PA School Countdown: How to Prepare in the Weeks Before Starting

 

The period between being accepted to PA school and starting PA school can be a strange one.

 

With anxiety over getting into PA school behind you, the excitement over your acceptance can slowly grow into nervous energy as the program start date nears. 

 

You might start to pay more attention to the stories about how hard PA school is and wonder what it will be like.

 

In retrospect, PA school's not that bad, and it goes by quickly. But when you're in the thick of it as sleep-deprived, caffeine-addled PA student, there may be a splash of drama added to the tales. 

 

But, starting PA school will definitely take an adjustment, whether you are coming fresh from college graduation, starting after a summer of leisure, or transitioning from a full-time career in another field. 

 

Regardless of where you are coming from, you can help to smooth your adjustment by taking mini-steps to prepare in the weeks leading up to PA school. 

 

Here are the little things that can help you prepare. 

 

1. Review program materials


Before the start of your program, you'll begin to receive information on financial aid, where to park, the first week's agenda, how to get to class, along with recommended books and equipment. 

 

Take in this information one step at a time. In the excitement of starting PA school, most students buy all of the recommended books and equipment. (And for some reason, often buy it brand new. Even though in college used books were just fine, we get needlessly fancy when we get to PA school.)

 

While shopping for books and equipment is fun, you don't need a stethoscope on your first day of PA school.

 How to Prepare in the Weeks Before PA SchoollBe a Physician Assistant

 

Instead, find a PA student or a new PA grad and ask them what books or equipment they find essential and what purchases they have found to be less useful. 

 

Ask what books they recommend to get started. You don't need everything immediately, and sometimes not at all. 

 

Instead of spending time on a school-related shopping spree, review the program material for the need-to-know essentials.

 

Is there any required reading before the program starts? Where can you park? Do you need to get a permit ahead of time? What will the on-site hours of the first week be in case you need to adjust your child care?

 

When you are ready to get equipment, look to former PA or medical students to save money. They'll have nearly brand-new stuff because in their excitement to start school, they bought the entire recommended equipment list and barely used it. 

 

Action item: Review the materials sent to you by your program at least a week ahead of when you start. Take time to read (not just skim) them. Contact your school with any questions in advance so you are not scrambling at the last minute. 

 

2. Develop a routine

If you lack structure in your days before PA school, adjusting to the schedule of PA school will be a challenge. Take it from someone who's tried. 

 

Unlikely when I was an undergrad, talking/whining about needing to study doesn't qualify as studying in PA school. You have to actually study.

 

Having a set routine before you start PA school will help you to adapt more easily. In the weeks leading up to PA school, start developing morning rituals. 

 

This might look like waking up at the same time, drinking coffee, walking the dog, working out, showering, and getting ready for the day. Or your variation of it. 

 

It may sound overly simple, but the more robotic you make this sequence, the less mental energy you'll use before the "thinking" part of your day starts. 

 

During the lead-up to PA school, it's also important to decide on your non-negotiables. "I'll work out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings," "I don't schedule non-school activities on weeknights," "I don't study past 10 PM."

 

It's important that you also frame these rules with "I don't" rather than "I can't." It's minor, but it matters.

 

If you "don't" go out during weeknights, it's a decision you've made and you maintain control. If you "can't," you run the risk of feeling like a victim of PA school or being talked into something you don't really want to do. 

 

These non-negotiables should be, exclusively, not about school work you are doing. Instead, they should be about setting boundaries to maintain your sanity in PA school. 

 

Otherwise, studying, or guilt about not studying, will creep into every hour of your day. If you commit to obeying self-imposed rules, you're following your set plan, which frees you from the guilt of "not studying" and keeps some semblance of balance in your life during these couple of crazy years.  

 

Action item: Read Deep Work by Cal Newport. It's an incredible book that will help you prepare for maximum efficiency without working yourself to the bone in PA school. It's a game changer. I wish it existed before I went to PA school, but at least we have it now. 

 

3. Face your finances

I understand that many people take out giant student loans for PA school; I made the same mistake. I also know that despite my cautionary tale, I won't be able to talk most people out of doing it. 

 

But, whether you're taking out loans or not, you've got to get your financial house in order before PA school. Regardless of your current situation, you'll need to spend money to live in PA school.

 

That money may come from loans, scholarships, or a spouse or partner's income, but it's coming from somewhere. And with it, you can create a monthly budget. 

 

If you've never made a budget, you can practice by starting with your current income and expenses. It will take about three months to get a hang of it and start being more accurate with your projections, but it does get easier over time. 

 

Just like you're non-negotiables from earlier, setting up boundaries with money is vital in PA school. 

 

You will be tired and exhausted at times, and people tend to have a lower threshold for spending on things they didn't plan to when they're feeling worn out.

 

The impromptu dinners out or jacket that you didn't plan to buy add up, and if you're paying with loan money, they add up with interest. 

 

So, when you make your budget, give yourself a little grace. Add in a reasonable amount of money for coffee with friends or for a weekend activity.

 

Just like the studying boundaries, as long as it's part of your plan, a little "fun money" will help you to feel less restricted and avoid the guilt of unplanned spending. 

 

Action item: Create your monthly budget. If you need help getting started, grab my PA School Budgeting Guide

 

4. Get in the mind space

PA school is intense. It's doable but it's intense. So, it's super important to remember your "why" to have the motivation to push through the tough times. 

 

One day, you will save someone's life. You'll ease someone's suffering. You'll convince someone to adopt lifestyle changes that will prevent them from getting a debilitating disease. But until then, you can be inspired by hearing about other people doing it. 

 

Some of my favorite medically related (but not medical text) books include:

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, by the late, great Oliver Sacks
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee
When Breath Becomes Air, the Pulitzer finalist book by Paul Kalanithi
A Stitch of Time: The Year a Brain Injury Changed My Language and Life, the beautifully written book from patient perspective by Lauren Marks

 

Knowing that a future where you can make a difference is awaiting you can be incredibly motivating. When things get a little bumpy along the way, you may need to remember that inspirational story you read before PA school.

 

Action item: Pick your medical-ish book and get cracking. There's not much "leisure reading" happening in PA school, so get it in while you can. 


Full disclosure: I did none of this before I went to PA school. But, I was a bumbling idiot back then, and I want better for you. 

 

If I had to do it all over again, I would do every one of these items to plan for my new life ahead.

 

There's nothing that will entirely prepare you for PA school, but taking these steps will put you on solid footing to start your new PA life.