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How to Prepare for PA school

The journey from an acceptance phone call or letter indicating that our hard work has paid off and we have been accepted to PA school can be a joyous, yet stressful time. As the reality of this next career step begins to take flight, students can be filled with excitement, but at the same time anxiety and trepidation about the future. As part of our tutoring and motivational interviewing, we work with a lot of students who are accepted, all of whom have the same question: How do I prepare for PA school?

Today, we will review all things preparing for PA school. The biggest category that we get questions about is in regard to academics. Everyone is aware that PA school is a tremendously difficult, fire hose streaming source of information, examinations, and learning. Many students who get an acceptance start to worry about the academic nature of the program, sometimes even wondering if the admission committee made a mistake. Why did they choose me? Am I truly ready to jump into such an academically driven environment?

Do I really deserve an acceptance?

The answer is yes, yes you absolutely do. My biggest piece of advice in regard to preparing for the rigor of a PA program is trust the process. Admission committees’ jobs are to choose students who they feel will be successful in their program but will also be able to pass the boards. ADCOMs jobs depend on it, because if they choose students who are not ready, the program will fail. Students should trust that their past experiences, leadership ability, academic achievements, and the ability for an admission committee to choose the right student will all help them be successful PA students and eventual Physician Assistants.

How can I prepare for PA school?

As a follow up to these feelings, another common question we receive is “What can I study to help me prepare for PA school?” This is where I challenge students to again, trust the process. We feel like we have to get a leg up because PA school is going to be so difficult, we might as well start studying now. This is wrong. I strongly encourage students not to pre-study for PA school. There is very little benefit to studying anatomy, pathophysiology or other topics prior to PA school. As a student, you are not able to pick out what is important, so studying unfamiliar topics is low yield and takes away from other things that we should spend more time preparing for.

Should I pre-study anatomy and physiology?

            I may be in the minority for advising against studying, but getting an acceptance is a time to relax, relish in the accomplishments we’ve achieved, and prepare from an emotional, mature, and physical aspect. You’ve earned a break and PA school will be a blur of information that trained clinicians and program staff will help guide you through, so please, avoid trying to “get a leg up”.

            Some programs may choose to give you an assignment prior to PA school. For our program, it was reading a medical terminology book to help assure that everyone was on an even field when it came time to go to the trenches. I did find that this was helpful to provide us with basic terminology, pathophysiology, and a very brief introduction to pharmacology. The book is pictured here:

Medical Terminology

 

What things besides studying before school, will help me succeed?

With that being said, there are definitely better ways that we can spend some time preparing, particularly in relation to time management and multi-tasking. For students who have been out of academia for some time, it is valuable to get into a routine in the months prior to enrolling in PA school, to assure that we are comfortable juggling multiple tasks at once, and assuring that our time management skills are solid. PA school can be a whirlwind of different tasks and topics, so getting used to a hectic schedule is helpful.

What about my physical and mental health? 

In a sense, the more important preparation is for us to be prepared physically, emotionally, financially, and from a family standpoint. As a primary target, we need to make sure we are in good physical health. When I first began PA school, I was woefully unprepared. Quickly throughout the first few months, my stress level soared, I ate poorly, and exercise seemed like a luxury that just was not in the cards. As a result, my sleep habits became poor, caffeine intake soared, and the vicious cycle of weight gain, stress and comfort eating continued.

Time Management is Key to Keeping yourself Healthy.

I recommend that all students get healthy from a physical standpoint. Part of this is having good time management, which is discussed above. In PA school, it can be very easy to put off a run, not go to the gym, or order that pizza so that we do not have to stop studying to cook dinner. Students who are able to already be in the habit of exercising, eating well, and managing their time to account for exercise and healthy eating area already a “leg up” (no pun intended) on the rigors of a PA program.

Your Mental Health and Coping Skills.

It is also important to be in a good place mentally prior to PA school. PA school is notoriously rigorous and can bring us down with its flurry of exams, questions, and topics to learn in such a short time. Having a good mindset to start, allowing time for yoga, meditation and good ability to handle stress is paramount.

Your Support System - Family.

In another sense, it is important not only for the student to know what they are getting into, but also immediate family and friends. PA school is a very difficult time and unfortunately, sometimes we have to choose between academics and family. For example, it was common for me that I could only talk to family a few times per week, when I had free time. This was very challenging and a difficult transition for both parties. In addition, vacations, holidays, and other events are sometimes cut short due to a clinical rotation or an upcoming exam. Discussing these possibilities with family and letting them know that the next two years may be challenging, is important to be up front about.

Living with a Significant Other.

In that same aspect, it is important for the student to identify both from a significant other as well as a family standpoint, whether living together is feasible. For me, it was simple. I was moving across the country and obviously my whole family was not coming. I did not have a wife or children at the time. For others, it can be more difficult. Will one spouse move to another state while the other raises children or keeps working? These conversations can be challenging.

Moving, Housing and Roommates.    

If you are moving for PA school, it is important to find out about the area, where you might live, and proximity to the medical center where you will spend most (all?) of your time. Some universities have on campus housing available for students. Finding a roommate who is also in your program can be helpful. Finding housing prior to PA school is important, because most programs start with academics right away after orientation is complete.

Should I work during PA school or take out loans?

It is also very important to discuss and prepare from a financial standpoint. Many families need to carefully plan finances, as many times one spouse will not be able to generate an income for the time during PA school. For me, it was simply not possible to work. I needed to be sure that I was focusing on my academics. For students, it is important in the months prior to assure that finances are planned out through the program, whether that be with savings from a prior career, or government loans.

Give Yourself Some Breathing Room and Build Up Your Savings.

Students must be cautious to assure that governmental loans are set up and ready to be dispersed during the semester. I can recall trying times during PA school when those of us who were about to have our government loans dispersed were eagerly monitoring our bank accounts, all while our savings dwindled. It is important to always have some emergency money set aside for times like this, to assure that rent payments are not missed. So as a plan, savings accounts should be built up as much as possible prior to PA school. During the actual program, it is very difficult to make phone calls to coordinate these types of things when the class schedule usually coincides with business hours.

Relax and Have Some Fun Before School Starts.

We’ve talked a lot today about the different things students can do to prepare for PA school and you might be surprised that a lot of what we discussed was not academic in nature! I cannot underestimate the importance of relaxing in the few months prior to PA school. This is the most important piece of advice I can offer: PA school is a very rigorous process, the months prior should be spent planning financially, professionally, and physically, but relaxing should also be a priority. So there we have it, relax prior to PA school, get healthy, get your finances in order, and everything else will fall into place, including the academics!