By: Laura Gallagher
The PA application and interview process requires thoughtful reflection in order to be successful. While PA school has always been competitive, the increasing popularity of the profession has resulted in an influx of high caliber applicants. Many applicants that were previously on the MD path have chosen PA due to the similarity in scope of practice, limited years of schooling, decrease in debt, and opportunity for lateral mobility. With this in mind, PA programs are looking to fill their cohort with individuals who aren’t simply interested in medicine and helping people, but people who are passionate about becoming Physician Assistants.
Similarly, admissions committees want to know why you have chosen PA as opposed to NP, DO, PT, etc., and it is critical to know why you have made that decision. This is crucial not only for the admissions process, but also to be happy and fulfilled for the rest of your life. For that reason, PA admissions committees want to know that you have done your research, you are committed and have what it takes to become a PA, and you have the determination to stick with it for the entirety of your career.
While it is extremely crucial to identify the differences between each profession and why PA most closely aligns with your goals, it is wise not to put down any other profession in the process. For example, an applicant may state that they chose PA over NP because they are interested in pursuing the medical model as opposed to the nursing model, but you should not put down the profession and their protocol by any means. Each model is distinct and the healthcare system operates most effectively when all healthcare providers, regardless of specialty or degree, work collaboratively as a team. This team must be focused on patient-centered care and must put their egos aside to achieve the best care for the presenting patient.
Through my personal PA application process and speaking with others, I realized how critical it is to know the reason WHY you are pursuing the PA profession. In other words, what is the reason you are where you are today, and what events or circumstances drew you to applying to PA school.
PA school is far from an easy task — it requires countless years of hard work, dedication, and perseverance in order to even gain an interview. There are mandatory prerequisite classes, GPA requirements, GRE scores, volunteer hours, and direct-patient care hours that all come into play when considering an applicant for admission. Therefore, applying to PA schools shouldn’t be something you apply for on a whim or without careful planning and attention. With that said, an applicant who may pale in comparison to other applicants with regard to statistics may have an extremely compelling story as to why they want to become a PA. This can sometimes make up for any small shortcomings in an application.
There may be a thousand different reasons why someone may be drawn to the PA profession. It may be due to a personal encounter, a family member’s experience, the coursework you have taken, a volunteer or shadowing position, or simply the profession itself. For me it boiled down to the accumulation of classwork and work experience, the profession itself, and my personal story.
With regard to undergraduate coursework, I had an “aha” moment in my undergraduate anatomy lab. I was fortunate to be able to participate in a cadaver lab where we were able to partake in the prosection of a real human donor — prosection means that the human body was previously donated, preserved, and partially dissected in order to provide the most detailed view for medical students to learn from.
The first day of class, when many shied away and felt nauseous or distrubed, I was eager and excited to make a cut and get closer. I became so fascinated with the human body and how it works that I almost immediately switched from a Psychology major to Exercise Science, and from that moment on, I knew I wanted to go into the medical field. I continued as a TA for that course, which further ingrained the information I had learned and offered me the opportunity to teach others, which I greatly enjoyed.
While this course inspired me to pursue medicine, it was not until I began shadowing different healthcare professionals that I started to realize what profession I was leaning towards. In order to find out which career I was most suitable for, I shadowed a Physical Therapist, Personal Trainer, Podiatrist in the OR, and a family medicine PA. While these experiences were somewhat time consuming and without pay, if I could go back and redo it all, I would not change a thing.
By shadowing professionals in almost every aspect of health, and then working as a PCA alongside nurses for two years, I learned exactly what profession most closely aligned with my hopes and dreams of helping others.
PAs work autonomously with patients, develop relationships, and counsel patients to promote positive lifestyle changes and improve overall wellness. They have the ability to take a full medical history, order diagnostic testing, prescribe medication, perform minor and complex procedures, and work in all primary care and most specialty settings, including surgery! Not only do PAs have a large scope of practice, but they have the opportunity to work independently and be the sole provider for their patients, but also collaborate with their supervising physician and work in a team when needed.
While my undergraduate coursework, work experience, and shadowing all played a huge role in my decision to become a PA, a large reason why I specifically chose PA has to do with my personal story and experience with medical providers.
For almost eleven years, I have been plagued with a headache that has never gone away. I have experienced a brain injury and multiple subsequent concussions, which have caused a multitude of symptoms. Since I was so frequently seeing doctors and new specialists in order to find helpful treatments, I had the unique opportunity to interact with hundreds of different medical professionals.
Through this experience, I began to notice how much I preferred my encounters with PAs. There was something about the way that PAs carried themselves, both in their demeanor and communication with patients that always stood out to me. It was as if they had a calming confidence that felt much more personal to me and allowed for a great deal of trust. As I began to spend more time in the medical field through my own work experience and shadowing, I witnessed PAs being everything I aspired to be and knew I was capable of attaining.
While not every PA applicant has a personal story like mine, there is often an underlying reason that drew you to the specific profession. While it may not be as glaringly obvious as a life-altering event and experience with PAs first-hand, it may be a series of events that led you to where you are today. It is important to reflect back on all of the decisions you’ve made and encounters you have had in order to identify your why — so take note of it.
For those who matriculate into PA school, your why will serve as an extremely significant piece of information and motivation to keep you working hard, even on your lowest days. Getting into PA school is a tremendous achievement, but continuing and succeeding through it is a whole separate task. After finishing my first year, I cannot tell you how often I looked at my “why” to remind myself of my purpose and use it as fuel to keep pushing forward.
Laura is a second-year Physician Assistant student at Monmouth University. Due to her experience as a patient, she has become a passionate advocate for those suffering from chronic pain, TBI, and disabilities. Follow her on Instagram (@patient_to_provider) and check out her blog.
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