As anyone who’s gone through or is going through it can tell you, PA school is a unique experience. But when aspiring PAs imagine the future, they often think of the “bookends”—getting into PA school and working as a PA—and skip right over the part about being in PA school.
While going through PA school may be overlooked because it is a means to an end, the experience of it is formative in shaping your knowledge, confidence, and early career track.
So, as much as it is possible, I think it’s important to gather information directly from the source to help pull back the curtain on what it’s like to be in PA school. To do that, I asked a few friends from The Be a PA Community who are current PA students to share their insights on their personal experiences.
If you’re preparing for PA school, I think the wisdom they shared with get your wheels turning and thinking about what it’s like to be in PA school. And if you’re a PA student, I think you’ll find yourself relating pretty hard to a few of the responses.
Here’s what they had to say in response to a few of my questions, along with as much identifying information (name, program, anticipated graduation year) as they were willing to share.
Is there any aspect of PA school or your specific program that you didn't know to consider before you started, but wished you would have known as a pre-PA student?
There were many aspects that I didn't know about my program before I started, but fortunately, all of these things ended up working in my favor. Some aspects that I think people frequently overlook are the presence of a cadaver lab, the speed of the curriculum, remediation policy (huge one), and most importantly, the frequency and number of breaks you have because burnout is so real. I would encourage future PA students to look into these things before committing to a program. - Tom
Wishing they had known more about the program curriculum and structure was a common theme among PA students, and several other current PA students echoed Tom’s sentiments:
“I did not know to consider how the clinical information was going to be conveyed to the students — by organ system or holistically.”
“I wish had I known about how PA schools have different methods of teaching.”
Often, when in the position of preparing for PA school, you look at what a program wants: GPA, experience hours, GRE, rather than what a program offers: curriculum style, teaching methods, lab opportunities, clinical rotation options. But, once you’re on the flip side as a PA student, you learn quickly what really matters is how you’ll be taught once accepted by a PA program. Instead of waiting until you’re in PA school, it’s wise to consider these aspects when you identify target programs.
I was accepted my first year applying to PA programs. I wish I had been more patient and selective choosing my program. I applied to 33 programs, interviewed at 2, accepted to 1. While I love my program and grateful for its opportunities, I wish that I didn’t rush the process of getting to this point. - Jessica, UC Davis, Class of 2019
One of the biggest things that I have noticed is how helpful it is to have diversity in your previous medical experience. I have worked as a student athletic trainer, PT aide, ED chief scribe and dermatology MA. I am so so grateful to have the ability to pull from a wide range of experiences. I thought scribing in the ED would prepare me well, but I am incredibly thankful that I took another year to work as an MA before starting school. I’d be struggling a lot more if I had jumped in with only my scribing background.
I think it is also important to consider how programs are incorporating learning about new diagnostic technology into their programs. I lucked out in that my program is adding an Ultrasound module for the first time in my didactic year...Ask the programs where you interview how quickly they are able to incorporate newer material into their coursework and what plans they have to expand/change their courses. I think a good program should constantly be re-evaluating themselves to produce better PAs! - Dana, Pacific University, Class of 2020
Has any aspect of PA school been a bigger struggle, about what you expected, or easier than you anticipated?
I had 6 months off before school started, and I asked every student I knew what I should study before starting. They all had the same answer: don’t because whatever you study will not even scratch the surface of what you learn in the first semester. They were right! No amount of studying would have helped with the huge amount of information! Anatomy was by far the hardest class of my first semester; there are so many borders and contents you have to learn! Honestly, nothing was easier than I expected! Your first semester is like getting blasted by a fire hydrant of information. Your job is to just not get blown away! - Megan, Class of 2020
So far the hardest thing for me is knowing how hard to study—how much time I need to put in and how much I can ease up on myself. We just finished our first term of the didactic year, and I ended the term with stress hives across my entire back. I scored incredibly well on every exam, but our program is simply pass/no pass...so I know that I need to work on including a little more self-care and mental de-stressors next term, so I am not pushing myself into another breakout of stress hives! - Dana, Pacific University, Class of 2020
Dana, I hear you, friend. My go-to physical manifestation of stress in PA school was an involuntary eye twitch, which still resurfaces from time to time. If we don’t let it out, the stress finds a way out.
Have you had any changes of heart in your areas or specialties of interest since starting your program?
I'm now very interested in starting my practice in a broad specialty because I don't want to pigeon-hole myself in a specialty too early. - Marissa, UT Southwestern, Class of 2019
My whole personal statement was about me pursuing neurology to identify domestic violence victims with TBI (ballsy to be that specific). Now I’m actually considering family medicine. - Jessica, UC Davis, Class of 2019
I’m totally on board with being specialty-specific in your personal statement if it’s true to your experience. There are more jobs in subspecialty surgical and medical disciplines for new PA grads than there are in primary care. Every PA can’t work in family medicine. If you have a future direction in mind, including specifics can help your essay to sound more authentic.
I am still unsure about the areas or specialties that I want to pursue. However, I really wanted to go into surgery and now knowing how long I would have to be on my feet, and I am reconsidering that option. - Dakota, South University, 2020
The inconvenience of surgery — not having constant snacks and water throughout the day and the long stretches of standing — was a bit of a deterrent for me as well.
Like many of the respondents and many graduating PA students, according to the latest published data, opinions on what specialties they want to work in do often shift during PA school. Experience often makes a difference in specialty preference and teaches us what we want (and don’t want) in our future practice.
Is there anything that has surprised you about your classmates or class?
We are SO so close. But we are all really different, and we study and practice very differently, so it's so important not to compare yourself to your classmates. - Marissa, UT Southwestern, Class of 2019
You’re not going to get along with everyone, and that’s okay! Our class has 28 students, and we all have 28 different personalities. Nobody says you have to be best friends with everyone, find your few people and you’ll be golden! - Megan, Class of 2020
I was surprised by how many of my classmates have a religious background. I believe in a higher power but do not define as a certain religion and do not attend a conventional church. I was raised in a very science-backed household so seeing people mesh their religious beliefs with science and fact has been very interesting. It is also obvious that becoming a PA takes a certain type of caring, empathetic person. All of my classmates exude this! - Dana, Pacific University, Class of 2020
Is there anything that has surprised you about the faculty members?
The resounding response to this question was the consistent support current PA students felt from faculty members in their programs, including:
“How much they really care and the lengths they go every day to make sure your clinical curriculum is top notch.”
“They truly want you to succeed.”
“The faculty care about you so much!”
“I was very surprised with the support of the faculty.”
I think this aspect of faculty support is very true for most PA students. You are their future colleagues and will be representatives of a profession they are proud of, and faculty members want you to succeed.
How willing they are to admit when they do not know the answer to a question, ask for information from the class, etc. They treat us like peers which has been enjoyable! - Dana, Pacific University, Class of 2020
Coming from a huge undergraduate school, I never received that personal sense of care. If I missed a lecture or failed to turn in an assignment, no one would even bat an eye. In PA school (at least at my program), it is the complete opposite, and it hasn't ceased to amaze me. Everyone is so caring, they want you to learn and do well, and most importantly they really do try to get to know you beyond the classroom. - Tom
After Hurricane Harvey hit my hometown and I failed the following exam, the instructor of the course and my advisor met with me and allowed me to vent for a moment. It was a very human moment. It was no longer about the grades, rather big issues that affect real people like me. - Jessica, UC Davis, Class of 2019
Overall, what has surprised you most about PA school?
When asked this question and within many of their responses to other questions, current PA students remarked time and time again on one thing in particular about PA school: volume.
A sampling of the many references to the volume of information PA students are expected to absorb included:
“The breadth of information!”
“How fast-paced it is. As a relatively organized person, I was surprised at how difficult it is to organize all of the information being thrown at you.”
“As many current students say, I wouldn't say PA school is difficult, rather the pace and sheer amount of material that you need to learn.”
A few folks also offered some additional overall surprises.
My own capabilities! I've surprised myself with how well I've been performing and how much I've learned. - Marissa, UT Southwestern, Class of 2019
(Love that one!)
Everything! I’m still surprised I even made it this far! Imposter syndrome is real, y’all. - Jessica, UC Davis, Class of 2019
I always thought I had a great study method, WRONG! I found out very quickly that I had ZERO study skills! For me, I have to rewrite material at least twice, speak it aloud twice, type it, and make quizlets which I study relentlessly. There is not a night I don’t fall asleep that my notes are not in my hands. - Megan, Class of 2020
There were a few super insightful responses that didn’t quite fit into the questions I posed to the PA students. I had two favorites that were so spot on that I wanted to be sure all future PAs had a chance to hear them.
I want to add that people with mental illness can go to school and succeed in medicine. PA school is hard and will trigger stress and anxiety. With proper coping and crisis plans in place, it is possible to help and care for other people. Unfortunately, suicide is a common and serious decision for many people in medicine. We must care for each other and take care of ourselves. - Jessica, UC Davis, Class of 2019
It has been the most enjoyable educational time of my life. It is so fun to learn information I actually will apply to real life! Couldn't do it without my amazing spouse and family supporting me though. It takes a village to get a person through PA school. Your roommates will have to remind you to shower and eat and leave the house and stop studying, and your spouse may have to remind you to makes some time for them. Rely on that village. No one does it completely alone. - Dana, Pacific University, Class of 2020
A huge thanks to all of the current PA students who took time out of their crazy busy schedules to share their PA school experience with fellow future PAs.
If you’d like to connect with some of these students as well as other future PAs for advice on getting into and through PA school and beyond, join us in our free Facebook group, The Be a PA Community.