Making It: An Unofficial List of Tips for PA School Applicants

Every journey has a starting point. The destination may be the same for everyone but it’s the starting point that defines our own journey. For some, that starting point begins very early and for others it comes much later. It doesn’t matter where you start, it just matters that you start somewhere.

Applying to PA school (any graduate health program really) can be a daunting task. There are so many resources out there with conflicting thoughts and tips on “how to make your application stand out!” that students are often in a quandary on how to approach their applications. Is there any one way to make your application stand out among the other thousands? Well, yes and no; I read several hundred applications packets every year and it’s hard for me to point to any one thing that can make an application stand out. I can offer a few helpful tips that may help the professors place your application to the side for further review. 

Application Tips

1. Personal statements can be tricky. How can you grab the attention of the reader and make them remember you among the hundreds of other applications? That’s the key. The trend is to recount a story of a medical mission trip or the first time you performed CPR or when your family member was diagnosed with a terminal disease. Please don’t misunderstand me, these are absolutely gripping and heart-wrenching stories but the problem becomes the fact that everyone has a story like this. There are hundreds of personal statements that read exactly the same. It doesn’t mean that they are all not excellent but, they all blend together. 

So how can you make your statement stand out? You can put something like that on there (and I would encourage you to do so) but there needs to be more than that. One of the best personal statements that I’ve ever read was an individual who used their entire personal statement as a self-reflection tool. They listed out their strengths, weaknesses, failures, and successes in a truly unique and insightful way. They then correlated all of these facets to how they would incorporate them into the PA profession. It was fascinating and memorable. That student did not have a GPA quite as high as some of the other applications but that statement got them an interview. 

2. Another tip for personal statements, if you are applying to both medical school and PA school at the same time, make sure that you don’t use the same statement. There’s nothing wrong with applying to both so don’t get me wrong on that. But professors don’t like to read a PA applicant statement that talks about medical school. Odds are they will assume that you probably don’t want to be there anyways and move on. (Same applies to letters of reference, make sure they know what type of program they are writing for.) 
3. If you have some black marks on your application, just own it. Address them in your personal statements. Don’t make excuses and don’t try to dodge. You had a bad semester. Address it, show how you learned from it, and then what you’ve done since that point. Then move on.That simple. Too many students will hurt themselves on a personal statement and in interviews over something like this. 
4. References, references, references. Honestly, these things keep me up at night. They are probably some of the hardest things for professors to judge when going over applications. Do we judge the glowing reference from the PA you shadowed for two weeks or the reference from the world-class MD that you’ve known as a family friend since age 3? It’s tricky. It’s hard for us to know how to judge these. Honestly, the personal friend obviously knows you better but are they really going to give us a non-biased opinion? (Well of course not, I wouldn’t expect them too). What I will tell you as far as references go, you really need to have at least one MD and one PA writing a reference for you. Also, the parents of the kid that you babysat for during high school (and other random individuals like that) ARE NOT GOOD REFERENCES. I shouldn’t have to say that but…there’s obviously a reason that I am. 

Waive your right to view the recommendation. That’s something that we look at. Just do it.

Be careful about your selection choice. Like I said above, you need to waive the right to view the letters but you also need to be sure that who you’re selecting is actually going to give you a good reference. I’ve seen several students get burned by this. Burned to the point where in their letters references actually chose to not recommend a student for a program. So again, be very selective. 

Work History

The big question is: does education or experience matter more? The answer to that question is: It depends on what school you’re looking at. Do all programs take it into some consideration? Yes. However, some programs weigh it much more heavily than others. My program, for example, will give some bonus points for having patient care experience but we do not require it and we don’t weigh it heavily during the application process. We have our own reasons for that just as some schools require 2000 hours to even apply to their programs. My advice here is to look at your school of choice’s website and find out what the work requirements are. Reach out to the admission’s office if possible, and ask how much weight is placed on work history during the application cycle. 

Roles in leadership will also make your application stand out. So if you have been in a leadership position certainly list it on your work history but if you can incorporate it into other areas of your application I would do that as well. 

GPA

This is a touchy subject for a lot of students but the fact is – GPA matters. It’s just as simple as that. The first thing to discuss here is the “minimum standards.” Every program has them and they are generally posted on the program website. Minimum standards are the requirements to even apply to that school. Having a low GPA may make it difficult but not meeting the minimum standards is just that, you don’t have the requirements to apply. 

I try not to be harsh about this, but I also don’t like to give false hope. So, if you don’t have the minimum required GPA then you need to get together with an advisor and formulate a plan to raise your GPA. If you can take some graduate classes this will help. You should also talk with the admissions office and see if graduate GPA is waited higher than undergraduate courses. If you have some basic science courses that you struggled in, then retake them.

As far as low GPAs go, as long as you meet the minimum standards then there is no GPA that is “too low” to apply. As long as you have 3.0 (or whatever your school of choice requires) you are eligible to apply to the program. Do you have an uphill climb ahead of you? Yes, but you still have a shot. Should you probably work on that GPA a little if you don’t get in? Also, yes.  

One other quick tip. If you are early on in your journey, go ahead and look at the required courses if you have a particular school in mind. Not every school requires the same classes. So, if you have a school in mind that doesn’t require Organic ChemII or Biochem, then I would not factor that into my course choices. Why take a harder course that could potentially leave you with a C if you don’t have to? Just my two cents. 

The Interview

So, after all of this let’s assume that you have gotten to the interview process. Congrats! Just getting to this step is a huge accomplishment and I don’t think students give themselves enough credit for making it that far. There are a few things that I would like for students to know before walking into the interviews (because they can be stressful). 

1. Dress professionally. This is important. You need to show up looking professional and well groomed. The quickest way to get a rejection letter is showing up looking sloppy. First impressions matter. And speaking of first impressions….
2. Firm handshake, eye contact, back straight. This goes a long way. Also, if you walk into a one-on-one interview with a professor and slump down in the chair…that leaves an impression, just not the one you want. 
3. Smile! Be excited. You’ve worked hard to get there and you should be happy about it. Also, professors and staff are proud of their program and university and they want to see that you are just as excited about the place as they are. 
4. Just like your application: if you have a black spot or two on your resume, just own up to it. Don’t be dodgy or make excuses. Just tell them what happened and how you learned from it. If you get a direct question just give a direct answer. Mistakes are a part of life. You’re going to make mistakes during school and during your career. Most professors just want to know how you handle those mistakes. 
5. Do your homework. You need to do some research before you get to the interview. What makes that school stand out from the others? Know the background of the professors and staff. Have an answer when they ask why you want to go there? (They are most likely going to ask.)
6. Be confident but not cocky. There is a difference. 
7. Stress interviews are a thing. If you have one don’t get frazzled. It’s not personal. When professors do these types of interviews (I personally don’t but that’s just my preference) they just want to see how you handle pressure and conflict. Basically, they are going to argue the other side of whatever you say. When this happens, stand your ground (professionally) and don’t let them easily sway your answers. 

 

I hope these very unofficial and informal tips help you during the application process. Please don’t take these tips as your “get into school cheat sheet” because it’s not. It’s just a list of some tips that I feel will help you from being on both sides of the coin. Best of luck to all of you out there and hope to see you soon as students and then as colleagues one day!

img_1570Wes Johnson is an assistant professor and director of program outcomes and assessments for the Samford University PA program. A former respiratory therapist, he transitioned to PA school, later working in emergency medicine and trauma. Prior to his academic appointment, he served as the regional director of education for the North Alabama division of Island Medical Management while completing his doctoral work at A. T. Still University. Wes has a passion for education and plans to continue in academics for the remainder of his career. For more helpful tips, follow him on Instagram @the_pa_professor

Leave a Reply