PA STUDENTS • BY AURTHI, PAS1

How I Got into PA School: From Admissions to Acceptance – Part 1 of 2

PA Consortium is compromised of University of Toronto, Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM) and the Michener Institute of Applied Health Sciences. To learn about the PA Consortium program and admission requirements, please visit paconsortium.ca.

Anne: I spent a full day with Aurthi, a 1st year PA student who has been documenting her journey through PA school from kinesiologist on social media!

Here is a rough transcript of Aurthi’s interview, edited for readability. 

About Aurthi

I did my Undergrad at Western University in Kinesiology and in Medical Sciences and I took a lot of science courses, and I think it provided a good foundation for PA school, especially in the first semester, I provided a good foundation for anatomy, physiology and the second semester it’s helping pharmacology as well. Kin and Med science is a good program to be in.

Follow Aurthi on IG @aurthi.pa.

In this article you’ll learn about: 

  1. My Journey Before Getting into PA School
  2. My Pre-PA Health Care Experience Hours
  3. My Cumulative GPA for PA School
  4. How I Studied My Way to a Better GPA
  5. Deciding on PA School vs. Medical School
  6. Applying to American and Canadian PA Schools
  7. Choosing a Canadian PA School to Attend
  8. My Experience Shadowing a Canadian PA

1. Before Getting into PA School

My Extracurricular Activities before PA School

For my extracurricular activities from first year to fourth year, I was part of the Western tennis team and in fourth year, I actually captained the team and that year we won OUA, and that was very special.

I did two mission trips with the habitat for humanity, we went to Thibodaux, Louisiana and we helped with rebuilding houses and stuff for after Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.

Another extracurricular I did was, I was VP internal as part of cultural support services, which was under a university student council. We organized events where we raised awareness for cultural diversity and different issues that came up on campus.

Another extracurricular I did was volunteering at the local walk-in clinic.

I tutored at Oxford learning and I also coached the university tennis club.

When I began volunteering

Volunteering began in high school, grade nine, we had to meet the 40-hour requirement to graduate and I actually started enjoying volunteering. I started off at a retirement home and then, I moved on to work at Joseph Brant Hospital. I would started off in the gift shop and then moved on to ICU and eventually day surgery and eventually I started using my volunteer experiences to navigate different career options.

I then volunteered at a physiotherapy clinic to see if Kinesiology would be a good undergrad option for me.

I enjoyed spending time with different patients and the different populations. At that retirement home, it was more the seniors and then at the hospital it could be a variety of ages. And I got the opportunity to work with athletes at the physiotherapy clinic. This gave me exposure to patient care.

When I started taking on Leadership Roles

I didn’t take on leadership roles at first, because in first year I was a bit trying to get oriented with my academics. And then, as I got comfortable with my learning style and how to study and how to be efficient with my studying, I got more comfortable adding on more extracurriculars.

In third year and fourth year I probably took on more leadership roles in my extracurriculars and a good example would be tennis. Where as captain I had more duties to do, I had to make sure the whole team was happy and the whole team was healthy and fit to be competing. And I was able to work with the coach to come up with lineups and discuss players’ strengths and weaknesses.  I got more comfortable with those leadership positions as I progressed through Undergrad.

2. My Pre-PA Health Care Experience Hours

My Health Care Experience Hours for PA School

For the PA Program, most of my healthcare experience hours came from working as a kinesiologist after graduating. I worked at 2 physiotherapy clinics and the common responsibilities included setting up patients with treatment modalities. ultrasound, tens IFC, and teaching them exercises.

At one clinic, particularly the gym was my office. So, I worked with multiple patients, but I had to make sure their form was good and then, once those exercises became easier for them I had to progress patients to harder or more challenging exercises. And that was really rewarding, to see them go through the recovery process. That’s where I got most of my hours from.

Aside from that, I used my high school experiences as well as some other voluntary experiences I did throughout Undergrad.

In the summer I started off volunteering at a family health clinic close to home. And then the next summer I got hired at the same place to work as a medical assistant to complete patient profiles. I completed a lot of patient profiles and there was a lot of communication required  as some of these patients were ESL. English was their second language and I would have to find alternate modes of communication.That challenged me in a different aspect.

And then there was a walk-in clinic close to university where I did about four to eight hours weekly. Again, it was a different population. It was closer to the rural areas of London in downtown area.

How I found my Kinesiology Position

Well, Kinesiology was an interesting story. After graduating, I couldn’t find a job for two months. I actually took the “Explore Program”  after my fourth year and I applied before I went and even throughout the five weeks I was at the explorer program. I didn’t hear back. And Kin is a very competitive, get because volunteers could do some of those duties, sometimes people prefer to hire volunteers.

It was actually, July, a few months after I graduated,  during a tennis match where I played against my boss’s husband and he overheard me saying that I did my degree in Kinesiology and that I was looking for a job and he’s like, “hey, my wife’s looking to hire!”. So I submitted my resume and then went in for an interview and it was quite far from home and it was an Orangeville and I was in Brampton. So, I had to get a car and get used to it. But that’s how you start.

How I found by job as a Clerical and Clinical Assistant Position

There was a walk-in clinic I worked at close to the university and another clinic I worked at throughout the summer, which was actually my mom’s family doc (not mine) at that time.

I was visiting the clinic with my mom and shared what I did my studies in.. and asked “Are there any opportunities? “ To find Pre-PA Health Care Experience, use your network try to advocate for yourself and say, “his is what my background is, and this is how I can help your clinic”.

Sometimes you have to start off as a volunteer and   prove your skills and prove yourself before you get hired or find better opportunities. And as a student it’s probably best if you can get hired, especially with finances.

How Pre-PAs can Diversify their Health Care Experience Hours

That’s a common question I get from Pre-PAs, they often ask “what should I do my health care experience in to make my application stand out?

The main tip I would give in terms of getting healthcare experiences: There’s no right way, there’s no right magic recipe per se.

Just do what interests you and if you do what interests you, you’ll shine in that field.

And the passion   shows when you speak about it at interviews. in our class particularly, we have people from a variety of backgrounds.

At UofT you require 910 hours of patient care experience. We have people who are paramedics for 23 years, and PA students who were also former sleep technicians, physiotherapists, medical assistants and nurses who chose PA over a nurse practitioners.

Everyone has a different story and everyone’s choice of entering PA school was based on their healthcare experience or at least it played a role in it.

3. My Cumulative GPA for PA School

My Undergraduate GPA

I started off with my cumulative GPA being 3.61 but I think personally I started off really low and this is because I overloaded my first three years because I wanted to add that minor in Medical Sciences.

In first year my GPA was about 3.4 and then in fourth year I finished with a 3.83.  This demonstrated my ability to understand what my learning style was and how to study efficiently while balancing other extracurriculars.

To me, that speaks to the fact that you don’t have to have a 4.0 GPA to get into any of these professional schools. I mean it is nice to have a higher GPA, but even if you don’t, don’t get demotivated because as long as you show progression, or there are other aspects to your application where if you can balance extracurriculars with a good GPA, it still shows you are a strong candidate for the program.

How I balanced extracurriculars and maintaining a high GPA

I’m the type of person who likes to go, go, go. I tried to schedule different activities, for example, sometimes a tennis practice, workout, spending time with friends would help me relieve my stress before I go back into studying. Little breaks or even extracurricular breaks help me accelerate those brief time slots that I had for studying.

I just love variety I don’t like to just sit for like 10 hours and continuously study. I’ll have like a break in between. This is something I’m trying to maintain from Undergrad and in PA school.

4. How I studied my way to a better GPA

Changing Study Habits from High School to University

First year I tried to maintain my study techniques from high school and that was definitely difficult because there was a lot more content and there was less time to study content. You can’t just memorize. That’s why it was a bit difficult for me to grasp those concepts. And I was surrounded by a lot of medical science students who came from Ivy or like had really good study skills.

For finding a good study technique, I tried to learn from my peers and I also started trying out different techniques again and I found what worked for me. I was always the person who would talk out loud or try teach the concepts I was studying to someone.

But as I went through Undergrad I wrote concepts out by hand, and summarize as I did that. I found exploring those different study techniques throughout Undergrad help me and I’m trying to maintain that technique throughout PA school.

But If you’re always learning and you’ll find you are  always modifying your learning techniques. For instance, PA school is super accelerated so you may not have time to write out t all 200 pages of pathology notes.  You’ve got to find different ways and I think group study is something I got into coming into PA school.

How I studied in Undergrad

In Undergrad I think I started off with rote memorization, which is probably not the best from high school to starting to write things out. My whiteboard was probably my best purchase in fourth year university where I used a whiteboard to draw different pathways out.

And I remember for one particular course, Biochemistry, I had to memorize the Krebs cycle and it was brutal. But I kept drawing it out and that process actually helped me.

When you try new study techniques, you do feel a bit vulnerable, for lack of a better term, because you don’t know if it’s going to work until you get to the test.

So, some of those techniques didn’t work for me, but most of the time grateful that it actually worked out in the group study seems to be working for this semester for me.

5. Deciding on PA School vs. Medical School

Initially I was contemplating doing life sciences undergraduate major and then medical school, but I changed last minute to Kinesiology because I thought the anatomy and physiology was a good foundation for any career in medicine – and I was still exploring options.

Moving through first to second year university in my kinesiology degree, I was looking at other options and the third year I was like “okay, maybe its time for medical school”. I applied to medical school, fulfilling prerequisites, maintaining GPA, and then taking the MCAT – and even then it was like half-hearted.

I thought to myself, “I don’t know if this is what I want. There’s a lot of schooling, finances, and then the work life balance while you’re in school as well as after.”  Those were some different factors I considered, and I was still looking at other career options

And then I think it was between second or third year of undergraduate where I literally just googled, “a career in medicine that’s similar to a doctor but shorter schooling.  The PA program at Manitoba actually showed up in the search results, and I couldn’t believe it was real – tt seemed too good to be true.

I did more research and I found more PA schools in the United States, as well as two other schools in Canada – PA Consortium (NOSM, Michener, and UofT) and McMaster University. And I think it was second semester, fourth year,  where I decided “this is what I’m doing. I’m not applying to med anymore because this is   been what I’ve wanted”. And the more I researched about the PA profession, the more I wanted to do it, which I didn’t feel the same for medical school personally.

That was definitely something that happened for me, one of my major epiphanies in fourth year. When I applied, I applied to American PA schools originally because I was a bit hesitant because I thought the profession wasn’t established in Canada. And it wasn’t until I did more research and came across CanadianPA.ca and how there were many trailblazers for the PA profession here in Canada

And I thought, “you know what? I love this profession so much that I would like to be part of this trailblazing community, and contribute to the growth of the profession in Canada.”

So that’s when I changed my mind. I did get an interview invite at a PA School in New York and when I went to the interview is when I realized like it was like quadruple the tuition and it would require major lifestyle adjustments that I had to make in order move to the United States, sorting health insurance, and  multiple other factors too.

There I decided to stay close to home.

6. My experience applying to American and Canadian PA Schools

American PA Admissions

Because the PA profession is more established in the United States, there are way more schools. American Pre-PAs use an online platform called the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) where students can apply to 200+ PA schools across the US.

It requires you list your experiences with a personal background and academic background.

For transcript I had to complete a WES Evaluation (GPA Equivalency service) to ensure my Canadian transcripts, courses and degree were equivalent to an American one.

There is also a personal statement, which is similar to the “supplemental” application in Canada, but some American PA schools required additional mini essay questions answered.

Rutgers PA School was one of the universities where I had to write five essays and you’d have to take bits and pieces from your personal statement but then cater it to that university missions and goals and vision.

A big difference in the United States is that there is rolling admissions. The earlier you apply the better your chances. I did my American applications in May and I think it opened in April. I started early and then I finished it in May and submitted in May.

For Canadian PA Admissions, you can start working on admissions in late fall, and then primary applications due in January the following year, with supplemental applications in February and interviews starting in April/May.

It’s a different timeline but similar processes that you have that one database or one online application where you   add in your different options and add in your experiences. And then follow up with the supplemental application.

GRE/MCAT for American PA Admissions

For the  United States, the MCAT was not required, at least for the ones I applied to. Some of them did say you can add in your MCAT scores if you did take it. But the GRE was required for most of the universities, which definitely limited my options.

I think I applied to seven universities, but looking at other students who apply to PA school or even a med school, I had a couple of friends who applied to med schools and in the states, and we have more options. you would apply to like 20 universities. GREs are a common requirement for universities in the states.

Applying to an American PA School as a Canadian citizen – extra steps

As a Canadian applying to American PA schools, I had to get transcript conversion, the WES evaluation was something that was a common thing for anyone applying from Canada to the states. I think, in terms of course requirements to some of the courses were different.

When compared to Ontario universities and American universities, some of the courses were different, you have to sometimes call in and say, is this equivalent to your organic chemistry or something like

American PA Supplemental Applications asked more open-ended, traditional questions like “why do you want to be a PA?” But for those American PA personal statements, we want to be creative. You want to be capturing the reader’s attention. I personally started off with a story. I started off with me playing on the tennis court and getting a shoulder injury and how that   sparked an interest in sciences and the human body and then my journey from there to Undergrad. it was more like a chronological story, but everyone takes a different approach to personal statements.

And at University of Toronto, you answer questions on a supplemental application that requires you to be succinct and to the point.

Canadian PA Admissions Comparison Chart

7. Choosing a PA School to Attend

Deciding to attend University of Toronto’s PA Program and McMaster

And then between the PA program at McMaster and University –  I had to choose, which was a really tough choice. However, every time I get stuck into a scenario in terms of what to do, and in this case it was Medicine vs. PA, then PA school at McMaster vs. University of Toronto.

I always make like a list of pros and cons and  take some time to reflect on what I want in life, at least for a career choice as well as what works for me in terms of learning style. And that’s how I ended up at UofT’s PA program.

I applied to Manitoba as well but I think there was one course that   stopped my application early for Manitoba; which was Biochemistry.

I personally just like the profession in general and I think for U.S, I tried to narrow my universities because there are,  238 American PA schools and I can’t apply to all of them.

In the United States, writing the GRE was also a major requirement to get into PA School. I did not take the GRE because being straight out of Undergrad it’s a different process. But I try to keep my options open: applying to PA schools in Manitoba, UofT, Mac as well as the states.

8. My Experience Shadowing a Canadian PA

I took a gap year, and did shadowing in my year between completing Undergrad and starting PA school, because I was curious as to what a PA exactly does. You can read about what a PA does, but seeing it in person gives you a completely different experience.

It took a while to find a PA shadowing opportunity in Canada, but I eventually came across the observerships offered by University Health Network and I got three placements. I started off with a PA in General Surgery at Toronto General Hospital and from  there I navigated to a placement with a PA in Radiation Oncology.  I then did an observership with a Neurosurgery PA. I did have an Emergency Medicine PA shadowing placement lined up, which I actually did instead as a placement in my first year PA school.

I think observerships is something I would recommend for someone who is wondering, “what does a PA do?” and “ What am I able to do after going through PA school.”

Reading about a PA vs. Seeing a PA work in Person

During shadowing, I learned that PA Scope of practice varies based on the practice setting, and with whom you’re working with.

For example if a General Surgery PA had more residents or fellows on their team, the PA services would be filling in the gaps in terms of patient care [Anne’s note: (e.g. inpatient/ward management while residents focus on acquiring surgical skills in the OR)].

But if the PA was part of a smaller team (i.e. if there were less residents, fellows or other medical learners like in a community hospital) the scope would change and shift to other clinical duties [Anne’s Note: (e.g. more first assisting, consults, call, outpatient clinics etc.)].

One of the key things to know is that the PA role is very flexible and I think that’s what makes it very unique – that PA’s don’t have a fixed scope of practice. And for someone who likes variety, for me that is very intriguing.

Advice for Pre-PAs who cannot find a Canadian PA Shadowing Placement

Educate yourself about the PA profession through every means.

There are:

Tip for Pre-PAs to find PAs and PA students to speak with

You can learn about the PA profession through PA students and practicing PAs – so if this is available to you reach out to them! You can ask them about their experiences, what they do day-today. And remember it doesn’t have to be in person, it could be over phone, email, LinkedIn, Skype, etc.

PA is a growing profession, and networking is key.

Instagram is a good platform to find PAs to connect with. You find PAs or PA students through Hashtag search, which is how most of the Pre-PA reached out to me.

#CanadianPA #PhysicianAssistants #physicianassistantstudent

For example, we have international medical graduate in our PA class – and I recently had a couple of Pre-PA students who are from abroad who are interested in PA School reach out to me. I was then able to connect the Pre-PA students to our IMG/PA classmate and to start a conversation like that.

Read Part 2 of 2: Aurthi’s 1st year Experience in PA School →