How to Formulate a Strong Plan for Your Academic Interview

With the sheer number of PA programs available to prospective students, the interview style encountered in any single PA school interview can run the gamut.

However, certain kinds of questions are more likely to be encountered with particular types of interviews. 

Therefore, knowing about the style of an interview in advance can help you better anticipate what to expect and, therefore, tailor your prep accordingly.

In recent years, one kind of PA school interview that has been gaining in popularity is the so-called "academic interview." 

Despite its more recent emergence, the academic interview is not a novel style; it’s been around for as long as there have been interviews. However, more programs are using this terminology when sharing pre-interview information with candidates.

And if a program has been generous enough to give you a heads up, you have the chance to amplify your performance by incorporating the interview style into your prep.

So, let's get into what's behind the interview style and what kinds of questions to anticipate so that you can go into your academic interview with confidence.

What’s an “academic interview”?

Though programs can mean slightly different things when they refer to an "academic interview," in general, this kind of interview centers around the academic section of your CASPA application.

Sometimes, the term "open application interview" is used interchangeably with "academic interview." And the two styles are quite similar.

In an open application interview, you'll be asked questions that are based on the information found within your application. Topics might cover your academic history as well as other items on your application — like your work or shadowing experiences.

If an academic interview is conducted more like an open-application interview, it, too, can also venture into the territory of application experiences beyond your educational background.

How to Approach an Academic Interview for PA SchoollBe a Physician Assistant

Basically, whether it's termed "academic" or "open application," your interviewer is using the facts of your CASPA application as a guide for their questions.

And, typically, an academic interview accounts for a portion of an interview day. Most are complemented by separate one-on-one or group interview sessions, where more general or personal questions are asked.

So, an academic or open application session focuses on the facts found on your application. Meanwhile, other meetings that make up your interview day are more likely to cover off-application topics.

These other more general sessions can venture into questions that can be reused for multiple candidates — like why you chose to apply to that program, how you'd approach hypothetical scenarios, or what you hope to accomplish in your career.

Prepping for an academic session

When a PA program is carving out space on interview day for an academically geared session, questions may span general to specific educational topics.


I'm not an advocate of trying to have prepared answers every question you might receive in an interview. Trying to have a ready answer for any possible question is an approach likely to leave you feeling anxious and never fully prepared.


However, I am a proponent of thinking through the kinds of questions that may come your way.


The process of considering what questions you might receive will help you to feel more agile on the big day.


General academically-oriented interview questions may include:

How would you describe your study habits?

What is your learning style?

Do you prefer to study alone or in groups?

What was your hardest science course, and how did you work your way through it?

What was your favorite non-science course in college?


These are questions that any candidate could receive. They're not necessarily based on your history, but they are academically oriented.


However, the majority of questions you receive in an academic interview are, often, a bit more personalized.


And because your transcripts and CASPA submission usually act as the source material for these kinds of sessions, reviewing your application in advance is essential.


Of course, you already know what's on your application because you lived through it. But, looking at it from the perspective of a potential interviewer will help you to see (and remember) better what's there.


When looking at your application, consider what someone else might notice and, therefore, what they might ask about.


Take a look at your academic history, grades or withdrawals that seem like outliers, trends in your performance, the degree(s) you've obtained, and any post-bacc work.


Then, consider how questions you could receive during an academic interview session might be crafted to your experience. These may include questions like:


It looks like you might have been a science major early in college and then swapped to an arts degree. Can you share that experience with me?

I see a few Ws on your transcripts from the fall of your sophomore year. What led to those, and how did you stay on track in the courses that followed?

So, you earned your business degree 11 years before starting your post-bacc work for your prereqs. What drew you to business, and then what precipitated the change?

Your undergraduate grades are excellent. On average, how many hours a week did you spend studying, and what other responsibilities did you have at the time?


If you look at your application with a critical eye, you'll start to notice the points that might serve as seeds for questions. To feel even more prepared for your interview,  you'll also want to consider what "challenge" questions might be asked.


Like other personalized questions, these will be based on your application. But, challenge questions may push you a bit more and have the potential to throw you off of your game if you haven't thought through a few.


A challenge question sound something like:

It looks like some of your science courses were a struggle for you. How are you sure you could succeed in PA school?


Most of your PA school prereqs were done one at a time. Do you think the lower intensity of the course load has adequately prepared you to study medicine?


Do you think your academic work can be fairly compared to that of a candidate who has gone to a university known to be more rigorous?


If you decided you wanted to become a PA during your freshman year of college, as you explain in your personal statement, why did you continue to major in communications?


Challenge questions aren't necessarily very different from personalized questions.


However, they are designed to be a bit more uncomfortable to field and, therefore, may throw you off-kilter if you don't expect them. So, take a look at your application and think through what a potential interviewer might use to prod you a little.


If you need some help, ask a friend to look at your application to find opportunities for challenge questions and practice fielding a few to build your confidence.


When considering what questions your academic history or application might bring up, keep in mind that a PA school believes that you probably have the academic skills, experience, and ability to succeed in their program. Otherwise, they wouldn't be interviewing you.

The point of them questioning your academic experience is to better understand not just the facts of your experience but your perspective on it.

Those doing the asking are looking to learn about what isn't showing up on your application. And, maybe just a little bit, to see how you respond under pressure.

With a touch of interview-specific preparation, you’ll be well equipped to share your perspective and handle the pressure of whatever questions your academic history might inspire.