Year after year, thousands of applicants have great grades, outstanding test scores, unique patient care experiences, passionate volunteer work, well-written personal statements, and exceptional letters of recommendation. So what sets all of these students apart from one another? Who gets a seat in the class and who doesn't? Students message me a lot asking what's my secret? I got accepted into PA school, so surely I must know what the secret is right? So I'm writing this post to tell you that there is no secret potion nor insider information to getting your acceptance letter. Everyone gets accepted on their own terms following their own unique path in their own unique way. I don't have a perfect answer for you all. However, I do have a single tip that I think has the potential to help. I know it helped me. So here's my secret:
It's as simple as this. I met with a Rutgers PA Program faculty member before applying. I wasn't sure if this was even possible, but I knew it couldn't hurt to try. I called up the program and sure enough was able to make an appointment with one of their professors. Her name was Carol. I sat down with Carol for about an hour and we discussed and dissected every part of my future application. We talked about my grades up to that point. We talked about my letters of recommendation. We talked about my shadowing experiences. We talked about my 3+3 aspirations and how that was a path I really wanted to peruse with Rutgers. She gave me encouragement that I was on the right track. She also gave me areas to improve and areas to strengthen on my app in the upcoming year. She gave me new ideas. She gave me suggestions. She gave me the advice that I had been searching for on my own. It was ridiculously helpful for me in more ways than one, and I recommend it to everyone who asks me for advice.
One thing in particular that we discussed changed everything for me. We started chatting about my volunteer work. I talked about being a patient cuddler, and then we started talking about my work with the Special Olympics of New Jersey. Carol happened to be an active volunteer for the Special Olympics as well. It was something she was very passionate about. We ended up connecting over both being so involved with a cause we both loved. Through talking about events we had attended in the past, we even discovered that we lived in neighboring hometowns. That year in particular, Carol was organizing and running Rutgers PA student involvement at the National Special Olympic games that was being held at The College of New Jersey that upcoming year. After an hour of great conversation and connection, Carol so graciously invited me to attend the event with her and volunteer alongside the rest of the current Rutgers PA students.
The National Special Olympic games took place over the course of four days during the summer. Carol asked if I wanted to volunteer with them for three of those days, so of course I said yes. Our job was to run the "Health Screening" station. Throughout the week, I was able to show Carol a lot about my character versus just telling her about my strengths in an interview setting. This event ended up acting like a 3-day long mock interview before the real deal. I showed up early. I was dressed appropriately, as she instructed. She got to see me interact with current students to see if my personality would mesh well with the types of student the program tends to accept. She got to see how I work on a team. It was also a great display of how I might interact with future patients. One of our jobs as volunteers was to take athlete's height and weight to calculate their BMI. Another was to take manual blood pressures. This was a skill that the PA students had already been trained to do obviously. Carol trained me on the spot, and I was able to show her that I could pick up physical diagnosis skills quickly and effectively. We also learned how to give the athletes a bone density screening, which involved putting gel on the athlete's feet and placing them in a bone density scanning machine. This showed that I was okay with physical contact. I wasn't hesitant. I wasn't grossed out touching other people's feet. I was able to keep up with the rest of them.
On the third day of the event, Carol asked if I was available to attend the last day of the event, since they were going to be low on volunteers. Again, of course I said yes. That particular day, they needed assistance at the nutrition table. One of the nutritionists demonstrated what she was going over with the athletes. An athlete walked over and she completed the mini nutrition counseling session in front of me. From there, I was able to give that same counseling session after only hearing the encounter once without any issues. After the day was over, the nutritionist went up to Carol and gave her a very sweet review on how quickly I was able to pick everything up on the fly. Carol got to see my flexibility and ability to adapt to new circumstances on a whim. All of these skills are important to have as both a PA student and a practicing PA.
At the end of the event, Carol recommended that I take her EKG course the following year. I jumped at the opportunity to show her my skills once more, this time in an academic setting. Not only was taking a full semester long EKG course by a professor from the PA program helpful in building a more personal connection, but also a phenomenal head start on PA school material. What we went over in a semester in undergrad was breezed over in about a week in PA school. And any upper hand is key when you're trying to balance a million and one other courses, trust.
Through connecting with Carol, I was also able to help coordinate that pre-PA club mentoring program that I talked about in my last post. It made organizing events a lot easier and gave us someone to coordinate with directly who knew the PA student's schedule.
During my PA school interview at Rutgers as a prospective 3+3 student, I ran into Carol before my interview. She warmly greeted me as if she had known me for a while. The warm welcome seemed like some sort of validation at the time and gave me that little dose of subtle self-confidence I needed to get through my interview strongly. It helped ease a lot of my nerves seeing a familiar face who already knew me for me, and I think she knew that. She then told me to wait while she went to go grab something from her office before I was ready to leave that day. She had an extra Special Olympics t-shirt that she wanted to give to me. I feel like this was her way of saying, "We want you to be a student here."
I think the personal connection that I made with Carol and the opportunity to show her my work ethic first-hand was my secret to getting into the Rutgers PA Program. What I am trying to communicate is that really any way that you can figure out how to add a face to the name on top of your application is the key. Then you're no longer just another piece of paper in the stack. You have a name. You have an image. You are a reliable choice. That's what gets you accepted.
I'm hoping this was somewhat helpful to some of you who reached out? Of course my story is just one example, but it's the only story I know how to tell. Talk with other PAs as you are shadowing for other ideas. See what they did. See what they would suggest if they were applying now. See what their secret was. In my next post, I will outline several additional ways to make your application stand out from the crowd. Stay tuned! In the meantime, get connecting. One connection can change everything.
One of the best decisions I made as an undergraduate was creating and running my college's allied health professions club on campus with some of my friends. There are so many perks to becoming more than just classmates/ curve competitors with the people in your science courses. Really great things can be created by like-minded individuals with common goals and aspirations. The club was started in April of 2013. I was just finishing up my freshman year at Rutgers. My friend Matt and I were so discouraged every time we would go to club meetings for the numerous medical-school based clubs on campus. One club was more medical school focused than the next. We went to countless meetings and events that were just not applicable to us as pre-PAs. Eventually, enough was enough. We just couldn't attend one more club meeting about MCAT courses or shadowing doctors. Matt looked at me after one of those meetings and said, "Jordan, what if we created our own club? Like a pre-PA club." The rest is history. Our club was born! (After a ton of conversations, meet-ups and organization of course). I was so 100% on-board with the idea. It was the answer to all of our complaints. It would allow us to create the content and open the doors to all of the other pre-allied health professionals out there that were feeling equally as left-out and frustrated. If something is broken, fix it yourself! And that's exactly what we did.
What was it like to start your own club on campus?
Starting a college club is HARD. Way harder than we originally thought it would be. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of grit to actually see it through. Talking about it is one thing, but actually doing it takes time and energy that busy and tired science majors don't always have. There are a ton of hoops you have to jump through to even become established on campus. Here's a quick glimpse: You need a statement of purpose explaining what you hope to accomplish, how you will serve your college and its students, how you are distinctly different from other organizations on campus, how students can support the club, and how you are a part of a larger organization or cause. Our club was going to be vastly different from the other medical clubs on campus, so this was an easy one for us. You need a club constitution outlining how your club will be identified (name, acronym, logos etc.), how to maintain active membership, how to vote during meetings, and what kind of officers will be on your executive board/ what will their respective roles be. We had to take the time to select the rest of the students we wanted on our e-board. This meant finding other students who we believed would be just as motivated and driven as we were to help get the club started. It's crucial to pick people who are not just your friends or students who want to put something on their resume, but instead people who are leaders with enough time and energy to allot to "club stuff". You need a faculty advisor/ staff mentor who has the knowledge and resources to help your club flourish. Luckily, our biology lab TA, Camille, was more than willing to help get our club off the ground and help everything run smoothly. It can be quite a challenge to find a mentor that is both willing and enthused about your club purpose. We really lucked out with Camille. In addition to all that, you need a bunch of technical odds and ends that are more annoying to deal with than they are actually worth, but alas have to get done to start (registration forms, provisional status paperwork etc.). It doesn't sound too unmanageable on paper as I'm typing this all out, but it's a little deceiving looking back on all of the meetings we had to have and all of the work we had to do on our own in order to get all of this completed in a timely fashion. This isn't meant to scare or discourage anyone from creating their own club on campus, but to inform.
What is the Rutgers Allied Health Professions Club?
Spoiler alert! We ended up naming our club the Rutgers Allied Health Professions Club (AHP club). Direct and to the point to eliminate any confusion! Our club was mainly composed of wanna-be physician assistants, physical therapists, registered dieticians, and various types of medical techs. Our club hosted monthly meetings for our members to discuss and sign-up for upcoming events that we were hosting that month. We also gave our members a chance to tell us what they wanted to see and get involved with. We often had them brainstorm event ideas together and create committees to make those events a reality. It was a great way to help make our members feel more involved. It was also a great opportunity to just make new friends majoring in the sciences, find new study buddies, swap study guides, and offer advice for people taking the same classes.
What was your club's mission statement?
The Rutgers University Allied Health Professions Club (AHP club) was created in order to help spread awareness about the multitude of professions in the medical field other than the well-known role of a physician. Our purpose is to educate students about the array of different pathways available to those interested in becoming a medical professional and to demonstrate that there is no one path that a student must follow to accomplish their goal of entering the healthcare industry. Unlike other pre-health clubs at Rutgers University, the AHP club will shift its focus away from MD/DO programs and instead emphasize less known careers within the medical field such as physician assistants, physical therapists, registered dietitians, and much more. Our organization strives to help students learn of the tremendous amount of options and choices that await them within the health care field and to break any preconceived notions that the physician path is the only real gateway into a rewarding career in medicine. We hope to unite and create an alliance of all the prospective students interested in the allied health professions at Rutgers University in order to help achieve the common goal of a career in medicine.
What were the pros and cons of making your club pre-allied heath vs. pre-PA only?
We went back and forth on whether or not our club should be strictly for pre-PAs or if we should broaden our audience to all of the overlooked allied health professions. We ended up including everyone in order to widen our member audience and reach more people on campus who also felt like a leftover. I refer to our club as a pre-PA club in this post at times because it’s a PA-related blog and the majority of our members did end up being pre-PAs, but at the end of the day it wasn't just a pre-PA club. There were definitely pros and cons to this decision and I'd love to share them here. In terms of pros, we had a lot more members when we started than we would have if we only opened our club up to pre-PAs. Word of mouth is your friend! Six years ago, becoming a PA was not quite as popular as it is today, so our club definitely wouldn't have been as large as it was. We also built so many more connections with high level executives at the Rutgers School of Health Professions given that our club wasn't strictly PA-based. I'll talk more about all the networking opportunities the AHP club provided us below. In terms of cons, it was difficult to please everyone. Certain speaker panels we hosted only applied to one particular profession at a time. It was overwhelming and often difficult to appeal to everyone in the club. It would have been much easier and more manageable to host only pre-PA events all the time, but easier is not always better. If you are looking to organize a similar club on your campus, keep these things in mind when choosing an audience. In retrospect, a pre-PA club probably would have eliminated a lot of our headaches and meeting discussions, but at the same time I don't know if I would be where I am today if it wasn't for the higher level connections that were built. Nevertheless, something to think about.
What kind of events and opportunities did your club provide for members?
One of the things I'm most proud of is all of the helpful and creative events we came up with and brought to fruition. I'm sure there are a thousand other great ideas out there by now, but here are some of the things we did:
Speaker Panels: Hosting a ton of speaker panels was the easiest way to spread valuable information to multiple different interest groups. We were able to host some really important figures such as practicing PAs, professors from the Rutgers PA Program, the head of the Rutgers DPT Program, the head of the Rutgers Dietetics Program, the Dean and the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs of the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions (SHP is the branch of Rutgers that contains all of the various medical degree and certificate programs), to name a few. Speaker panels allowed our members to gather together, eat some free food, gain knowledge directly from the source, and ask questions/ network with some very well-respected individuals afterwards.
PA Mentoring Program: In my opinion, this was probably the BEST thing about our club. We were able to set-up and partner with the Rutgers PA Program to have a PA Mentoring Program. Students from the Rutgers PA Program were able to volunteer to be paired with pre-PA students from our club. Once we got a roster together, we randomly paired people together. Having a PA mentor to email back and forth with was both informative and fun! This gave our members the opportunity to ask for advice and connect with Rutgers PAs directly. And we were able to set-up the exact same mentoring program with the Rutgers PT students as well for our pre-PT club members!
Mentor Meet & Greets: The best part about the mentoring program was that we would organize one or two meet-ups a year! Everyone from the mentoring program got to sit down and talk in person. The PA students are super busy during the school year obviously, so getting to sit down with them and pick their brains, even just for an hour was so incredible. It was a win-win for both parties considering you need community service hours as a PA student at Rutgers anyways! I remember taking every last word everyone had to say in for the full hour not wanting it to end, idolizing them and their spot in the PA program. There's something so motivating and inspiring about sitting down with people who you aspire to be like someday. Plus, that chemistry exam I was stressing over at this time felt a little less stressful after getting a glimpse of what life could be like in the near future.
Pre-PA Clerkship Informational: We had a pre-PA clerkship company come in and speak about how to join their program and increase your chances of joining the small 6.7% of students that are accepted into a physician assistant program. In one of my future blog posts, I will talk more about what clerkships have to offer.
CASPA Survival Guide Seminar: Our club had experts on the CASPA come in and help our members who were in the process of filling out their applications. Any way to help alleviate anxiety over the whole thing Q&A style was a big hit.
GRE Practice Exams: We had Princeton review host an event where our members could take a practice GRE exam with an exam debrief/ exam-taking tips and tricks session afterwards.
Personal Statement Prep: Writing a personal statement can be a daunting and challenging task when applying to grad school. We wanted to alleviate some anxiety with this aspect of the application, so we had a group come in to help discuss how to write the perfect personal statement. See my blog post on writing a personal statement for some pointers.
Suture Clinic: We had Princeton Review host a suture clinic where our members were able to practice different types of suturing techniques with appropriate medical instruments and simulation skin blocks. Who doesn't want to be one step ahead before you have to do the real thing in the OR on real patients during rotations?
IV & Airway Clinic: We had volunteers from the US Army come in and give a seminar on airway access and IV line placement. They brought in mannequins and medical equipment to help learn and practice hands-on. They were also able to provide information about what it's like being a provider in the military and how to get involved. This was very appealing to both our emergency medicine fans and our military fans!
Basic Life Support Training: We hosted a full basic life support (BLS) training course for our members because it's always cheaper in a group setting! It's a great thing to put on your resume no matter what field of medicine you want to go into, so this particular event was appealing for a majority of our members.
Volunteer Work: A lot of our members were in the process of building up their resumes to apply to the graduate program of their choice, so we tried to host as many group volunteer opportunities as we could. Below are examples of a few volunteer events we hosted.
Blood Drives: What better way to gain community service than by doing something medical-related! We partnered with the "New York Blood Center" who helped us host a donation truck on campus. We had volunteers from our club help organize and run the event and spread the word around campus. There's something heroic about donating blood, and we all know college students love being heroic (sometimes in bad ways rather than good) but regardless, hosting a donation truck on campus was a huge success. "Feel-good" events are my favorite.
Bone Marrow Drives: We partnered with "Be the Match", which is an amazing organization that manages the largest and most diverse bone marrow registry in the world. They work every day to save lives through connecting patient's with life-threatening blood cancers like leukemia and lymphoma to willing individuals who are a match for a bone marrow transplant procedure. We had our members run a booth on campus to increase the number of people on that registry list by encouraging people to sign up with just a simple cheek swab. It was a really inspiring event for community service hours!
Relay for Life: Rutgers hosts a large event for Relay for Life so our club decided to make our own relay team to raise money for cancer! Cancer affects so many people personally, so this was a really important event for a lot of our members. They voiced an interest and we made it happen!
Rutgers Day: Rutgers Day is a big outdoor fair spanning multiple campuses with hundreds of booths for all the different organizations, programs, congregations, and clubs on campus. Our club had a booth to spread the word on joining our club. Luckily, the school puts medical booths in the same general area to keep like-topics together so our booth was right next to the PA, PT, dietetics, and SHP booths! It was a great opportunity to talk about what our club does to gain more members as well as network with the students, faculty and executives at other booths.
Medical Debates: From vaccinations to designer DNA, medicine can be quite a controversial topic. We had tons of fun hosting debates and discussions for our members. Debates are a great way to learn about science hot topics and a great way to gain insight and appreciate differing perspectives.
Body Worlds Museum Trip: Not all of our events were strictly educational! We liked to have fun too! I'd say the most fun and involved event that we planned was a trip to the Body Worlds Museum in NYC. We rented a bus and spent the day in the city together as a group. The museum was amazing. I wish we were allowed to take photos inside because some of the exhibits were truly remarkable.
Social Events: From holiday parties to small social gatherings outside the classroom, there are always perks to having friends in science. Never feel that you are too above another person, you can always learn something from someone else. You just have to be willing to listen!
Fundraisers: And last but not least, we held fundraisers! Bake sales were a great way to raise money to help fund all the club events I just mentioned. Making pricier events like the museum trip or the BLS training cheaper for our members was important to us. Rutgers provided us with some funding in the beginning of the year as a student organization which was great, but a little extra spending money allowed us to cater all of our speaker panels. What kind of college student doesn't appreciate a nice free meal here and there? Just another perk for our members.
What kind of leadership opportunities did your club have to offer?
Most school organizations have some type of executive board to help keep things running. Being on an executive board is a great way to show you have strong leadership skills. When we created this club, my colleagues and I all just sort of fell into our respective titles given that we all had something different to bring to the table interest and talent wise. Naturally, Matt was the president given the club was his idea in the first place. I took on the role of vice president. One girl was really good with digital multimedia (the social media manager seemed like a fitting title). Another was a really fast note taker (the secretary) etc. Being on an executive board gave me a lot of added responsibilities, but they were all pertaining to something I was so passionate about that it didn't seem like just another thing on my to-do list. In addition to e-board positions, my club also offered leadership positions for our general members. For each of our events, we tried to appoint a committee chair to take charge. This helped our members feel more involved and helped take some of the easier responsibilities off of us. It really was a team effort creating and running this club, and I'm so thankful we were able to bring all of our ideas to reality. One thing is for sure, I felt both accomplished and proud to talk about role as vice president and my club involvement during my interview. Providing professors with specific examples of a time your character traits and personal qualities really shined will ALWAYS be better than just coming out and bluntly self-describing. Saying it and doing it are two different things. Show them you are a problem solver and a good critical thinker without flashing your GRE score or your GPA. Show them you are dedicated and passionate enough to start something new. Show them you are a hard worker. Show them that you can be the one everyone wants on their team but can also step-up and be the independent leader when you have to be.
What kind of connections were you able to build through your club?
Not only is being on an executive board a great thing to add to your resume, but it also gave us a lot of opportunities to connect with "higher-ups" in the medical community. We reached out to the SHP Dean of Student Affairs to discuss ways to become more involved with SHP as a whole. From there we set-up a meeting with him to discuss our organization and our goals. We were then invited by that Dean to a career fair event at the Liberty Science Center. There we were able to meet the Dean of SHP while running our booth at the fair! This was a big deal. After talking with her about our club at the fair, she invited us to attend her next large board meeting! This board meeting ended up changing our lives in my opinion. It was both rewarding for our organization in building connections with other program heads, as well as for us as individuals trying to enter into one of those programs one day. My point is, one connection so easily leads to another. If we hadn't reached out to that first dean of student affairs we wouldn't have made it to the career fair. If we hadn't gone to the career fair, we wouldn't have met with the dean of the school. If we were never invited to that board meeting, we wouldn't have been able to meet face-to-face with the department heads of the PA/PT/dietetics programs. If my friends and I did not take our biology lab as seriously as we did, maybe our TA Camille wouldn't have agreed to be our club advisor. And without an advisor, there would have been no club. It's VITAL to treat every person you come in contact with in this field as you would the person on the other side of the interview table. In my next post, I'll talk a little bit more about how vital these types of relationships can be to ultimately getting that acceptance letter to PA school.
What advice do you have for students looking to start or join their own pre-PA club?
If your college already has a pre-PA club on campus, get involved. Put your time in. Join their executive board to take your involvement to the next level. If your campus does not have a pre-PA club, create one just as we did! When you see a problem, fix it. When you have a good idea, run with it. See it through. Like I said, it wasn't easy, but it was worth it. Stay committed when things get tough. Use some of our club events as ideas or points of reference for your own club. One of the best parts is that you can design your club exactly how you want it to be. Everything in school is so structured and out of our control as students. This is something you CAN control. Creating your own club gives you the flexibility to host the events that are most beneficial to you. Whether it's informational speakers or hands-on workshops, you have the power to chose. Be creative. Have fun. It shouldn't feel like a chore and if it does, you need to re-evaluate what you're doing and why you're really doing it. I can honestly say I really enjoyed every aspect. Your passion for your future should outweigh your time and effort or you're going into medicine for the wrong reasons.
What is the club up to now and what can I take away from all of this for the future?
Yes, the RU AHP club is still a thing! I'm not sure what the club is up to now, which is why this post is all in the past tense. No longer being an undergraduate on their e-board, it's hard to know exactly what's next for them, but I'm hoping all good things! Leaving a legacy behind on campus makes me proud, honored, and hopeful for the future of prospective PAs. What will you leave behind? Create something brand new. Be a part of something you can look back on and be proud of. Organize something you are super passionate about. I can only hope that by starting this club, students after me will have just a tiny bit of an easier time gaining exposure, getting involved in new experiences, and getting that acceptance letter than I did. That in itself is a success to me! Be brave. Be unique. & Be bold.
How did creating a pre-PA club help get you into PA school?
Ultimately, creating a pre-PA club helped all of our founding executive board members and many of our members reach their career goals or discover their path in some way. Matt is currently working as an emergency medicine PA in Philadelphia. One is finishing up her 2nd year of PA school at Rutgers. Another is finishing up her 3rd year of PA school at Rutgers. One went to PT school. One went to nursing school. One is currently a 3rd year medical student at NYU (did you hear about that free tuition?? Woop-woop!). And I am currently working as an orthopedic surgery PA in NYC. Now, was it the club itself that really got us accepted or did starting a club just attract a bunch of go-getter personalities? Who really knows. One thing is for sure, we were all very determined to get where we wanted to be. And being passive certainly isn't going to get you there. Take aggressive steps towards your dream job. Put yourself out there. Join groups that share the same interests you do because great things can happen when passions collide. And if the group you want doesn't exist yet, make it happen yourself. You are your own vector for change and the holder of your own future.
There are so many reasons why I started this blog that I would love to share with you all and so many reasons why I will continue trying to catch up on all my well-overdue posts. I have three full years of PA school to report on plus tons of content about my current job that I can't wait to share. Thankfully, I have more time now than ever before to get to writing. With less hours spent studying (less, not zero) and only working four days a week (no idea why I just typed "only" being that I work four 12 hour shifts, when the norm is three 12's) the extra blogging time is finally here. The point is, I get three full days off a week to myself for this passion project of mine, and I'm super excited for what's to come.
As I mentioned on my home page, I had very different motivations for starting a PA blog when I first started this site over a year ago. With my inbox overflowing and not enough hours in the day to answer every question (as personally as I would like), I was hoping that this blog would be the answer. Blogging allows me to respond to emails and DMs with a link to specific posts that have the answers to most (if not all) of people's questions. There's simply not enough hours in the day to type out responses to everyone. With this blog, no one gets ignored in my inbox, and I can spread my advice and experiences to a much larger audience. That makes my heart happy.
I hope that blogging about PA school and PA life will serve as a virtual memory book for myself, my family, my friends, and maybe my future children some day on how I got to where I am today. Going through something so challenging deserves to be recognized and remembered for years to come. When I'm having an off day or feeling like I've lost my path or my purpose in this crazy, evolving medical field I'm a part of, I can reflect on where I was, where I've been, and how I got here. Kudos to all the bloggers out there who are superstars and have the time to write blog posts and post Instagram videos while in PA school. That would have pushed my stress level over the edge, for sure. I had enough due dates and exams to worry about, there's no way I could've added another thing to my to-do list. I personally started a little late on the whole blogging thing, hence why I'm so behind now on posts. It would have been a lot easier to write as I went along, but hey better late than never right.
Aside from the obvious reasons of wanting to start a blog, I actually love to write. It's always been something that has come naturally to me as a student and writing blog posts provides me with the perfect creative outlet to share my thoughts and experiences. I've always had strong interests in photography, art, and digital creativity in school as well, so blogging just seemed like the right thing to get into. I love customization and personalization and my website gives me the opportunity to create a space to be proud of. I'm a bit of a technology nerd and creating content on Photoshop is another hobby of mine. I love uniformity. Consistency in formatting pleases my inner neat freak. And of course, I love the PA profession and all that it stands for. I really just feel like this blog brings all of my interests together in one place, and that also makes my heart happy.
I'm hoping that through blogging I can create a space for pre-PAs, PA students, and fellow PAs to come and read and not feel like they're in this alone. I want to spread any knowledge or advice that I wish I once had as a pre-PA. I know I worshiped PA students and practicing PAs. I attended every last PA event at my school I could find, read every last article about PA school I could get my hands on, and even created a pre-PA club at my school with my friends (next blog post, promise). Anything and everything PA-related, I wanted in. I would have done anything to get into PA school, and I know what it's like to want something so bad. I just know I would have loved and appreciated reading PA blogs and listening the PA podcasts a few years back, but social media and blogs weren't as big of a thing back then (god, I'm not a dinosaur…). There are so many more resources available these days and I want to contribute to that. Spread the love. That's the goal.
The PA blogging community and the medical blogging community (nurses, NPs, MDs, DOs etc.) is such a wonderful thing to be a part of. This blog gives me the opportunity to connect with smart and strong people from all across the country on a daily basis, that I wouldn't have gotten the chance to communicate with or meet otherwise. I now have the potential to work with high-quality companies that have fabulous products and even greater messages. I'm hoping to some day blog about places I've traveled and products I love (cameras, computers, apartment life, breweries, wineries, blow dryers-- all the things). Who knows, maybe some day I'll even expand my tabs and sell my own apparel or start my own podcast. But lets not get ahead of ourselves, I clearly have a lot of posts to get to before I start delving into that universe. What I'm getting at is, the possibilities are endless with this blog and that excites me. It makes me feel like I have a purpose larger than myself, and I feel empowered to be a part of and contribute to the PA blogging community.
I love Instagram and I love a good photo as much as the next girl (or boy), don't get me wrong, but words speak so much louder than images. This blog gives me the platform to talk about all the things that I wouldn't normally share online. The bad, the ugly, the honest truth. When I think PA on social media and when I think of being a PA at work, they are two completely different realms honestly. Wearing a white coat and "saving lives" and wearing scrubs and having a cool badge and wearing a surgical cap with a mask and having a cool title and being in the OR and doing surgery all looks great and fun on the gram, but that's really only the surface level of working in the medical field. I bet you I was smiling ear to ear in all of those photos. But how about all the photos I didn't post and sent to my mom instead? Meanwhile behind the scenes, people are crying, having meltdowns, having panic attacks, fainting etc. Where are all of those photos? You can look below for a glimpse at my bad days. Even just looking at those photos stresses me out, honestly. I'm for sure crying in the middle left LOL. That's what being pre-PA and being in PA school really looked like for me. It’s important for people to see the full look. People tend to avoid posting about the lack of sleep, the lack of exercise, the lack of healthy eating, the exam they failed, the preceptor that pimped them so hard they wanted to cry, or the surgeon that yelled at them in the middle of the OR to show their authority. I think it's just as important to share that side of medicine. It's all picture perfect online in a world that is anything but. And the image of being a PA online shouldn't be your driving force to get into PA school. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, it simply won't be enough to get you through school. It takes grit and it takes a village. If you know the type of person I am, you know that I am very straight to the point. Tell it like it is. Everything's black and white. Brutally honest. No bullshit. The struggle to and through PA school was SO real and it has to be shared. I think the most important thing when it comes to blogging is to be fully transparent and honest. This path isn't all glamorous and it's not for everyone. Medicine is messy. Medicine is stressful. Medicine is hierarchical. Medicine is controversial. Medicine is chaotic. Medicine is emotional. Medicine is hard. And I can't wait to share it ALL with you.
& That is why I blog.
This particular topic is a tough one for me to be super helpful with only because as a 3+3 applicant I was not required to write a personal statement, but I still think it's important to touch upon for completeness sake. I'm much more of a writer than I am a reader (hence the blogging), so I feel like I can provide some good writing tips at the very least. Enjoy!
Instead of a personal statement, I was required to answer a series of essay questions provided by my program, each about a paragraph in length. The questions seemed very straightforward, which almost made it more challenging creativity wise. They're actually really good thought-provokers for those of you who feel completely lost on where to begin. These were the questions I was asked, if you were curious:
1. Briefly describe the role of the Physician Assistant.
2. How has your healthcare experience and/or community service activities influenced your decision to become a Physician Assistant?
3. How has your approach to your academic coursework prepared you to be a successful PA student?
4. Describe your greatest strength and your greatest weakness as it pertains to becoming a PA student and a graduate PA.
5. Describe your exposure to PAs in clinical practice.
6. How do you intend to fund your way through your PA program education?
Your personal statement is certainly a key part of your application, but similar to what I said about letters of recommendation, I don't think it should be the sole determining factor in your acceptance. A good applicant needs to be the total package. A good personal statement alone is not enough. That being said, if a program loves your story and loves your personality in your interview but you have a lower GPA, you may still be considered simply based on one of the readers now more personal connection with you. Since a personal statement does have the potential power to have some pull, it's important to take them seriously. And this is definitely the case if you feel your application is lacking somewhere. While programs do look for like-minded individuals to fill their classes, they are also looking for students from all walks of life with all different stories and backgrounds. They don't want a class of cookie cut humans. What makes you a unique addition to the room?
It's common to hear people say your personal statement is what sets you apart from other applicants, and in some cases it does. But to be honest, most personal statements follow a very similar pattern in terms of structure: past, present, future. It starts with some type of moment from the past that impacted you. The middle discusses what you're doing in the present (patient care/ volunteer work etc.) to help reinforce that moment. And it ends with how you intend to use all of this experience to reach your end goal of becoming a PA. If well-written, I think this structure can work for most applicants and their stories. Again, there's nothing wrong with following the same pattern. Be original where you can, but don't overachieve and try to make your personal statement so unique that the message gets lost in the literary piece you've tried to craft.
Everyone is always so concerned about what to write about. No one thinks their story is unique enough. And if you do have a unique story, some struggle with putting it into words. No one feels like the qualities and events that make you you actually matter. Sometimes things you don't even think are unique are where the beautiful stories come from. No one can tell you what to write about, but there's no harm in asking others for their advice. Sometimes outsiders will spark up a topic that you never thought about. Feedback from loved ones should always be welcome during the brainstorming process. But at the end of the day, it's your personal statement and should reflect what you think and feel is important.
I think a lot of people (including myself) think (thought) that a personal statement has to involve some type of large monumental change or heartbreaking story. But that's so not the case. If you had something happen in your life that made you want to go into medicine like the death of a loved one or a rough path to get where you are today, then you have a little less work to do in the brainstorming stage than someone who has all their loved ones intact and had a strong family upbringing. But, you don't have to have a sob story to write a meaningful personal statement is what I'm getting at. Someone's meaningful revelation during a patient encounter as a patient care tech can provide just as strong of a foundation.
I have three big tips for anyone writing a personal statement, and it has nothing to do with the content of your writing. Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. I seriously think the quality of your grammar and punctuation tells me just as much, if not more, about you as the actual content of your essay. Read it forwards for grammar. Read it backwards for spelling. Have more than one friend read it over for you. It seems like a hassle, but it makes a difference. If you have a typo in your personal statement, now I'm questioning your eye for detail. Everything in medicine requires you to have an eye for detail. Every last vital sign. Every last lab value. Every last hairline fracture on an x-ray. It all matters. It's a quality I wouldn't be able to just gloss over as an interviewer.
Honestly, some people are just better writers than others. For some people writing comes naturally, while others have to sit and retype for days. This can tend to be a very painful portion of a PA students application process, but it doesn't have to be. Try to minimize the pressure you put on yourself to make your personal statement the absolute perfect embodiment of you. No one can be fully exploited to the core in under 5,000 characters, so don't try to do so. You don't need to include your entire life story start to finish, which is another common mistake. Pick one moment in time and expand upon it.
Emotional personal statements can be powerful, but when your interview comes along and the content is brought up, you can't be so emotional about it that I question if you can handle the heaviness of medicine. Going through hard times should make you stronger, not passionate to the point of crumbling. Trust me, it happens. You have to keep your emotions under control, and if you think it's going to be a problem in your interview, then I suggest not writing about it.
Make sure your personal statement relates back to why you want to be a PA in some respect. It can be pretty confusing reading someone's personal statement about something completely unrelated to providing healthcare in the future. And sometimes the content is related, but the writer just does a poor job of looping everything together at the end, which is probably the most vital part of the essay. Sorry for the brutal honesty here, but here it goes. Okay, so your friend got injured at a tennis match and you helped get her into the ambulance. Okay, so you watched your family member pass away from cancer. Okay, so your dad went into cardiac arrest and you were able to perform CPR to save his life. But, WHY? Why are you writing about this? Why did that moment make you want to become a PA? How have you been working towards making that dream a reality since that event occurred? It's not the traumatic event that tells me about you. It's HOW you have reacted and developed as a person because of it that I care about. It's the WHY that will bring out the beauty in your story. Bring something up that has happened or that you have experienced in the past that has led you to this point of applying for a seat in a program that will allow you to one day provide care to others.
So no, I don't care what you're writing about. Whatever it is just make it the best version of itself. Make it good. Make every line count. Be honest. Be true. Be you. No one can ever fault you for that. Now, get to writing!
As an applicant, getting my letters of recommendation in order seemed more like a chore than a vital part of my acceptance into PA school. It was just one more thing I needed to check off my very long checklist. But as an interviewer, I saw first hand how much one letter can make or break an applicant's fate.
Yes, my program has at least one current or prior student sit in on every interview. As I was reading through applications, I was actually shocked at how many subpar letters I came across. I feel like everyone just assumes that when you ask someone to write you a letter and they agree to it, they will automatically write only wonderful things about you. Clearly, not true. Don’t expect someone to write you a 100% amazing letter if you weren't giving them 100% every day you worked with them. Seems pretty logical to me. Some letters briefly mentioned a specific flaw, while others went into long explanations on why the applicant deserved a 2/5 on responsibility for being constantly late. Yikes! These little things matter. Now as an interviewer, I can't help but question you. Are you going to show up to class on time? Are you going to show up to your clinical sites? Can you handle the responsibility of making medical decisions regarding real life patients? Are you really ready for this? Are you mature enough to handle a career path like this? Will you take your job seriously? Will you represent the PA profession the way I want it to be represented? It's not a good line of questioning for the applicant to say the least. And just like that, your 4.0 GPA and your 2,000+ hours of patient care experience don't even matter to me.
So who should you chose to write your letters of recommendation? First and foremost, choose someone who is willing to sit down and take the time out of their busy schedule to write you the best possible letter. I think it goes without saying that the busiest person on the planet, although they may think very highly of you and although they may be a well-respected player in the game, may not produce the most amazing letter for you solely based on time. You want every single positive quality to be reflected in your letters, not just the first three things that pop into the writer's head. When people agree to write you a letter, but say something along the lines of "Sure, but can you write me a rough draft first? " or "Sure, but can you provide me with an outline of all your strengths?" it screams LAZY to me. I don't want lazy. Lazy doesn't get you into PA school, and it certainly won't get you through it. It happens all the time, but my advice is to avoid these people's letters and find someone who is willing to write one on their own. I personally would NEVER recommend someone who I didn't feel was above and beyond, so don't choose someone you don't know inside and out. If you don't know them really well, they probably don't know you well either. Choose someone who knows your character best and will vouch for it without any hesitations. This is exactly why every single encounter you have with someone both in the medical field and outside the medical field really does matter. If you're having a good day, make it a great day, and if your having a bad day find a way to make it a good one. Your constant effort, drive, and positive attitude will pay off in these letters, I promise.
Choice paralysis is a common problem applicants face when they feel they've made a positive impact on a lot of different people they've encountered. I believe that the best applicants have letters reflecting all aspects of their life and personality. As a reader, I want to see how you've blossomed in many different channels of your life up to this point. I don't want three letters stating the same exact thing or pointing out the exact same traits. Common traits highlighted between all of your letters is a bonus because it provides confirmation to the reader. But ideally, I want one letter to focus on your discipline, while another focuses on your fun-loving and caring side, which then compliments your third letter that focuses on how well you work on a team. Your letters should portray ALL sides of you. Since you're not the ones writing the letters or providing their content the only thing you can do is make smart choices on whose doing the writing. They're looking for the best, brightest, capable, financially-responsible, compassionate, forward-thinking, well-prepared, resilient, like-minded candidates they can find. So choose someone who can vouch for multiple aspects of your character.
In today's society, we tend to value the opinions of those at the same level as us, rather than the expert opinion. There seems to be a different level of trust between peers than figures of authority. I would love to hear how a current PA thinks you will be as a future PA, for example. Who better to say how you'd be as a PA out in the real world than a real-life PA? Never get a letter of recommendation from a family member or a friend! Even if that person allowed you to shadow them or gave you a volunteer opportunity. Although I would love to read that letter about how much your grandma loves you, it's just not appropriate for this. When you get credentialed by a hospital to work as a physician assistant, a letter of recommendation will be required by a peer from your program to vouch for your character. In the meantime, I don't really care about how much your best friend thinks you’re an awesome person.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think letters of recommendation should really be an applicant's tipping point but, in a pile of thousands of applications, you need to separate the herd somehow. And if you're stuck comparing two applicants to each other and the only difference is one applicant's glowing letters of rec, chances are they will matter a lot more than you may think. Whether we like it or not, other peoples' opinions do matter. Those letters are the thing on your application that you have the least control over realistically, but it's you who decides who writes them, and it's you who had to spend the time proving yourself to those individuals in the first place.
A good letter of recommendation can make your day. A great letter of recommendation can change your life. Remember that.
Why is shadowing a PA important?
Shadowing a PA is one of the best ways to actually realize that your end goal is in fact to become a PA. That and it gives you a better understanding of their role on a healthcare team. Shadowing entails following around a PA and observing first-hand what their daily life is like. Most (if not all) PA schools require it, some more hours than others, so there's really no way around it. Over the years, it has become very apparent to me that students coming right out of high school more often than not gravitate towards the fields they've already been exposed to. This makes sense right? Students have been surrounded by teachers their whole lives. They’ve been to a doctor. They've seen a police officer or a firefighter in action. They've talked with their cousin working for that one high-end magazine company. Or that aunt or uncle who is a very successful attorney in the city. How can you chose a career path that you have no idea exists? A lot of students take an interest in the sciences and think medical school is the only option, yet there are so many other paths to take; each path with their own unique roles, hours, salary, pros, cons, perks, and challenges. I was no exception to this mentality. I loved science, so I assumed the most successful thing I could do was become a doctor. I was on the pre-med track my entire freshman year, having never even heard of a physician assistant until the end of that same year. Side note: I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure I first heard about PAs from my mom after she watched her daily episode of "Good Morning America" featuring new, hot, up-and-coming career trends LOL. Thanks GMA? Thanks mom? Anyways, college students seeking the perfect future career, tend to always focus their attention on salary alone and allow that to drive their ambition. But, as you enter your 20's and as you start to picture your 30's, your traveling years, your childbearing years, your homeowner years, then aspects like length of schooling, debt, freedom, family planning, and work-life balance start to make their way up to the forefront of your priority list. How can we expect people to make an informed decision if they've never had the exposure is all I'm getting at. And shadowing is the answer.
How can I set up my own shadowing hours?
When it comes to setting up shadowing hours, there's three main avenues to go down: the easy way, the in-between way, and the hard way. I personally did all three methods, so take your pick or try them all to maximize your results. It may seem like setting up your shadowing hours is impossible at times, but do not get discouraged, everyone willing to put in the time and effort finds a way.
The easy way: family members. This is an almost guaranteed yes. That's what makes it so easy. People you already have a strong relationship with are going to tend to (in general) want to help you in your career pursuits. A simple phone call or email to a PA in your family should do the trick.
The in-between way: friends of friends, your personal PA, and Facebook posts. Send out an email blast to your friends and family asking if they know anyone who you could connect with. Six degrees of separation should work in your favor here. If you personally see a PA as your primary care provider or if you know there are PAs in your PCP's office, give them a call. Maybe you have a strong relationship with your PCP already. Even simpler. And use your resources! Use social media to your advantage. Make a post stating your intentions and I guarantee at least one person will reply with help.
The hard way: cold calls and cold reach-outs, aka the true go-getter method. A lot of pre-PAs are stuck with this method if the other two ways fail. And that is okay! We all do it. You aren't doomed. Call your local hospital's human resources department. Contact a provider online cold turkey. They've been in your shoes. They know what you're going through. And maybe you'll get lucky and one will reach out back to you.
My biggest word of advice is to set up shadowing with multiple PAs in multiple different specialties to really strengthen your application. This will show ambition and a deeper understanding of PAs and their wide range of abilities. In addition, it definitely does not hurt to also shadow doctors and NPs as well. However, I would try to shadow more PAs than docs and NPs to clearly state your intentions. Gaining the knowledge necessary in making an informed decision is encouraged, in my eyes. Know what sets the three professions apart. So setting up hours is as easy/ as hard as that. Sending all pre-PAs the best of luck in this kingdom, we know the struggle is real at times, but we've all been there and you can do it too.
What kind of shadowing experiences did you have?
I started out the "easy way" by shadowing my aunt who is a nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins in the NICU. She was my main inspiration for becoming a mid-level practitioner and volunteering as a patient cuddler. After my experience with her in the NICU, I had a strong interest in neonatology. Who doesn't love adorable newborns? I mean it’s a hard patient population to hate on. I got to see my aunt's responsibilities seeing patients on her own, creating a plan, proposing that plan on rounds to her attending, and discussing treatment plans with her team. I didn't know much medicine at this point in my education, so I was pretty in awe of all the medical lingo being bounced around. It was a fabulous introduction to what a mid-level practitioner is capable of and to the medical field in general. Forever grateful for family members like her!
Then I started using the "in-between" method by contacting friends of friends. I shadowed a friend's dad who is a nurse practitioner at University Hospital in otolaryngology surgery. This was my first exposure to the operating room. I was able to be in the OR observing entire surgeries from a step stool right next to the operating table! It was love at first sight. I highly recommend shadowing in the OR if surgery is a potential interest of yours.
Then I put out a Facebook blast asking for anyone to reach out if they had any connections to PAs. Sure enough, one of my high school friends reached out and said that her dad was a doctor at my local hospital and that he knew a PA willing to let me shadow him. There, I shadowed a PA in inpatient cardiology. I was able to follow him around the hospital as he checked up on his patients, wrote notes, and handled patient emergencies on the floor.
Lastly, I shadowed a PA at my local hospital in the emergency department. After shadowing the PA in cardiology, he actually offered to contact his PA friend in the emergency department for me given that I was not an "annoying shadow". If you're not a pain and you're a pleasant person to be around you will be rewarded, I promise. This is why you follow proper shadow etiquette. A little courtesy goes a long way. I'll throw in some additional tips below on how to do so. The ED is a great way to see a lot of patient cases in a short amount of time, so I highly recommend the ED for shadowing. Given all the action and high acuity, I was the least bored in the ED and in the OR for sure.
What tips do you have while shadowing a PA?
Yes, there is a such thing as being a good shadow and being a bad shadow. PAs are at work while you are hovering over them. And they have responsibilities. A lot of them. So having someone watching them all day can be exhausting if you make it. First and foremost, let them do their job. Do everything you can not to interfere with their work ethic and productivity. On the flip side, you are there to learn things. That being said, DO NOT ask a million questions a minute. That's probably the most common mistake made by a bad shadow. At the same time, don't be silent and scared. They were in your position once, so they understand your curiosity. Seems like common sense, but I have seen both ends of the spectrum. Ask well-thought-out questions if you have them scattered evenly throughout your encounter with them. Be an active observer and be an active listener to their answers. Nothing is worse than an unenthused student or a bad listener. In my book, there actually are dumb questions. Not in terms of medical content, but in terms of regular human interaction content. For example, maybe don't ask the PA what she brought for lunch because you're hungry or when you can go home. I swear, I've heard both asked on rotations by shadows and literally cringed. Pay attention to their daily routine and be proactive. Learn by example and replicate what you see to be helpful. Assist with anything "idiot-proof" that you clearly do not need a medical degree for. I was able to assist in anything from restraining a child getting his forehead sutured in the ED to handing people Band-Aids. Yes, you're shadowing, but don't make yourself useless. If you're looking to be an even better shadow, read up on topics you see during the day, so you can have a more educated conversation with the PA you are shadowing the following day. A few UpToDate paragraphs will really embellish your experience. Lastly, be aggressive with your search for the perfect shadowing opportunity for you. The more interested in the specialty you are shadowing, the richer the experience will be. Also, understand that like volunteering, some hospitals have long and tedious credentialing requirements to start shadowing. Be organized and be proactive in setting up your hours so that it's not too late or the one thing holding up your application. As usual, the more effort you put in, the more you'll get out of your experience.
Volunteer hours are another vital portion of the PA school application. Unlike my last post, I'm not going to list all of the different ways to gain volunteer hours because you can pretty much find volunteer opportunities in anything you are passionate about if you look hard enough. I'm also not going to talk number of volunteer hours in this post because I think the quantity of your hours is irrelevant in comparison to the quality of your hours. Instead, I want to talk about my different experiences volunteering to serve as an example. This is the only time I'll ever say LESS is MORE. Do not volunteer for 8 million different organizations. Chose a few of your favorites or even just one and really make a difference. There's nothing worse than an applicant that's a member of every club or organization in the book just for the sake of putting it on paper. If you can't elaborate on how your presence really made a lasting impact on others, you are doing something wrong. Fewer meaningful hours means so much more than an abundance of nonsense.
I volunteered for a Diabetes & Endocrinology office in my hometown during the summer Monday-Friday from 9-5pm. I found this opportunity through a family friend, so I feel like now is a good time to suggest using your resources wisely. I'm sure almost everyone knows at least one person in their lives that works in a doctor's office or a hospital in some way and one contact is all you need. There's no shame in Facebook blasts either to inquire if any of your friends or family members know of any opportunities available. Use what you have and who you know is my point. Anyways, at the office, I was responsible for entering medical records into the computer, since they were making the transition from paper charts to electronic medical records (EMR). I learned a ton about how to use an EMR platform, how to use medical billing and coding, how to contact other outpatient offices and insurance companies, and how to interpret different types of medical documentation (reading notes in the process of course for learning purposes). So yes, a lot of my job was office work and organizational tasks, but soon enough I became friendly with the physician's in the office and was able to tag along with them to see real patients. I was able to help out with patient surveys and listen to patient encounters, which is a good example why you should never turn down a volunteer opportunity in medicine, even if you aren't doing exactly what you want to be doing. Be friendly. Be kind. Be helpful. Make a difference no matter where you are or what you are doing. It was definitely exhausting working all summer for no pay, but the experience was worth the effort and summer sacrifice. Plus, it was a good glimpse into rotation life (all work, no pay… it's part all part of the process).
I volunteered at Robert Wood Johnson for the day for a mass casualty simulation. I found this opportunity via an email blast to biology students at Rutgers. See, not all opportunities are difficult to come by. This one literally landed in my inbox unprovoked. I arrived at the hospital and was given a patient ID number and instructions on where to go and what to do all day. It was interesting being cycled through the hospital from the triage bay to the CT scanner to the OR etc. just as a real patient would be in a mass causality situation. This is something all hospitals do, especially a Level 1 Trauma center like RWJ, in some way, shape or form as preparation for the real thing. It certainly did not show long term commitment, but it was a really awesome thing to be a part of and certainly made for good topic of conversation in an interview.
I volunteered for the Special Olympics of New Jersey with my sister multiple times during the summer. I found this opportunity online simply by googling local ways to volunteer for the special needs population. Pick a specific population that interests you or that you have a personal connection with and see what you can find. You don't have to know exactly what's out there already. You might be pleasantly surprised when you come across an opportunity that you had no idea even existed. On volunteer days, I was paired up with two athletes and was responsible for taking them to each of the various sporting stations. I assisted in game play and was able to get involved in all of the action that sports entails. It's really humbling to work with such bright eyed humans. Their outlook on life and having fun really helped me not sweat the small stuff along my journey to that acceptance letter. The facility was located super close to my house and was super convenient hours wise, so it seemed more like a hobby than work. The more you enjoy what you're doing the more effort you will put in, so keep that in the back of your mind. I was also able to attend the National Special Olympics, which was held in NJ one year, alongside one of my soon-to-be (at the time) PA faculty members. I'll elaborate on that experience in another post a bit later.
My all-time favorite experience volunteering was spent as a patient cuddler at the Children's Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ. I found this opportunity online as well just by searching my local hospital's volunteer page and reaching out to the department head directly via email. The real motivator behind this one stemmed from another experience. I shadowed my Aunt who is a nurse practitioner in the John Hopkins NICU prior to PA school. The baby fever was real from there to say the least, and the neonatal population will always hold a special place in my heart. Almost every Sunday for two years, I went to the hospital for three hours and supported newborns in their first weeks of life. Many of the newborns that I worked with unfortunately were either born addicted to drugs or with a chronic or life-threatening disability. It's certainly not an environment for everyone and not the most uplifting of methods to gain both volunteer hours and patient care experience, but it truly gave me an all new perspective of what it means to be a healthcare provider. I was able to hold, rock to sleep, perform skin-to-skin, and play with the newborns for as long as I wished when their parents needed a break or were unavailable to be at the hospital during the day due to work or social reasons. There were also older children on my floor that I was responsible for assisting during activity time, which was run by the child life specialist. We sang songs, finger painted, played games etc. Most of the older children I worked with had chronic disabilities that require long term rehabilitation and hospital assistance. It's difficult for children to be cooped up in a hospital room for hours on end, so any opportunity to remove them from that environment and just do "normal kid things" is so greatly appreciated. I also had the opportunity to attend one of the special events held for all patients at the hospital. I was asked by my supervisor to assist for their annual prom where all of the patients and staff dress up in formal attire, take prom photos, eat food, and dance (all while under the supervision of medical professionals). It was an awesome experience to be a part of and I never would have been involved if it weren't for my volunteering position. The sign-up process to be a hospital volunteer is very intense (for good reasons) and takes a long time to complete. This deters a lot of students that are in a time crunch for hours, but if you have the time and you plan ahead you should look into your local hospital's opportunities. It took me several months to get all of my paperwork in (background checks, training sessions, PPD, N95 mask training, vaccines etc.), but I promise you the patience is worth it. This particular hospital had so many other opportunities in addition to patient cuddling that I found extremely unique such as aqua therapy! What is more impactful than helping disabled children take their first steps again in a pool alongside an occupational therapist? By the size of this paragraph alone, you can tell how passionate I was about being a patient cuddler, and to this day I encourage others to get involved in such a beautiful experience.
One other thing I'd like to mention in this post are medical mission trips. Gaining a global understanding of healthcare can show both enthusiasm for something bigger than yourself and maturity. They can be super pricey depending on where you go, which is why I never did one, but if the opportunity presented itself, I think it's a great option for volunteer hours. I do feel that one short trip alone is not enough by itself and fails to show long term dedication to one cause. PA school and being a physician assistant in general is essentially volunteering yourself long term to the needs of others, so it's important for schools to see that same dedication demonstrated through your volunteer work. In short, I think medical mission trips are great. I think they get the job done. I think they're special. But at the same time, I don't think you have to break the bank to embellish your application.
Whatever you may chose, do it well. And your volunteer work by NO means has to be healthcare related, but it certainly is a big plus! How you chose to volunteer your time helps show programs your interests. It has the ability to provide applicants with anything from a unique personal statement to great talking points in an interview. I personally feel that my ability to talk about my passion for patient cuddling in particular made my application unique, and standing out in a big stack of papers is important. Don't just cross volunteering off your list like another task on your to do list. In helping others achieve their goals, they in return will help you achieve yours. Find something you enjoy and go for it. Do what makes your soul happy.
This is by far the most popular topic I get asked about, so here's my best attempt at addressing it. It took a little extra love and research, so I hope you enjoy!
What is patient care experience and why do I need it?
Patient care experience is exactly what it sounds like, experience taking care of patients directly. PA programs all across the US require a certain number of hours of patient care experience, if you are looking to be a competitive applicant. Unlike medical school, PA school only provides students with one year in a clinical setting. Medical schools love to see patient care experience as well, but it's not as much of a requirement as it is when applying to PA school. Patient care experience reassures PA programs that you know what you are getting yourself into. The healthcare field across all specialties is not an easy thing to handle day in and day out, and it certainly isn't all butterflies and rainbows. They want to make sure your image of medicine isn't something you've crafted in your mind from a lifetime of Grey's Anatomy episodes. They want to know you've experienced the good days as well as the bad. They want you to pick up on medical lingo. They want you to gain an understanding of the different roles on a medical team. They want you to grow from the bottom of the totem pole, so your appreciation for being a PA is ultimately greater than it would have been. And most importantly, they want you to get your hands dirty. Patient care experience is a crucial part of the process, and it plays a large role during your application process, so choose how you earn your hours wisely!
How did you gain your patient care experience prior to PA school?
I chose to become a certified phlebotomy technician (CPT) during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year. I decided I wanted to become a PA at the end of my freshman year of college. As a 3+3 student I had to submit my application during the spring semester of my sophomore year. This left me with ONE summer to complete any kind of patient care hours. Keep in mind, because I was applying as a 3+3 student, the standards were much less than your average applicant in terms of number of hours.
Length of Training: I went through 1 month of daily training through AIMS Education in Piscataway. They also offer a 2 month option which includes EKG Tech training or a 3 month option (weekends only) for students with weekday obligations.
Class Size: My class was small with only about 15 students, some of which had plans of attending further schooling in the medical field and some whose final destination was to become a certified phlebotomist.
Curriculum: We went through textbook material during our morning sessions and had practical training in the afternoons. We had exams on our textbook material every week or so which was not too challenging if you read through the material once or twice. During practical training, we practiced venipuncture on each other almost daily until our arms couldn't take it anymore. We then started bringing in volunteers! Just a tip, bring in your strong guy friends with overly protruding veins for a guaranteed easy stick! My boyfriend's friends were kind enough to volunteer their arms to me. My sister also unwillingly accepted a butterfly needle with a little coercing. To this day, she tells people she still has a tiny bruise from where I stuck her.
Certification: After the course was over, I took a certifying exam through the National Healthcareer Association (NHA), which is valid for 2 years before requiring a renewal examination.
Cost: As far as cost goes, courses range from $700-$1,400 and the certifying exam is around $115.
Employment Opportunities: A certified phlebotomy technician can work in a wide variety of clinical setting from outpatient clinics to hospitals to mobile/non-mobile blood donation banks to nursing homes to clinical labs, just to name a few.
Clinical Skills: I was actually trained to do more than just blood draws, which I thought was awesome. The more comprehensive the clinical experience, the better. I learned how to evaluate patients prior to blood draws, hot to explain and answer questions about the blood drawing procedure, how to perform other basic point of care testing (blood glucose levels, urinalysis etc.), how to verify patient identity, how to ensure quality control, how to use proper medical terminology, how to follow infection protocol, how to take necessary safety precautions, how to be a professional in a healthcare setting, how to maintain lab equipment up to regulatory standards (needles, test tubes, blood vials), how to prepare and label specimens, and how to choose the proper test tube color. And of course I learned how to draw blood via dermal or capillary puncture (finger sticks), butterfly needles, and vacutainers.
Pros: The length of training is short and not too strenuous to handle as a college student over the summer. Being a CPT provides you with a great perspective as a lower level healthcare clinician. You are physically touching real life patients and their bodily fluids, which is a HUGE talking point in an interview. I would definitely recommend this route to a friend.
Cons: I found it very difficult to find a job that did not require previous work experience as a phlebotomist already, so this was a big con in choosing to become a CPT. My best advice is not to let the job ad's that say "Requires experience." deter you from applying. You just never know how desperate a company is to hire. You may get lucky. I think my friends who became EMTs had a much easier time finding a job, so I wish someone would have told me that when I was deciding.
How else can I gain patient care experience as a pre-PA student?
A lot of people express their difficulties "finding" ways to gain patient care experience. It's all about taking initiative. Patient care experience takes work. If you put in the effort, you can make it happen, but it's not just going to land in your lap. Now, I can't speak from experience on this next part, but here are 40 additional ways you can gain your patient care hours, so there are no more excuses that you can't find anything. I have tons of PA friends who explored the following options:
**Some side notes before reading this list: **
#1 The ideas toward the top of the list are a little more typical/ ideal paths than the lower numbered options simply because it is quicker to get started earning your hours.
#2 You can get an official certification in a lot of the "assistant" or "tech" careers that I mention, but it sometimes is NOT a requirement. Certifications are great if you have the time to get them and will make you more appealing to employers but a lot of time places will just hire you and train as you go. Therefore, I have the "length of training" for these positions labeled as "on-the-job" because that is the quickest and cheapest way.
#3 The length of training and cost references are estimates from what I researched, so don't hate me if they are not exact!
#4 Comment on this post if you know any additional ways to gain patient care experience that I missed and you think would be beneficial to my readers.
1. Certified Phlebotomy Tech (CPT): See above for a description.
2. Medical Scribe: Medical scribes are trained to type-up medical encounters into the electronic medical records system for physicians, PAs and NPs in the emergency department. They transcribe histories as reported by the provider and often times are directly available to scribe during actual patient encounters. This is a popular option among pre-PAs because you get first-hand experience writing out chief complaints, history of present illness, past medical/ surgical/ family/ social history, current medications, allergies, review of systems, physical examinations, appropriate labs/ diagnostic tests, assessments, and plans, which is a skill that must be obtained during PA school. I know the scribes in my class felt much more comfortable writing medical notes than I did. One con of medical scribing is that many PA programs would prefer something a little more hands on with patients, like a CNA for example. My advice to you is to make sure the programs you want to apply to accept scribing as valid patient care hours. Ultimately, scribing could give you an "in" at a hospital to gain your hours a different way, so it's still not a bad option. Some popular scribe companies to look into if becoming a medical scribe interests you are Scribe America, PhysAssist Scribes, I Am Scribe, DocAssist, ProScribe, Emergency Scribes Consultants, Med-Scribe Inc., Physicians Angels, and Scribe Connect. Examination for certification is administered by the American College of Medical Scribe Specialists (ACMSS). Length of Training: 120 hours (classroom, examinations, clinical setting) Cost: Free, many programs provide training for free, students make a reduced salary and receive a pay upgrade once training is complete, $165 (exam)
3. Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): A CNA is trained to take vitals, assist patients from bed to chair, help with feeding time and personal hygiene, assist with dressing changes/ wound debridement, provide catheter care, or even assist nurses/medical providers with minor bedside procedures. They can work in almost any field of medicine alongside a nurse, so chose something that interests you if possible. In my opinion this is one of the best and strongest ways to gain patient care hours because your hands are definitely going to be the dirtiest with this one! You learn a ton about patient care and really get the full experience. CNAs mainly work in hospitals or nursing homes. Examination for certification is administered by the American Red Cross.
Length of Training: 6-12 weeks Cost: $1,300 (course), $110 (exam)
4. Patient Care Tech (PCT): A PCT has many of the same responsibilities as a CNA. I tend to think of CNAs on the floors and PCT in the ED, but they are interchangeable. If you hear the term ER/ED tech, it's referring to the same thing. One difference is PCTs tend to be trained on the job rather than through a training program, so this route is for the student pressed for time training wise. Examination for certification is administered by the NHA. Length of Training: 1 week Cost: $155 (exam)
5. Certified Medical Assistant (CMA): A CMA takes a CNA role one step further allowing for administration of injections, medical record documentation, medical procedure instrumentation prep, venipuncture, direct specimen collection, EKG administration, and sometimes even limited x-ray capabilities with the appropriate licensure. But with greater responsibilities in the clinical setting comes greater lengths of training. This route is for the student who is planning on taking multiple years off before PA school or was a CMA previously. Examination for certification is administered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or the NHA. Length of Training: 10-12 months, 635 classroom hours, 200 clinical hours Cost: $1,200-$4,200 (course), $700 (exam)
6. Emergency Medical Tech (EMT)/ Paramedic: An EMT is a trained first responder (riding on/ driving an ambulance to 911 scenes) to attend to medical emergencies rapidly. EMTs are trained in IV lines, basic trauma surveys, interpreting EKGs, fluid resuscitation, medication administration and more. This is an excellent choice and I had several EMTs in my class. What's great about becoming an EMT is if you have trouble finding a job after certification, you can also apply to CNA, ED Tech, or urgent care tech positions with your certification. The training is relatively short and you can learn a ton about assessing and treating medical emergencies prior to PA school. The depth of clinical knowledge and the experience making on-the-spot decisions under pressure through being an EMT is invaluable to PA programs. You can also consider getting additional certifications (EKG, ACLS, AMLS, PHTLS, PALS, NRP, ABLS, WUMP) to make you more competitive when searching for an EMT position. On your CASPA application, be sure to specify that the hours you recorded are only the "non-wait" hours (hours spent actually taking care of patients). EMTs can also work in the military. This is one of the best options if you are wishing to become an Emergency Medicine PA someday. There's also a lot of room for growth in the field from a basic EMT (bleeding control, positive pressure ventilation, oropharyngeal/ nasopharyngeal airways, splinting) to an intermediate EMT (IV therapy, intubation) to an advanced EMT (advanced cardiac monitoring, medication administration) to a paramedic. Examination for certification is administered by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT). Length of Training: 2-3 months Cost: $1200-4200 (course), $80 (cognitive exam), $80 (application fee)
7. Physical Therapy Assistant/ Physical Therapist: A PT assistant works under the supervision of a PT to help treat patients through exercise, massage, gait and balance training, and other therapeutic interventions. This is a great option for students who want to pursue a career in orthopedics. Most programs will count this as quality patient care hours. Just be cautious with this option, given that some programs may start to think you really wanted to become a PT and PA school is just an alternative. I have seen this first hand when sitting in on interviews. The applicant had PT shadowing hours in addition and my program questioned her intentions which is the last thing you want during your interview. If you chose this option be sure to reassure your interviewers that you are committed to the PA profession. This is one of those examples I was talking about where you technically don't need certification, but you can apply for it if you so choose. Take note, becoming a PT "aide" does not require certification because you are only involved with patients indirectly (welcoming patients, assisting patients into a certain area, clerical duties, cleaning patient rooms etc.). And of course if you were a physical therapist in the past (It happens. People are allowed to change their mind. I know one from my program!) those hours you worked as a PT count. Examination for certification is administered by the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA). Length of Training: Associates Cost: $8,000
8. Occupational Therapy Assistant/ Occupational Therapist: An OT assistant works under the supervision of an OT to help rehabilitate patients with mental, physical, emotional, or developmental impairment and assist in their activities of daily living. This is another great option working directly with patients, but I would reiterate the points made under #7. And again, if you were a working OT, those hours do count. Length of Training: Associates Cost: $8,000
9. Surgical Tech: Is the OR your thing? A surgical tech (scrub tech) is trained in sterile and aseptic techniques A seasoned scrub tech can anticipate a surgeon's next move. You will have a front row seat at the operating table which is great experience, especially if surgery is of interest to you in the future. The downside is a lengthy training process and a hefty price tag. Length of Training: 9 months- 2 years Cost: $1,800-$2,500 (course at a public university), $5,000-$10,000 (course at a trade school)
10. Sterile Processor: A sterile processor is responsible for sterilizing surgical equipment of any biological fluids. This does not give you direct contact with patients, so it is not an ideal choice for PA school.
11. Medical Interpreter: Do you speak more than one language? Your talents are certainly needed (and greatly appreciated by medical providers worldwide). A medical interpreter works in the emergency department or at an interpreting agency translating patient encounters from one language to another. If you're working through an agency via phone line, this probably won't count as patient care experience, but in an ED setting where you are directly in a patients' rooms, PA programs may count this as valid patient contact hours. Certification to become a medical interpreter is required. Examination for certification is administered by the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI). Length of Training: 40 hours (course) or one 3 credit medical interpreting course at your university Cost: $1,080 (course), $485 (exam)
12. Patient Transporter: A transporter takes patients from one floor of the hospital to another. A patient may need to be brought down to get an x-ray or a CT Scan, or they may need to change floors depending on their acuity level. This gives you direct contact with patients, however you aren't gaining very much medical knowledge rolling people in and out of elevators. Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
13. Radiology (X-Ray/ MRI) Tech: A radiology tech performs diagnostic imaging such as x-rays, CT scans, and MRIs. This one sounds really awesome to me. If you work the C-Arm X-Ray machine in the OR you are be able to observe cases! Examination for certification is administered by the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). Length of Training: Associates + 1-2 years Cost: $2,500+
14. EKG Tech: An EKG tech performs electrocardiograms on patients with suspected heart abnormalities such as arrhythmias, acute myocardial infarctions, congestive heart failure etc. Examination for certification is administered by the NHA. Length of Training: 3-6months Cost: $690 (course), $115 (exam)
15. EEG Tech: An EEG tech performs electroencephalograms to monitor brain activity and detect abnormalities such as seizures or sleep disorders. Examination for certification is administered by the American Board of Registration of Electroencephalogram and Evoked Potential Technologists (ABRET). Length of Training: Associates Cost: $variable
16. Ultrasound Tech: An ultrasound tech or diagnostic medical sonographer operates an ultrasound machine which uses high-frequency sound waves to take diagnostic images of patient's vital organs. Training can be lengthy, but it would certainly give you a leg up in the clinical setting. Examination for certification is administered by the American Registry of Diagnostic Medical Sonographers (ARDMS). Length of Training: 18-24 months Cost: $12,000-$24,000
17. Optometry Tech: The eye is an organ too ya know! An optometry tech can assist with diagnostic tests, recording and measuring vision, test eye function, educating on proper contact lens usage, and preparing examination rooms. Examination for certification is administered by the American Optometric Association (AOA). Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
18. Pacemaker/ ICD Tech: Is technology your thing? A pacemaker tech works directly with patients who need a pacemaker, an ICD, or an implantable loop recorder. They also follow-up with patients enrolled in cardiac device therapy research or clinical trials. This may or may not count as patient care experience depending on how much actual contact you are getting. Examination for certification is administered by the Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI). Length of Training: 8 months Cost: $26,000
19. Respiratory Therapist: A respiratory therapist is an advanced practice clinician responsible for establishing and maintaining a patient's airway, playing a significant role during traumas or in the ICU. This is a good option for someone who previously worked as a respiratory therapist given the long length of training. Examination for certification is administered by the National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC). Length of Training: Associates Cost: $$$LOTS
20. Endoscopy Tech: Do you have an interest in GI? An endoscopy tech assists a gastroenterologist when performing procedures, prepares the room and equipment, handles specimens collected, and helps sterilize endoscopic tools. Examination for certification is administered by the Certification Board for Sterile Processing and Distribution (CBSPD), the Society of Gastroenterology Nurses and Associates (SGNA), or the International Association of Healthcare Central Service Material Management (IAHCSMM). Length of Training: 8 months Cost: $variable
21. Dialysis Tech: A dialysis tech operates the machine that filters the blood of a patient with chronic kidney disease and monitors them for any complications during the procedure. This is not the shortest nor the cheapest option, but is certainly unique and certainly direct contact worthy. Examination for certification is administered by the Nephrology Nursing Certification Commission. Length of Training: 1.5 years Cost: $20,000
22. Podiatry Tech: Do you have a foot fetish? A podiatry tech can provide wound care, take vitals, provide patient education, and even assist in surgery. Examination for certification is administered by the American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants (ASPMA). Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
23. Home Health Aide: A home health aide is similar to a CNA, but in a home setting. A home health aide assists with personal care, hygiene, and feedings etc. Examination for certification is administered by the National Association for Home Care and Hospice (NAHC). Length of Training: 75 hours Cost: $649
24. Hospice Helper: Do you have a lot of love to give? A hospice helper provides compassionate support to the families touched by the end-of-life care process. Although not the most uplifting of ways to gain patient care experience, I think programs would really appreciate your experiences with the not-so-glamourous side of medicine. It may even make your personal statement or your interview conversations a bit more impactful than most applicants. Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
25. Combat Medic: Are you in the military? A combat medic or hospital corpsman administers emergency medical treatment during combat. A combat medic has similar responsibilities to an EMT and undergoes similar training. Once assigned to an army unit, combat medics can learn more advanced treatments including hemorrhage control, trauma assessment, advanced airway resuscitation, and chest tube placements. Length of Training: 16 weeks Cost: $0
26. Chiropractic Assistant: A chiropractic assistant works alongside a chiropractor and helps perform electrical stimulation, massage, and ultrasound therapy. This often does not require a specific certification, so this is a good option to get your foot in the door working directly with patients, however make sure your duties will consist of more than just answering phones and medical billing/coding. Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
27. Anesthesia Tech: Do you like your patients better when they're sleeping? An anesthesia tech assists an anesthesiologist by restocking medications, cleaning laryngoscope blades, changing tanks and tubing, refilling gas, laying out intubation or lumbar puncture equipment. Examination for certification is administered by the American Society of Anesthesia Technologists and Technicians (ASATT). Length of Training: 2 years Cost: $$$LOTS
28. Registered Nurse: A registered nurse (RN) monitors and cares for patients in all types of medical settings, administers medications, performs venipuncture, places IV lines, performs catheter care/insertion, and follows medical orders as prescribed by other medical providers caring for the patient. Again, this is a good option for someone who has already worked as a nurse in the past. In this instance, most nurses choose to continue their education and become a NP over a PA. Length of Training: Bachelors Cost: $$$LOTS
29. Registered Dietician: Are you a clean eater? A registered dietician evaluates a patients' medical conditions (such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, diabetes, coronary artery disease, chronic kidney disease etc.) and counsels them on proper nutrition and dietary planning in order to help conservatively manage those conditions. Examination for certification is administered by the Commission on Dietetics Registration (CDR). Length of Training: Bachelors + 1 year dietetic internship Cost: $$$LOTS
30. Speech Language Pathologist: A speech pathologist evaluates and treats communication and swallowing disorders. They see all their own patients in the hospital and write their own notes as a doctor would. They are specifically needed in an ICU setting for patients who were on mechanical ventilation or patients who are post-stroke. This requires years of training and is a good option for someone who already worked as a speech language pathologist previously. Examination for certification is administered by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Length of Training: Masters +400 clinical hours Cost: $$$LOTS
31. Mental Health Counselor: Do you have a passion for mental health? Psychiatry is a field of medicine too, don't leave it out! A mental health counselor conducts mental health assessments, develops treatment plans, applies restraints, provides suicide screenings, leads individual/group therapy sessions, runs preventative mental wellness classes, and makes referrals to a psychiatrist. The length of training is very extensive, so this is a good option for someone who was a mental health counselor previously. Length of Training: Doctoral degree (7 years) Cost: $$$ LOTS
32. Athletic Trainer: Are sports your thing? An athletic trainer works directly with athletes under the supervision of a physician. They provide preventative services, emergency care, clinical diagnosis, therapeutic intervention, and rehabilitation of injuries/ chronic medical conditions that affect game play. This should not be confused with a personal trainer, which most likely won't count toward your patient care hours. Personal trainers work with clients in a gym setting, whereas athletic trainers work with patients in a physical therapy setting or in a cardiac rehabilitation setting. Examination for certification is administered by the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA). Length of Training: Masters Cost: $$$LOTS
33. Child life specialist: Is pediatrics your thing? A child life specialist works with children in a medical setting serving as emotional support, helping families with coping strategies, helping to explain medical jargon to children, and keeping children calm and occupied during medical procedures. You can become a certified child life specialist by the Association of Child Life Professionals after graduating college with a degree in child development, psychology, or other life sciences. Length of Training: Bachelors Cost: $450 (exam)
34. Dental Hygienist: A dental hygienist removes plaque and polishes patient's teeth during routine check-ups, performs oral cancer screenings, educates patient's on proper dental hygiene technique, and assists dentists during dental procedures. Again, this is probably a good route for someone who was already a dental hygienist previously and is looking for a change in career vs. a recent college graduate. Length of Training: 2 years Cost: $$$LOTS
35. Vet Tech: Are you an animal lover? A vet tech works under the supervision of a veterinarian assisting with medical diagnosis and treatment of animals. CASPA does not specify what species the patient has to be, but I think it goes without saying that you need human health care hours. They want to know you weren't just a vet school reject applying to PA school as the next best thing. This would be one of my last choices, personally. You can become a certified vet tech through the American Association of Veterinary State Boards (AAVSB), or you can simply start working and learn as you go. Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
36. Pharmacy Tech: A pharmacy tech works under the supervision of a pharmacist at a community or hospital pharmacy to dispense prescription medications. Although you do come in contact with patients on a daily basis, there's no skin-to-skin contact being made. Put it on your application if you have the experience, but I would explore other options for patient care hours. Examination for certification is administered by the Pharmacy Technician Certification Board or the NHA. Length of Training: 10 months Cost: $variable (course), $129 (exam)
37. Clinical Lab Tech: A clinical lab tech performs hematologic, chemical, immunologic, microscopic, and bacteriologic analyses on body fluids. You would learn a ton in terms of interpreting lab results, but this would not count as patient care experience because you aren't coming in contact with any patients down in the lab. Examination for certification is administered by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP). Length of Training: Bachelors (4 years) Cost: $$$ LOTS
38. Clinical Research Assistant: Is research your thing? A clinical research assistant that is directly involved with clinical trials may count towards your hours if you're coming in contact with the actual patients in some way. Most of the time assistants are working more behind the scenes. Research is an awesome thing to add to your resume, don't get me wrong, but for whatever reason it's a little more "med schooly" than "PA schooly". Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
39. Patient Safety Aide: A patient safety aide provides 1:1 attention to "high-risk behavior" patients. They observe patients to make sure they either don’t get out of bed unattended or don't pull on lines, tubes, or dressings. You probably won't gain much medical knowledge from simply baby-sitting a high risk patient for hours, so many programs will not count this as valid hours. This should not be your go-to 1st choice, but is a great thing to add on your resume in addition to other hours. Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
40. Acupuncturist: Are you interested in alternative medicine? An acupuncturist uses thin needles placed through the skin at strategic points on the body to relieve pain through traditional Chinese practices. Many acupuncture patients have low back pain or fibromyalgia. The training is as long if not longer than PA school, so again this is a good option if you've previously worked as an acupuncturist. Examination is administered by the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM). Length of Training: Masters (3 years) Cost: $$$ LOTS
41. Hospital Volunteer: Contrary to popular belief it's definitely possible to get direct patient care experience by being a hospital volunteer. It may not be ideal pay wise, but the major plus is that there's no certification required to volunteer your time! It's fairly simple to sign-up, but does take some time so be patient. You can enroll in things like aqua therapy in the pool with patients or patient cuddling in the NICU. Both allow for direct patient contact. In my next blog post, I will go into greater detail about my experience as a Patient Cuddler and a Special Olympics volunteer. Length of Training: On-the-job Cost: $0
How many hours of patient care experience do I need to apply to PA school?
As a rule of thumb, you certainly do not need millions of years of patient care experience to apply to PA school, but certainly do not apply with zero. Some students find it possible to manage patient care hours during the semester or on the weekends. Other students use summers off to gain their hours. But a majority of students take a year or more off after graduation to rack up their hours. Patient care hours should not negatively interfere with your grades, so however you feel you can best fit the hours into your personal schedule, the better. In terms of exact numbers, most programs are looking for 300-500+ hours minimum of patient care in addition to your hours of volunteer work, shadowing, and research etc. It goes without saying that different programs have different requirements, however, so be sure to double check. If you want to excel your application to the forefront, you should aim for 1,000-2,000+ hours to be amongst the most competitive applicants. This is equivalent to approximately one year of full time employment or several years of part time employment, so be sure not to waste any time hoping something just lands in your lap. Be a go getter. It won't be the last time you have to put in extra effort in this field, I promise.
What kinds of patient care experience do PA schools prefer?
Like I mentioned before, PA programs want to see you get your hands DIRTY. The more bodily fluids you're coming in contact with the better, to be honest. They want to know that you aren't going to graduate their program and be grossed out by blood or urine or pus or vomit. We truly see it all. All the fluids. All the smells. All the patient personalities. That being said, patient care experience that is the most "hands on" with real live patients is strongly preferred by PA programs. For example, being a medical scribe is wonderful. You learn a lot of medical lingo and you even get to step in patient rooms to transcribe patient encounters at times. Now compare that to a CNA who is changing bed pans on the floors or a PCT who is debriding a dirty wound before the PA goes in to see the patient in the ED. My program specifically prefers applicants who have already experienced the healthcare industry in all of its messy glory. I saw it first-hand sitting in on interviews. They also want a little more from you if you were a PT aide, for example. Why were you a PT aide? Did you really want to go to PT school and this is some type of alternative route? They want you to have a clear sense of direction and if that direction was not always PA school, they want to know why you changed your mind and how you've made steps towards the PA path. Rightfully so, they want PA school to be your first choice. My best advice to any pre-PA students out there would be to get your hands dirty in as many patient care experiences as possible.
Do you have any last minute tips regarding patient care experience for pre-PAs?
First and foremost, keep track of you hours. Stay organized and be sure to write down any contact information from your previous employers down so you have it come application time. Remember that you can only record patient care hours on the CASPA that you have already completed, not hours that you plan to complete in the future, so get started as early as you possibly can. Don't let your certifications expire or you can't put them down on the CASPA. Get paid for your hours if you can. This seems like a no brainer, but you'd be surprised. You'll have plenty of unpaid work experience during your year on clinical rotations, so bring in the dollars while you still can. All patient care experience takes a lot of planning, and preparation, and paperwork, so be proactive! Seriously, get started yesterday. Be unique. This could be the one component of your application that sets you apart from the rest if you're feeling like the rest of your application may be a little on the bland side. And lastly, pick something that you're passionate about. There's a good fit for everyone, you just have to find yours.
What is a living learning community?
This post is for the eager freshmen who wants to engulf themselves in everything medicine related on campus. Since Rutgers is such a large state university with over 60,000 students in attendance, it was really important for me to try to make it seem as small and intimate as possible. When I was considering which campus and which dorm I wanted to request, I came across what Rutgers calls their "Living Learning Communities" (LLC) located on the Livingston campus. I believe the dorm is now on Busch campus in BEST hall, which is actually a much nicer dorm so that's a plus! I looked into it further and found out that it was a dorm specifically for pre-med students interested in pursuing a career in the medical field. Most other large universities have something very similar to this, so I encourage you to look on your school website for more specifics. The health and medicine living learning community at Rutgers is a place where students can share residential and academic experiences while making new friends and exploring common interests together. There are so many perks from moving in early, to getting a special orientation, to finding your classrooms in advance, to getting familiar with the busing system, to sharing classes together. Everything you do is guided with your new group of friends by your side, so college seems a little less intimidating and a lot less lonely. The academic and personal advisement helps guide students to be as successful as they can be during their first year, and it aids the transition from high school life to college life by providing students with all the resources they need at a school that's known to be very "do it yourself".
What were some of the social advantages of joining a living learning community?
At first, I thought this may be a little overboard. I'm a big nerd and all but was this too far? I didn't want to socially isolate myself from the social scene on College Ave even though Livingston was the hip new campus back in 2012. One thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to avoid the "loud party girl roommate". That just wasn't gonna fly with my hours of bedroom studying ahead. I mean the biggest decision after choosing the perfect college is probably choosing the perfect roommate! I wanted to share a room with someone with the same aspirations and work ethic, and this was a great way to almost guarantee that. It turns out it's actually ironic that I chose to live in this dorm for the sole reason of wanting another pre-med roommate because there ended up being an odd number of students and I was the one dorm room with a random roommate. Everything ended up working out with my roommate, Cindy, who was a theatre major from China. Cindy is to this day one of my best friends so there are no hard feelings there. It certainly was a surprise however to find out that she faints at the sight of blood the first time we ever met LOL. It's funny how life works.
What were some of the academic advantages of joining a living learning community?
The LLC set up our schedules for us so that we were taking general biology and expository writing together. This was awesome because as a Freshman I never felt alone in any of my courses and there was always someone right down the hall for nightly homework help or study group sessions. We were also all enrolled in a 1 credit first-year interest group seminar (FIGS) that met once a week with all the members of my dorm to discuss specific topics of interest to pre-med students. Through my dorm I was able to attend a lot of programming I would have otherwise not had the opportunity to attend such as personalized tours of all our classrooms prior to the first day of classes, connecting with professors on a more personal level, pre-med student advice panels from more senior students, volunteer opportunities, study skills workshops, medical museum field trips, social events, and so much more.
What kind of mentoring do you get by joining a living learning community?
As a member of a LLC, I had a "peer mentor" who was a year older than us (and lived in the pre-med LLC the year prior) who lived in the dorm with us. It was so nice to have someone who just went through the exact same class schedule as you to ask for advice and study tips. Anything from professor recommendations to passed down study guides, our peer mentor was an extremely valuable resource to have. So not only did I have an RA to go to for regular freshman type questions, but also a peer mentor who had a year of experience in our shoes and a year of advice to give. It's so nice to surround yourself with like-minded individuals who share the same passions and goals as you do, especially when the road ahead looks like a bumpy one. Misery loves company... I've definitely said that during PA school once or twice too, but it's so true. The motivation surrounding me in my LLC only made me want to work harder. I met some really awesome friends from my dorm that I still keep in touch with today. The living learning community can also provide you with a potential leadership opportunity if you so choose to become a peer mentor the following year. Apparently now there is even a "sophomore experience" option for students that wish to continue living with the same group of students, which was not a thing at the time I joined. Just more proof that students really do enjoy living with other like-minded individuals.
What are the eligibility requirements to join a living learning community?
The health and medicine living learning community is a self-selected group of first year students. In other words, you just have to apply! To be eligible to apply, students must be enrolled in either the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, or the Business School. Students must place into expository writing and pre-calculus or higher. Lastly, students need to submit an application online. Once you submit your application, someone will call you for a very quick phone interview just to double check you’re a good fit and have all the proper information. Pretty simple, unlike PA school application requirements!
All in all it was a great experience for a little fish in a big pond, and I'm really happy I decided to go for it!
Let's talk letters and numbers. Kindergarten had its fair share of ABC's and so will college. Here's an encouraging story for all of the college students out there who have been told "you can't". It's a story for those of you who were told to give up on your dreams of becoming a PA all because of one bad letter grade in a science course. Towards the tail end of my freshman year, I went to the Rutgers Health Professions Office (HPO) to meet with a counselor. I wanted to proactively go over the next courses and steps I should be taking in order stay on track for applying to the Rutgers accelerated 3+3 program. The counselor looked at my transcript and scanned through my course grades briefly. For the most part, I was a straight A student with an occasional B here and there. But nobody's perfect. General chemistry 2 was a really rough course for me, to say the least. The exams were high intensity, fast-paced, and very complex after hours of poor instruction in the classroom and self-taught studying in the library. Everyone has that one course and this just happened to be mine.
A quick interruption to present a sneak-peak into the nightmare that was chemistry:
To this day, I still have nightmares. I simply did not have good chemistry with chemistry, if you will. My chem 2 final exam was ridiculously, stupidly hard. That's the only way I can describe it in words. It was the type of hard where your stomach just sinks as soon as the professor says "pencils down". The chemistry department made us hand in our scantrons at the end, but would allow us to take home our answer booklets so that we could grade our work at home. The professor would post the answers up on our school site about 30 minutes after every exam. I pulled up the answer key and started to grade my test in my dorm room. As I went through the first two pages of my exam, every single answer was wrong. Every. Single. Answer. I stopped. I couldn't even continue grading knowing I probably failed the final exam and therefore the course. I went into full panic mode at this point. I called my mom sobbing because what else is a stressed out student to do. As any good mother should, she started coming up with 300+ plan B's for my future. I looked intently at the answer key in disbelief as my mom rambled on in comfort and my eyes linked with the year "2012" on the top of the pdf.
Me: "Mom, it is 2012 right?"
Mom: "No, it's 2013."
Me: "Wrong answer key."
It turns out I started grading my exam with the wrong answer key. This is a great way to give a parent a heart attack in case anyone was wondering! I did end up passing my final exam, but I certainly did not perform well enough to maintain that grade in the B range. At that point I was honestly just glad I didn't have to retake the course. I mentally don't think I could have handled taking it twice, so I'm thankful it never came down to that. But just like that, my transcript got the dreaded C+ stamped on it for good.
What were my stats?
As a pre-PA student, I was always curious about what other PA students "stats" were like when they applied and how my stats compared to theirs. It's really an impossible thing to do. You can't just compare stats because there's an actual person behind those stats and that matters equally as much if not more. Remember, I am just one example of a student from my program and every year the standards are raised that much higher. Regardless, here were my stats upon applying to PA school:
Undergrad GPA: 3.65
Science GPA: 3.41
Volunteer hours: 1,000+ hours
Patient care hours: 250+ hours. PA Programs are a little more lenient on patient care hours for 3+3 students considering we are coming directly from undergrad with limited time to work minus weekends or summers. Most programs expect close to 2,000 hours.
Shadowing hours: 300+ hours
Stay tuned for my blog posts on how I acquired my volunteer, patient care, and shadowing hours!
Anyways, back to the HPO counselor meeting, she took one look at that C+ and told me very bluntly that I should not even bother applying to PA school because of it. Did I listen to her? No. But what if I had? This just goes to show you that one professor, one course, one advisor should never be the end all be all of your future. Is PA school extremely competitive to get into? Absolutely. My classes average undergrad GPA upon their acceptance into the program was a 3.75. Many of us had one poor letter grade, but we also all took harder science courses after that and performed better to redeem ourselves. Organic chemistry1&2, for example, is one of the hardest courses at Rutgers and our exams were comparable with the Ivy leagues. I took three science courses at once during my orgo years and still managed to pull through with A's and B's. One thing I will say about your grades in undergrad is that thick skin and grit are two things most programs rank above actual letter grades. If you do poorly in a course take two harder courses and prove you can do better. Take more than one science course at a time. Anyone can pass just one, so try handling two or three per semester. You have to keep in mind that if you're accepted into PA school someday, you'll be juggling 9 core sciences at a time, and they need to know you can handle their rigor; so it's your job as a pre-PA student to show them you can.
Don't let anyone ever tell you "you can't". Never give up on a dream, no matter how big or small. Try again, fail again, fail better.