The number of PA programs and the competition for seats in these programs have both increased substantially since I graduated nearly 10 years ago. Because of this, preparing for PA school can now be years in the making.
We often hire new graduate PAs in our department, and I have seen through these newly minted PAs how this competition has influenced the pre-PA school experience.
I sat down with our newest hires, Irene Thomas, Lisa Clayton, and Jocelyn Rausch, to discuss their pre-PA school preparation, PA school experience, and search for their first jobs as new PAs. This is the first of our three part interview.
New PA stats:
University of Minnesota, BS in Neuroscience '11
A.T. Still University, MPAS '15
Texas A&M, BS in Allied Health '13
Pace University - Lenox Hill Hospital, MPAS '15
University of Notre Dame, BS in Science Business '11
Tufts University School of Medicine, MMS '16
When did you start preparing for PA school?
I feel like even if you are not sure about going straight into PA school, a lot of the time it’s just like “I want to go into medicine”. Would it be pharmacy, dental school, medical school - I didn’t know. I just wanted to start getting some hours regardless. So, I would say I started my freshman year of college.
It was kind of the same thing for me, I knew something medical but I thought more nursing maybe. I started with volunteering after my freshman year of college.
I thought I was going to go to med school, so I was on the premed track throughout college. I took 2 ½ years off between college and PA school, and most of my preparation was during that time.
How did you prepare?
I did a lot of internships starting my freshman year, and then when I knew wanted to go to PA school, I looked at being a scribe or a medical assistant, but I didn’t want to work to get a certificate before starting to get patient care hours.
I applied for and got a job in a clinical research position, which I did for a little over year after undergrad. I knew that I had to do it for at least a year to get enough hours, and I worked extra hours to have as much contact as I could by the time I started applying to PA school.
What were you doing in the internship positions?
I worked with patients in an emergency room where they were doing different studies and small projects. We’d work with the patients and ER doctor there, so it was pretty hands on.
How did you find the internships?
I looked into the positions at the county hospital. They had a lot of projects available because they knew there was a pool of people that would work for free because they want to go to medical school. An ER doc ran it and it had been popular for a number of years. I think it spread pretty much by word of mouth. I also participated in medical groups in college to see what opportunities were out there.
The summer after my freshman year, I pretty much dedicated that summer to volunteering, which sucked because you didn’t get paid so I did a lot of babysitting and nannying too. I went home to Dallas that summer and I spent 4 days a week volunteering at 2 different hospitals there. One was in a children’s hospital interacting with kids and the other working in medical records.
When I got back to school my sophomore year, I volunteered once a week in the local ER for about 3 hours taking vitals, changing wound dressings and simple things like that.
I got most of my patient care hours doing medical mission trips two summers in a row going to Guatemala after my sophomore and junior years. That was a 14 day or 18 day trip, and that was where I got a lot of my patient care hours. I did triage for a lot of it, taking vitals and such, but I got to do a lot more direct patient care there because there aren’t as many stipulations [for the student providing care]. I highly recommend doing that because you can get a lot of patient contact hours in a short period of time easily. I also loved it and it was my favorite thing I have ever done.
I did a research position in my senior year, which also counted for college credit. The research was in autism and I interviewed parents of children with autism.
I became undecided about med school about halfway through college and wasn’t sure I wanted to go. I started looking into PA school but was kind of unsure about it. I kind of waffled between the 2 for the longest time. I probably spent 6 years waffling through most of college and for 2 years after.
During college I took all of my premed classes and towards the tail end I added a couple extra classes that were required for PA school just in case I decided to go. I got a job doing basic science research at MD Anderson, which did not count for any patient care contact, and worked there for a little over a year. It was during that time that I took the MCAT, and then decided “I just don’t want to go to medical school”.
So then I started looking for another job where I could get patient care experience. I found one doing clinical research position in the behavioral science department where I was able to interview patients and they taught me how to draw blood and take vitals, so I did that for about a year and a half I was able to use it for most of my patient care hours. During college I volunteered at a local hospital as a patient escort transporting patients and worked with kids on a pediatric floor.
So the vast majority of your hours, you got after college?
Yes. Most of the academic prereqs from premed and PA school were similar, but I did take 3-4 classes after college to meet the prereqs for the PA programs I was applying to, including a medical terminology class because most of the PA programs I was applying to required it.
Did you spend time shadowing a PA?
Yes. I first came in contact with PAs in the ER while volunteering. They would take me into patient rooms with them and let me go around with them so I really got to see their role.
I also shadowed one morning a week for a little over 2 semesters during my junior year. I got in by looking for the shadowing opportunity in the summer and I stayed in my college town when a lot of students had left for the summer, so it was easier to get in to shadow. I continued through the spring before I started applying for PA school in May and June.
The PA who I shadowed wrote one of my letters of recommendation. A physician I worked with did the second, and my employer did the third (I worked as a student worker in the health and kinesiology department).
I did it throughout and after undergrad. I googled the area hospitals and contacted their volunteer programs to ask if they had any PAs who would be willing to have a student shadow.
They have a mentorship program at MD Anderson for employees who are looking into being PAs. When I was working in clinical research the year prior to PA school, I had a PA mentor. It was nice. I got to do a mock PA school interview and there were some lectures that gave us some background on PA school and being a PA. It helped to be able to put that on my application because it showed interest in the profession. A lot of PA schools asked me about the program, so I think it showed I was really invested in being a PA.
I agree. In college, we had a PA society that I was a part of, which I feel like helped me with my applications because it showed an interest in being a PA that went back several years.
Did you get in to PA school on your first application cycle?
I did one round before and I got an interview at Baylor, but I didn’t get in.
Yes, I went straight from undergrad into PA school.
I applied my senior year and totally bombed it. I applied like 2 weeks before the CASPA deadline. I didn’t realize my application was not complete until my recommendation letters were in, and when I checked on my application, I realized that one of the people I asked for a letter had not submitted it. So I was like...
“You ruined my life?”
Haha pretty much. I asked him about it and he told me he forgot about it, so when my application was complete, it was later in the cycle than I thought. I had a few interviews and got waitlisted at 3 schools, but didn’t get in.
What did you do to prepare for your second application cycle?
I got my job [in clinical research] and built up my patient care hours, maybe finished one additional prereq class, and I applied again during the next cycle and got in.
For the second next round, I was so on top of it. The day [the application cycle] opened, I was ready to go. Weeks before, I prepped all of the people writing my recommendation letters to be sure the letters were ready before the application cycle opened. So, there was nothing the second time that was out of my control that was not finished in plenty of time.
I was also really strategic about who I asked to write my recommendation letters. A lot of people just get any professor, but I networked during that year while I was working my research job so that I could comfortably ask the head of a department, a well-known physician and the PA who I shadowed for more solid recommendation letters.
I also asked the PA who I had been shadowing to review my personal statement for my application to make suggestions for it to look a little more desirable to programs.
I did that too. My fiancé is really good at writing papers and my dad is a professional writer, so I had both of them edit my personal statement.
Then, I went on an interview and they told me that my essay was one of the best they ever had, but then they had me write an essay on the spot. I freaked out, I had a panic attack and I could not write anything. It was not a surprise that I did not get into that program. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to have your essay reviewed, but just make sure it is in your voice and that you are ready to write an essay on the spot.
During your program search, was location important to you?
I applied to a lot of schools in Texas because I was living here. I applied to schools in Boston, where I am from. I applied to schools in Chicago because I had friends there. Then there were a couple random ones I applied to who I felt like had strong programs and where I met all of their requirements.
I applied to most of the Texas programs because I knew they did not require quite as many hours as some other programs and I was lacking some in hours. Then I just did places where I might want to live, like Chicago, Boston and New York.
I applied essentially anywhere outside of my hometown. I was a little more realistic the second time around so I was looking for programs where I thought I had a good chance of being accepted. I applied to schools in places where I thought I would like to live and who had programs that I thought were a good bet for me.
Did you apply to any programs where you did not meet all of the stated requirements?
Someone advised me to apply in 3 tiers. The bottom tier for schools that you pretty much know you can get into, and this should be the majority of the ones you apply to. Then maybe 3-4 schools that are borderline, say where their minimum GPA is 3.5 and yours is 3.2. And the top tier for 1-2 schools where getting in is unlikely but where you would really love to go.
They may still look at your application and while you might not meet all of the requirements, there might be something interesting and unique about your application that piques their interest. I got interviews at places where I did not meet the stated requirements.
My limitation was mainly my contact hours. The Northeast schools had much higher contact hour requirements, so there were some that I didn’t bother applying to. There was one school in the Northwest where I was really interested in going, I was a couple hundred hours short of the requirements but I thought I would still try it.
I got interviews almost everywhere I applied during my second time around, and I don’t think that I met the requirements of all of those programs. I took extra classes to bring up my science GPA, but it is hard to budge your overall GPA, especially after undergrad. I didn’t let that stop me from applying to programs.
So, what are the key take-aways from these first-hand accounts?
- Start preparing early.
- Choose patient care experiences that will build connections for solid letters of recommendation for PA school applications.
- Do not count on an absent minded professor-type for a letter of recommendation.
- Apply to programs that are a good match for you, even if the minimum requirements are not met.
- Get feedback on your personal statement, but be wary of turning in a masterpiece.
Join us next week, when we will explore interviewing with and acceptance into PA programs with Irene, Lisa, and Jocelyn.