When preparing for PA school, many students, at one time or another, wonder if they're "doing it right."
It's common to feel as if you should have started some activity sooner or to wish you had more time before the next application cycle.
Because the desire to become a PA is often one that grows slowly, preparing for PA school, especially at first, is rarely a linear, step-by-step path.
But, if you could start at square one, allowing your journey to follow the most practical path, there would be a natural sequence that maximizes efficiency.
If you're in the more-likely position of already being somewhere along this course, you can use it to identify what you may have skipped along the way, so you know where you circle back.
Step 1: Find a PA to shadow.
While shadowing is not mandatory for every PA program, it's something that anyone considering the PA profession should most definitely do—for both common sense reasons as well as for the substantial advantages it offers.
First, preparing for PA school takes most people around two years of dedicated effort. Before you commit to that course, you should have first-hand knowledge of what it's like to work as a PA.
The level of responsibility, average salary, and purported "work-life balance" may sound appealing, but you can't know what working as a PA is like until you sidle up alongside one for a while and see what their daily work entails.
Spending some time and effort on the front end will help you decide if working as a PA is right for you before you commit to spending years preparing for school.
Secondly, there are valuable downstream benefits of shadowing a PA. Shadowing gives you access to a mentor that can share insight into the career and offer advice on how to structure your plan for PA school.
Additionally, shadowing is also one of the best (and easiest) ways to find a PA to write you a letter of recommendation for your application.
In the future, the shadowing experience can also help you to write your application essay and lend authenticity to your PA school interview answers.
Step 2: Start volunteering.
After you've got a little shadowing under your belt and ensured that being a PA is right for you, the next step on the "ideal pre-PA track" is to get some experience that goes a little deeper than mere observation.
Okay, okay—I know what you're thinking. Wouldn't it be better to dive into taking classes or begin gaining direct patient care experience? Aren't those activities more critical for potential PA students?
We'll get there soon. But, before we do, let's explore why volunteering deserves to be pushed it to the front of the line.
If you're having trouble finding shadowing opportunities, volunteering at a hospital or clinic can be a great way to gain access to PAs. Additionally, unlike planning out prerequisite courses or finding a job with direct patient care responsibilities, there are few barriers to initiating community service.
You can start volunteering quickly and easily, and your involvement can be regular without being a strain on your schedule.
Community service is often an area where PA school applicants feel they are lacking at application time. And it's difficult to make up this deficit if you start volunteering late in your plan.
While volunteering is not frequently compulsory, PA schools do like to see candidates who are committed to service. Starting community service early in your pre-PA process will allow you to build a track record of benevolence.
Step 3: Decide on how you'll gain hands-on experience.
Direct patient care is one of the most relevant experiences you can have before PA school, and PA programs value candidates with plenty of hands-on experience.
You can spend a lot of time contemplating what's the best role for you to gain direct patient care experience. But, the time you spend considering your options is often time spent not taking action.
So, having the first two steps in motion while you explore possibilities for patient care experience will help to move your overall plan along.
When deciding on how to gain experience working with patients, it's important to consider the overall opportunity for a role and your end goals.
Check if a role has available jobs in your area. Obtaining a certification might not be worth it if there are no job openings that require it, but it may very well be worth your time if it opens avenues for positions or allows you the ability to accumulate more patient care hours compared to other non-certificate-requiring roles.
If you're debating between two roles and the level of patient care is relatively equivalent, you might consider if either provides the opportunity to work closely with PAs or to advance into a position where you could train others, experiences which may help you grow and that would be useful at application time.
Step 4: Begin identifying your target PA programs.
There are now well over 200 accredited PA programs. With this many programs, the days of "preparing for PA school" as a general concept are over.
While there are some commonalities in what PA programs are looking for in candidates, to know what you're aiming for with total patient care hours, taking prerequisite courses, and when you might be ready to apply, you must have a target.
If you're just starting out, you don't have to figure out every school where you'll eventually apply, but begin with five schools you're likely to target.
Use these "target programs" to help build your goals and outline what you want to accomplish in a defined period. Having target programs will help you create your most efficient plan. Knowing your end goals will help you to identify which activities and prerequisite courses are the best use of your time.
Step 5: Prioritize your prerequisite courses.
There are some common, basic courses—like intro biology and chemistry－ and upper-level courses—like anatomy & physiology—that are required by the vast majority of PA schools.
However, outside of the most common PA school prerequisite courses, program requirements can be quite varied.
Some PA schools require lab components with particular science courses. If you take a basic chemistry course without a lab and find out later that a PA program requires the lab, you might not be able to take the lab independent of the course. As a result, you may end up spending more time and money retaking the classroom course to be eligible for the lab.
PA programs may also set time limits for particular prerequisite courses and consider those that are 5, 7, or 10 years old "expired" when you go to apply to PA school.
Another difficult spot prospective PA students may find themselves in is when they took a course that offered fewer credits than are required by a PA school. For instance, an anatomy & physiology course that you took granted four credit hours, but a program requires six credits.
This is where identifying a handful of target programs early in your PA school prep comes becomes super handy, even when considering entry-level courses.
Once you have target programs identified, you can prioritize any outstanding prerequisite courses. Starting with the courses most commonly required by your target PA schools and moving from basic to upper-level is typically the most efficient plan.
Take program-specific limits into account so you won't be surprised by any old courses that might be nearing program expiration dates at application time.
Step 6: Expand out to gain unique experiences.
From the perspective of PA programs, candidates often look very similar on their applications. Many applicants have similar kinds and amounts of health care experience, comparable academic records, and common undergraduate degrees.
While a well-written personal statement and excellent letters of recommendation can help support an application, nothing shows what is most important to you quite like how you spend your time.
So, once you have the other pre-PA steps in motion and have laid out your basic plan, consider how you want to be seen as a PA school candidate. Are there activities you can add that would help to highlight your values?
If you see yourself working in women's health, perhaps volunteering at a women's center would be a good fit. If educating others on nutrition is important to you, maybe you can get involved in a community garden. If you want to work on your leadership ability, find a local organization that could benefit from the skills you currently have.
Experiences that aren't health-related are not as prized on an application. As a result, being involved in something that has less of a direct impact on your competitiveness for PA school makes your experience appear more authentic. The person reviewing your application can feel as if they are getting a glimpse of what's most important to you.
For the last component of your pre-PA plan, consider what activities you could participate in that you'd enjoy that would help add variety to your application and communicate your values to a PA program.
The key to creating a successful, productive plan for PA school is to take incremental steps. Trying to begin everything at once can make you feel overwhelmed and may paralyze your ability to act.
The sequence outlined here details what steps should be started before moving onto the next one. By no means do you have to fully complete the activity before moving on to the next action and, in most cases, you shouldn't.
But following the steps in the order proposed (or circling back to the ones you might have missed) will help you gain experience that can be useful for your next step and assist you in growing your well-rounded plan for PA-school prep.