Each spring and early summer, PA school candidates are faced with a choice: apply now and get the strategic advantage for programs that favor early applicants or wait to build a stronger application to become more competitive.
And, other prospective PA students wish they had the luxury of making this choice. Instead, their plan may have been derailed by a miscalculation of the number of prerequisite courses they could have completed by their target submission date.
Or they're spending precious early weeks trying to track down a reference who said they'd give a letter of recommendation before going radio silent.
Or maybe finding a PA to shadow is taking wa-aay longer than anticipated, but a couple of their target programs require it.
When it takes an applicant longer than originally planned to submit, it's usually an in-the-moment decision that results from running out of time rather than a strategy that was established in advance.
And it's no wonder that the application cycle seems to creep up on so many aspiring PAs.
Pre-PA students are incredibly busy. There are prerequisite courses to complete, patient care hours to accumulate, careers to maintain, and families to run all while you work toward your goal.
So, if you hope to skip the debate over whether to submit a slightly anemic application or avoid being thwarted by GRE results that take a few extra days, you need a plan.
The three layers of time
If you're like most future PAs, your to-do list can seem endless. It's easy to slip into a perspective where each task feels equally important. And it's even easier to try to knock out the simple ones first to feel as if you're making some headway.
However, there's a pattern among those who have higher levels of success when applying to PA school, and repeat applicants often realize it after their first unsuccessful cycle.
Your timeline cannot be one dimensional.
Everything you need to or want to accomplish for PA school should not be on the same plane.
Some admission requirements are ruled by availability. If you don't prepare in advance, they'll be gone when you need them.
Other experiences and relationships that will be essential during the application cycle need time to develop. Attempting to compress them into a single holiday break simply won't work.
While advanced planning is necessary, it must also be multilayered if you hope to avoid unexpected delays at application time.
In building your comprehensive plan, you'll need to think about your tasks as belonging to one of three layers: time-sensitive, value-building, or tactical.
Layer 1: Time-sensitive items
The time-sensitive items related to PA school prep are those that require enrollment and are controlled by when they're offered.
Time-sensitive items include prerequisite classes, the GRE, the CASPer exam, and other training courses, like BLS or CPR.
The availability of time-sensitive items is outside of your control. The evening biochem class you're looking for might only exist during the fall semester. Or, the CASPer exam may be offered on just a handful of dates before the application deadline of your top-choice program.
If you're looking far enough in advance, these limitations aren't likely to squeeze you. However, they are ones that often sneak up unexpectedly and, when they do, they may narrow your choices.
In response, you might eliminate all programs that require the GRE (which is now the majority of schools) or rule out the ones that allow for fewer unfinished courses.
If you find yourself in this defensive position, not only will it limit your options, but it will also chip away at your confidence.
Missing windows for time-sensitive items is likely to make you feel rushed and disorganized and "forced" to make decisions that are reactive rather than planned.
Everyone is limited in what they can accomplish within a particular time frame. Your approach to your initial cycle may evolve for future cycles — if it turns out that you need them. But having and executing a plan for time-sensitive items, whatever and however many those might be, will be vital to maintaining a sense of control and your confidence.
Layer 2: Value-building items
The value-building items related to preparing for PA school are those that grow in quality over time.
Value-building items include patient care, volunteer work, shadowing, and securing references and letters of recommendation for your application.
But some of these take more time to cultivate than others, and that's where I want to focus.
Because, for instance, you can knock out 500 hours of direct patient care experience with a full-time position in under three months. Anyone can do that math, and the number of hours you accumulate by the time you're ready to submit your application is unlikely to come as a surprise.
However, shadowing and fostering relationships that could lead to outstanding letters of recommendation are value-building activities that many applicants end up wishing they'd started sooner.
Finding PAs to shadow may seem simple, but for many aspiring PAs, it takes more time and effort than they expect. Additionally, once you land a shadowing opportunity, the connection may provide an opportunity to request a letter of recommendation from that PA.
Whether you'll be getting your references from shadowing, work experience, academic, or volunteer connections, allowing your (eventual) letter writer to get to know you will lead to a stronger endorsement.
In the case of value-building items, quality is proportional to time. The earlier you begin to implement a strategy around shadowing and application references, the more substantial the payoff will be.
Layer 3: Tactical items
The tactical items of a strategic PA plan are centered around the logistics of the application.
Tactical aspects include opening an account, requesting transcripts, planning and writing the personal statement, sending out official reference requests, and completing supplemental applications and essays.
The process is multi-step and cannot be hammered out in a single sitting or even a few days, at least not well.
While there are mindless data-entry components to the application, other parts require deep thought and creativity. And, all of the moving pieces need to be brought together and triple checked before submission.
If you've not been through the CASPA application process before, it will take more time than you think.
But, you can map this out so that the amount of time required can be accounted for before you find yourself behind schedule.
You can start by opening a CASPA account in advance of your application cycle and taking care of some data entry. You can begin thinking through which experiences might deserve space in your personal statement. You can track how many of your target schools require supplemental applications and if any additional essays are involved.
Though this part is the homestretch of applying to PA school, it can be tedious and exhausting. It can feel particularly so if you don't anticipate or intentionally carve out the time you need to complete it.
While you don't need to have a fully fleshed-out plan six months in advance, you can start the process. Deliberately building in blocks of time on your schedule dedicated to application input and essay creation will keep you on track.
And, it will help you to avoid the frenzy that comes with hoping you'll find time for your application "after work" or "next weekend" once the cycle is in full swing.
As you gear up for the opening of your target application cycle, keep these distinct time categories in mind when considering your approach.
Once you view tasks as time-sensitive, value-building, or technical aspects of preparing for PA school, you'll be better equipped to integrate the components of your plan.
By doing so, you'll be able to map out a strategy with balance, stay on track for your target submission date, and ensure you're fully prepared at application time.