students is in biology. It's not because biology majors are accepted to PA school at an unusually high rate though. Biology is the major for a lot of people interested in medicine, often declared before deciding how they'll use the degree.
And if you don't already have a degree, majoring in biology can be an efficient way to prepare for PA school as there is significant overlap between courses required for the major and PA school prereqs.
You can obtain any degree you like when preparing for PA school, but if you're early in the process and looking to be efficient, a natural science major may be the shortest route to accomplishing your goal.
"What types of hands-on experience do PA schools like the most?"
When preparing for PA school, it's important to acknowledge that programs are not one entity. They have different cultures, values, and preferences. A few programs will even promote a role widely regarded as "health care experience," like a medical scribe, to "patient care experience" if they feel the role is valuable.
However, as a general rule, programs prefer hands-on experience that allows you a high level of responsibility. So, they'll almost always favor nurses and paramedics over everyone else. But, there aren't a ton of nurses and paramedics applying to PA school.
Instead, most applicants have entry-level patient care roles, such as CNA, MA, EMT, patient care tech, or phlebotomist. While there's not a considerable hierarchy within these entry-level positions, the more patient responsibility a role provides you, the more valuable it is.
Even if two roles share the same title, one may provide a higher degree of responsibility compared to the other. Being a CNA at one facility may grant you more opportunities than being a CNA somewhere else. So it's important to understand what your duties would entail and the potential for earning additional responsibilities before deciding on a role.
Keep in mind that PA programs are interested in your experiences and what you've learned from a role, not just what title you held.
"I don't have the time or money to get a certification, how can I find a hands-on patient care role?"
First, I would use extreme caution in assuming that gaining a certification will cost you extra time or money. Free or low-cost certification training is available in many areas, and often certifications take 6-12 weeks of part-time or very-part-time effort.
Secondly, getting certified may lead you to a position faster than spending months trying to find a job that doesn't require it.
Lastly, there are plenty of roles that don't require certification (patient care technician, physical therapy aide, and some nursing aide and medical assistant positions that allow for on-the-job training), but some investigation is required to see if there are opportunities in your area.
When you're exploring opportunities for hands-on experience, the first thing you should be looking for is what opportunities exist. Only then can you know if getting certified is beyond the limit of what is possible for you.
Here's how to start your search for patient care experience.
So there you have them, the questions that I get so often, I could now answer in my sleep. They are all excellent questions.
And they're asked frequently for a reason—many people preparing for PA school struggle to clear the same hurdles.
If you have a question about PA school prep stumping you, it's likely that someone else just a little ahead of where you are now has figured it out. To connect with other pre-PA and PA students who can help with your roadblocks, join us in the Be a PA Community!