Over at Inside PA Training Paul wrote a wonderful blog post about the common pitfalls that many PA school applicants fall victim to while preparing their PA school essay.
Common Physician Assistant Essay Pitfalls
- Lack of Specificity
- Weak Conclusion
- No Theme
- Boring Introduction
This is an excellent list because eight years ago while I was applying to PA school I proved how adhering to each one of these elements was a guaranteed formula for failure.
I wrote a blog post a while back about how to get into the PA school of your choice. Part of my recommendation was to throw caution to the wind and apply with your heart and not your mind. This as you know, is easier said than done.
Every one of the above pitfalls is what happens when you think too much.
The Six Hundred Words (or Less) that Changed my Life
I applied to five PA schools in 2001 (prior to The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).
First, I used an essay that I thought gave the review committee everything they would need to see that I was a stellar applicant. It showed my strengths, brown nosed a bit, and proved that I had the pedigree to be a wonderful healthcare provider.
But, as you will see, it lacked heart, honesty, passion and most of all . . . grit.
I received my fourth rejection letter as I was completing my application for the University of Medicine and Dentistry (UMDNJ). I was demoralized.
That night I sat down at my computer and composed what would become the 600 words that changed my life forever. I had not read them for over 11 years until this morning.
I had never taken the time to go back and see what made the difference. What had made the essay I sent to UMDNJ different from the previous four flops? I was thinking about this list of essay pitfalls this morning and decided to go back and see if I could find my original essays. I was delighted to find all of them, they brought back strong feelings and wonderful memories.
I am going to share with you both essays. The one that worked, the one that didn't, and I want you to guess the winner. Avoid the urge to reveal the answer, reading through both essays will help you as you sit down to write your personal statement.
When I applied to UMDNJ (Rutgers) I was 0.1 points below the minimum GPA requirement to even consider sending an application. The fact that they opened my application, and offered me an interview was a miracle. Yet, I was admitted just a week after my trip to New Jersey.
Where were those other 4.0 Ivy leaguers I met during my interview? They were placed on the waiting list.
I am not trying to gloat, but I want to point out that the essay may be the single most important thing you do. I believe it is the reason I was accepted to PA school.
Two PA School Applications Essays: Why Do You Want To Be a PA-C?
PA School Essay # 1
PA School Essay #2
Which essay is the one that got me an acceptance letter?
The difference: One is written from the heart, the other is full of clichés, lacks specificity, has no theme, has a boring introduction and a weak conclusion!
As you sit down to write your PA school application essay remember this example.
In life, almost nothing ever goes to those who try to blend into the crowd. Your PA School application essay should be different, reflect who you really are and not pander to what you think other people want to hear. This is a rule of thumb not just for your essay and for applying to PA school but for life in general.
As you write dig deep, don't hold back, believe in your words. Set your mind aside and try to find that place inside your head where your heart resides. This is where you will separate yourself from the crowd, this is where your journey to PA both begins and ends!
View all posts in this series
- How to Write the Perfect Physician Assistant School Application Essay
- The Physician Assistant Essay and Personal Statement Collaborative
- Do You Recognize These 7 Common Mistakes in Your Personal Statement?
- Prerequisite Coursework: How to Design the Perfect Pre-PA School Curriculum
- Healthcare Experience Required for PA School: The Ultimate Guide
- 7 Essays in 7 Days: PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 1, “A PA Changed My Life”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 2, “I Want to Move Towards the Forefront of Patient Care”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 3, “She Smiled, Said “Gracias!” and Gave me a Big Hug”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 4, “I Have Gained so Much Experience by Working With Patients”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 5, “Then Reach, my Son, and Lift Your People up With You”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 6, “That First Day in Surgery was the First Day of the Rest of my Life”
- PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 7, “I Want to Take People From Dying to Living, I Want to Get Them Down From the Cliff.”
- Physician Assistant Personal Statement Workshop: “To say I was an accident-prone child is an understatement”
- 9 Simple Steps to Avoid Silly Spelling and Grammar Goofs in Your PA School Personel Statement
- 5 Tips to Get you Started on Your Personal Essay (and why you should do it now)
- How to Write Your Physician Assistant Personal Statement The Book!
- How to Write “Physician Assistant” The PA Grammar Guide
- Secrets of Successful PA School Letters of Recommendation
- 101 PA School Admissions Essays: The Book!
- 5 Things I’ve Learned Going Into My Fourth Physician Assistant Application Cycle
- 7 Tips for Addressing Shortcomings in Your PA School Personal Statement
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Why Do You Want To Be a Physician Assistant?
Every day is a gift to be embraced wholeheartedly. It is our job to fill that day with a hopeful and meaningful purpose. It has been said that “the most important thing in life is to live your life for something more important than your life” William James. It is deeply rooted in this philosophy that I desire to become a physician assistant (PA). I hope to provide quality healthcare to the underprivileged, an area of medicine, which I have noted to be dramatically underserved.
I became involved in health care four years ago to help finance my college education. I worked as a medical record's clerk in the University of Washington health clinic. In addition to delivering medical records, I assisted the hospital staff in a variety of activities. I loved working with the staff and admired how well they operated as a team. I desired more direct patient care and in January 1998, when a student position opened in the lab, I jumped at the opportunity. In a few weeks, I was drawing blood, interacting with patients, and helping with a variety of technical procedures. I loved what I was doing. The patients were often uneasy when facing a needle for the first time. I was able to comfort them, help them to smile, and ease their nervous tensions. My job required that I work throughout the various University hospitals. This provided an opportunity to work within a variety of settings, and with people of all ages. Whether it was doing morning rounds in labor and delivery or working in the campus health clinic, one thing always remained the same; I found great satisfaction in caring for patients and learning of their needs. I felt a career in medicine was truly for me.
While working at the clinic I discovered the PA profession. I have always enjoyed the complexities of science and have been fascinated by a career in medicine. In pursuit of this goal, I decided to speak with one of the resident doctors in the clinic. She introduced me to the role of Physician Assistant. After that, I immersed myself in research. I was surprised to learn that many people with whom I worked were Physician Assistants. I met with hospital staff, nurse practitioners, Physician Assistants, and physical therapists. I regularly visited the PA at the clinic and admired his significant level of patient interaction and his ability to work both autonomously and alongside other physicians and nurses. I admired the PA program's flexibility and versatility, which would allow a change of specialties if I desired. I began to focus my attention on becoming a PA. Being an independent thinker, as well as a people oriented individual; I feel that I am well suited, not just for a career in the medical field, but for a lifetime career as a Physician Assistant.
Why Do You Want To Be a Physician Assistant?
As a child, every day, I would swing on the swing set in the backyard of my house. I would sit there for hours, without a care in the world simply singing songs and swinging back and forth. On that swing, I felt untouchable. Like a bird in flight, my only cares were that of the sky and the beauty of each adjoining minute. In the swings gentle motion I was overcome with a sense of peace.
We wake one day and find that the swing no longer exists. Our backyard has been rebuilt and the ground, which had once supported our youth, has been transcended. We search again for the swing, longing to find a resemblance of that peace. We hope to find it each day, as the product of our life and of our career.
A woman smiled at me one day, her name was Margaret. The wrinkles on her face told a story and in her hands there played a motion picture. She sat crouched in a wheelchair; I sat on a stool beside her. I had been working as a phlebotomist in the University Clinic for two years. I was a friend of Margaret’s because every Wednesday at six she would arrive at the clinic for her routine blood work. Everybody liked Margaret; she used to tell us stories of her childhood and her husband who had given his life to the war. She had grown especially fond of me because “I had freckles like her grandson.” She used to come alone, but had grown weaker; this was the first time her daughter had accompanied her. Her daughter looked tired and spoke softly, “The best vein is in her hand” she explained, “it doesn’t hurt her there.” I gently placed my hand on hers, and it was cold. She looked to me and through the cold touch of her hand poured the warmth of her heart. “It’s about time for dinner don’t you think mom”, said her daughter. The clock rang six and I agreed. “The medicines have been making her sick; she sometimes has troubles keeping her food down.” I looked closely at her face; it was thin and drooped to her chest. I realized that Margaret was unable to speak. “Margaret, can you make a fist for me?” “Just like last time.” She clenched tightly. I withdrew the needle and collected a small sample of blood. She raised her head and with her frail hand, gently placed it on mine. I looked again to her eyes while placing a bandage on her hand. It was warm now. “Time for dinner mom”, replied her daughter. I smiled and waved goodbye “Margaret I will see you again next week.” She raised her head and smiled. Without a word, she made perfect sense. I never saw Margaret again.
In the memory of Margaret and every patient who has individually touched my every day, I have regained a piece of the backyard swing that I loved so much as a child. I have been directly involved in health care for four years. Every day has brought great joy. To be a part of a person’s day is a wonderful blessing. Certainly, there are many pleasures in life. But, for me, none is greater than that which we find in the healing touch of another. As the eternal motion of the swing, it is in this that I find great peace.
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CASPA Personal Narrative Tips
Last Updated: 08/07/2015
Personal Statement vs. Personal Narrative
Blatantly, they’re the same thing. CASPA gave the personal statement a new, more fitting name. If you’re new to the application process, you’ll soon figure this out. The prompt: “In the space provided write a brief statement expressing your motivation or desire to become a physician assistant. Keep your statement general as the same essay will be sent to all schools you will apply to. Your statement must be written in your own words and may not exceed 5,000 characters (not words).”
First Time Applicants
It is such a daunting task to write about yourself. You worry that you might expose too much of yourself, or too little. You could focus on the wrong things, or be too trite in your word choices. You might try a draft writing in the third person, as if you were writing about a friend. This all gets you thinking about what someone who knows you well and is in your corner might say about you. Some of the fluff might fade away and you focus on what you think would make you an outstanding PA. Subtly highlight your achievements, but don’t harp on them. Explain any transitions in your life. Try to spin negatives into positives without dwelling on them too much. Write in an active voice, e.g. “completed reports” instead of “reports were completed”. Stay focused on one thing at a time. Either way, start early, outline, and brainstorm. My personal narrative came from thoughts and memories of my entire childhood and life experiences - a culmination of everything up to the very day I started writing my narrative.
The personal narrative is the ultimate in sales pieces. The admissions committee has your grades, your test scores, and some short letters from your hand picked references. Your essay bridges the miles between you and other students, giving them a peek at your personality and how your various skills/experiences could be assembled to make you a great asset to add to their program. At the end of the day, always ensure you portray the characteristics of a good PA in your essay, in some way.
I also cannot stress how important it is to get a licensed PA to look at your essay. If you truly want to be sure that your essay is top notch, I recommend that each applicant get their essay revised by licensed PAs at myPAresource. You don’t want your narrative to be the limiting factor of your application. Make sure your entire CASPA app is full-proof and get a second look at it before you press submit.
If you suddenly find yourself stuck with writer’s block or in a pinch for time to complete or revise your narrative before your own CASPA deadline, have no fear. myPAresource is available to assist you with all of your editing needs, including feedback about the CONTENT of your essay. This is the first company of its kind, offering personal narrative services intended specifically for pre-PA students by practicing and licensed physician assistants. I have seen their work personally and trust that you’ll get the best feedback about your narrative from them.
Brian Palm is the founder of myPAresource. He received his B.S. in Microbiology from the University of Tennessee and his Masters in Physician Assistant Studies from South College in Knoxville, TN. Brian knows how difficult it is to write a 5000-character essay about your journey prior to applying to PA school, while also proving how badly you want to become a PA. Unfortunately, during his time, the only way to get feedback on your personal statement was on the Physician Assistant Forum. At that point he realized that the same people that were giving him “advice” on his essay were competing for the same seats in PA school! Sure, there were plenty of generic “essay revision” sites that would help you with grammar and syntax, but there was nothing available to help with content, which is why he founded myPAresource.
Brian wants to offer future PA students the help they need with their personal narrative. A service that ensures your essay is read by people familiar with the process themselves. Just because someone has a bachelor’s degree in English does not make them qualified or know what PA schools are looking for. He currently employs multiple editors from all over the U.S. These are practicing PAs, adjunct faculty, and admissions panel members willing to edit your personal statement.
Yes, there is a plethora of essay editing sites that offer personal narrative editing for those applying to PA school, but none of them employ practicing PAs. Brian’s consultants have been in your shoes and know just how difficult writing a personal statement can be. You can be rest assured that people familiar with the process will be reviewing your essay. Over the years they have helped hundreds of candidates just like you put together incredible personal statements. You can see an example of how their services can improve your personal narrativehere.”
Remember to use the coupon code: DoseOfPA for a discount on their services!
Now, back to CASPA Personal Narrative Tips:
It's called a personal narrative for a reason. Whatever it is about you that led you to the PA profession, write about it. As always, avoid cliches; if you have to use one, find a way to make it stand out and don't write as if you are expecting pity. Write about an experience that made you stronger! In essence, demonstrate diversity, interest, honesty, commitment, compassion, drive, sensitivity, and/or enthusiasm. Don’t make anything up, including excuses! Don’t use the personal narrative as a comedy forum and don’t be too philosophical. You’re not Plato or Confucius.
Consider how much of your essay will address how you were introduced and became familiar with medicine. I think this is why you see so many students writing anecdotally, because the emotional stories cannot be conveyed in the rest of the application. You don't want to start off uneventful (by blandly talking about how you became familiar with the medical field) and have admissions skip over it, but you also want to leave a good ending note.
Conflicts of Interest
As far as naming a personal reference (PA), it should fine as long as there isn't some way to directly figure out who you are talking about unless you know they are completely okay with it. I try to avoid names in things like this, but I know using names can make an essay flow a bit better. With the name thing, it does make the essay flow better than saying "the PA” and can make the essay a tad more personal. Just be careful because including the name of a PA may create conflicts of interest. For example, the PA may be on the admissions committee for the school and the admissions committee may recognize the person’s name and think you may have an unfair advantage in the interview process.
Including Logistical Information
Many people ask if you should include your race, religion, or country of origin in your personal statement. In my honest opinion, and from what I have read, you should not. If it is absolutely crucial to proving a point and you have no other way to get around it, then you take that risk.
Be Grammatically Correct
“PAs” is the only grammatically correct way to pluralize PA. “PA's” is an incorrect way to pluralize PA and is a violation of the UN Charter on Human Rights. Make sure you can tell the difference. “Health care” with no hyphen is the formal way of spelling health care according to Webster’s Medical. Although, you may use “healthcare” as well. Admissions committees do not care either way, as long as you remain consistent throughout your essay. You should use “preventive medicine” for your essays rather than “preventative medicine.” Yes, you can say “PA” instead of typing out the uncapitalized “physician assistant” every single time, but you should use “physician assistant (PA)” the first time so that they know what your acronym represents.
Revise Your Essay Again
You should have multiple revisions before submitting to CASPA. I had 3-4 revisions on my second draft because after I wrote my first one, I had so many revisions that I realized I needed to just start over and rewrite the entire thing! This may not be the case for you, but I asked anyone I could who I knew to read my essay - family, friends, coworkers, etc. It helps to ask a variety of people who know you because you will receive a multitude of responses that are so varying, which in the end can be very helpful because each person knows you differently.
If you attend a community college or university, you might have resources on campus for writing, which you can utilize for help with revisions.
Important Aspects to Include
It’s crucial that you explain why you want to become a PA, but also to summarize how you found out you wanted to become a PA without somehow stating the definition of a PA from AAPA’s website. You need to figure this one out on your own.
Being a PA, you should have some tie to primary care, if not, underserved populations, and if you can tie both of them in, you’ll be set!
You need to set yourself apart somehow from why you didn’t want to become a physician or a nurse practitioner. These are common errors in the personal statement. What experience with a PA made you decide the PA route was for you?
Talking about the physician-PA team/model in your essay will show that you are knowledgeable about the profession and understand a crucial element of becoming part of the health care team. While shadowing, you should've explored this relationship and hopefully you understand that trust between a PA and their supervising physician is vital.
Occasionally, you can work in topics like managed health care, cultural disparities within health care, or other things you might have observed while working/shadowing. These allow the reader to understand the breadth of medical knowledge (outside the semantics) you bring with you.
Grades and Professors
If you have poor grades (D, F, or WITHDRAWAL), instead of telling the admissions committee about them, tell them what was going on and what caused you to get those grades. If you didn’t fail any classes, it might not be worth it to mention your B’s and C’s you made in classes, unless they happen to be in critical science coursework that the school is looking for (i.e. Anatomy & Physiology, etc.). You never want to blame a professor. Make sure your reasons are valid and that you position yourself as a continuing learner with more ambition than you know what to do with. You have to make the admissions committee believe that even though you have those few bad grades, you have somehow turned yourself around and you are prepared for a rigorous graduate science degree program. It’s a lot easier to show this when your bad grades happened early on in your undergraduate career rather than right at the end of it. But if the latter was the case, then explain why. They’ll be understanding of your situation if you can explain, and not give an excuse. There is a difference. If at all possible, I suggest holding off the entire topic of grades for your secondary applications, as your personal statement really should be focused more on the reason you want to become a PA rather than the mistakes you have made getting there.
Mentioning PA Programs
I don’t suggest mentioning a single PA program in your essay. For instance, if you have experience (visiting, meeting faculty, sitting in on a class, working/volunteering for, etc.) with a particular program or school, you might think that if you include that in your essay you could increase your chance of acceptance. This might be the case if you only apply to that one school, but more than likely it is elsewhere on your application already, so you don’t need to mention it again. The downside is that if they don’t pick you, you risk other schools seeing it or not applying to other schools at all. Other schools can easily recognize where your interests lie.
Character Limits - Know Them
Finally, check your character limits. Make sure you’re under the 5000 character maximum. I found that I had to reduce some paragraphs and sentences to get my essay under the character maximum because I had too much to say.
Do not be melodramatic or write a Hollywood movie script. Find a good balance.
Start off with “ever since I was 5 years old…”
End with “In conclusion...” or “In summary…”
Do NOT be cute.
Criticize physicians or nurses or other medical personnel to try and make PAs seem superior.
Do not rely on Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check.
Do NOT copy someone else’s personal statement.
Do NOT submit your personal statement without thorough editing.
Use “I” more than five times throughout your personal statement. Instead, use “we”, “us”, or “ours”.
Do NOT be so specific about any patients, units, medical personnel, dates, times, etc. You could run into a HIPPA violation, which admissions committees take very seriously!
Do NOT dwell on one patient or family member, etc. for the entire length of the essay. Don’t beat a dead horse!
Do NOT include the number of hours you’ve put into patient care, etc. It’s already in front of the admissions committee. Instead, write about the experiences you have had there and be detailed.
From Medical School to PA School
If you decided to switch from going to medical school to PA school, it is not recommended that you talk about the “convenience factors” of going to PA school over medical school in your essay. Examples include: starting a family, lower tuition, less years of school, etc. You will be asked about this in your interviews, no doubt. Make sure to talk about how the PA profession is a better fit for you and how it can offer you career satisfaction. Make sure you talk about something current and your understanding of the need for PAs and changes in healthcare.
I don’t recommend re-using your personal statement. Although it is unknown whether some programs care whether you use an astounding essay year after year, your chances of acceptance are increased by simply writing a new one that is improved and updated based on your current understanding of a PA and your motivation.
How much of my essay should I change? I think it's okay to use the base of your previous essay, if you included your motivation to be a PA, etc. You should be adding what you did during up to this cycle to improve your application. You should have contacted the schools you want to reapply to and see if any will disclose specific information about what you can do to improve yourself as an applicant. Sometimes you will have success and sometimes you will have to bury your pride and realize it must be: lack of HCE, your grades (GPA, GRE scores), or your understanding of the profession (i.e. essays).
At this point you will need to decide what you need to do to get yourself to PA school, whether that is a post-baccalaureate program, a job in patient care (scribe, patient care technician, CNA, medical assistant, phlebotomist, or EMT), or just some shadowing (PA, NP, or MD/DO). If your essays need work, then write about what you think were the weakest parts of your application and what you might have been lacking in the past. Utilize myPAresource as a resource to check the content of your essay before submitting.
If you decide to apply to newly accredited PA programs, you might start your essay with “In the past year, I have…” so that you can show them you have recent HCE without directly telling them you applied the prior year.