During my time at Penn State, I (along with several classmates) served as a “program ambassador”, meeting with prospective students when they came to interview. Generally, we would sit with the candidates over lunch and talk with them about the program. The faculty would step out during this meeting so the conversations could be honest (and the candidates could have a break from the stress).

By-and-large, the candidate groups would ask the same questions every time (what don’t you like about the program? what is housing like? how are the professors? ect.). And one question that never failed was this one: how much free time do you guys have?

We loved fielding this question.

Our responses came after a moment of evil laughter. Call it schadenfreude, but we enjoyed watching the candidates squirm in their seats. We all remembered what it felt like to be naive candidates, wondering about the security and future of our precious social lives. After hearing so many horror stories about the rigors of PA school, every candidate wants to know if they are true. Are they really going to have 6 tests in one week? Is that even possible? Do we feel like we are drowning all of the time? Or are there rest periods where we can get back to Facebooking and watching NetFlix?

If you are reading this, then I’m sure you are wondering the same thing. Well I won’t torture you with an evil laugh. Instead, let me do my best to break it down by describing a typical day in PA school. I’ll do one post describing a day in didactic year and one for clinical year. This may be a long post, but hopefully it will give you a truthful image of what PA school is really like.

A Day in Didactic Year

My alarm goes off at 8:30 am. (Our first class of the day, clinical medicine, started at 8am but this class is recorded so that we can listen/watch the lecture on our own schedule). Having stayed up until 2:30 am studying for the emergency medicine test today, I am exhausted, stumbling into the kitchen to start the Kurig before I take a shower.

There is a TBL quiz this afternoon that I haven’t begun reading for yet (EMed test took priority) so as soon as I am dressed and ready, I am printing out a 25 page article on thyroid cancer guidelines from the New England Journal of Medicine.

By the time I get through 15 pages of this dense material, it is already almost 10 am and I have to start listening to the Clinical Medicine recordings from this morning if I want to avoid falling behind (no time to listen to them tonight because I have 100+ slides of anatomy material to memorize for a quiz tomorrow and two huge exams the next day).

Anyway, I start the clinical medicine recordings. The topic is Endocrinology. I try to glance at the NEJM article when there are slow/redundant moments in the lecture.

The lecture recording ends and it is 12:30 pm. It takes 15 minutes to walk to class, but I have to stop by Au Bon Pain on the way to grab another coffee and something to eat during TBL. On the way to class I flip through the rest of the NEJM article trying to memorize anything that will stick in my head.

The TBL quiz is brutal, as they all are. The questions are specific, covering some details that seemed minor when I was reading it. After the quiz, we are in our TBL groups doing cases. Over the course of an hour, the program director gives us case presentations and we argue amongst each other over the diagnoses, lab tests, etc. This is typically the most enjoyable class of the day. A chance to go beyond memorization and think clinically.

As soon as this is over we have a guest lecturer for Women’s Health. She does an hour long PowerPoint presentation on prenatal testing.

Next we are given a 10 minute “break”, but most of us choose to stay in the room and cram for the upcoming Emed exam. The exam is multiple choice, taken on our laptops. I am pulling my hair out over a few questions, but feel confident about my performance overall.

The schoolday ends with Anatomy. I change into scrubs and head upstairs to the cadaver lab. There are times during the year when we do our own disections, but most of the time we are viewing prosections (predisected specimens). We rotate amongst the cadavers in our groups while the anatomy TAs teach and paint clinical pictures of disease processes related to the structures we are learning.

I head home, completely exhausted. I collapse on the couch. I know that I have to start studying for the Anatomy quiz tomorrow, but first I get on Facebook for a minute. And then I check the news. An hour goes by. It is already 6:30pm.

I get out my tablet, start scrolling through the Anatomy slides. In the back of my mind I am wondering if I should be studying for the two exams on Friday (Laboratory Methods and H&P) instead. After all, the anatomy quiz is just a quiz. But they are 100 slides and I need to know them for the Anatomy test next Monday anyway. So I slowly go through each slide, trying in vain to memorize everything I see. By the time I make my first pass through these slides, it is already 10 pm.

I call my long-distance girlfriend (now wife), Tiffany, and ask how her day has been. Talking to her is a wonderful break from all of the studying. At the same time though, there is this guilty pressure in the back of my mind to make the call short because there is so much to do. We both sense this, which is stressful in itself. After about an hour we say goodnight.

Then I try to at least start studying for Lab Methods. I get through maybe 20 slides. It is past midnight. I am exhausted. I revisit some of the anatomy slides. Then it is 1:30 am. My roommate is already asleep. I set my alarm and crawl into bed.


Note: Yes, this schedule is brutal, but it is more doable than you think. One thing that will keep you going is how fascinating all of the material is that you are learning. The weekends are a little lighter (I never studied on Fridays). Also, keep in mind that this is only one year. In my opinion, clinical year is a million times better.