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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
Wes 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