How to Curate a Better PA School Application

The latest CASPA cycle opens in just a few days, and whether you're a first-timer or a repeat applicant, having a set plan for how you'll approach the application is vital if you hope to have a successful round.

When it comes to the application, a few ground rules must be followed, like ensuring that any and every course you've taken for college credit is included, even ones you've retaken for a better grade or as advanced placement credits in high school.

But, much of the CASPA application is left to your discretion. You'll single-handedly be responsible for choosing which experiences to include, whether a particular activity is best categorized as leadership experience or volunteer work, and what might not deserve space on your application.

While any number of activities could be included on your application, what should be incorporated will heavily depend on your background and circumstances.

So before beginning to pile in experiences into your CASPA portal, it's helpful to strategize over what will make the cut.

The same experience that strengthens one candidate's application may weaken another's, even when it's something as crucial as patient care experience.

A high-quality application should be personalized to the individual future PA.

No pre-made checklist I could create can help you with this, but I can show you how to curate your application based on your unique circumstances.

Starting point

A good general rule to follow, and one suggested by CASPA, is to focus on including experiences within the last ten years and at the collegiate level or above.

Though this is a great starting point, it's most helpful in guiding what to exclude rather than what to include.

Nearly everything that's pre-college or beyond ten years old should be omitted.

The exception to this is a long-running activity that continues currently. If you've participated in the same annual volunteer work every year for the past six years and this started in your junior year of high school, it makes sense to include those earliest years along with the more recent ones.

Deciding What Belongs in a PA School ApplicationlBe a Physician Assistant

But don't be tempted to abuse this exception.

Old experience without a more recent connection looks irrelevant. And by including something like volunteer work from your distant past, you may only be pointing out your lack of more recent experience.

Additionally, having an activity that passes the under-10-year/at-least-collegiate level threshold does not mean that you have to include it.

And, we're covering that next.

Indirectly related activities

In the grand scheme of the PA school application, activities that can be classified as "extracurricular" are typically the ones least related to becoming a PA.

It's easy to see how roles that qualify as patient care experience, healthcare experience, leadership, or volunteer work more directly prepare you for PA school and work as a PA. However, that doesn't make extracurricular activities irrelevant.

Competing as a student-athlete in college or being heavily engaged in a club or cause may have helped you to build skills that will serve you as a provider.

But everything you might include on your CASPA application should be run through a relevant-recent test: Is this activity relevant in showing what kind of person I am or that I'm prepared to become a PA? If so, it is recent enough that it makes sense to include on my application?

Generally, experiences that required a substantial commitment of your time meet these criteria. Activities that require a lesser commitment might also be included, but the key decision point should be whether they add value to your application.

Participating in a pre-health club where you learn about different health professions, even if it's only for a total of 20 hours, is relevant. But if it happened nine years ago rather than last year, it doesn't add as much value to your application.

Similarly, if you are planning on an entry for "non-healthcare employment," consider how much value the role adds to your overall application.

A part-time job in retail that you worked a few hours a week three years ago doesn't add much to the substance as a future PA.

However, if you've had a career in a different field that has given you professional skills beyond the average applicant, or you worked full-time while you were a full-time student, even in an unrelated field, it brings tremendous worth to your application.

Your job as an applicant isn't to include everything that may have added a bit to your skillset; it's to curate your experiences and include those that have genuinely prepared you to become a PA.

It should be abundantly clear to someone reviewing your application why you included an experience. Don't count on a reviewer to make leaps of logic to see that your very part-time job as a waitress probably gave you some skills in dealing with the public.

Cutting out the "fluff" of an application will help to highlight the collective strength of the experiences you do include.

Experience-lite categories

When adding entries and categorizing each in your CASPA application, you might start to notice that things look a little lopsided. While you'll probably have experiences to add for patient care or healthcare, your application might seem a bit sparse in other areas, like leadership, volunteer work, or shadowing.

If this sounds like you, don't fret. CASPA gives you a variety of categories to use for your experiences because you might need them, not because you must have entries for each.

If you don't have recent community service to speak of, you don't have to reach back to your distant past so that you classify something (anything) as volunteer work.

Remember—everything you include should be adding value to who you are as an applicant. If it feels like a stretch to include a particular role, it's going to look like a stretch to admissions committees.

So instead of scrambling to insert experiences that are a reach, look for opportunities to expand the usefulness of the entries that deserve space on your application.

If your shadowing hours are somewhat lacking, use the "Experience Details" of your patient care role to point out the opportunities you've had to work alongside providers and what you've learned about the role by watching them.

If volunteer work doesn't have a significant presence on your application, work to show how you might have learned some related useful lessons through your other experiences, like seeing the impact of patients with limited access to care in your shadowing experience.

With careful planning, your Experience Details sections can help to provide a fuller picture of your background and convey your understanding of the medical field.

Experience-heavy categories

If you’ve held a professional-level patient care position (like a respiratory therapist, dietician, athletic trainer, paramedic, or nurse) or have an established career in another field, you’ll likely have a deep background of work that could be added to your application.

PA programs greatly appreciate that this kind of applicant has worked in a position with a higher level of responsibility than what's typical of a PA school applicant.

But, not every aspect of that experience, worthwhile as it is, will help to build a more competitive application. This wealth of experience should be wisely curated so as to not work against you.

Even if you’ve spent the past 12 years as a paramedic or research scientist, held several different positions, been a member of steering committees, and have a wealth of scientific publications to your name, you still must curate wisely so that your extensive experience doesn’t lose focus of the application goal: to prove you’re ready to become a PA.

If you have 10K+ patient care hours working as a paramedic, adding in your training hours, which most schools don't count as PCE hours anyway, doesn't add additional value to your application.

Arguably, adding in an additional paid role that only accounts for 200-300 of those 10,000+ hours doesn't add much value either.

By the CASPA standards, you can certainly include it. But, adding a minor entry that doesn't increase your competitiveness in some way isn't needed.

Deciding What Belongs in a PA School ApplicationlBe a Physician Assistant

And, doing so may only further dwarf your hours spent in other realms, like shadowing.

The relevant-recent test can come in handy here.

If some older experiences (following the 10-year/college rule) truly add value to you as a future PA, pare these down to the essential elements.

Getting selective might mean keeping most (but perhaps not all) patient care experience roles and more critically assessing other activities. Or it may mean short descriptions of the older roles and more thorough, detailed ones for the most recent experiences.

If you have multiple publications, pick the handful that are the most substantial or most recent. Even if this feels like a severe cut from your CV, you'll still be miles ahead of other applicants in this area.

When you have multiple entries for the same type of role, work to find some more balance in your experiences. Bring out the broader takeaways that might help a reviewer see your more in-depth understanding of the medical field and the roles involved in patient care.

Your skills and knowledge should be growing over time, even if your duties remain the same.

Achievements & extras

In addition to the Experiences section of the application, you'll also have an opportunity to add entries as Achievements and Licenses & Certifications.

Just as with the categorizations for Experiences, CASPA provides these sections for you because you might need them, not because you're obligated to use them.

So, only add those items that help to strengthen your application. Achievements should include things like receiving a scholarship or award, making the dean's list, or having a journal article published. There's no need to conjure up some activity to plug into this section if it's not of a similar caliber.

Any licenses or certifications you choose to include on your application should be relevant. If you've been an athletic trainer for eight years, you don't need to add expired certifications or licenses for states where you no longer practice. If you used to be CPR certified but let it lapse because you don't need it currently, leave it off.

Add only what's relevant currently — the licenses or certifications that add value to your application.

If you hope to create your most impactful CASPA application, concentrating on the content that will showcase your readiness to become a PA is critical.

Expertly curating your application means including entries that strengthen your overall competitiveness, showcase the essential elements, and bring out the value in what you choose to include.

When executed successfully, the importance of every experience should be evident to those reviewing your application and the collection of what you chose to include should inspire them to move your application to the must-invite-for-an-interview list.