Saturday, March 11, 2017

7 Tips to Improve Your Physician Assistant School Application (& My Acceptance Story)

applying to PA school

Hi all!

[Disclaimer]: My apologies in advance - this is going to be a long one! Scroll on down to the bottom of this post (the 2nd floral photo) if you'd just like some application tips that really worked for me &, I'm convinced, was what got me acceptance letters to my top 2 PA programs (the second time around)!
So today, I want to share with you a pretty personal story: my PA school journey, from deciding I wanted to become a PA to actually being accepted after quite a few trials and tribulations. Don't get me wrong - every PA student and practicing PA probably had a challenge (or multiple challenges; most probably a lot more difficult than mine) that they overcame in order to get to where they are today, but I am sharing my story in hopes that it might provide you with motivation, hope, encouragement, and actual steps that you can take to get into Physician Assistant School (again, see the bottom of this post if you'd rather skip the deets of my story)!

I was an undergraduate sophomore when I first heard of the PA profession. I initially was super attracted to the idea of being a healthcare provider, but not having to be in school for 4+ (but actually 8+) years after graduating with my bachelors degree. I also loved that I would be working on a team of providers and would be under the wing of a physician that I could get second opinions from and discuss cases with. I was so attracted to the PA profession that I obsessively researched everything about becoming a PA. I took notes on the pros and cons of pursuing this career (versus going to medical school or getting a PhD to do clinical research). I decided that the PA profession was an ideal fit for my personality and professional goals. I researched how to apply to PA school, along with probably hundreds of programs. I made excel spreadsheets of PA programs I was interested in, and their requirements (such as prerequisites, cost, GPA requirements, location, healthcare experience requirements, and basically anything I thought I would need to know to compare and apply to programs in the future). And then I decided to take my efforts from behind a computer screen to actual real life. I helped start up my college's pre-physician assistant organization and became an executive board member. I found a clinical research position where we focused on obesity and healthy lifestyle change approaches. I started taking prerequisites that also coincided with my major requirements (neuroscience). 

Everything was going great. I felt like I was making progress toward my dream career...

And then I attended a pre-health advising appointment. I went to a large, urban school, so it took a few weeks to actually get an appointment after spending hours completing a required online portfolio through the pre-health office. I walked in, and was excited to have someone help me figure out what I am doing well and what I can work on in order to get into PA school after graduating. I sat down and gave the advisor my portfolio along with a few other documents so that she could assess my progress. She skimmed everything for maybe a few minutes, continued looking at it in silence, and then said "based on the material you brought in, you aren't going to get into a physician assistant program".

I. Was. Stunned.

She went on to tell me that they had many other pre-health students that had better grades, better experience, and were overall better applicants than I would ever be, and that she only choose the top students to be reviewed for a committee letter of recommendation from the school (I initially thought a committee letter would look really good on my application, but have since completely changed my mind - I got in without one!). She recommended that I consider a post-bacc program, since I did not have straight A's in my science classes (I had a decent amount of A's, but plenty of B's as well). I thanked her for her time as my words quivered, and walked out of there crying. I thought my dreams were never going to happen - I mean this message came from a pre-health advisor! I immediately went to another one of my advisors, an honors program advisor who knew me relatively well. I broke down in her office and told her I wasn't ever going to be a PA and that I was devastated to learn this. She talked me out of a dark place for about an hour. She told me it would be okay, and that I was a hard worker and that was what would help me achieve my dreams. 

It was then that I decided to never go back to pre-health advising and to create my own path to success.

I continued progressing toward fulfilling program requirements while gaining some experience in somewhat related fields, since I had a pretty hard time finding shadowing experiences. I continued as a clinical research assistant, I did some academic coaching (basically like a mini academic advisor and counselor), I was a teaching assistant for several courses, I tutored in science classes, I continued volunteering on the e-board of the pre-PA organization in addition to being an active member and e-board member of the university's Habitat for Humanity and a leadership organization. And of course, I tried to fit as many pre-requisites in my already pretty packed class plan in order to graduate in 4 years.

Early in my senior year, I decided that there was no logical way that I'd be able to apply to PA school and be accepted immediately from undergrad. I needed more experience, and still had a few classes that I needed to take for several programs. I also wanted to take the GRE, and did not want to sacrifice my undergraduate grades in order to study for a standardized test that would be waiting for me whenever I felt prepared to take it. For the rest of my senior year, I continued relentlessly keeping up with all of my classes, jobs, internships, research, campus organizations, and friends/family. I basically had my time planned down to the hour. I spent weekdays on attending classes, working, organizations, and clinical (and some animal) research. I spent most of my weekends camped out in my university's tech center (hello soooo many computers & room to spread out studying!), which I fondly called "club TECH" (heh...that was the club I spent the most time at on weekends). And then of course gave myself 1-2 breaks at night to spend time with friends. However, other than taking a class or two that fulfilled PA school prerequisites, I wasn't actively doing much else to move forward career-wise (other than running around gaining more experience in a bunch of things). 

When it came time to find a full time job, since I'd be a college graduate soon, I searched near my hometown for health-related jobs that would give me some additional experience for PA school. I submitted maybe 3 applications, and landed a full time job as a mental health worker...and then got a call back for a part time direct service professional position working with children who have autism. Neither was 100% perfect or "ideal" (from what I understood at the time) healthcare experience for PA school, but I figured these 2 positions would get my foot in the door of healthcare-related positions. Then began the journey of working roughly 70 hours a week between my 2 jobs for about 6 months. I was a zombie, but I made quite a decent amount of money (that I barely spent because I only worked and slept - except on coffee every day) and racked up some health-related hours pretty quickly.

Then I decided I needed to finish up a few pre-requisite courses. I still needed microbiology for every program I had on my excel spreadsheet, and was considering a few other classes as well. While I searched for somewhere local to take this class (and while I worked 70 hours a week), I put together my first CASPA application (the centralized application that many PA programs use so that you only have to submit 1 application to many schools). I figured I'd apply to the 3 programs that I had already fulfilled all requirements for (except micro, which I would have completed by the time PA school would start). I had already had a draft personal statement prepared from a writing class I took my senior year of undergrad, so I figured I would compile the rest of my information into CASPA, send it to 3 programs, and hit submit! 

It took me much longer than I anticipated to complete my CASPA application, and I had a lot of questions and things that I needed to figure out before submitting my application. Talk about a complicated process, but once you're finished, you have a complete and detailed compilation of basically everything about you (academically and professionally at least!). My advice: plan ahead & give yourself plenty of time. I gave myself 1-2 months, but just was completing random sections whenever I felt like it and did not really have a great game plan. I was kind of expecting I'd be accepted to maybe 1 of 3 programs, but I was okay with that because I just wanted to get in somewhere.

My first round of applying to PA school: accepted (0); offered interviews (0); denied (3).

I was so upset. That pre-health advisor way back when was potentially right. Maybe I wasn't good enough or smart enough to get into one of the most sought after careers in health care. I had no idea what to do. I was embarrassed. Ashamed. Upset. Had no direction. I kept working, spent some time moping around and wondering what I should do, and eventually made the conscious decision that I would pick myself up out of this rut and move on. But the only thing I wanted to move on to career-wise was becoming a PA. Many discussions were had with previous professors, past supervisors, advisors that I became close with, close friends, family, and my boyfriend (whew! it really was a lot of people and a lot of discussion with some extremely wonderful and supportive people).  I was encouraged to continue pursuing my dreams and that nothing worthwhile comes easy. Well, mostly. Someone relatively close to me pretty matter-of-factly told me that I wasn't smart enough to become a PA (without even knowing anything about my grades, experience, etc - goes to show you that some people are just jealous or not out for your best interest...and no one needs that kind of negative influence in their life!). I decided to ignore the negativity and worked with the positive people in my life to improve myself, my experience, and my application. I felt like if I could just be offered an interview, I'd be able to show an admissions committee who I am and how I would be a good fit for the profession.

Ultimately, many discussions and additional research made me decide to take 2 more summer classes before applying again for the next round. I also found a new job that allowed me additional health care experience which was the closest I've been yet to working near PAs! Many thanks to my cousin and her husband, I discovered the beautiful yet intense and stressful position as an ER scribe. I moved around my schedules at my other jobs so that I was a call-in mental health worker, part time direct service professional, and part time scribe. I know - what was I thinking?! Still not sure...well actually I wanted to be in PA school that bad

While taking 2 summer classes, I mainly worked with 2 previous professors (a writing professor, and a neurolinguistics professor/clinical researcher), a previous academic coach supervisor, and a previous principal investigator that I did clinical research under. These absolutely amazing people, whom I will forever be grateful for and probably never be able to express how much they mean to me, helped me on various aspects of my application. It literally took a village to help me put my best foot forward as a 2nd time PA school applicant! They helped me write my personal statement, edit and finesse my experience and descriptors, gave me tips on how to determine which schools to apply to, gave me tips in general for applying and how to put myself in the best light, encouraged me, encouraged me, encouraged me. Seriously, I would have never been able to get through this without so many people helping me and encouraging me along the way. There were so many tears shed, so much self-critical behavior which could have ended very poorly, but these angels kept me afloat and pushed me to get to where I wanted to be.

I chose 6 programs to apply to for this round after going through several of my extremely helpful tips below. These programs weren't chosen on a whim, and I actually dedicated some time to most of these programs outside of simply reading every detail on their websites (again, see below). I also applied earlier in the cycle in hopes of having a better shot at being offered an interview. I was definitely more hopeful, but also still extremely critical of myself after hitting 'submit' for the second time on my PA school application. I remember my boyfriend, B, telling me this one day after I had probably been saying self-destructive and demeaning things for a few days...or weeks: "Any program that doesn't offer you a seat in their program doesn't know what's good for them. You're the most hard-working person I know, and they would be crazy not to accept you". 

About 2 months after submitting my application, I received my first interview offer. At my top school. WHAAAAA?! I am pretty sure I was cheesing and prancing around that entire day. 

I attended my interview, and was absolutely a ball of freaking nerves. I relentlessly prepared for this interview and made sure I had an idea of what I wanted to say, and also wrote down a few questions I had for the interviewers. I was interviewed by 2 program professors, which was intimidating, but they were super nice and welcoming. They probably sensed how intensely nervous I was haha. I interviewed, got a tour of the program facility (again - I had seen it at a prior open house as well), and then thanked everyone I met and walked to my car. I felt okay. I reviewed my interview responses in my head and thought of a few instances where I could've answered better, but it was done. And I felt like I did pretty well. Once I got to my car, my stomach dropped. I forgot to write and submit essays that they told me to complete after touring the facility! I ran back in and told the secretary, and thank goodness she allowed me to finish off my interview.

Then, I waited. Seriously, the amount of waiting you have to do as a PA school applicant can be daunting. I started loosing hope. 2, 3, then 4 weeks rolled by and still no response on this school's decision. Then one day, I was laying around on a day I had off from work when my dad came up to my room and told me "you've got mail - and it's a big package!". I hadn't ordered anything recently, so I knew exactly what this was. It was my decision letter. My heart was pounding. I showered in about 30 seconds, got dressed, and ran downstairs to open up my mail. It was a folder containing the school's logo. Inside acceptance letter!

I was officially accepted into PA school!

After that, I was literally on cloud 9. I definitely was smiling for about 2 weeks straight after that, and was super excited to go to the ER and scribe (more than usual - I always enjoyed learning more about medical diagnoses and management of patients in the ER). I was going to be a PA! It was surreal. It was surreal for probably the next 6 months until I actually started PA school.

After my first acceptance, I received an interview for my other top school that I was interested in, and interviewed there. I was so much more confident. I again prepared, but I wasn't as nervous, and felt like I interviewed a lot better (the interviewer even said to me that she really liked me and saw me truly succeeding in their program). I got a call a week later that I had been accepted, and was ecstatic!  But that also meant that I had a decision to make between my top 2 schools, which is not a bad decision to have to make, but still difficult. More on that in a future blog post!

So...basically that is my extremely long story about how I was told several times that I wouldn't achieve my dream of going to PA school and becoming a PA, but how I persevered and made it here! I want everyone to know that even if it seems impossible, it is in fact possible with enough hard work and dedication. If you want it bad enough, work hard enough, keep at it long enough, it'll happen. I'm an example of how this was true in a profession that is pretty difficult to get into (my PA program had a roughly 6% acceptance rate for the cycle that I was accepted in!). This can also be true of any other dream that you might have, even if it isn't PA school. I hope to encourage at least a few people who are in pursuit of what they want in life.
And now, for the main attraction: 

7 Steps that You Should Take for your Best PA School Application!
  1. Research, research, research! I talk about this in my story, above, but make sure you do your research. Research programs, program requirements, cost, and any other factors that might affect you. Keep notes, lists, spreadsheets - whatever will help you that you can reference throughout the process! Make sure that programs you apply to are a good fit for you both personally, academically, and financially. You don't want to waste your money on a program application fee if you don't meet all of the requirements!
  2. Take pre-requisite classes, and get good grades. Do whatever you need to do (except cheating - that is never a good route to take) in order to ace not only the class but also the material - it'll only help you in PA school! I personally was not a straight A student in undergrad. And that is OK! I had all B's and A's in prerequisite classes, and only had a decent GPA. I had to retake a class (general chemistry I, and I still am okay pretending it is not a real subject) after getting a C the first time around, and I got a B my second time. I know, not the greatest, but this is one of those subjects that I just really don't fully understand and don't think I ever will - math and mathematical equations really are not my thing.
  3. Find a few advisors, professors, health care professionals, or role models that can help you get to where you want to be. Again, see my long story above, but I utilized many many people as resources and support. I had a writing professor critique and help me perfect my personal statement throughout probably 15+ meetings or emails back and forth. I spoke with a former research principal investigator that I worked for via phone, who helped me decide how to approach choosing schools and how to present myself in a better light on my applications. I met with a past supervisor who helped me with my personal statement and also advised I put my face out there for schools I was interested in (through attending open houses and PA program events). I had a past professor review my entire application, critique it, and give me suggestions and encouragement through all of the challenges I was facing. I had friends and family who had no idea what I actually needed to achieve academically and professionally, but who supported me whole-heartedly and encouraged me continuously. I had friends and family who also looked over parts of my application and helped me find positions that exposed me to further health care experience. In my experience, as a hard worker (but not necessarily the next Einstein), you need to create a multifactorial support system like this for yourself. If someone isn't supportive or helpful, then find someone who is. It took a lot of trial and error to find the truly amazing professionals and academics who helped me through all of this.
  4. Gain as much clinical experience as possible, and be creative about it. I still to this day have never shadowed a PA. I don't personally know any PAs (well now that I am in PA school I guess I kind of know my professors haha). I found it practically impossible to work my way into this profession without having contacts. However, I gained a lot of really great experience that has been extremely helpful for me as a PA student. I know what it is like to deal with people who are going through a mental health crisis. I know how many medications some people are on, and how complicated dosing schedules can be. I know some basic medications (mostly psych meds) from my mental health experience. I've briefly seen how a doctor observes and creates a treatment plan for a child with autism characteristics at a young age. I know how challenging it is to work with a young child who cannot talk or express their feelings. I know how a behavioral intervention treatment plan for a child with autism is carried out. I know how clinical research works and how to talk to patients about specific healthy lifestyle changes that they can make. I know how to talk individually with people and how to ask questions and help someone arrive at a good plan of action for their academics (which can be related to how to interact with patients, how to motivate them to work toward health goals, and how to break more complicated ideas into easy to understand and initiate plans). All of these experiences are ones I mention in my story above, and none are 100% perfect experiences for PA school. In fact, most of these positions I've held are not on PA program websites as "preferred experience". However, I eventually did some ER scribing for both doctors and PAs which was an invaluable experience and has helped me tremendously in my understanding of a PA, and how to diagnose and treat my hypothetical patients in class. I highly recommend scribing if you are having trouble finding additional health care experience!
  5. Have a well-rounded application, including volunteer hours, belonging to organizations, part time work, extracurriculars, and/or academic-related positions while a student. Again, discussed above. But find yourself a club that fits your interests (can be a pre-PA organization or a non-profit that you like or both!). Become a volunteer tutor in a science subject (if you can teach a subject, you also understand it better!). Become a TA. Find a job that will allow you transferrable skills, as mentioned in #4. Do something you find fun that is unrelated to becoming a PA (or whatever your dream career might be). I joined a symphonic band and picked up my clarinet after 5 years of not touching it once since high school! Playing clarinet came up in both of my PA school interviews, and I assume the interviewers enjoyed hearing that I was interested in something other than bumping up my health care experience and boosting my PA school-related resume. 
  6. Visit programs that interest you. At the very least, you will be able to tell if you like the program, some of the personnel (hopefully some professors or people you can potentially be working closely with in the future!), the location, and the overall vibe you get while there. Hopefully they'll give you some useful information about the program, and hopefully you will be able to decide if you want to spend a decent amount of money applying to the program you're visiting. Anything else you can get from visiting programs will be certain additional bonuses! The program that I am in now actually had me fill out an information form after attending an open house, and told me to call them once I submitted my application so they could look at mine before other applications coming in at the same time. I received interview offers at 2 other schools that I attended PA school open houses for. Some programs don't have the time or staff power to look through every single application and appreciate you showing that you have a specific interest and investment in their program! Another added benefit: I was able to talk to some of the programs about my application and was able to ask if they had any tips or advice for improving my application (I visited all programs between cycles so that I still did not yet submit my second time applications but had already submitted and heard back from my first round - I did not necessarily tell them that I was a second time applicant, but simply asked if they had any advice or if they would be willing to critique my application material).
  7. Write an outstanding personal statement...and put in the time to get it there! Again talked about above. I spent probably the majority of my free time for 6 months writing my second cycle personal statement. My first one was garbage, and it was because I did not put in nearly enough time. I am not the world's greatest writer, and I hate writing about myself in a personal statement fashion (I hate feeling like I am bragging about myself, and I usually tend to way downplay my experience). I sought out a lot of outside help with my essay, and for the majority of the editing process I worked with a writing professor I had in undergrad. She really gave it to me with critiques - I actually balled my eyes out several times in her office. But she was so sweet, helpful, and motivating and pushed me to write about myself in my own unique voice and in a way that shed light on the amazing experiences and life perspective that I have. I encourage you to find someone (or many someones) to continue to critique your statement. Don't accept "it's good". You want to hear "this needs work, and here are some suggestions".
If you are able to follow these tips, I can assure you it will only help you chances of getting into PA school! From personal experience, this is what got me 2 acceptance letters and 3 interview offers (I declined the third since I was already accepted in my top 2 schools). I am certainly not the smartest person in my PA program. But I think that my hard work is really what got me here, and what has allowed me to succeed thus far (80% is a passing grade in my program, so my friends and I always say that "80 is 100%" and I use that a lot! grades aren't everything and what I strive for is to understand the material as best as possible). I hope you can find some motivation and encouragement in this post, and please feel free to ask me any questions! I'd love to help in any way I can. :) 

- xohollyd