The CASPA personal statement. This is your ticket to the interview–your chance to get the admissions committee to say, “I want to meet this applicant in person.” Be prepared to spend many hours writing, rewriting, rearranging, editing, cutting, and polishing your essay. Give yourself at least a month to write and edit it before you plan on submitting CASPA, and–this is key–have several proofreaders. Allow ample time for them to make suggestions, and for you to consider and incorporate their advice. Don’t ask more than 3-4 people to look over your essay, because multiple editors can quickly become overwhelming–choose trusted writers and people in the medical field (especially a PA!).
Here are my biggest tips (approved by classmates) for your fantastic future personal statement.
In the years before:
I highly recommend keeping journals about all your medical experiences, both shadowing and working! I have countless documents chronicling my high school hospital volunteer days and my first surgery observation as a teenager, to my recent CNA jobs. Writing things down not only helps you process what you’re learning, it provides you with an invaluable resource to return to when you need to write application essays. Instead of trying to remember how you felt three years ago doing some job or exactly how a particular patient encounter went, you can go to your journal and read it. Often I will even copy pieces from my journals and edit them to fit into my essays, making sure I change identifying details. I can’t emphasize enough how useful these have been, not to mention fun to read!
DOs and DON’Ts of writing the actual personal statement:
1. Do demonstrate your knowledge of the PA profession. Your essay should make it clear throughout why you are pursuing medicine, and why you have chosen PA specifically. Here’s a good article about that: http://pajourney.com/2015/01/07/why-do-you-want-to-become-a-physician-assistant/
2. Don’t say why you don’t want to be a doctor (or NP, or fill-in-the-blank), say why you do want to be a PA–this is a great place to demonstrate your knowledge of the unique profession. Be careful not to cast any healthcare workers (including CNAs, MAs, etc) in a negative light.
3. Don’t say you’ve chosen PA because of a better lifestyle, shorter/easier schooling, etc. Even if this is part of the reason, not only is it somewhat misinformed, it gives the impression that you believe PA school is easy, or that you don’t want to work hard. Yes, PA school encompasses fewer months than med school, but it is extremely challenging. PAs often have a good work/life balance (and maybe proportionally more than some docs), but not necessarily, especially in certain specialties.
4. Don’t be vague. Don’t leave anything for the admissions committee to assume–use lots of examples, stories, personal experiences, and lessons you’ve learned. If you use any abbreviations like PA, CNA, or ER for example, write them out the first time and include the abbreviation in parentheses.
5. Do show, don’t tell. Instead of listing adjectives like compassionate, flexible, determined, etc, tell brief anecdotes that show how you embody these qualities. Everyone applying to PA school says they are passionate about the profession and care about people. Let the admissions committee see evidence of that in your life!
6. Do make every word count. Not only do you need to be under 5000 characters, you don’t want to distract or bore your reader by including extraneous details, long-winded explanations, and redundancies. Also avoid long paragraphs, but be sure to have strong transitions when you break them up. Go through the essay and ask yourself critically: Does this word/sentence fragment make a strong contribution to my paragraph and overall essay? Do I really need it? This is also not the time to show off your knowledge of medical terminology. If some technical talk is necessary to explain a particular patient scenario, use the minimum to get the point across.
7. Don’t use informal, oral language, or contractions. Absolutely let your personality and writing style shine through, but your essay needs to be polished and inspire confidence in your strong communication skills. Avoid cliches like the plague, as well as extreme language. (For example: “I’ve wanted to go into medicine since I was 5” or “I have a heart to serve people”)
8. Do consider incorporating a theme. This brings the whole essay together and makes it flow, and if you choose the right theme, it also makes it easier to write when you’re relating everything back to a central point. The theme should not be “medicine” or “why I want to be a PA”–these are the core concepts of the essay. Make it creative, applicable, and personal. If it feels like you’re trying too hard to make a theme fit, try a different one.
9. Don’t make this a resume with more words. The admissions committee has seen your application; they know your GPA and healthcare experience. If you have a low GPA or poor grade that you want to address, that is fine (I won’t go into details about that here). But your essay is the place for you to talk about what sets you apart! How have your healthcare experiences strengthened your desire to go into medicine? How have your patient encounters impacted or changed you? How have you grown or been stretched as you’ve pursued PA school? How have you overcome significant challenges in your life? Be succinct, and don’t let your reader get bogged down by unnecessary details.
10. Do make it unforgettable! Start with a hook that will immediately interest your reader. This could be a unique quote (I used song lyrics), a story, really anything that will draw your audience into your world and make them wonder what the rest of the essay will say. Don’t choose something arbitrarily just so you have a story–write about something meaningful to you. It doesn’t have to be about medicine as long as you show how it contributed to your decision to be a PA, and/or relates to your theme. It’s okay if you don’t come up with your hook right away; just start writing and it will come to you.
Even more important than a good hook is a solid conclusion. Bring it back to your introduction, summarize/paraphrase the points you’ve made throughout the essay, and finish with a memorable one-liner that clinches your desire to be a PA. Don’t be afraid to spend a lot of time on this last paragraph, especially the last sentence!
One more thing: If (when) you find yourself getting frustrated or hitting a wall, take a break! Come back in a few hours or, better, in a couple days when your mind is fresh.
Even though this essay seems daunting, just remember this is the part of your application where you have the most control. Be yourself, and be authentic. Show the admissions committee how excited you are to be a PA, and convince them that they want to meet you as much as you want to meet them!
About the author:
Erin is a first-year PA student in Oregon. She is thrilled to be joining such an incredible profession, and hopes to complete a post-graduate fellowship in hospital medicine. Aside from being a total medical nerd, Erin also enjoys playing the ukulele, hiking, cooking, and speaking Spanish. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or message her on Instagram @ealto499.