Applying to PA school is always a competitive endeavor. But, if you're applying to PA schools on the West Coast, the competition is even fiercer. On the West Coast, the PA-hopeful to PA-school ratio is a tough one, which makes every available program seat precious.
As one of the longest-standing programs in California, the Samuel Merritt PA Program was established in 1999. Located in Oakland, California, the program is focused on community service and provides PA students with the opportunity to work with underserved patients through community health and elective international clinical rotations.
Tana Summers, the current assistant program director, first joined the program as an instructor in 2006 and later served as an academic coordinator before becoming the assistant program director in 2015. Recently, Ms. Summers was kind enough to chat with me about Samuel Merritt’s values and goals, allowing prospective PA students an inside glimpse into the program.
Can you share what the Samuel Merritt program looks for in an ideal applicant?
Our average GPA for accepted students is about 3.4. Our minimum overall GPA is 3.0, and while we’re focused on candidates that have a GPA above 3.2 with a minimum of 1,000 hours of healthcare experience, we really do look at the whole application including healthcare experience, background, letters of recommendation.
Most of our applicants have experience in roles as medical assistants and EMTs. Those are some of the most common applicants that we see, but we do look for a variety of clinical experience.
We like to see experience both as paid healthcare experience, as an MA or an EMT or a therapist or something like that, as well as community service experience. One of the things that we also look at is a commitment to service, so not just having five hours here and five hours there, but really showing a commitment to a particular service organization. Whether that's someone's church or hospital volunteering or whatever is interesting to them, we’re looking for a regular commitment to the activity.
Our average age for matriculants is about 27. While we're not necessarily looking for older applicants, we are looking for those with more life and healthcare experience. We're also looking for people that have some PA shadowing experience. We look for at least 50 hours of PA shadowing experience, and ideally, that candidate would have a letter from a PA that they've either shadowed or worked with that can speak to their understanding of the profession and their readiness for PA school and PA training. Those are the things that we're looking for on paper.
Then when we interview candidates, we're looking for people who excel in teamwork and have good communication skills, which are things that are harder to find in the application.
If a candidate has a strong GPA and good healthcare experience, they've shadowed a PA or worked with a PA and understand the profession, that's our baseline. Then, what we're looking for in interviews is how do you communicate? Are you going to be able to develop a good rapport with patients? Are you going to have good professional skills with your classmates and faculty and while out on clinical rotations? What kind of healthcare provider are you going to be?
What do you feel like are the most important aspects of the program?
We get asked this a lot in interviews—"What do you think sets your department or program apart from others?” I think that some of it is logistics. We have a human cadaver lab, which a lot of programs don't have anymore, where the PA students actually do their own dissections, which is pretty rare in PA schools now, so I think that's one thing that makes us special. We also have a huge, over 10,000 square foot, simulation center with high-fidelity and low-fidelity manikins and standardized patients that students are exposed to throughout their training, in both the didactic and clinical, which I think also sets us apart as far as the type of training and education that the students get here.
As far as our core mission and values, I think what really makes us stand apart is the support of the faculty. We hear this time and again from current students on our exit surveys and from alumni. Students find that the faculty members are really, really supportive. We work hard to foster a communicative and collaborative environment. Once you matriculate, we are not working to weed out students, and we're not trying to create a competitive environment. It's really about support and helping students succeed once they matriculate.
For the age of Samuel Merritt’s program, the class size has remained relatively small. Is the small class size a reflection of that mission to be supportive?
That's part of it for sure. The class size has increased a little bit. I think when the program was started, it was 28 then it increased to 36 and stayed there for a long time.
We increased to 44 students about 4 or 5 years ago, which was in response to a grant that we got that supports students from rural Northern California and Hawaii counties. That grant is over now, but we’ll still maintain our student group at 44 per cohort.
It's still a small group, and some of that is definitely about our ability to support students and a lot of it is about our ability to support them in the clinical year. Getting rotations in the Bay Area is very competitive.
Has the program ran into clinical training site shortages or a need to send more students away for distant rotations?
Yes, it's really competitive here, and it's getting harder. Some programs are paying for rotation sites, which we have not been willing to do, and that's made it harder.
So, some students want to go back to where they're from or where they want to end up and do rotations there, and that's fine. We help them get the contracts, and if they can identify potential preceptors, then we'll do all the paperwork to get the contracts and malpractice and all that stuff going, but we don't actively search for rotations in specific areas.
We do have alumni and contacts outside of the area. We have several rotations, for example, in Reno and Southern California because we've had a lot of people come from there and go back to practice there. So those are areas where we have some rotations. Because of our grant, we also have rotations in Northern California and Hawaii that students will take advantage of because we already have contracts in those areas. But, the Bay Area is hard. We do tell students that they can expect to do a least one rotation out of the direct Bay Area and into places like Gilroy or Reno or Northern California.
Now, we're expanding to Fresno, so we're going to have a lot more rotations in the Central Valley area.
What do you think prospective students should know about your program's curriculum?
We don't do a completely systems-based curriculum, but we do try to do curriculum alignment as much as we can.
We have a progression in our four didactic semesters from really basic science heavy in the first semester with anatomy and microbiology moving towards specialty medicine, clinical skills, and hands-on simulation in the 4th semester.
So, the first semester is really introductory and basic science, and then in the spring and summer semesters, we have physiology, medicine, and pharmacology. We do try really hard to align the curriculum. So, when students are learning about pulmonary physiology, they're also learning about pulmonary diseases in medicine and they're learning about pulmonary drugs in pharmacology. We try to align those as much as possible.
And then we have an integrating seminar course, which is a problem-based learning course that they have in the spring, summer, and fall semesters, where we try to help them go through cases and problem-based scenarios to integrate the information that they're getting in medicine and pharm to help with the application and integration of information.
Can you share Samuel Merritt’s application cycle timeline with prospective students?
Our application deadline is October 1st, and we do not have rolling admissions. We usually start calling people for interviews in early December and then we interview. This year we did two interview sessions in January and one in February.
We do an early admission, so we usually offer seats to around 10 to 12 people after each interview date for the stand-out candidates.
But that doesn't usually fill the class, so then after the 3rd interview day, we'll look at how many of those early admission offers were accepted and then how many spots we have left to fill the class and then make our wait list beyond that.
That's where we're at right now, and we're definitely going to be evaluating that for the coming years. We’re aware that we are among the schools that are late in the cycle, which can mean some applicants do not wait to hear from us before accepting offers from other programs.
What is the style of the entrance interviews?
We have a pizza dinner the night before our interview day. It’s optional, but it allows candidates to meet current students and get their questions answered about what the interview day is going to be like and to ask more informal questions about the program.
We then have an all-day interview process. It starts at 8:00 in the morning and goes until 5:00 in the afternoon.
Candidates are put in a group of six to eight applicants for their group for the day. Throughout the interview day, we're looking for how they communicate and interact with each other in their group. We have six different stations or rotations that the applicants go through during the interview day.
The different stations are used to try to get a different perspective on the applicants to try to get at how they communicate and how they work as a team. Some stations are done as a group, and others are done individually. We have a teamwork game that we do with applicants. We also have a student panel with current students that talk to them and get to know them and ask them questions that are more from a student perspective, which is also done as a group. And they speak with the department chair as a group. Applicants also have one-on-one interviews with two different faculty members or alumni; usually, it's one faculty and one alum.
During the day, they’ll also have a campus tour and will be able to see the cadaver lab, simulation center, and the classrooms.
What’s your favorite interview questions to ask students?
I like to ask applicants what their backup plan is. Often, it kind of throws people off a little bit and I get really honest, not always honest, but I often get really honest responses. Some people will say, “Oh, well I already got into some other program” or “I have no idea. I've never thought about. I'm just solid on getting in this year.” Some people have a full back-up plan. It's really interesting to kind of see where their head space is at, so that's one of my favorite questions to ask.
What do you feel that PA students enjoy most about your program?
That’s a good question. We do a cohort survey at the end of each fall semester. At that point, some students are just at the end of one semester of school, some of them are at the end of their didactic phase, and then our 3rd cohort is just about to graduate. So, each year we survey them at the end of fall to see where they're at.
Above and beyond everything else, the survey responses show what we are doing well with is faculty support. So, I think that one of the things that students would say is that they feel supported here.
I think that curriculum- or academic-wise, their favorite thing is probably simulation. We do a lot of simulation. We bring in standardized patients pretty much every semester to do training; we do a lot of training in the sim center with high-fidelity manikins. Every time we do simulations, students just love it, and they want more and more. We’re always trying to find ways to do more. I think the simulation is probably their favorite. It's the most fun, getting hands-on experience and practice.
What do you see PA students struggle with the most?
I think that's more of an individualized issue. I think that students probably overall struggle with integrating the huge volume of information in an applicable way. I think that's probably the biggest struggle—"how do I put all this information I'm learning together into my brain so that I can actually use it in a real-life patient care situation?”
There are certainly some students that maybe haven't been in school for a while who might struggle with getting back into it and dealing with that full-time kind of course load. If students move from somewhere else and don't have a lot of social support here, they can struggle more with emotional issues and concentration and that kind of stuff.
There are sub-groups of students that struggle with certain things, but I think overall the biggest struggle is integrating the volume of information.
Is there anything that's not information that's available on the website that, anything else that you think would be important for a prospective student to know?
We are working on updating our website and just yesterday got our new alumni data and PANCE data on there. The numbers hadn’t been updated for about five years, so it was needed.
We're working on revising our welcome page to be less focused on the PANCE pass rate data and more focused on who are we as a program and defining our values.
One of the things I just updated based on recent applicant feedback was to highlight that we have a cadaver lab. I think it was really unclear on our website that we have a human cadaver lab where the PA students do their own dissections. We tried to update that and highlight that a little bit more on the website. We’re going to be adding updates to focus more on the supportive and collaborative environment that we really try to foster here at Samuel Merritt. That’s a really big part of who we are and what we do, and I think that isn’t at all highlighted on our website.
Also, we are planning to expand our program to a satellite campus in Fresno. It has not been approved yet, but we are in the application process and hoping for approval by ARC-PA in the Fall. There will initially be 25 seats in the Fresno cohort beginning 2020. Our website should be updated soon to reflect this exciting new opportunity.
To learn more about Samuel Merritt's PA program requirements, mission, available information sessions, and the anticipated satellite campus, check out the Samuel Merritt PA program website.