BY ANMOL, 1st YEAR MCMASTER PA STUDENT
Getting Into PA School after 2 years of Undergrad
My Journey before PA School
Before entering PA School, I studied Kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. I really enjoyed this program because it had a strong science-core to it, while also allowing for hands-on learning (for example, working with cadavers in the anatomy labs).
Although it’s not necessary to have a science background before entering PA School, it’s a great foundation to have before entering an intensive program that can sometimes be hard to keep up with! Having prior knowledge is definitely a plus when you have a lot of classes and placements piling up and you want to make sure you can manage your time effectively.
I knew that I could apply to PA school after having completed two years of undergraduate work, so I thought, why not! I started my application for the Physician Assistant Education Program at McMaster in my second year. I overloaded my courses in the first 3 semesters of school because in the second semester of my second year, I was on co-op as an Anatomy and Physiology Tutor for the Practical Nursing Program at Centennial College. While on co-op, I took two extra courses so I could make sure I met the requirements for having 20 half courses completed by the end of my second year! Overloading my courses was definitely a challenge but I chose courses that I was interested in (like French!), because oftentimes those are the courses that we do better in.
My Pre-PA Extracurriculars
While in undergrad, I was involved in quite a broad range of activities outside of the classroom that all contributed to developing my skills, and also helping me to discover what I could see myself doing on a day to day basis.
A few things that I was involved in included volunteering with the World Sikh Organization and the PC Party of Ontario, acting as a Student Strength Coach with the varsity athletes at the University of Waterloo, and being a mentor for peers struggling with mental health.
Like a lot of Kinesiology students, I thought about pursuing physiotherapy as a career choice; to me, physio was all about being hands on with patients and helping them learn how to move their body and become more functional.
Although physiotherapy does involve those concepts, through volunteering at a local sports medicine clinic, I realized that I wanted much more patient interaction and problem solving than what I was seeing at the clinic.
I realized that creating a connection with patients and working through problems that they faced was something that I could see myself doing on a day-to-day basis, whereas in the clinic, most of what I was seeing involved a bit of conversation with the patient and then hooking them up to machines for the rest of their appointment.
One of the most important parts of my undergrad career was when I went on an experiential learning trip to Europe after my first year of university. I was fortunate enough to be chosen as one of thirty university students in Canada to go to Europe to learn about the Holocaust.
Although medicine wasn’t a focus of this trip, a lot of conversation revolved how the medical field contributed to all that happened during the Holocaust. It really put an emphasis on how healthcare professionals are able to influence so many lives from inside their clinic, in their community, and even around the world.
This experience is what led me to realize that I want my career to have an international component to it as well, and that’s something that I can definitely integrate into my work as a Physician Assistant.
Although many of the extracurriculars and community groups I was involved in were not specifically related to medicine, I used my experiences with many of them to answer questions in the supplementary application and the MMI.
An important takeaway for others is that even though you may not be doing something that is specifically related to medicine, it can still help you succeed in the application process, so don’t limit yourself!
Deciding to Become a PA
How I heard about the PA Profession
Not surprisingly, the PA profession had not come up at all while in high school or university. The way that I became aware of the profession was when my cousin got into the program in 2014. Now, she is a practicing Physician Assistant and I was lucky enough to be able to get all the answers I needed from her – from applying, to being in school, being in clerkship, and then working as a PA.
Other Careers I was contemplating at the time
Contrary to what a lot of other people may think, I did not at all want to apply for medical school – it comes as a surprise to many! Personally, I would not like to spend an extra ~6+ years in school after doing my undergrad.
As a student in Kinesiology, I was very interested in physiotherapy as a career choice. However, after volunteering in a physio clinic, I learned that physiotherapy was not the field for me. I realized that I wanted more patient interaction and a bigger challenge in using my medical knowledge to diagnose and treat patients!
Why I decided to pursue PA:
I decided to pursue the PA profession because of many reasons, listed below:
- I get to save a lot of time while at the same time becoming a medical professional. It’s amazing that the PA program and the MD program at Mac are so aligned; I am getting to learn the same things in an accelerated curriculum.
- I enjoy working as a part of a team. Medicine is shifting to a more holistic approach with a team of health-care professionals that are responsible for patient care. Having a supervising physician is a plus for me as well because I think it’s a great way to have someone to constantly learn from.
- Lastly, I am planning to be a part of many international medical aid trips! Although many physicians do take part in international volunteer trips, I think that having more fixed hours as a PA will allow me to be able to take part in these kinds of trips more easily and more often.
Interest in the PA profession from my peers in undergrad
I did mention myself applying to the PA School at Mac to a few of my classmates and none of them knew what the program was. However, once I had gotten in, a few peers who are my age did message me to tell me that they’d like to apply in the future as well. I like to take that as a positive sign that awareness about Physician Assistants is spreading!
Speaking to my parents about becoming a PA
My parents always pushed me to make my own decisions and then stick to them, so once I decided I wanted to apply to PA school they were very supportive of me! However, having a PA in the family definitely made it easier for them to understand why I wanted to go into PA school. For those whose parents are unaware of the profession, education is key!
My PA School Application
Why I decided to apply after 2 years of undergrad
I knew that I wanted to become a PA because I had already done a lot of research into what it means to be a Physician Assistant and where I would fit in the profession, so I decided to apply as soon as I could!
I felt that I had the life skills and the maturity level to apply in second year, and if I didn’t get in, it would be a great way to learn what the application process was like so that I could fine-tune it.
Being able to continue on with my third year of studies if I didn’t get accepted into the program definitely took away a lot of stress from the whole application process.
Challenges of applying as a younger applicant
One big challenge that I found myself worrying about was not having the life experiences that others could bring to the table during the applications. However, I learnt that everyone has their own unique experiences that speak to who they are, and it’s the quality of the experiences that matter, not the quantity!
My Undergrad GPA
My undergrad GPA was around a 3.85
Tips on Keeping a Competitive GPA
Take courses that you enjoy as electives, even if they aren’t science courses!
Learn how you study best – I studied best on my own locked up in my room or at Starbucks J
Take care of yourself! I made it a point to have a lot of balance in my life, and I feel that finding time for yourself contributes to doing better in school.
How I prepared for PA Admissions
Once I decided I wanted to apply for PA school, I had a systematic way of preparing for the admissions process. The first thing that I did was research all of the different PA programs that are available in Canada – there are three: McMaster University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Manitoba.
The University of Manitoba’s PA program is a master’s program and the University of Toronto requires a minimum of 900 clinical hours, so the only PA school that I could apply to was McMaster.
I then looked into McMaster’s program specifically, including their mission statement and curriculum. Every school has their own mission statement that they value and it’s important to be conscious of that mission statement and the type of students that the program is looking for. This can help with the application process, but it can also help you to decide if the program is right for you.
For example, the University of Toronto’s PA Program has a lot of distance education, whereas McMaster really drives home problem-based, group style learning. Some students may excel in both, but some may find they are better suited to a specific learning environment, so being self-reflective in this stage will help you decide which school to apply to.
The next step was to research about the Physician Assistant profession in Canada. I mainly used the CAPA website. It’s a great way to learn about what it really means to be a PA in Canada!
Applying to McMaster’s PA Program
My process for preparing for McMaster’s PA Supplementary Application was identical to prep for the MMI.
In my opinion the most important way to prepare for the MMI was to talk to people. Striking up conversation with family, friends, and strangers about a wide variety of topics helps you practice being a good communicator, a good listener, and gives you a more holistic perspective about a certain topic. Sometimes, instead of trying to read research papers and articles, you can learn a lot about the world from the people around you!
Another way to keep up to date with current medical and public health issues in Canada is to listen to podcasts. They are super convenient – for example, when I’d go to the gym, I would listen to CBC’s White Coat Black Art podcasts.
I also looked through a bunch of online resources, which allowed me to accumulate a wide variety of MMI-type questions that I could practice answering. One thing I did was do a few new questions each day and revisit all the ones I’ve done before as well.
I found that the more I prepared for the MMI the more information and perspective I wanted to add for each question, so I made sure to keep repeating the questions and fine-tuning my answers. I would first practice the questions alone while recording myself so that I could play back my answers and assess my communication skills and style. Then I would hand a list of questions to family or friends and practice with them. Make sure you time yourself to stay within the limit that you will be given for the MMI (usually six minutes)!
Resources I used for PA Supp. App and MMI Preparation
- Doing Right
- University of Washington Medical School Bioethics Modules
- Calgary Guide MMI questions
- BeMo MMI question bank (if you sign up to their e-mails you get access to a list of 100 practice questions)
- CBC White Coat Black Art
- Canadian PA blog posts and interviews!
Why I was successful
Although most people wait until they finish their undergrad, you can apply after two years of undergraduate work. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, so I applied as soon as I could, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted after my first time applying!
I think that I was successful in my supplementary application and my MMI because I found that I could align not only to the core values of who a Physician Assistant should be in this emerging profession in Canada, but also to McMasters values.
When you have done your research, are passionate about healthcare, and can portray yourself as a future professional in this field, it really shows!
My Experience in the McMaster PA Program so far
I absolutely LOVE the PA program at McMaster!
It’s very different from the didactic learning we get in undergrad. The problem-based learning style is so important in the medical field because we are going to need to know what to do when we are presented with problems, not with lecture slides!
There is a lot of support from the preceptors and all of my classmates, which helps us to actually learn the concepts we need to know rather than memorize them for a test.
On top of in-class learning, we get exposure to medicine right from the get-go during our placements, which are great because we get to apply our knowledge as we are learning!
Any final tips or words of encouragement for Pre-PAs?
Choosing to pursue a career as a Physician Assistant is super exciting and super scary at the same time! I think it takes courage to be a part of an emerging profession that most people don’t know about.
A lot of the time, you’ll have to explain to others what a PA is; if that excites you and motivates you to be a part of a group of trailblazers in Canadian healthcare, then use passion to help prepare for the application process.
The most cliché advice is the best advice I can give: be yourself!