Strengthen your PA School Application

Health care programs in Canada are competitive, and PA school is no exception.

Here I outline a few ways you can improve your application

In the long term: Work on developing yourself, achieving good grades in school, expanding your experiences both in and outside the classroom and building confidence in various soft skills (communications, leadership, etc.). I expand on this in the answer to #4 (see below). Sandy Vuong, a current McMaster PA student has a few articles on how to make the most of your pre-PA education.

In the short term: I truly believe the more informed, and well-researched you are, the more confidence you will have going into the admissions process. My preparation for PA school took place over a series of months and I utilized that time to research as much as I could. If you plan on applying to the PA program soon (within the next couple of weeks/months), here are a few guidelines to prepare:

1. Have a solid foundation of knowledge when it comes to the PA role in Canada

And make sure you go beyond just reading the “basic definition” of what a PA is.

Anyone applying to a PA program should have a strong understanding of the PA role. This includes learning about PA scope of practice, settings they practice in, history/origins of the profession, and some of the barriers to practice they may have. Read up on the supervising physician/physician assistant relationship and different Canadian PA profiles across different specialties in medicine.

You will come across a lot of American PA material – and this is ok! The practice of medicine between American and Canadian PAs is essentially the same (e.g. How a PA would approach the ‘history taking’ and ‘clinical reasoning’  does not differ in Canada and the US), however there are a few differences between our health care systems and resources that will impact your management plan. This includes drugs that are available, how quickly you can get investigations such as an MRI, and the wait times for specialists. Read about Deniece’s experience working as a PA in both Canada and the United States.

Strong PA candidates take it a step further and go beyond what the basic information that is available online.  This may include conducting informational interviews with a practicing PA, finding shadowing experiences, listen to every interview on the “Meet the PAs” Podcast (and thereby learning about the sociopolitical environment and challenges Canadian PAs face).

2. Learn about the Canadian Health Care System

An important part of PA education and practicing as a PA is knowing the system and values of that system in which you are going to work. What are the four pillars of the health care system? How are ethical decisions made?

Read up on issues in Canadian/provincial health care system, and you can better understand the role in which PAs may fit.

  • Social Determinants of Health affecting Canadians

  • Basics of Medicare

  • Funding for health care

  • How residents access health care

  • Understanding the Canadian Health Act

  • Health care challenges facing Canadians

3. Read Tips on PA Admissions

Apart from the Pre-PA articles that give tips on the admission process, read as much as you can about how to excel as a PA applicant from other websites.

There are a few Canadian resources, however the majority of information out there is American. There are pieces of advice that don’t apply to Canadian PA applicants-  for instance, obtaining required PA shadowing hours, writing the GRE, CASPA statement (centralized application system for PA admissions).

I recommend reading articles like “PA Student Essentials: Tips/Tricks from a Pre-PA Student“, or “Trust Me, I’m a PA Student: CASPA Personal Narrative Tips” which gives tips on obtaining references, and how not to feel intimidated during the interview process. Some excellent American PA blogs include Be a Physician Assistant, and The PA Platform.

4. Optimize your GPA

Strong PA candidates have a competitive GPA that is above the minimum GPA requirement. See the class of 2019 PA Infographics which lists GPAs of successful PA students (its in our closed Free Pre-PA Facebook Group, be sure to request to join so you can see it!).

What if I have a low GPA? If you meet the minimum requirement for GPA, but are worried about having a lower than competitive GPA. You have several options:

  • Apply with your current GPA.

  • Retake an undergraduate course (or more courses) to upgrade where you have poor courses

  • Take more undergraduate courses to boost your GPA.

  • Remember to always check with PA Program admissions on how they evaluate re-takes of courses. Be cognizant that some PA programs do not count grades you obtain during your Master’s or PhD as part of your GPA average. Go to the official PA admissions websites to learn more.

What if I can’t re-take courses? If you meet the minimum requirement and are not in a situation to be able to re-take courses, make sure you have a STRONG supplementary application, with strong references (if applicable). Remember that GPA is only one part of the equation when it comes to determining whether you are a good candidate for PA school.

Recommended Resources for getting good grades & developing habit of discipline:

5. Improve your Communication Skills

A lot of Pre-PAs underestimate how important the evaluation of written and verbal communication skills are as part of the PA Admissions Process.

For any health care provider, striving to communicate more effectively should be a life long endeavour. PAs communicate in every aspect of their job – whether doing medical documentation, assessing a patient, counseling a patient in preventative health, or explaining a medication regiment. Miscommunication can lead to medical mistakes, complaints in professionalism and medical malpractice.

CanMeds-PA, which is the national standard for PA practice in Canada (mirroring the CanMEDS for physicians) lists “Communicator” as one of the pillars for being a PAPage 10 to 12 of the CanMeds-PA PDF outlines important skills you need to know as a collaborator – read this document thoroughly!

Work on written communication skills. Step 1 of applying to PA school involves submitting a Letter of Intent or completing a Supplementary Application, which may include written essay-like questions. In addition to submitting your GPA/transcript, letters of reference (if applicable).

You may have the best extra-curriculars and experiences to write about, however if you cannot write well this may hinder your chances of being invited to Part 2 – the PA school interview. You can practice writing by journaling, writing short essay pieces, and have a mentor read your work.

Work on verbal communication skills. Verbal communication skills are evaluated Multiple-Mini interviews (in addition to other attributes such as critical thinking, suitability for the profession). Effective communication skills take time and practice to develop.

There are several ways to hone your communication skills in the real world:

  • Participate in jobs or volunteer opportunities that involve a customer service piece where you interact with others regularly

  • Take on roles in teaching or tutoring – I find the practice of explaining a concept in a way that a layman has to understand really challenges you to be intentional with your speech

  • If you are ESL (English as a Second Language) find a native English Speaking partner through your university. This partner will usually sit down and practice conversational English with you. Approach your university’s career centre to find opportunities to practice.

  • Joining organizations like Toastmaster’s

6. Write a Strong Supplementary Application

Before admissions can meet you face to face for an interview, the only impression they have of you  (apart from GPA, references if applicable) is how well you can convey your strengths in a written supplementary application.

Although it is important that you demonstrate an understanding of the PA role, simply regurgitating what PAs do is not enough – you must personalize your answers and highlight what strengths you would bring to the PA Education Program and Profession.

Take the time to write a well-articulated answer. As obvious as this may seem: check for typos, grammatical errors and have friends, family, mentors, counsellors, colleagues proofread your answer and give feedback.

7. Practice and Prepare for the PA School Interview

If you have made it to the interview stage, this means you look good on pen and paper! Your transcripts, supplementary application, letters of reference (if applicable) impressed the admissions committee that you have moved onto the second part of admissions: The PA School Interview.

University of Toronto and McMaster use MMI style interview. University of Manitoba PA program uses MMI, Panel Interview and a written component to their “interview day”.

Develop an approach to answering an MMI question and be sure to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

Helpful Books for the MMI: 

Learn more about succeeding in the MMI →

8. Self-Reflect

After you have interviewed there are three potential outcomes: Accepted, Rejected, Waitlisted. Once you are accepted, there isn’t much more to do other than wait for the acceptance letter to come, and start getting into the mindset of PA school!

However if you are waitlisted or rejected, its important to go into self-reflection mode. PA Programs do not provide feedback on your performance for the interview.

So once it is all said and done, and ask yourself:

  • What steps did you take to prepare for this round of PA Admissions?

  • What went well?

  • What didn’t go well?

  • What you can do to tweak your preparation for next year?

  • Do you have a good understanding of what PA admissions is looking for?

  • Should you be speaking to more PAs? (whether through shadowing, or informational interviews?)

  • Should you be working on improving your GPA?

  • Should you hone in on your communication skills?

  • Do you want to gain some health care experience so you can apply to other PA programs?

It would also be good to determine whether you wish to try to apply to PA school again (many PA students get in after their second attempt at PA admissions) or if you should start thinking about an alternative career path.

9. Connect to a Pre-PA Community

Scavenging PA forums (PhysicianAssistantForum.com, and Canadian Pre-PA Student Network) for PA school application/interview advice was probably one of the most helpful things I did. Learning what other successful PA candidates did to get in helped guide my own preparation and gave me the confidence going into the application process.

Side Note:

Although it is helpful to browse forums, sometimes it is best to read replies on forums like PreMed101 with a grain of salt.

  • First, many post anonymously and there is often not a way of verifying the accuracy of the statements made, or if the experience that one anonymous post is reflective of the experience of many. If you have doubts – do your research and speak in person with PAs.

The Canadian Pre-PA Student Network has practicing PAs and current PA students who can answer questions, and you can browse through past posts about topics around admissions, employment, etc.