PA Personal Statement

April marks one of my favorite months, as the CASPA application season opens its’ doors to another year of hopeful, dream chasing pre-physician assistant students, all competing for the same seats in PA programs across the country.

For us at Medgeeks, it marks a time to buckle down. Not only do my days consist of seeing patients and dictating notes, but editing physician assistant personal statements and doing mock interviews.

It marks another transition into what we love to do best: helping students take the next step toward an acceptance letter to physician assistant school!

We have written pieces previously in regards to the CASPA cycle in general, interviews, but today we will focus on arguably the most important piece to the application, the physician assistant personal statement.

Today’s article will be solely focused on one thing: how to write a personal statement for PA school.

Now would be an appropriate time to fill up another mug of coffee, as today’s article will have a great deal of important information. We’ll look at tackling the personal statement, step by step, provide you with 10 general tips to improve your essay, and discuss common pitfalls that we read in students who submit their essays to us for critique.

Here we will list out our 6 steps to a successful essay and then we will circle back and discuss each step individually:

  • Step 1: General preparedness/Brain storm
  • Step 2: Narrow down to central themes/ideas/examples
  • Step 3: Stay motivated, believe in the process!
  • Step 4: Finalize your topic and theme
  • Step 5: Strive to have a “stand out essay”
  • Step 6: Take a step back and a deep breath

 

General Preparedness/Brain storm

Step 1 is the piece that lays the foundation for the essay and it is one that is accomplished over a period of months to even years. For those who are confident that they want to enter the PA profession, I recommend a quick trip to the CASPA website for a general review of the logistics, but we’ll also cover it here.

The statement’s prompt is as follows: “…a brief statement expressing why you would like to be considered for the programs you are applying to…”. Many students take this as “why do you want to be a PA”, which is another central theme followed.

The logistics are important because they play a large role in the ability to submit the essay. The space limit for the essay is 5,000 characters. Important to note, characters are not synonymous with words. Letters, apostrophes, spaces all contribute to this total. As the essay is written (or pasted in like most people do) into the CASPA page, a number below will indicate how many characters are used. Microsoft word also has a character counter that I highly recommend looking at while the essay is being written.

In addition to making the CASPA process familiar, it is also important for the applicant to start thinking early and often about possible central themes for the essay. Many applicants focus on personal experiences, an experience a family member had with the health care system, or a previous clinical experience with a patient.

This part of the essay planning is very key because it allows the applicant to work through many different ideas that might end up being used for the essay.

In my experience, I probably had 5-6 different central ideas or experiences that could have been the central theme for my personal statement.  Writing them down clearly and often was helpful to help me organize and document my thoughts. 

Candidates should think about experiences both professional and personal that made a meaningful impact or motivated them to enter the healthcare field.  The initial stage may have many different edits and the central theme in general may change entirely multiple times throughout this process.

For me, I wrote and re-wrote many ideas during this portion or toyed with different ideas in my head. It is important to note that as we progress through our life, a new experience or idea may also arise.

 

Narrow Your Statement Down to Central Themes, Ideas, and, examples

Step 2 is where the process starts to be narrowed down. As discussed above, there may be a great deal of ideas, experiences, and themes which are apparent throughout the applicants journey.

For me, the process of step 2 was to get organized and narrow down to the top 2 to 3 ideas. At one point during my planning process, I had scattered papers, Word Documents that had a lot of differing information and themes. Narrowing down to the three most influential ideas helped guide the skeleton for the themes in my personal statement and kept the process moving.

 

Stay Motivated, Believe in the Process!

Step 3 is a step that is fluid throughout the process which is to maintain a positive outlook/attitude.

Personal statements are tricky by nature. The goal is to explain one’s life aspirations with a limited amount of space, to a complete stranger. Let’s pause and let that sink in for a moment.

Imagine how difficult that is?

With this being said, the entire process for a CASPA application can be very daunting and exhausting. We tend to find that students express the most angst and frustration over the personal statement.

Maintaining a positive outlook throughout the entire process is very important because it keeps us motivated. During my junior and senior year of undergraduate education, I focused on many different themes and edited my statements many, many times.

There were times where I abandoned complete drafts because I did not like the way my writing sounded or did not feel I was articulating my points clearly. It was very easy to get discouraged, but I kept my mind on my goals and persevered. You must as well in order to be successful. The average applicant submits many edits, revisions and drafts, all moving toward the final piece.

 

Finalize your Topic and Theme and Strive to have a “stand out essay”

Step 4 and 5 are where the essay really starts to flourish. At this point, the candidate finalizes the central theme of the essay and strives to have a standout essay. These two steps are placed together because they are usually accomplished simultaneously.

The goal of step 4 is to finalize the one theme that will be the basis for the essay.

Some students tend to focus on one particular experience and use this throughout the entire essay, which is totally fine. An example might be a personal experience as a patient in an ER setting, a family member’s experience with chronic disease, or a single patient experience. The experience matters less than the candidate’s ability to show readers that it was a meaningful, life changing and motivating experience.

Other students may have a few different, shorter examples that were also key in their motivation. For example, a student may discuss a family member’s illness, but then may use another example of how they were able to apply what they learned during this experience to a subsequent patient care experience that they encountered.

We group step 4 and 5 together because they are fluid.

While the central theme is narrowed down and the essay is written, the candidate should also strive to have a unique essay that stands out from the rest. Candidates should focus on being unique, using experiences to their advantage, writing well, avoiding being generic, and most importantly keeping the reader engaged.

The central question throughout step 4 and 5 and what we preach upon throughout our edits with students is “why would an admission committee want to meet you”?.

In the steps discussed above, the candidate writes their essay with the goal of having a statement that stands out from the rest. In a world of students with straight A averages and similar GRE scores, the personal statement is the chance to stand out from the pack and we firmly believe this at Medgeeks.

Although the format and layout of the essay is really up to the writer, we do have some specific suggestions about the overall organization of the statement.

We find that the most successful essays have an introduction that hooks the reader into the topic, followed by body paragraphs, each with a central theme that tells a story of personal and professional growth.

Essays with the best success are frequently reverting back to the original theme of “why do you want to be a PA” or “why do you think you should be considered”.

A conclusion quickly summarizes the statement, provides goals for the future, and sprinkles a little bit of confidence in the future, all while having smooth grammar, good word choice, and fluid ideas.

 

Take a step back and a deep breath

Step 6 is the final step in the personal statement process. At this point, the candidate has spent months or years perfecting, editing, and revising that perfect personal statement. Many ideas have been considered, but the final cuts have been made and the central theme is complete. At this point, step 6 is to take a step back.

I personally recommend that once the final draft is complete, students do not focus on the essay for a few days and come back to it. After a period of time away, the essay should be re-read and the student should ask themselves if they are really satisfied with the essay. Are the themes what you wanted? Are you happy with the way you have explained your experiences? Do you feel confident that someone would want to meet you to consider you for their program?

If the answer to the above review is YES, we are ready to move on. If the answer is no, I recommend circling back to Step 4.

At this point, I recommend sending the statement to friends, family, or a professional service such as Medgeeks for review. Having outside eyes look at the statement is not only great for grammatical errors, word choice, and organization, but feedback on the reader’s experience is very helpful. I also recommend sending the essay to family members/friends who are NOT in healthcare. It is important to have someone outside of the healthcare world to read the essay for a different look at things.

Once the edits from family, friends, and colleagues have been received, it is up to the candidate whether to incorporate them. In our editing process, we suggest different wording, organizational adjustments, and others, but always with the caveat that these are our suggestions to improve the essay. When the final edits are made, the essay can be placed into CASPA, assuring that the character count is within limits.

At this point, I recommend reading the essay (both silently and out loud) one last time prior to submitting.

I’m hopeful that our step by step process for writing the perfect personal statement is helpful and provides some organization for what can be a very difficult topic. Many students tells us that finding a place to start and identifying the correct steps is very difficult. Throughout our experience in editing hundreds of personal statements over the past few years, our process works.

 

How to Improve Your Personal Statement

Now we will move on to 10 tips and recommendations that can help essays go from average to excellent. All of these steps are fluid throughout the process.

  • Avoid mentioning a specific PA school (unless you are only applying to one).
  • Do not go over the character limit!
  • Poor editing shows a lack of attention to detail.
  • Edit your essay often.
  • Edit it even when you think you have perfected it
  • Read our essay out loud to catch word choice and choppiness.
  • Why would an admission committee want to meet you?
  • Strive to stand out from the rest by being unique and motivated.
  • Do not plagiarize words, ideas, or themes.
  • If you find an error after submission, send a correction to the programs you applied to.

In addition to some of the general tips and recommendations that can help improve your essay, in our experience we have also found things that the candidate should avoid.

It is very difficult to predict what specific programs look for in their essays, but general mistakes can certainly be avoided. Here are some of the most common pitfalls we see at Medgeeks:

  • “Ever since I was a young child I played with a doctor’s kit”
  • Not introducing the prompt soon enough in the essay.
  • Not using clinical/personal experiences.
  • Regurgitating the CASPA application.
  • Discussing the ability to move from specialty and “laterality of the profession”
  • Having spelling errors, grammatical errors, and poor word choice.
  • Going over the character count.
  • Not capitalizing on the strengths and experiences that define you.

We’ve spent a lot of time together today and I hope that this piece has been meaningful to you.

The personal statement can be one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle that completes the PA school application, but with a step by step guide, tips to abide by and pitfalls to avoid, we are confident in you!

In addition to our comprehensive guide to writing the personal statement, we also provide professional editing services aimed to help improve your chances of matriculating to the school of your choice.

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