Usually variations of this question go along the lines of:
- What courses should I take to get into PA school?
- What kind of extra-curriculars should I be involved in?
- Or in essence: “What do I need to do to look like the ideal PA candidate?”
These are quite subjective questions to ask, so the answers you get will depend on who you ask. Advice I give here is reflective of a personal opinion, and does not reflect schools, admissions, PA employers.
I hesitate to provide specific answers to these questions. The experience and background of students that get into PA programs are so diverse, and the ideal PA candidate is not cookie-cutter. I do not have a list of activities or courses that one should take to get in, but here are a few things to keep in mind as you build your pre-PA school experience:
When I think about what makes a great Physician Assistant, and often what employers will look for are a certain set of personality traits and attitudes – a commitment to lifelong learning, initiative, being a self-starter, having stellar communication skills (listening, speaking, body language), empathy and self-awareness, receptivity to feedback, assertiveness, being a team player (someone who can both lead, and follow). etc. Most people can acquire knowledge and recite a textbook; however, soft skills, personality and attitude is something that you can’t teach someone.
The PA profession is a small, but growing community and programs are looking for individuals who will practice excellence in patient care, and help move the profession forward in terms of advocacy, leadership and mentorship (a willingness to give back to the profession).
If you are struggling with where to start, get in touch with some PA students and practicing PAs and find out what they did in their undergraduate as a starting point.
- You can get a good idea by signing up for LinkedIn and browsing through some PA profiles – they often list what courses they took, where they did their undergrad, and sometimes what extra-curriculars they were involved in.
- Go to a PA program information session (each PA school does one once a year) and speak to current PA students and alumni there. You can find out directly what they did in their undergrad – courses, extra-curriculars, work and volunteer experience.
You might browse other PA’s who have BHSc or BSc degrees, Master’s experiences in epidemiology, or a career as a social worker or paramedic prior to getting into the PA program.
Like any professional program, and many jobs today – employers, schools are looking for well-rounded individuals, those who excel both inside and outside the classroom.
Your interests are your own, you should pursue what YOU are passionate about – not what you think will look good on a resume or an activity that might impress someone on admissions. General interview advice on most articles you read usually goes along the lines of “be yourself”, but for interviews its important to present the “best version of yourself” – be professional.
What undergraduate courses should I take if I’m Pre-PA?
Check PA Program Admission websites (see links above) to find out what the pre-requisite courses are required to get in. Sign up for those courses, do well. As to what other courses to take: take courses that you are genuinely interested and will help you grow soft skills (e.g. leadership, communications, team work, etc. ).
You do not have to take health/medical care related courses unless specifically outlined in the admissions criteria. You will learn/re-learn these subjects in PA school anyway.
What extra-curricular activities should I be involved in?
Some sites recommend doing volunteering at some kind of health care setting – hospitals, clinics, nursing homes. I can see health-care related experiences are good for a number of reasons:
- You can familiarize yourself with how the health care system works
- You get early exposure to patients you may be working with in the future.
Unless a PA Program requires direct hands-on patient experience, pre-PA health care exposure is not a necessity.
As mentioned before, pursue activities and causes YOU are interested in pursuing. Ask yourself – what activities would help you in your personal development and growth? What activities do you enjoy or feel you can add value/make meaningful contributions to the community/society?
The point being: the skill-set you develop for partaking in these activities (leadership, communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, creative thinking, etc) are transferable and will help you on your way to becoming a great PA. Examples can include being on the exec of a student club, sports teams or intramurals, volunteering at a local shelter or health/community organization, the list is endless.
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