What led to your initial interest in the physician assistant career? What motivated you to pursue it?
My first exposure to the PA profession came when I saw a dermatology PA for a routine check up as a teenager. At the time, I was considering medical school but I became intrigued by the PA profession as my PA explained her role in the healthcare team and educational background. I shadowed multiple PAs and this reinforced my interest in the field. I ultimately chose the PA profession because I liked the high levels of face-to-face time with patients, the accelerated education/training, the flexibility to change specialties, and the opportunity to be a unique, yet important, part of the healthcare team.
What did you major in and why did you choose this area of study?
I majored in Kinesiology and minored in Spanish! I would highly recommend Kinesiology to anyone interested in the healthcare field. I knew I was going to take many Biology courses as pre-requisites for PA school so I chose Kinesiology because it was a good complement to the nitty-gritty, rigorous, biology/chemistry classes I took. With Kinesiology I took classes that were multifaceted and oftentimes more clinically applicable than my basic science courses. I loved my Kinesiology classes like Nutrition and Contemporary Health Issues - classes that were both extremely interesting and relevant to me. The Kinesiology program is also smaller and all the professors are wonderful and approachable!
I minored in Spanish because I fell in love with the language in high school and didn't want to lose my proficiency in college. I would recommend minoring in a subject that you are truly passionate about, regardless of its connection to medicine. In my interviews, I spoke more about my Spanish classes than my pre-requisite courses and I definitely believe this skillset/passion helped me stand out.
What activities were you involved in at UVA?
I was involved with Future Physician Assistant Society, Madison House Medical Services, Greek life, Seeds of Hope, and Relay for Life. I also volunteered as an EMT with the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad.
Did you take a bridge year before starting PA school? If so, what did you do during that time and how did it help you prepare for your next step?
Yes, and I highly recommend a bridge year to pre-PA students. Although there are certain pre-requisites that all PA schools require (such as 2 semesters A&P), most programs vary in terms of math, psychology, english, and biology electives (cell bio vs. genetics, etc.). Because of this variation its very difficult to take all the pre-reqs in 3 years in time to apply by the start of 4th year to avoid a gap year. Taking a bridge year not only gives you more time to complete all the programs' pre-requisites, but it also allows for more time to accrue clinical hours, which is arguably the most important part of PA school preparation. You are allowed to apply to some programs with unfinished pre-reqs and/or patient-contact hours, but its such a competitive application process that finishing up everything you need and taking a gap year is worth it in my opinion.
I used my gap year to gain more clinical hours, complete my PA school application, and interview at programs. I continued to volunteer with the rescue squad and got a job as a medical scribe working in a doctor's office. I accrued 1,600 total patient-care hours by the time I submitted my application in June. I interviewed at PA programs from August to December. Taking a gap year was very helpful because it allowed me more time to focus on preparing for and traveling to my interviews. It's also refreshing to have a break between UVA and PA school, which will be very rigorous and time-intensive.
What distinguished your bridge year experience from other options you might have pursued?
I got most of my direct patient contact hours as an EMT so I chose to scribe because it was a change of pace from what I was used to. I really liked scribing for a family practice because it allowed me to work regular hours and get paid (unlike EMT) and the company gave me days off to attend my interviews without question. I also learned so much working in a family practice office because they see such diverse cases and patients. Since I accompany the physician to see every patient, I also began to truly understand the physician's thought processes and clinical decision making, which is invaluable experience.
How did you prepare for the PA application process?
- Pre-requisites: I started taking pre-requisites my first year so early preparation is key! I had an excel document that had listed each PA program and their pre-requisite courses (you can find this on the program's website). I mapped out which semesters I would take all my pre-requisite courses then updated it as needed.
- Direct patient contact hours: I volunteered as a physical therapy technician during my second year because I wanted to start getting experience but couldn't get into an EMT class at the time. I took an EMT class my third year and accumulated the majority of my hours with the rescue squad as a third and fourth year.
- Professional networking: Another part of PA preparation is professional networking for shadowing opportunities and letters of recommendation. I reached out to PAs that I had personally seen or that my family knew. I shadowed 5 PAs in different specialties. Not only did this reinforce that PA is the path for me, but it gave me something to discuss in my application essays/interviews. One of the PAs I shadowed wrote me letter of recommendation for my application.
- Interviews: I complied a list of common interview questions (from google searches) on a word document and typed out my response to each question as well as a bullet point list of specific things about myself/experiences that I wanted to communicate to my interviewer if applicable. You definitely don't want to sound too rehearsed, but its easier to prepare thoughtful, coherent answers ahead of time and have those in mind. I interviewed at 10+ schools and skimming over my notes before each interview allowed me to feel calmer and more confident.
I've been accepted to multiple programs. I will be attending Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. I begin in May 2017!
What advice do you have for others considering a career as a PA?
- Organization and planning is key! I made an excel document that listed my top 10 programs and their pre-requisite courses, clinical hour requirements, whether or not they require the GRE, their CASPA application deadlines, and whether or not they require a supplmental application.
- Get good letters of recommendation. I highly recommend getting at least 3 LORs - 1 from a professor, 1 from a supervisor who oversees your clinical hours, and 1 from a PA. These cover all your bases. It may seem obvious, but having a PA write the LOR is much preferable to a physician.
- Apply early in the application cycle. I can't stress this enough! The earlier you submit your application - especially if all your pre-reqs, hours, and GRE are completed - the better your chances of being invited for interviews. CASPA opens in late April each year. I finished all my applications, including supplementals, by mid-June.
- Shadow! Even though not all schools require it, I had over 80 shadowing hours in 5 different specialties. Shadowing is an easy thing to do over summer and winter breaks and shows schools you are committed to and knowledgeable about the PA profession.
- Make your application essay unique. Its hard to stand out but try your best! For example, I opened my essay talking about my freckles. It was unexpected but I connected it to my exposure to the PA field and subsequent healthcare experience. A couple schools mentioned my essay which shows they actually do read them!
- Get involved with the Future Physician Assistant Society. Not only are they a great resource but it looks good on your application.
- I met with an advisor to go over my resume and application essay, which was definitely one of the most helpful things in preparing my application materials.
- I also signed up for the "Pre-Health Pulse," which is a newsletter than contains many helpful blog posts, links, and upcoming workshops.
Lauren is happy to speak with UVA students considering a PA career. If you'd like to get in touch with Lauren, please contact a UVA Pre-Health Advisor.