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.
Interviewer: It can be the toughest job in the application process. It’s the dreaded physician assistant application personal statement. It's a hard to write essay by any other name, so how can you best highlight who you are in 5,000 words or less. We'll talk about that next on The Scope.
Announcer: Navigating your way through med school can be tough. Wouldn’t it be great if you have a mentor to help you out? Well, whether you're first year or fourth year, we’ve got you covered. The Dalton Med Student Mentor is on The Scope.
Interviewer: Admission essays for a physician assistant school are tricky. Thankfully we’re going to get some inside tips from Doris Dalton. She's the Director of Admissions for the University of Utah PA program, going to give us some do's and don’ts of a good personal statement, some of the things she likes and some of the things that she doesn't. So, first all, in order to do anything you’ve got to know what its job, what's is its purpose. What, in your mind, is the purpose of the personal statement?
Doris: When you look at the entire application together, your academic background will tell us what kind of a student you are, your work background will tell us where you’ve been professionally, your references will tell us what other people say about you. This is you only tool to speak for yourself.
Interviewer: Okay, so who look at this, because a lot of times it's good to know the audience of who’s consuming what it is you wrote.
Doris: With any writing exercise, writing is a form of communication and when your communicating with anyone you always have to keep your audience in mind. The people who are reading your personal statement are bunch of PA’s.
Interviewer: Okay, how am I going to connect with that group of people?
Doris: What are you going to say about a PA that might be your future colleague about yourself and your desire to be a part of that profession, your fit for it, your passion for patient care? Communicating all of those things is very, very difficult.
Interviewer: What kind of person you might be to work with.
Doris: Some of that might come out in your references, but what would want to say about yourself?
Interviewer: Sure. Got you.
Doris: It's difficult to sell yourself without sounding arrogant.
Interviewer: Yeah, that is a challenge, isn’t it?
Doris: People don’t want to beat their chest.
Interviewer: What's your advice to somebody who says that?
Doris: I think the most difficult to approach to the personal statement is when people get into their heads too much, when they sit down in front of that keyboard and ask themselves, "What am I suppose to say and what do they want to hear?" and, “How can I do this in such a way that I sound like a compassionate future provider?”
Doris: Boy, I can't even imagine having to do that myself, so it is a tough, tough exercise.
Interviewer: But you should still talk about things that you accomplished because that's what you want to hear I'd imagine. Right?
Doris: You do, but there's where that self-reflection comes back in.
Interviewer: How am I going to do it in a way . . .
Doris: Your personal statement should not read like a paragraph form of the rest of your application. We've already found out something about you and your background. If you, for example, worked in a nursing home as a certified nursing assistant, you might want to take that opportunity to reflect on the vulnerable patient population that you care for on a daily basis. That's an opportunity to share something more than the day to day kinds of things that you've done to prepare yourself for graduate medical education and future practice.
Interviewer: It seems like something else you might want to keep in mind is that you want to be human. I mean, you want to reflect that humanity, which a lot of us tend to not want to because it makes us vulnerable.
Doris: I think vulnerability is a plus. We do want to have candidates who are able to share that they are very passionate about patient care, that they are compassionate people who are going to be a good fit for medicine.
Interviewer: What’s something in a personal statement that you look for that you’re like, “Wow, this is great”?
Doris: I like something that's really heartfelt. People think we don't like “touchy, feely” things, but it really contributes to a personal statement and makes it less generic.
Interviewer: How often do you just get in a paragraph into it and you just quit? Because I have long contended that you have to catch your listener’s attention or your reader’s attention right away. Is that crucial or does everybody always read through the whole thing.
Doris: We will read the entire thing. I have seen personal statements that didn't quiet start out and then had some really good stuff in the middle of it, maybe a strong, maybe not a strong conclusion. But what can you share about yourself beyond the fact that you are just as reasonably qualified as everyone else?
Interviewer: I'm going to say try to start strong, though. That’s going to be my advice, but it's nice to know you read the whole thing because that takes a little stress off that I start with the right thing.
Doris: We want to know who you are.
Interviewer: Structuring a narrative can be difficult because sometimes there's a lot of different ways to tell a story. What do you recommend?
Doris: Feedback from others. Your personal statement should be well structured and have a flow. Not everyone is a good write, and a lot of people will require some help and there's nothing wrong with that. But your personal statement really ought to be well written and have a flow, so that it's easy to read. You don't want your reader to lose interest.
Interviewer: The mechanics part is just as important as the content part.
Doris: It is and no one is judging the quality of your writing, but again . . .
Interviewer: It's still says something about you, though.
Doris: Making the effort to have a good personal statement that reads well, that's easy to read and really share something about yourself will certainly make a difference .
Interviewer: What are some of the pitfalls that applicants make, some of the common ones? Let's go with three.
Doris: Generic statements. “I really like to help people, I really love medicine, I'm fascinated by the human body,” those sorts of things.
Interviewer: All right. How about number two?
Doris: I think it's difficult when a candidate writes a personal statement and they don't ask themselves, “Does this sound a personal statement that just about anybody could have written?” Because we do see a lot of that. I would say that 70%, 80% of the personal statements that I review are fairly generic.
Interviewer: It could have been anybody.
Doris: Could have been anybody, anybody could have said that. Share something from your personal experience.
Interviewer: How about number three?
Doris: You don't want your personal statement to read like an essay of what is a PA. We know that. A bunch of PA's are the ones that are reading your personal statements. I know that candidates are trying to communicate that they understand the role of the PA and they would like to be it in the future, but that something that you're going to waste space on.
Interviewer: Okay, finally, any resources that you recommend books, websites when it comes to writing that personal statements or that essay?
Doris: There are some resources out there and you can certainly tap into books on how to get into medical school, advice on writing the personal statement regardless of what profession someone is going into in healthcare can certainly have very similar advice.
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