Journey to PA School – From an Alumni’s Perspective
Being an undergraduate student can be such a confusing time…I remember not having a single clue as to what career I wanted to pursue or how to get there. I mean, how do you figure these things out, especially if you are the first one in your family to go to college? Well thanks to many teachers and professors challenging and guiding me, it led me down a path that I had no idea I would ever take.
Thinking back to my undergrad days, what always stands out to me are my mentors. Being at California Baptist University (CBU) when it was still quite small was such a blessing because it allowed me to have many of my professors as mentors. Having a mentor, especially someone familiar with the field you are interested in, makes a world of a difference in your journey. These people help to motivate, encourage, challenge, and guide you on your way, at a time in your life that is going to set the foundation for your future no less! Mentors help provide that outside, second opinion and see things that you might not recognize yourself. Many people think they can, or worse–need to do everything on their own. If only they realized that simple, humble encouragement or a gentle nudge could alter their whole trajectory in unexpected ways. All the way from high school to post-grad, I benefited from mentors who helped in every step and decision I made. From simply choosing to go to college, declaring myself as a biology major, to finally pursuing a career as a Physician Assistant (PA), those mentors were always there, helping me through each new challenge.
In addition to having mentors, I feel that having a few steady jobs throughout my undergraduate career really taught me how to be successful. In every job there was something to be learned, related to biology/medicine or not, (much more often the latter). As a secretary, I learned valuable skills in professionalism and conversational etiquette. As a lab assistant, I learned leadership skills and how to teach. Even in my job as a research technician I learned how to work in a team setting and sharpen my understanding of credible research. Little did I know that all of these skills would benefit me in the future and contribute to my success today as I go through the PA program. Continuing that train of thought, other areas that helped me be successful, specifically in the PA program, was my job as an emergency medicine scribe at Loma Linda Hospital; my volunteering opportunities with COPE Solutions in a hospital setting; and at a free health clinic through church. These experiences allowed me to gain clinical skills and medical knowledge, which have been far more important than I could have imagined going into the PA program (yes, far more important than just a high GPA).
Of all of the obstacles and hard work it took to get this far, I definitely recall feeling like the hardest part was just getting into a PA program! To be clear, it wasn’t hard because of the work it takes to apply and attend interviews…that was pretty straightforward. What I’m referring to is that stomach-churning anxiety from putting your heart and soul into everything while endlessly waiting to be hear back from them, surviving and clawing your way through the dreaded interview process, and the constant fear of being rejected. For some people, maybe it’s easy-peasy, but if you’re anything like I am, it’s an intimidating process, to say the least. So right now, I’m going to focus on those people who are like me.
The process of applying to PA school is thankfully quite simple. All of the applications are done through CASPA where you can get everything done in one stop, (yay for convenience). While many have to pay the unforgivably expensive fees to submit applications, it’s always worth trying to apply early and see if you qualify for a waiver. My biggest piece of advice for applications is to get them done EARLY! Application cycles happen once a year. If you wait too long and don’t get things submitted in time or scramble and submit a half done application, you risk having to wait an entire year for your next shot. Also remember: the early bird gets the worm, and PA program applications are no exception! The earlier you submit, the more open spots schools have to give you interviews. My second piece of advice is to make sure someone reviews your personal statement…someone like the career center or a professor, and not just your buddy who did well in English Comp 101. While it’s true that many personal statements can end up sounding similar, it is much better to “blend in” than to stick out in a bad way. Except for you of course, you’re the most special person ever! (Feel better?)
I feel like I’m forgetting something…I guess that’s why they call them repressed memories. As you likely have surmised, I’m referring to the dreaded interview process…filled with sweat, tears, and…is that blood?! Just kidding, it’s doubt. There’s just so many unknowns going into them! I mean, do you be yourself, do you become who you think they want you to be, do you come with your rehearsed perfect answers while trying to somehow not sound robotic and cliché? Should you dress for a funeral, (it may very well feel like one if you aren’t prepared), or dare to stand out? And no two schools or interviewers are identical.
Here comes the good news train though. There is definitely a way to build confidence before interviews, and that is to PREPARE! Many students procrastinate preparing until they are offered an interview and end up with limited time, leading to less confidence during the interview which can destroy their chances. There are many types of interview formats and question types. Each school you interview with will be different and have different values, just like different companies, so do your research! Find examples of questions that are asked and take the time to create articulate answers with specifics, then follow that with doing mock interviews a couple times. Furthermore, record those mock interviews, listen and watch yourself, and you will see what everyone else sees (this takes courage, but so does being a PA). Never underestimate how much the interviewer can see through your answers and get a sense of what you truly know and feel.
Of course, getting accepted is nothing compared to actually attending PA school, even if it does come with similar feelings. Once you are in though, you feel so much closer to accomplishing your goals and you know that if you just keep pushing, you’ll eventually reach that goal.
While CBU’s program only lasts for two years, those two years are jam-packed! The first year is comprised of three semesters of didactic coursework, directly followed by the second year which is three semesters of three 5-week-long clinical rotations each (totaling 9 rotations). The first year was the hardest because there is so much to learn in so little time with multiple exams every week, but you start it off with so much excitement that it helps get you through it (even if on mere fumes by the end). Then second year is such a relief when you finally get to start practicing everything you learned and only have one exam after each rotation. However, second year comes with its own struggles, as you are constantly being critiqued and challenged on your skills and knowledge by your preceptors every.single.day. Then to make it more…”fun”, each rotation is wildly different from the others, requiring a different skill-set, knowledge, and varying schedules. Some are more relaxed and straightforward while others are grueling with long hours and complex cases. And just when you start to feel comfortable after your 5 weeks, SURPRISE, it’s time for the next rotation.
As a current second year PA student at CBU I can definitely say that PA school has been the toughest, most grueling (yet rewarding) time of my life. It is nearly impossible to fully comprehend or even anticipate just how hard it is going to be until you are in the thick of it. Thankfully, being at CBU has made this experience for me much more comforting than it could have been elsewhere. Having a faith-based program with a small class size created a lot of unity and personal encouragement through very difficult times.
Regardless of where you go, PA school is what it is and you have to understand what you are signing yourself up for. Learning how to practice medicine in two years (or three for some programs) is no easy feat and you will realize that it is a lifelong process of learning. It will likely take several years to truly feel comfortable. In order to earn trust as a PA student or PA-C, you have to show that you are capable and confident, yet humble and open to criticism (constructive or not). Now that I am only a couple of months away from graduating I see what everyone means about not feeling ready. No one truly feels ready as a new graduate heading into their career, but it doesn’t mean you aren’t ready. The first few years are always the hardest, but it will all be worth it when you finally get to practice medicine and continue to gain more independence as a clinician. These past two years in PA school at CBU have been tremendously challenging, frustrating, and exciting! I can now look towards moving forward, getting a job, and continuing this journey I’ve been working so hard for. (And yes, that means I’m going to need a PA-C mentor to guide me through the next steps in this crazy process!)
M.S. PA Studies