By now you have already looked at specific PA programs, ranking a few of them in your mind.
If you are like me, then you started with the US News & World Report list of the best 100 PA schools (linked on my website) and decided that some of the top programs might be your first choice. Your first instinct is to form opinions based on 1-ranking, 2-location, and 3-“do I think I can get in?”
With what little information you have available, this isn’t a bad place to start. However, here is a list of other factors to consider when choosing a program:
Prerequisites – Unfortunately for all of us, PA schools have not agreed on a standard set of prerequisites for applying. There are some classes that every school requires (Anatomy and Physiology, Bio I & II, Inorganic Chemistry, etc.), while other classes seem to be important to certain programs and not to others. You will encounter several programs that require Genetics. Others require Cell Biology or Bio Chemistry. A few even require Organic Chemistry. The frustrating part is that, unless you spend an extra year in school, you will likely not be able to apply to every program. Search each program’s website for a list of prerequisites before ranking them on your list.
Clinical Opportunities – This is going second on the list because it is a factor that not many students consider. The didactic (book-learning) phase of your education is important because it prepares you for the PANCE exam and sets the foundation for everything that you will learn in the future. However, the most important learning takes place during your clinical year. It is your rotations that are going to test and solidify your medical knowledge. And it is your rotations that are going to give you the confidence to become a PA. They might even land you a job.
My advice is to look for programs that have a wide network of internship opportunities. Certain programs may be so overrun by medical students that PA students get last pick. If you can, talk to a current or former student about their clinical year and ask if it was a great experience. Also if you have a specific interest (say cardiothoracic surgery), you will want to consider programs that are known in that field.
The Facilities – When I was applying to schools I did not realize how important this factor was going to be. I was accepted to a few different programs and, ultimately, the program’s facilities became a top deciding factor on which one I chose. One of the universities that accepted me housed their PA program in an older building. The classrooms were dingy and small, and their “simulation lab” was a single mannequin in a room. The program I chose, however, is in a newer hospital that is very state-of-the-art. Their simulation lab is award-winning and one of the best in the country. The opportunities and tools available to the students are exciting and conducive to a great learning atmosphere. If you can, search YouTube for campus tours of the programs you are applying to.
The Program’s Personality and Values – Every program has a personality, and that personality arises out of their staff and the kind of students that they select. In my experience, some programs just felt warmer than others. It is hard to get a sense of this when you are first applying. Program websites tend to be fairly formal and professional. A good place to start might be YouTube, forums or blogs. Certain programs have online publications that post articles written by current students about their experiences in the program. Sometimes you can find videos of students doing campus tours or interviews with the faculty and students. All of this helps. But honestly, you will not have a great perspective on the program until you go and visit.
During my interviews, I was surprised to find how much my feelings drastically shifted about each program. Certain programs really took the time to get to know me. Others conducted their interviews like they were speed-dating. One program spent time telling me about their philosophy of education and how they cater to student-needs to ensure that everyone does well. Another almost bragged about how hard it was going to be. One program let me sit in on one of their classes so I could observe their unique approach of team-based learning. Another was very traditional about their style of teaching.
Every program I interviewed at allowed me to interact with current students. Some I liked; others I was not as fond of. It seemed evident that the programs who took the time to get to know me had attracted a better class of students. I found them warm and welcoming and enjoyed seeing how well they got along with one another.
While it is certainly exciting to get invited to a prestigious program, I found that some of the smaller schools seemed to have more personality. So don’t count them out just because they are lower on the list of “rankings”. Find the right fit for you and apply there.
There are many other considerations that you can make when choosing schools. The blog “Trust Me I’m a PA Student” has a thorough list of considerations that I will link http://doseofpa.blogspot.com/2014/03/choosing-right-physician-assistant.html. I have kept my list shortened to the few factors that made a major impact in my decision (I certainly didn’t place any weight in whether a program was “community” or “university associated”).
My advice is that you take time to get to know each program before you apply (it will help you write your essays). When it comes time for you to choose, go with your gut instincts and choose the program that is right for you. Because you are an individual. And rankings are not everything.