My Experience in 1st year at UofT PA School

This is Part 2 in our series with Aurthi! The following is a rough transcription, modified for readability.

Read about how Aurthi Got into PA School – Part 1 of 2 in this series.

1. Online Learning at PA Consortium

MYTH: PA Consortium/UofT’s PA program is 100% Online

Most of it is online but there are residential blocks where everyone from the program, wherever they are geographically, all come to Toronto. During the residential block we have in class sessions. Most of it is clinical skills focus because you want to learn your physical exam skills and other hands on skills but there are other courses we take too.

2. Residential Blocks

Residential Blocks:

  • September – 4 weeks long – Intro to the PA Role
  • December – 1.5 weeks long  we had a wrap up for certain courses, followed by an introduction of courses that would be new to us in second semester before Christmas Break.
  • April – 2 weeks long
  • July – 2nd half of July
  • August  – first half of August

Between residential blocks is online learning

Moving on to online learning, that   fills in the gap between those Residential Blocks, and it’s a lot of self-learning.

You are given a set number of lectures and you do that on your own time. And the good thing about online learning is you get to schedule your own day. Tuesdays every week are designated for LCEs (longitudinal clinical experiences / clinical placements), then you have the other days of the week to work around that.

Most courses are delivered as recorded lectures

You then have weekly online meetings for each course to make sure you’re staying on top of things. And this could be through class discussion or this could be through quizzes to make sure you’re up to date. it helps yoy keep on top of things.

The time between residential blocks, that is, online learning is probably the time when most of the people fall behind. But you do have the in-class portions (residential blocks) where you are able to mingle with class.

How tests work in PA Consortium

For minor tests & quizzes, these are delivered online at home. However for tests you actually go to a proctor location. For those closer to Toronto, you go to a building University of Toronto’s campus and take the test. For people who are further away, the PA student actually sets up their “test taking” site, which is approved through the UofT PA program coordinator. Sometimes these “test” are  five minutes from home for the PA student. Sometimes these “test” sites are a bit of a longer drive. There’s a lot of flexibility and the program tries to make it work for you.

Making Arrangements to stay in Toronto for the Residential Blocks

AirBNB is a common, option for the students who are coming from afar. And I think from September residential block to December, there are a lot of people who start pairing with other classmates to get a place together. Choosing a location to stay means staying close to campus via walking, biking or subway. PA students try to book these accommodations as early as possible so that they can save some money.

Schedule During a Residential Block

Every day in a residential block is different.  Sometimes we have super long days where we start at 8 am  and we finish at 5pm. Or sometimes we have shorter days where we start around like 9 am or 10:30 am and we finish at 3pm.

Most of the days we have clinical skills. There are also dome days there is a lunch hour dedicated discussing and providing feedback

And there’s no fixed schedule per se for each week of the residential block. They usually try to post it before you come for the residential block so you can prepare for it on the weekend.

Screenshot of Aurthi’s Residential Block in December (1st year PA School)

A Week in the Life of a PA Student in a December Residential Block:

The major focus for December was clinical skills, specifically the female and male pelvis and then the biopsychosocial module. The next day we’d see SPs or standardized patients. We had our clinical skills exam, which had the EPBL, which is electronic problem based learning.

We had an Intro to Pharmacology Course and there’s this rational prescribing framework that the professor thought was very important that we address it in person that we can   have a conversation, which is probably a bit easier than online.

We had a curriculum committee meeting that the curriculum committee meeting rep went to, which is n “end of semester one” check in where students provide feedback.

3. 1st Year Classes in PA School

1st year PA program Class – Intro the PA Role with Deniece O’Leary, PA-C

We got an Introduction to the PA Role Class with Deniece O’Leary, and  I particularly enjoyed that course because it gave me a good foundation to understanding the PA profession.

Course Description: “PAP 111 Introduction to the Physician Assistant Role is a robust course that covers several elements of becoming a PA. These include aspects of advocacy, as well as professionalism, communication and collaboration. This course includes a PA Panel, where students participate in dialogue with practicing PAs who represent a variety of health care settings, disciplines and levels of experience”

We talked about different topics like funding, regulation, health care economics and how the healthcare system works. We had guest lecturers who came in, assignments and a lot of readings. We’re required to look up these kinds of topics on your own, with quizzes on readings and interesting creative assignments.

I think some of those assignments, I remember, as PA profile, we had to film a video of ourselves talking about the PA profession with a personal touch to it. You can choose to it in any format. I did mine in an interview format where my classmate asks me questions and I talked about myself and the PA profession, almost like a making it seem like I was applying for a job as a PA.

We had a lot of discussion posts which was a key aspect of the course where, people would ask questions and would answer questions.

One of final was to choose a topic related to PA – whether it was regulation, funding, or a topic that you came up with in class. Denise as an instructor for the course was flexible about picking your topic, where you would just start a discussion and then you would write an opinion editorial after that about that topic that you chose to do it on. There were a lot of, interesting assignments which made you think about the profession and see if it was something that   aligned with your interest. It was definitely a good course.

Opinion Editorial Topics:

  • Why PAs Need to Be regulated
  • Why PAs need more funding
  • Why Health care systems need to allocate more funds towards PAs
  • What PAs contribute to the health care system.

And while you write this opinion editorial, you would do research about it and you do learn more about it. it’s not like just a typical lecture based learning. It was a different way of learning. And again self taught.

About Longitudinal Clinical Experiences (LCE) Course

LCE is longitudinal clinical experience (called Longitudinal Placements or LPs at McMaster’s PA Program). We are expected to do 30 to 40 hours Max, in any clinical setting.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: “In the Longitudinal Clinical Experience (LCE) courses (PAP 110, 120, 130), students participate in practicums, which, by definition, expose them to the practical aspects of clinical medicine. From the first semester in the program, students consistently describe how these LCE opportunities help to solidify their knowledge and enhance their level of confidence. These experiences only strengthen their confidence and competence in Year 2 during clinical rotations”

In certain semesters, we have certain requirements for areas of medicine. For example, 10 hours of LCE has to be primary care, which includes family medicine as well as emergency medicine. And you can do the remaining hours in other specialties.

The thing about LCEs is you are expected to reach out and network and, this goes back to the importance of networking skills.

We are given an LCE database of clinical preceptors and locations, to reach out to people who’ve taken students on before. These LCEs are done based on your interests, and you do these clinical placements and again, throughout the week.

Tuesdays are officially allocated for those placements. Your day could range from just four hours of clinic, or 10 hours like when a General Surgery LCE which was from 7:30 a to 5:30 PM. So it can be short or long days.

Every semester has a different requirement and as you progress through 1st year PA school, you’ll find that second and third semesters LCE requirements are more focused on specialties. While first semester you have primary care as well as allied health professionals, which is when I was able to do those super cool, EMS places and with the paramedics.

Expectations as on an Observer on LCE Placements

Expectations of PA students during LCE placements varies with the setting. For example, with my paramedics placement, I wasn’t able to do anything. There was a lot of observership and I did have a lot of discussions with the paramedics – like what their thought process was in that emergent situation and why they did certain things. For those kinds of experiences, you’re writing a reflection piece, reflecting on what your goals were going in and what you learned throughout what things we found challenging .

If the LCE was in a more clinical setting, like when I did general surgery or when I did family medicine and ER, you do write S.O.A.P. notes. In first semester PA school you are expected to write a certain number of SOAP notes and reflections.

In addition to the paramedic placement, I did the coroner’s office, which was another interesting experience where I could reflect on how I felt during the experience.

Interprofessional Education (IPE)

There are different requirements in IPE: Core and elective activities.

Throughout the two years of PA School, everyone completes the Core-Curricular Learning Activities and attend in person (online or in person) and you are also expected to complete at least two electives.

COURSE DESCRIPTION: At the beginning of every year, we welcome over 1600 students from 11 Health Science Programs; Dentistry, Kinesiology and Physical Education, Masters of Professional Kinesiology, Medical Radiation Sciences, Medicine, Nursing, Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, Pharmacy, Physical Therapy, Physician Assistant, Social Work and Speech-Language Pathology.

 Over the course of the Interprofessional Education Curriculum curriculum, students engage in up to nine core learning activities:  Teamwork: Your Future in Healthcare, Roles of Health Professions and Team Dynamics, Understanding Patient/Client Partnerships in a Team Context, Faculty-Led Learning Activity, Collaborating for Quality, Conflict in Interprofessional Life, Case-Based Learning Activity: Pain Curriculum, Palliative Care and /or Appreciating Roles and Collaboration to Improve Care: Head and Neck Cancer Case, and  IPE Component in a Practice Setting.  Additionally, students complete a minimum number of approved elective learning activities according to the program requirements.  Electives, facilitated by university and clinical faculty, are held on campus and in many practice settings and include interactive sessions, simulations, patient/client/family stories, clinical team-led cases and discussion, student team-based activities, community clinic engagement, as well as facilitated blended learning activities.” Centre for Interprofessional Education – University of Toronto

We actually just had one a couple of days ago where it was online and everyone was able attend that on. But sometimes IPE activities are scheduled during Residential Blocks where the PA students are physically located in Toronto.

In IPE, they want you to be aware of your future health care colleagues when you’re working in the healthcare setting. So far I’ve met like PTs, OTs, medical students, speech language pathologists, dentists, pharmacists, and like we would do case studies together or depending on the activity you do like case studies together and everyone  chimes in.

It’s interesting to learn about everyone’s strengths and like their perspective on patient care. And just the recent one to a couple of days ago was focused on involving the, we’re including the patient as part of the team, which is something that we don’t usually think about because we focus on the disease and like different healthcare providers providing solutions to the disease. But also learning about the importance of involving the patient in the discussion.

And then the elective activities is more on how you can learn different concepts or apply different concepts based on your own interest. I’ve done one on death and dying as well as another activity on exercise based on my Kinesiology background.

4. Distance/Distributed Learning (the “Online” Blocks)

In the online portion (non-residential blocks) of 1st year, every week is different and every semester is different.

In First Semester:

  • Mondays – self study
  • Tuesdays – LCEs
  • Wednesday – Physiology with Physiology Meeting
  • Thursday – Clinical Skills in the morning
  • Fridays – Anatomy Meeting: Cover lecture material quizzes, discussion topics, case studies.
Aurthi - Online Block Nov

Screenshot of Aurthi’s calendar during 1st Semester’s Online Block.

Second semester has more variety:

  • Monday –
    • Pharmacology (busiest days of the semester): going through case studies where students expected to work up the case beforehand, group facilitated discussions
    • Lectures (e.g. Acute Coronary Syndrome, Dyslipidemia, etc.)
    • Pathology – 1 hour – but its very dense, and one of the courses where we have a lot of lecture material to cover.
  • Tuesdays – Longitudinal Clinical Placements.
  • Wednesdays – Self Study
  • Thursdays – Clinical Skills (more discussion based – facilitating a discussion)
  • Fridays – Diagnostic Techniques and Procedures (DTP): review of case studies, concepts, readings, quizzes, and focus on investigations.
Aurthi - Online Block Jan

Aurthi’s Schedule in 2nd Semester Online Block for January

During this weeks, I try to schedule a lunch with friend or do a workout mid day to   compartmentalize my studying. In the morning I’d do more of the studying and learning and then in the evening I’d work on the assignments, case workup for pharmacology, etc.

5. Connecting with other PA Students

How Group Study works in 1st Year PA School at PA Consortium

Considering we’re doing online learning right now, we use the online platform that’s offered by UofT called “blackboard” and whoever is in the group study platform just logs on. We have a blank whiteboard, and the ability to share images and PDF the group members online who can then see it and follow along.

Screenshot of a group study session

Sometimes we just test each other. We’ll ask our peers “Can you explain this concept to me?” and then you could add on new concepts. Or if you are the one explaining something to them, you can ask them to repeat it back in their own words to make sure they solidify their understanding.

And then sometimes we ask each other questions – and this depends on what stage of learning you are at. Initially you’re not going to drill someone with too many questions. You’d probably first try to explain concepts to each other, and then progress to asking each other questions. And, it’s amazing how something that someone told you the night before actually shows up on the exam the next!

You learn from each other, and its the supportive aspect of group setting that helps.

If we have for example, 24 lectures to get through  21 lectures and there’s a small group of six of us, then each of us only has to do 4 for lectures. It brings down the workload and then you review the notes of all 24 lectures together in a group in order to prepare for things like pathology meetings or case studies.


In first semester PA school, they say that November is probably the loneliest month because September is really like everyone’s around you, you’re always spending time with your classmates. And then October you’re   getting used to the online learning which feels like downtime compared to September. But by the time November hits, you start to miss your classmates as the online portion wraps up and that does get a bit lonely.

I think this semester we tried to make more changes. I personally like to meet up with people who are closer to me geographically. For example, just a few days ago I spent a few days with my classmate from Oakville.

And it’s interesting how you group together and it’s like you need that   social support and your classmates only know what you’re going through. In terms of online communication, we always try to, Facebook message or online video chat with our classmates and make sure they’re keeping in touch.

I think this semester I’ve started to learn the importance of   keeping in touch with classmates and I’m making time for those kinds of conversations and taking a break because definitely an important aspect of going through such an accelerated program.

Connecting with 2nd year PA Students

When I got my acceptance, I got a phone call from a second year PA student. 1st year PA students get a PA buddy who  welcomes you in and is there to answer any questions you have throughout the summer.

I am the 1st year UofT PA Class Rep, and I’ve been connecting to our 2nd year PA Class Rep and we talk a lot about how to prep for the management committee meetings, touching base after an exam, and checking to see if I meet my learning objectives. It’s reassuring to have that support through these mentors.

And I always keep in touch with PA graduates, like even UofT or Mac, just to get that perspective on what it is like working in the real world.

6. Tips for PA Students

Tips for what to do summer before 1st year PA School Start

I think there are two types of people.

There are those who like to prepare for school and the during the summertime and then people who like to make the best out of their last few weeks at resting and like taking a vacation before starting school.

I used to be like the former person trying to like prepare for a program.

I think after first semester of PA school I learned that I should utilize my break times as much as possible because you recharge – so just when classes begin you just hit the ground running.

For pre PA’s who get accepted, I think what to do the summer before starting PA school is:

  • If PA school begins right after undergraduate study (i.e. like you graduated in June or you finish school and end at April and then you’re starting PA school in September), then definitely make use of your break time because it’s going to be- it’s going to be wild when you get started.
  • But if you are taking a couple of years off or if you’re working, then feel free to skim through at some of PA school’s first semester material like anatomy and physiology

You also have the medical terminology course throughout the summer to complete as well, and that is to get PA students used to the  online platform and it’s a course that is not graded. It does however help you   start studying and get introduced to medical concepts and medical terminology.

And if you want to do something additional to that, feel free to do so. But I would strongly advise that you take at least the last couple of weeks before school starts off completely off.

Tips on How to Stay on Top of Learning for PA School

I personally like to use checklists. I make a checklist of things I need to do for every course and that usually changes on a weekly basis. And then I have a calendar where I schedule, I make my weekly schedule on the Sunday. I take the checklist and I allocate the tasks over different days of the week and just checking things off the list helps motivate me to keep going.

For my day to day, I have a friend in my class who suggested treating  workday approach to studying. you would study from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM and then you take the evenings off. again, I had to change that a bit because I can’t study for nine hours straight.

I study from 7:30 am to 12 pm, and then I take a break when it will be about like three hours where  I go to the gym or I eat lunch and watch a show. I take a mental break and then I continue again to studying into the late evening and then I finished up about 8:30/9 pm. I guess it depends what works for everyone, but, I think checklists and  allocating different things throughout the day of the week helps.

7. Documenting my PA Journey on Social Media

I started off with an Instagram page, and I was initially thinking about documenting my transitioning from Kinesiology or being a kinesiologist into PA school. It’s been very focused on PA school right now because of the advocacy of their profession and because a lot of eager pre-PAs who want to know more about the profession.

I was writing really long Instagram posts, blogging  about my experience and I thought, hey, I want to write more, but I’m limited in terms of words of wordcount using the Instagram Platform. So I thought, “why not start blogging?”

I was thinking about doing a website, but it is super busy during PA school. I try to utilize my breaks to work on it. So, December break, I tried to work on that. And then coming back into January I was recharged and well rested. I try to work more on that. and then, videos I started getting into because I was talking to one of my friends who was in med school and a common question, we both got.

It’s interesting because PA profession is growing and more people want know about “Why did you choose MD over a PA” or “why did you choose PA over MD?”

We did a video where we collaborated and talked about the application process as well as like what a typical day would look like or the different admission requirements.

28 days of 1st year PA Profiles

Actually this month we have  PA profiles of our class of UofT class of 2020 going on my  Instagram page where I asked my classmates to provide their perspective on three questions:

  • why they chose the PA career
  • any advice they have for Pre PAs
  • how they found online learning and first semester. it’s,

I think it’s interesting for them to provide their perspective and I think it’s helpful for our Pre PAs to see different perspectives.

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