CASPA Personal Narrative Tips
Last Updated: 08/07/2015
Personal Statement vs. Personal Narrative
Blatantly, they’re the same thing. CASPA gave the personal statement a new, more fitting name. If you’re new to the application process, you’ll soon figure this out. The prompt: “In the space provided write a brief statement expressing your motivation or desire to become a physician assistant. Keep your statement general as the same essay will be sent to all schools you will apply to. Your statement must be written in your own words and may not exceed 5,000 characters (not words).”
First Time Applicants
It is such a daunting task to write about yourself. You worry that you might expose too much of yourself, or too little. You could focus on the wrong things, or be too trite in your word choices. You might try a draft writing in the third person, as if you were writing about a friend. This all gets you thinking about what someone who knows you well and is in your corner might say about you. Some of the fluff might fade away and you focus on what you think would make you an outstanding PA. Subtly highlight your achievements, but don’t harp on them. Explain any transitions in your life. Try to spin negatives into positives without dwelling on them too much. Write in an active voice, e.g. “completed reports” instead of “reports were completed”. Stay focused on one thing at a time. Either way, start early, outline, and brainstorm. My personal narrative came from thoughts and memories of my entire childhood and life experiences - a culmination of everything up to the very day I started writing my narrative.
The personal narrative is the ultimate in sales pieces. The admissions committee has your grades, your test scores, and some short letters from your hand picked references. Your essay bridges the miles between you and other students, giving them a peek at your personality and how your various skills/experiences could be assembled to make you a great asset to add to their program. At the end of the day, always ensure you portray the characteristics of a good PA in your essay, in some way.
I also cannot stress how important it is to get a licensed PA to look at your essay. If you truly want to be sure that your essay is top notch, I recommend that each applicant get their essay revised by licensed PAs at myPAresource. You don’t want your narrative to be the limiting factor of your application. Make sure your entire CASPA app is full-proof and get a second look at it before you press submit.
If you suddenly find yourself stuck with writer’s block or in a pinch for time to complete or revise your narrative before your own CASPA deadline, have no fear. myPAresource is available to assist you with all of your editing needs, including feedback about the CONTENT of your essay. This is the first company of its kind, offering personal narrative services intended specifically for pre-PA students by practicing and licensed physician assistants. I have seen their work personally and trust that you’ll get the best feedback about your narrative from them.
Brian Palm is the founder of myPAresource. He received his B.S. in Microbiology from the University of Tennessee and his Masters in Physician Assistant Studies from South College in Knoxville, TN. Brian knows how difficult it is to write a 5000-character essay about your journey prior to applying to PA school, while also proving how badly you want to become a PA. Unfortunately, during his time, the only way to get feedback on your personal statement was on the Physician Assistant Forum. At that point he realized that the same people that were giving him “advice” on his essay were competing for the same seats in PA school! Sure, there were plenty of generic “essay revision” sites that would help you with grammar and syntax, but there was nothing available to help with content, which is why he founded myPAresource.
Brian wants to offer future PA students the help they need with their personal narrative. A service that ensures your essay is read by people familiar with the process themselves. Just because someone has a bachelor’s degree in English does not make them qualified or know what PA schools are looking for. He currently employs multiple editors from all over the U.S. These are practicing PAs, adjunct faculty, and admissions panel members willing to edit your personal statement.
Yes, there is a plethora of essay editing sites that offer personal narrative editing for those applying to PA school, but none of them employ practicing PAs. Brian’s consultants have been in your shoes and know just how difficult writing a personal statement can be. You can be rest assured that people familiar with the process will be reviewing your essay. Over the years they have helped hundreds of candidates just like you put together incredible personal statements. You can see an example of how their services can improve your personal narrativehere.”
Remember to use the coupon code: DoseOfPA for a discount on their services!
Now, back to CASPA Personal Narrative Tips:
It's called a personal narrative for a reason. Whatever it is about you that led you to the PA profession, write about it. As always, avoid cliches; if you have to use one, find a way to make it stand out and don't write as if you are expecting pity. Write about an experience that made you stronger! In essence, demonstrate diversity, interest, honesty, commitment, compassion, drive, sensitivity, and/or enthusiasm. Don’t make anything up, including excuses! Don’t use the personal narrative as a comedy forum and don’t be too philosophical. You’re not Plato or Confucius.
Consider how much of your essay will address how you were introduced and became familiar with medicine. I think this is why you see so many students writing anecdotally, because the emotional stories cannot be conveyed in the rest of the application. You don't want to start off uneventful (by blandly talking about how you became familiar with the medical field) and have admissions skip over it, but you also want to leave a good ending note.
Conflicts of Interest
As far as naming a personal reference (PA), it should fine as long as there isn't some way to directly figure out who you are talking about unless you know they are completely okay with it. I try to avoid names in things like this, but I know using names can make an essay flow a bit better. With the name thing, it does make the essay flow better than saying "the PA” and can make the essay a tad more personal. Just be careful because including the name of a PA may create conflicts of interest. For example, the PA may be on the admissions committee for the school and the admissions committee may recognize the person’s name and think you may have an unfair advantage in the interview process.
Including Logistical Information
Many people ask if you should include your race, religion, or country of origin in your personal statement. In my honest opinion, and from what I have read, you should not. If it is absolutely crucial to proving a point and you have no other way to get around it, then you take that risk.
Be Grammatically Correct
“PAs” is the only grammatically correct way to pluralize PA. “PA's” is an incorrect way to pluralize PA and is a violation of the UN Charter on Human Rights. Make sure you can tell the difference. “Health care” with no hyphen is the formal way of spelling health care according to Webster’s Medical. Although, you may use “healthcare” as well. Admissions committees do not care either way, as long as you remain consistent throughout your essay. You should use “preventive medicine” for your essays rather than “preventative medicine.” Yes, you can say “PA” instead of typing out the uncapitalized “physician assistant” every single time, but you should use “physician assistant (PA)” the first time so that they know what your acronym represents.
Revise Your Essay Again
You should have multiple revisions before submitting to CASPA. I had 3-4 revisions on my second draft because after I wrote my first one, I had so many revisions that I realized I needed to just start over and rewrite the entire thing! This may not be the case for you, but I asked anyone I could who I knew to read my essay - family, friends, coworkers, etc. It helps to ask a variety of people who know you because you will receive a multitude of responses that are so varying, which in the end can be very helpful because each person knows you differently.
If you attend a community college or university, you might have resources on campus for writing, which you can utilize for help with revisions.
Important Aspects to Include
It’s crucial that you explain why you want to become a PA, but also to summarize how you found out you wanted to become a PA without somehow stating the definition of a PA from AAPA’s website. You need to figure this one out on your own.
Being a PA, you should have some tie to primary care, if not, underserved populations, and if you can tie both of them in, you’ll be set!
You need to set yourself apart somehow from why you didn’t want to become a physician or a nurse practitioner. These are common errors in the personal statement. What experience with a PA made you decide the PA route was for you?
Talking about the physician-PA team/model in your essay will show that you are knowledgeable about the profession and understand a crucial element of becoming part of the health care team. While shadowing, you should've explored this relationship and hopefully you understand that trust between a PA and their supervising physician is vital.
Occasionally, you can work in topics like managed health care, cultural disparities within health care, or other things you might have observed while working/shadowing. These allow the reader to understand the breadth of medical knowledge (outside the semantics) you bring with you.
Grades and Professors
If you have poor grades (D, F, or WITHDRAWAL), instead of telling the admissions committee about them, tell them what was going on and what caused you to get those grades. If you didn’t fail any classes, it might not be worth it to mention your B’s and C’s you made in classes, unless they happen to be in critical science coursework that the school is looking for (i.e. Anatomy & Physiology, etc.). You never want to blame a professor. Make sure your reasons are valid and that you position yourself as a continuing learner with more ambition than you know what to do with. You have to make the admissions committee believe that even though you have those few bad grades, you have somehow turned yourself around and you are prepared for a rigorous graduate science degree program. It’s a lot easier to show this when your bad grades happened early on in your undergraduate career rather than right at the end of it. But if the latter was the case, then explain why. They’ll be understanding of your situation if you can explain, and not give an excuse. There is a difference. If at all possible, I suggest holding off the entire topic of grades for your secondary applications, as your personal statement really should be focused more on the reason you want to become a PA rather than the mistakes you have made getting there.
Mentioning PA Programs
I don’t suggest mentioning a single PA program in your essay. For instance, if you have experience (visiting, meeting faculty, sitting in on a class, working/volunteering for, etc.) with a particular program or school, you might think that if you include that in your essay you could increase your chance of acceptance. This might be the case if you only apply to that one school, but more than likely it is elsewhere on your application already, so you don’t need to mention it again. The downside is that if they don’t pick you, you risk other schools seeing it or not applying to other schools at all. Other schools can easily recognize where your interests lie.
Character Limits - Know Them
Finally, check your character limits. Make sure you’re under the 5000 character maximum. I found that I had to reduce some paragraphs and sentences to get my essay under the character maximum because I had too much to say.
Do not be melodramatic or write a Hollywood movie script. Find a good balance.
Start off with “ever since I was 5 years old…”
End with “In conclusion...” or “In summary…”
Do NOT be cute.
Criticize physicians or nurses or other medical personnel to try and make PAs seem superior.
Do not rely on Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check.
Do NOT copy someone else’s personal statement.
Do NOT submit your personal statement without thorough editing.
Use “I” more than five times throughout your personal statement. Instead, use “we”, “us”, or “ours”.
Do NOT be so specific about any patients, units, medical personnel, dates, times, etc. You could run into a HIPPA violation, which admissions committees take very seriously!
Do NOT dwell on one patient or family member, etc. for the entire length of the essay. Don’t beat a dead horse!
Do NOT include the number of hours you’ve put into patient care, etc. It’s already in front of the admissions committee. Instead, write about the experiences you have had there and be detailed.
From Medical School to PA School
If you decided to switch from going to medical school to PA school, it is not recommended that you talk about the “convenience factors” of going to PA school over medical school in your essay. Examples include: starting a family, lower tuition, less years of school, etc. You will be asked about this in your interviews, no doubt. Make sure to talk about how the PA profession is a better fit for you and how it can offer you career satisfaction. Make sure you talk about something current and your understanding of the need for PAs and changes in healthcare.
I don’t recommend re-using your personal statement. Although it is unknown whether some programs care whether you use an astounding essay year after year, your chances of acceptance are increased by simply writing a new one that is improved and updated based on your current understanding of a PA and your motivation.
How much of my essay should I change? I think it's okay to use the base of your previous essay, if you included your motivation to be a PA, etc. You should be adding what you did during up to this cycle to improve your application. You should have contacted the schools you want to reapply to and see if any will disclose specific information about what you can do to improve yourself as an applicant. Sometimes you will have success and sometimes you will have to bury your pride and realize it must be: lack of HCE, your grades (GPA, GRE scores), or your understanding of the profession (i.e. essays).
At this point you will need to decide what you need to do to get yourself to PA school, whether that is a post-baccalaureate program, a job in patient care (scribe, patient care technician, CNA, medical assistant, phlebotomist, or EMT), or just some shadowing (PA, NP, or MD/DO). If your essays need work, then write about what you think were the weakest parts of your application and what you might have been lacking in the past. Utilize myPAresource as a resource to check the content of your essay before submitting.
If you decide to apply to newly accredited PA programs, you might start your essay with “In the past year, I have…” so that you can show them you have recent HCE without directly telling them you applied the prior year.
You may spend hours, even weeks, working on your personal statement for your application to physician’s assistant programs. But the admissions committee members only review it for around 5 minutes. This is why you need to make an impact right from the start. Also, the statement allows you to show the members that you have what it takes to complete the program. If you are applying to physician assistant school, you must have finished a bachelor’s degree and have probably worked in the medical field already. You already know you have what it takes. Find out how to write a winning personal statement that guarantees your acceptance into PA school.
Understand Why the Personal Statement is Important
Over 50% of PA school applicants do not get accepted to programs of their choice. Most of these applicants have average scores or higher on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), as well as excellent undergraduate grades. However, grades are not the only thing the committee members review. Recommendations from professors and physicians play a big part in the decision process. However, in the end, it is the personal statement that sets you apart from other adequately prepared applicants. Most PA program officials do not want to fill coveted spots with mediocre candidates. Instead, the committee members want to place those students that will likely succeed in healthcare professions, and that success involves hard work and discipline.
Consider Your Reason to Attend
If you have come this far, you probably have the academic qualifications necessary for PA school. Additionally, you realize that most people enter a PA program from another medical field. Take your professional experiences and expand upon them in your personal statement. It is important to choose a few related topics, organize your essay around these, and keep the flow going from one topic to the next. Success involves a real interest in medicine, as well as a genuine desire to help others. Makes sure your reason for attending PA school is the right reason.
Convey What Led You to Pursue a PA Program
Before you begin to write your personal statement, realize that you are telling the reader why you chose PA school rather than medical school. This is necessary to allow the committee members to see what led you down this particular path, and you should jot down every reason that comes to mind. Often, the decision to pursue a graduate degree is due to a combination of factors, and your essay should tell that story. You want the reader to have a complete understanding of these factors, while avoiding mention that medical school is “too hard” or “too long”.
Make Sure You Want to Do This
If you are attending PA school because you could not get into medical school, avoid mentioning that in your essay. If you feel that healthcare is not that compelling, you should stop here. PA school and post-graduate training is a difficult track, a path you don’t head down without careful consideration. If you are applying to a PA program just to please your parents or to deal with some external pressure, you will not be successful in the education process or in your career. Make sure your choice to attend is your own and not someone else’s hopes and dreams.
Ask Yourself These Questions Before you Begin
Schools of healthcare professions look for certain characteristics in their applicants, and this is your chance to showcase your special attributes. Before sitting down with pen in hand, take some time to think over a few things. Some questions that will give insight include:
- What is motivating you to apply to PA school?
- What qualities of PAs you know do you admire?
- What qualities do you have that would set you apart from other applicants?
- What personal philosophy motivates you?
- What are your strengths?
- What has influenced you most in your life?
- How have been involved in your community?
- How do you envision your future?
- What do you enjoy most about the medical field?
- Do start early – Begin writing a month before you plan to submit your application. Outline first, and then write a good draft. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute.
- Do use proper grammar and punctuation – You will probably need to go over basic writing skills before you begin. You want to avoid turning in something that is full of grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes.
- Do structure it correctly –You should format your personal statement with your reader’s attention in mind. How do you plan to capture the committee members’ interest? Make sure your first paragraph is not only interesting but informative.
- Do allow your reader know who you are –If this means revealing personal stories or emotions, then do so. Try not to expose too much about yourself, as you could come across as narcissistic. You want the reader to understand who you are and what you are all about.
- Do show your commitment –PA school is demanding and stressful. The admissions committee needs to know that you realize this, and that you also understand care giving is its own reward. Let the members know that you realize the road ahead will be hard, but also let them know that you are up to the task.
- Do relate to your reader –Take your particular life experiences, and explain how these things will help you work as a healthcare professional. Many PA students either volunteer on mission trips or work in the local hospital in the summers. Perhaps you even shadowed a physician during your college years. Pick one experience, and relate this to your reader.
- Do organize your essay –Introduce yourself in the first paragraph. Cover your topics succinctly and include a wrap-up summary. Your essay should flow easily from topic to topic without rambling or straying away from the basic theme. The main thing you want is a statement that flows smoothly.
- Do proofread –Read through your statement a couple of times for content and structure. Actually, read through it five times. Have your loved ones read your essay, and ask them to offer comments. If you have a friend that is an English teacher, get him or her to take a look at your grammar and punctuation. You want to turn in a finished product that is error-free.
- Don’t regurgitate your transcript – Remember, they have already looked at it. There is no need for redundancy.
- Don’t stray from your topic – Be specific, concise and direct. You have a subject in mind, so don’t stray from telling your story precisely.
- Don’t add filler and unnecessary information –You may feel that you need to add content to your statement to fluff it up and make it longer. This is what writers call “filler”. The committee members are not grading it based on word content.
- Don’t rush – Give yourself several months to do this right. After composing a draft, put it away, and revisit it later. Read it again in a week or so, when you are rested and have a time to sit down and relax. Also, read it as though you are learning about another PA student. Judge the statement from a committee member’s viewpoint. Are you interested in this person, and do you want to learn more about him or her? If not, start again.
- Don’t include academic successes that are not relevant – If you have achieved some unusual academic success, perhaps in research, then if it is relevant to your aptitude and desire to attend PA school. However, don’t include success in areas that do not pertain to medicine, such as retail or computer programming.
- Don’t embellish or use others’ work – No hyperbole or plagiarism. At all. The admissions committee can see through that, and if they cannot, they can always check it up on Google or through a plagiarism check program.
- Don’t talk about controversial topics – The personal statement is no place for topics of a controversial nature. This is not the time to alienate someone with a different perspective, nor is it the place to persuade others to your way of thinking.
- Don’t discuss emotional experiences – If you relate an emotional experience, be professional in your presentation. Also, if you do not feel that you can discuss this in an interview, don’t write about that experience.
- Don’t make excuses for anything – The committee members will not be impressed, as your excuses do not excuse you.
- Don’t apologize for past mistakes or underachievement – The personal statement is your opportunity to present your positive aspects. Don’t blow it.
- Don’t use clichés – The reader will view this as a poor attempt to gain his or her interest. Clichés are so cliché.
- Don’t talk about money – If financial gain is why you are entering this profession, realize that there are easier ways to earn a living. Healthcare is not the place to get rich quick and earn money without working for it.
- Don’t underestimate or overestimate the PA profession – Medicine is difficult. Patient care is frustrating. A physician assistant is NOT a doctor. The leaders in this field pride themselves on discipline, dedication, ability, and humanity. Don’t go into this profession looking for an easy career or expecting the prestige of a physician.
Now that you understand what it takes to create a winning personal statement, you are one step closer to the title of “Physician’s Assistant”. Use this guide to help you create an interesting, purposeful essay that reveals the honest reasons for your career choice. Best of luck on your new endeavor!
American Academy of Physicians Assistants (AAPA) (2013). Website at: http://www.aapa.org/
Kubin, P.B. (2013). Crafting a Winning PA School Application Essay. Derived from:
Writing a Personal Statement?
Ben Frederick M.D.
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