The PA school interview causes mixed emotions for most pre-PA students - exhilaration for about 48 hours after being granted one, followed by anxiety and, occasionally, terror for the remaining weeks or months leading up to the big day.
The apprehension is understandable; this interview is the the last thing standing between you and PA school. However, just like any exam in your past, preparation is key to building confidence and putting you at ease.
With 200+ PA programs now available, the style of the interview can vary widely program to program. Interviews may include one-on-one faculty interviews, group interviews (with other pre-PA students), panel interviews, and current student interviews and may cover standard, behavioral, and ethical questions.
More programs are also incorporating the multiple mini interview (MMI), an interview format that uses several short, independent assessments by presenting scenarios to assess your thought process and indirectly get your answers to the common interview questions.
Instead of getting overwhelmed with the possible interview scenarios, start by focusing on the core questions that are asked by most, if not all, PA programs during the interview.
These key questions are the ones for which you should develop answers that you know forward and backward before diving into the other possible questions. You should have “elevator pitch” answers for these questions that you can deliver effectively and concisely to anyone who asks.
#1 - "Tell me about yourself."
Admittedly, this is not a question, but the open endedness of it can send interviewees into an internal panic. When not prepared for it, pre-PA students often end up with a rambling, chronological story that starts in their hometown and ends with showing up for the interview that day.
If this request is made early in the interview, your best answer will include something about you that demonstrates why you would make a great addition to their program or a great PA.
Note that this is a different request than one that might be made later in the interview - “Tell me something interesting about yourself” or “What do you do for fun/in your spare time?”
No one wants to know that you are a champion water skier until they like you. They will like you if you can make it easy for them to know that you are a good match for their program. Do this succinctly by describing an aspect or two of your experience and relate it to being a PA.
“I have two years of experience as a CNA and three years of experience volunteering at Children’s Hospital. My observation of the PAs caring for patients while I was volunteering is what inspired me to be a PA, and my connection with patients as a CNA has continued to drive me to works towards that goal. I worked 2 jobs throughout college to help pay my way through. In balancing my workload and coursework in college, I developed time management skills and study strategies that I believe will help me tremendously with the intense didactic curriculum of this program.”
This short answer describes a commitment (2 years as CNA, 3 as volunteer), passion (connection with patients), ability to handle stress (work & school load), and directly states how the answer relates to success in PA school.
You answer does not need to hit all of the same points, but you do want to think about an answer that multitasks in this way and concludes with linking your background with skills needed for PA school or to be a PA.
#2 - "Why do you want to be a PA?"
Believe it or not, some interviewees are not prepared for this question, or at least are not well prepared. When I used to do group PA school entrance interviews, this never ceased to surprise me. It seems like the most obvious question.
I think the reason that some interviewees seem unprepared for it is that they skip it when planning for an interview, thinking it will be easy, and focus their prep efforts on seemingly more difficult questions. However, this is the question. If you cannot answer this one well, you are wasting your other answers and possibly the entire interview.
Prepping for this question is worth your time and effort. Your answer should specifically relate to being a PA while avoiding generalizations about helping people or working in medicine. (This is also what I recommend for personal essays. If you need help writing yours, check out this prior blog post on the 5 Keys to Writing an Effective Personal Essay or my ebook on this topic.)
“Though I have enjoyed working as an EMT, I really hope to serve patients in a greater capacity and play a larger role in their care. I have interviewed and shadowed nurses, nurse practitioners, PAs and physicians, and found that the role of a PA has the balance of autonomy and collaboration that I am looking for. I am interested in a patient-focused career where I can be fully trained to start serving patients in just a few years. For me, being a PA aligns perfectly with what I am looking for in a medical career.”
This answer is specific about why you want to be a PA, and also answers what might be asked later - “why not a nurse practitioner” or “why not a physician” questions. Think about how your experience led you to choose being a PA over other possible careers.
Avoid “funneling down” to being a PA — do not say that you ruled out being a physician, pharmacist, or nurse and landed on being a PA. You do not want to disparage other medical professions by saying what you did not like about them.
Work backwards to develop your answer by starting with what you like about being a PA. What drew you to the PA profession, and how did those attributes convince you to be a PA rather than another type of provider?
#3 - "Why did you apply to this program?"
Everyone wants to be wanted. Program faculty spend a lot of time and effort developing a program that they care about. They want the students and potential students to care about it too.
Do your homework and find out what you can about the program. Find out the program mission or focus, learn what you can about the didactic curriculum and clinical rotations, and speak with former or current students if you can. Look into first time PANCE pass rates and check out faculty profiles on the program website.
If you are local to the program, attend any available informational sessions. If you carpet bombed CAPSA at application time and their program was one of 15 you applied to, keep that to yourself. Find reasons that you think it is a good fit for you, and be able to speak to that during the interview.
“I investigated this program initially because I am from the area. But I chose to apply because of the focus on primary care as well as the opportunity to have as rotations at rural sites during the clinical year.
I understand that the clinical rotation sites are well established and have preceptors accustomed to teaching PA students. I also know that many of the faculty members currently practice or have a background in primary care. I shadowed a primary care PA and see primary care as the field I am most interested in pursuing after graduation. I'm also involved in volunteering within my community, mainly with underprivileged children and as a mentor to high school seniors. Given this program's focus on primary care and community service, I feel it is a great fit for me and my future goals.”
This answer shows that you have researched the program details and are looking for not just programs that will accept you, but for ones that will be a good fit for you.
Make sure your answer is the truth when formulating your own. For example, if the program focus is primary care but you might want to practice in a specialty, it is fine to say that a background in primary care is essential for any PA, rather than pretending primary care is all you want to do.
Master your answers to "the big three" before moving on to the rest of your interview prep. Having solid answers for these questions will ground you and make you feel more confident in the interview process.
Even if you are not asked these specific questions, they are the foundation for why you are at that interview. Knowing and believing your answers to these core questions will help you to more effectively answer the all other interview questions.
If you are interested in taking your PA school interview prep to the next level, check out the Mock PA school entrance interview. In this one-on-one video session, you will learn how to best highlight your personal experience and demonstrate your motivation to an admissions committee to succeed in your PA school interview.