As a PA school applicant, the sense of relief you feel after completing your CASPA essay will last about as long as it takes to turn your attention to the next task at hand: creating your supplemental application essays.
Supplemental essays can even feel cruel and unusual. After pouring everything into your personal statement and adding what feels like your life's work into your application, why would PA programs ask for more?
Well, because they want to know whether you're a good fit for their program.
Think of it this way: your main application speaks to whether you're ready for any PA school. Your supplement helps them to drill down further on whether you're a match for their program.
Just as with the CASPA personal essay, elements of your application can show up in your supplemental essays, but the focus of your responses should be on what ties those factual pieces together: your motivations and goals.
So, let's talk about a general approach and then go through some of the most prevalent supplemental application essay prompts.
Essentials of supplemental essays
At first glance, supplemental essays may seem to overlap with the main CASPA application essay, but they are distinct.
Unlike the vague direction of the CASPA essay, to "write a brief statement expressing your motivation or desire to become a physician assistant," supplemental essay prompts are direct.
Likewise, your responses should be straightforward. Supplemental essays are often short, usually around 250-500 words.
You don't need to build in narrative or work to create a scene. Unless a prompt directly requests that you tell a story, attempting to use an anecdote in an essay of this length is likely to feel awkward, and programs aren't expecting you to try.
These short essays intend to feel out if you're a good match for a program, and getting right to the point with your response will allow the people reviewing it to make this call easily.
So, think of supplemental essays as pre-interview questions, because schools certainly are.
Your primary goal in approaching a program-specific essay is to answer the essay prompt, first and foremost, just like an interview question. While you're at it, you can probably let a reader get to know you a little better.
Only after those two boxes are checked can you consider sharing something beyond what you’ve already given space on your application. But don't force in a story about your high school water polo team where it doesn't belong.
Maybe you'll get there as a bonus. In the meantime, avoid molding an essay around what you're dying to include but couldn't fit into your personal statement. Your first job is to answer the prompt.
Approaching the common supplemental essays
When supplemental essays are requested, they can vary, program to program, by topic, number of questions asked, and length limit.
Given that the specifics of supplemental applications are decided at the program level, there could be, in theory, hundreds of different supplemental prompts.
But, fortunately, many programs ask similar questions. So, while the wording of the prompts may vary a bit, you can save time and effort by employing the same strategies to comparable questions.
Let's take a look at some of those common supplemental application essay questions and strategies for tackling each.
Why this program?
One of the most common supplemental prompts asks you to tell of your reasons for choosing a PA program. This question can be asked in several ways:
Can you describe your reasons for applying to this program?
What about this program stands out to you as an applicant?
Why do you think you would be a good fit for our PA program?
These questions all get at the same idea. The goal in responding to any of these questions, or others that are similar, is to reference specific elements of a program (why you chose a program) and tie these reasons to your own experiences (why you're a good fit).
Regardless of how a program poses the question, incorporating both sides in your response is essential. It's not enough to point out things you like about a program. Any applicant can do that. You have to prove those things are important to you through your own experience.
So, if you want to mention the unique opportunity that a program offers for participation in a student-run health clinic, prove that program feature is important to you by also discussing the value you've gained from your own work at a free clinic.
If you'd like to reference the extra elective rotation of a program's clinical year, show that it matters to you by discussing your shadowing experiences in four different specialties.
Aim for 2-3 relatively unique program features. When you try to create a more extensive list, some reasons will be weaker than others and harder to back up with your own experience.
It's okay if some reasons for choosing a school could also apply to other programs. The idea is to discuss program specifics that aren't found at nearly EVERY PA school.
A seemingly similar question to the "why this program" prompt is when you’re asked how you plan to fulfill a program’s mission as a PA.
But, this essay question is distinct.
With this prompt, you should still work to prove why something about a program is important to you by relating it to your experience. However, rather than tying your background to a program feature, you'll work to connect it with a program ideal.
Let's say a portion of a program's mission statement is "to prepare culturally competent PAs committed to continuous learning who will provide compassionate, patient-centered care within their communities."
Before you dive into trying to cover every bit of that passage in your answer, take a pause. Simply regurgitating the words of the mission statement doesn't make for a good reply.
You want to choose the elements that you can most strongly support with your experience, thereby proving that your values align with a program's ideals.
So, let's use "culturally competent" as a focus. Could you name this program value and discuss how your extensive international travel has broadened your cultural horizons? Or explain your work in community outreach? Or relate it to the lessons you've learned in your current career as a school teacher?
If you don’t feel there’s a natural link, then pick the program goals that are more closely related to values you can prove. Like with the "why this program" prompt, include just a few to highlight so that you can do them justice.
Here's the other differences between an essay question about a program mission and a why-this-program prompt: a mission question asks you to discuss the future.
Therefore, after you prove that you and a PA program have shared values, discuss how you'll work to fulfill them as a PA, as requested.
Explaining your permanent record
Within the supplemental application, some programs ask you to clarify any less than stellar grades or withdrawals that show up on your transcripts. Having space dedicated to this is a gift.
If your academic record calls for using this space, don't let this gift turn into a post-midnight Gremlin-style monster.
Programs want to learn about the reasons behind any of your academic issues, but they don't want to hear excuses.
"No one told me how to properly add-drop a class, so I have a W on my transcript from my sophomore fall," is something that happened to you.
"I failed to investigate how to properly add-drop my general chemistry II lab, and, as a result of my negligence, have a "withdrawal" for my first attempt in the course," is a mistake that a now-mature future-PA once made.
The extent of your explanation should match the degree of the mistake you're working to account for. One D in a course you took three years ago doesn't deserve a deep dive, but a prolonged struggle that spans semesters warrants a more detailed account.
However big the blunder, though, you can follow the same format: describe the circumstances, take 100% responsibility, and discuss what actions you took to recover from any mistakes.
Mention what skills and tools you gained from the experience that have helped you since or will benefit you in the future.
Though most folks who need to explain an academic mishap fall into the first category, if you suffered a trauma that resulted in an academic dip, an authentic approach to answering this question may be different.
A good answer does not require you to go into detail about what you've suffered. You can share as much or as little as you like. "In my junior year of college, a tragedy in my personal life affected my academic work," is plenty. You don't need to lay yourself bare for a PA school application.
But, I'm confident that working through a trauma has given you incredible strength and skills that will be useful in the future. And, you can include what those are as part of your response to shed light on the adaptive abilities you now have that will help you to succeed both in life and as a PA.
PA programs often strive to have a mix of students from different backgrounds and experiences in each class.
If you're an average PA student (a single, white woman in her mid-20s), fielding a supplemental question about how you'll add diversity to a program may stump you.
But, in spite of what classifications you might fall into, how you'd add diversity to a program goes beyond demographics.
If you're a non-traditional student with nine years of professional experience in marketing or a first-generation immigrant, the value you add to a PA class may seem obvious.
However, the advantage of being a rarer kind of classmate isn't rooted in the variety of age or ethnicity you bring. The value comes from the experiences that might be a result of your more unique background.
Which also means that if you come from a pretty average background and look like a "typical" PA applicant, you can still bring plenty of diversity to your class through your perspective that's been shaped by experiences you've sought out.
So, regardless of your background, delivering a response about how you'd add to the diversity of a PA class should heavily rely on the activities that have helped shape you and exposed you to new ideas, people, and viewpoints.
With this approach, you can help to share your uniqueness and how it will add to a program's diversity.
Commitment to service
PA programs that have a strong commitment to service may have a specific supplemental essay exploring this idea.
Though you may choose to touch on this as part of your response in a "why this program" or "mission" essay, a prompt dedicated to the topic means that a program expects a more in-depth answer on the subject.
If you have a track record of community service, you can rely on it to field this question.
However, if you're struggling to answer because you haven't done much volunteer work, you might not be doing a great job of targeting PA programs. At least for this application cycle.
When a program deems community service essential enough to ask about, they're looking for applicants that share this value.
You can try to cobble together something to address the prompt, but a big picture view on how you're targeting programs is also needed.
If a particular program remains a top choice and your application doesn't reflect the values that seem important to that school, take a long view.
A half-hearted essay without "proof" is unlikely to be successful. But, you can work to gain the experiences necessary to become a more appealing applicant for the next application cycle.
The extra-info essays
Some programs will ask what you haven't shared yet. Or a get-to-know-you question that seems unrelated to becoming a PA. Or for more detail about your general background (remember that you existed before you wanted to be a PA and that you have a life outside of being a pre-PA, they're asking about that).
In all of these cases, remember to 1) answer the prompt first, and 2) let them get to know you better.
After those goals are accomplished, you can consider what you haven't yet had the opportunity to share and see if it might be a fit for the prompt.
Remember that weaving a narrative isn't needed and staying focused on the question at hand is key to answering any supplemental essay.