Recent PA Graduates Discuss Interviewing & Choosing a PA Program

New PA Grads on Choosing a ProgramlBe a Physician Assistant


Today, we will explore part 2 of our series with our new PA grads, focusing on interviewing for PA programs and selecting the right program to attend. If you missed part 1, be sure to check it out - Recent PA graduates discuss their journey into PA school. We are joined again by:


Irene Thomas
University of Minnesota, BS in Neuroscience '11
A.T. Still University, MPAS '15

Lisa Clayton
Texas A&M, BS in Allied Health '13
Pace University - Lenox Hill Hospital, MPAS '15

Jocelyn Rausch
University of Notre Dame, BS in Science Business '11
Tufts University School of Medicine, MMS '16


Now, let's get to it.

Was there anything about the interview process for PA school that surprised you?


Some schools, I don’t even know what they got out of my interview. There was one school where they did not ask me a single personal question.


The only part of the interview that actually involved me was a group discussion where they gave us a topic as a prompt, like an ethical question, and let the interviewees discuss it as a group.


The rest was just a slideshow about the school and a Q&A session. I had no idea why I had spent money to fly there if that was the extent of the interview. It seemed pretty shady, and then I was extra offended that they didn’t even accept me. Not that I would have gone there if they had.


There was another program that was out of state and in the boonies and I asked one of the current PA students how they worked in groups, and she said that they prefer to work individually. I asked how she felt about the resources that were available and found out that they were minimal and that all of the coursework was pretty much paper and pencil based. That was another easy decision for me.


The first year I applied, I only got one interview, at Baylor, which obviously is an awesome program. I had no reservations about wanting to go there, but they didn’t accept me.

New PA Grads on Choosing a ProgramlBe a Physician Assistant


The second year around, I got a lot of interviews. I applied to maybe 15 programs and I got interviews at most of them. One of my first interviews was at Tufts, and they have a January start date, which I referred, so I canceled my other interviews.


But, Tufts was a brand new program and I was only in the second class, but I think the reason I was not that concerned about it was because it is associated with a really good medical school. Whereas if it had not been associated with a medical school, I would have been a lot more cautious about wanting to go there.


Was it under provisional accreditation when you went?
It was. We got accreditation during my second year. Northwestern [University's PA program] was nearly brand new too and I interviewed there, but I felt the same way about that program. If the school had a good medical school, I would not have much hesitation about going to a newly developed PA program.


I interviewed at a program that I felt super sketchy about after I went. I felt like they knew nothing about me after the end of the interview. So each interview was timed for 5 minutes, and you did 3 of them. So it was the most rapid fire, uncomfortable thing.


So it was a speed date?
Yes, it was a speed date with a PA school. It was so weird. They had also recently changed out most of the staff and they weren’t sure what the curriculum was going to look like, so I wasn’t very excited about that school.


I think that there are a lot of programs increasing their size way too rapidly just to get money in, and that school that you are talking about is one of them. I can’t speak to other programs, but I have heard of ones that are similar.


At least some of the schools who are doing that have good [PANCE] pass rates, but that school had pass rates in the 80s.



How did you make the final choice to go to your PA program?

I based a lot of my decision on the vibe of the interview. The place where I ended up going was actually on probation from 2 years before.


So, the year they would be undergoing re-accreditation would be during when I was a student. But, they had made a lot of changes to the program and were open about why they were on probation. They also guaranteed placement in another PA program if they ended up losing the accreditation. They gave me the sense that they were really working to improve their program and would work with students who were struggling to help them through.


I got a really comforting feeling from the interview, and that was important to me since I would be moving from out of state.


Other programs gave me the sense that they would have no problems dropping students if they were struggling academically, while the school I ended up choosing made me feel like they would do everything they could to work with you before failing someone out.


I ended up watching them do that for one of my classmate friends in our program. She failed anatomy and physiology and they worked with her and let her retake the course the following year. She had been out of school for 5 years before going to PA school,  so she was struggling to relearn how to study. She passed and is now a fantastic PA. I was happy to see them do that for her, and I knew I made the right choice in schools.


I first looked at how long the programs were. Some programs were 2 years of didactic prior to the clinical year. I talked to people that had been through programs and they said that you learn the most during your clinicals, which is definitely true. I did not want to spend an extra year of time or tuition.


I got into one program that was 26 months, which was nice, but I found out you had to go all over to complete your rotations and live like a nomad during the clinical year, so that I didn’t want.


The program I picked, in New York, was also 26 months and the rotations were at so many great, major hospitals in the city, so you got to stay in one area. They also took care of arranging all of the rotations for you, which some programs don’t do.


I got a good feeling during the interview too. It seemed like an encouraging environment. I also had a friend who failed, and they allowed her to come back in the following year’s class to try again and now she’s doing great.


They also had 98% [PANCE] pass rates, which was important too. Some schools were in cities where I would have liked to live as well, but their pass rates were in the 80s, which is well below the national average.


I wanted to go back to Boston. I picked Tufts, it was one of the first programs that I interviewed at that year. They had a January start date, which I loved because I was just ready to start school. It was 25 months, so I would finish at the same time as any of the 30-month programs that started in June. Within 2 weeks, they had accepted me so it was a done deal for me.


My other reasoning was that Boston is well known for its medical center and amazing hospitals, and I was thinking that is where I would be doing my rotations. I thought “I’ll be doing rotations at Brigham and Women’s, and Dana Farber, and Mass Gen”, but I didn’t do rotations at any of them. The major hospitals get really inundated with medical students and trainees, so there is not a lot of room for PA students.


I only had one rotation at Tufts, and the rest were outside of the major hospitals. I wish I had known that in advance, but I’m not sure it would have changed my choice.


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Did cost factor into your choice?

Absolutely. I wouldn’t say that every school is the same, but they are pretty similar. At the end of the day, you are getting a pretty similar education, so I am not going to pay more than I need to for the same result. Some programs have extra degrees or certifications and are longer in duration, which adds significant costs to those programs. I wasn’t about to pay three times as much for a dual degree, which was not going to result in me having a bigger salary once I was a PA.


There were schools that were cheaper than others, but the one with the cheapest tuition that I had considered required a lot of travel and staying away from home for rotations, so that had to be factored into the overall cost.


My school also required a seat deposit once they accepted me, which was refundable for a limited number of weeks. I ended up cancelling my other interviews after I paid this because I didn’t want to spend any more money.


The cost of applying isn't cheap either. I had to tell myself to shell out the money [for extra and supplemental applications] while I was applying the second year because that would be nothing if I was able to get into school that year and could end up being a PA sooner.


I applied to a lot of schools for that reason. I was not going to apply to one or two and hope, I just threw it all out there to increase my chances.



What did your program provide for you as far as PANCE board review prep?

They gave us access to free online practice test questions and we did two PACKRATS. They also gave us huge banks of PANCE prep questions. There was also a book called, I think, PANCE Pearls* that was really good because they took the exact blueprint of the exam and reviewed really relevant topics. I thought doing the practice questions was the most helpful way to prep.


They gave us PA Easy throughout the 2 years. It was helpful, but the problem was that by the time PANCE rolled around, I had already done all of the questions throughout the year. So you kind of remember the answers afterward, not because you know what the answer really is, you just remember that it was the answer to that particular question.


We had the PACKRAT and access to Exam Master, which was a huge bank of test prep questions. I used the PANCE Pearls book too, it is really thick but it is packed with bullet point information that is really helpful.


I studied in a group with 2 other people where for the last few hours of studying for the day, we would just throw questions at each other and find our weak areas, which helped me a lot. My school also hired a guy who was an ER PA who came in for 3 days to do a concise topic review. I’m not sure all of the information in those sessions was accurate for the boards, so I’m not sure it was all that helpful.  But honestly, I felt like the exam was just a crap shoot while I was taking it.


I think [having an in-person reviewer] is a potential problem because the PANCE is going to ask you questions that are based exactly on guidelines, and if you have someone teaching from experience and they might be telling you information that is not going to be the answer on the actual test.


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Was there anything about PA school or your programs that you wish you would have known before you went?

The class size was increased from either 65 or 75 the year prior to 90 my year, and all of my rotations and everything were fine, but I didn’t realize there would be that many students in my class.


We were told that the size would a little bigger from the year prior, but I thought that would mean 5 or so students. That was the only thing that I didn’t like, and we did not get as much one-on-one as I expected, but I still liked it overall. Some things, like scheduling simulations, were more difficult with that many people, but it still worked.


I wish we had known where we were going to be doing rotations. A lot of ours were outside of Boston, in the suburbs at community hospitals. On one hand, that is nice because a lot of the time you are the only student and they let you do things that you might not normally get to do. On the other hand, they sometimes don’t know what to do with a student because they might not be used to having students or teaching and they didn’t necessarily go into the profession for the teaching aspect or they’d probably be at a teaching hospital.


My rotations got changed so many times too, and sometimes they didn’t even know I was going to be there when I showed up on the first day. That was the only downside for me. I think those issues were partially because it was a new program, and they were increasing the class size by 10 people every year. So I think they were having to work really hard to find available rotations.


I wish that I understood the curriculum structure of the program better before going, and that physiology would have been more embedded throughout the core units. Instead, anatomy and physiology was done in the middle of the units, which made it a little more difficult to understand and retain.


Did they lay out the didactic curriculum for you when you were interviewing?
They did, but we didn’t really understand that the physiology and pharmacology courses would not line up with the topic blocks that we were doing at the time. So we’d be taking a dermatology pharmacology test while in a totally different block. The great thing was that the director of the program would meet with us quarterly and wanted feedback on what was working and what wasn’t given that the program was under a lot of transition with the accreditation status. So when we mentioned this being an issue for our class, they worked on changing this for the next class.


The other thing I wish was emphasized more during schools was how to interpret labs and test results. From what was taught, I did not feel like I really understood how to interpret labs and what needed to be further worked up or corrected. So a lot of that, I have learned as I went once I started working. We learned how to find diseases and treat them, but what about all of the tests that you would be commonly ordering and needing to interpret?

So, what are the key take-aways from this week's first-hand accounts?

  1. Interviews are not necessarily similar program to program, so be ready for non-conventional approaches.

  2. Accreditation is important, but it is not essential that the program be in "continuing" status to be stable.

  3. Choosing a program may very well be easy if you feel comfortable with what you learn during the interview process.

  4. If a PA program seems strange during the interview, it is probably because it is a bunch of creepy creepers and you should trust your instincts and choose another school.

  5. PANCE prep offered by the program is probably not important as most of it you can get on your own, but...

  6. PANCE pass rates are probably important in demonstrating the robustness of a program's curriculum and preparedness of students to practice medicine.

Join us next week, when we will explore searching for first PA jobs with Irene, Lisa, and Jocelyn.



*The PANCE prep book that everyone was raving about here is PANCE Prep Pearls by Dwayne A. Williams ISBN-10: 1497396875. Like all things, it is available on Amazon.