Before I dive in, I need to say a few words about physician assistants. I live in a very rural area of Kentucky (think: our newspaper invariably publishes pictures of unusually large cabbages in the summer). In turn, we have difficulty recruiting healthcare professionals here. In fact, there was a time where people had to drive hours to get the care they needed.
That changed with physicians assistants. Now, instead of operating with missing pieces, physician assistants have saved the machine, allowing it to run smoothly. In fact, it’s even allowed us to upgrade to a bigger, better model. That “big city” care that used to be required? We can get it here now.
So, since you have decided to embark on a career as a physician assistant, I guess I should start off first by saying thank you. The work you will do has changed our medical landscape.
Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I have some thoughts about how to craft a terrific physician assistant personal statement. It involves thinking outside the box a bit, but I promise it’s just to get you to produce something unique and, therefore, memorable. So, let’s begin.
Let’s look at the official prompt according to CASPA: “In your own words, write a brief statement expressing your motivation or desire to become a physician assistant.”
Then, later, it reads: “Please explain why you are interesting in becoming a physician assistant.”
As you can see, you are basically assigned to answer this question: Why do you want to be a physician assistant? Or, if you like, “What about you will make you a good P.A.?”
Before we proceed, know that the open-ended nature of the prompt is a marvelous gift. That means you get to make this essay entirely yours.
START WITH TWO LISTS
Before you begin writing, I want you to make two lists. Yay, lists!
First, I want you to list what traits you possess that would make you a great physician assistant. Here, it’s essential that you highlight traits that are specific to the field and explain why they both appeal to you and are part of you. Anything is fair game here — except for one important exception. Don’t say you want to be a physician assistant because you want to help people. Wanting to help doesn’t distinguish one healthcare profession from another. It’s also not exclusive to healthcare.
So, let’s look at traits that are common to physician assistants.
- a good communicator
- a good listener
- an independent worker
- detail oriented
For more about the traits a good physician assistant should have, click here.
Next, I want you to make a list of your:
- “aha” moments (moments of sudden insight or discovery)
- challenges and obstacles
Whittle down your list to your three best stories. Identify the most important moment in each one — the moment something changed, happened or began. Then, identify which traits of yours were triggered in you during these moments.
Decide which is your best story — the one that both showcases who you are and indicates why you want to be a physician assistant. That’s where you should begin your personal statement.
NO STORY IS TOO SMALL
For personal statements, the best stories are honest, detailed, show vulnerability, and go somewhere. Keeping that in mind, think about the story you’ve chosen to tell.
Don’t worry too much if it doesn’t seem that “big” or “dramatic” from the outset; the key is that it was important to you. It can be about the day you volunteered at a day camp for kids with special needs. It can be about a day in the park when someone fell off their bike. It can be about the day in the park when you fell off your bike. It can be about someone choking on a waffle in a diner. It can be about cooking with your grandfather. It can be about figure skating. It can be about playing the violin. It can be about being in an ambulance. It can be about swimming in a lake. It can be about pushing a wheelchair. It can be about being in a wheelchair.
Thinking of this story, I want you to activate your senses. What did you see? Hear? Taste? Feel? Smell? What are the littlest details that you remember about it? What were you wearing? The person beside you wearing? What did the concrete feel like? The water feel like? What were you cooking? Playing? What did you smell?
Know that no detail is too small. In fact, I want you to activate the mundane intentionally. Life’s littlest details are exactly what is going to make this story uniquely yours. Why? Only you noticed them. That is what will make your story authentic.
Moreover, that is what will help your reader connect with you. Once your reader knows you are being open and upfront about who you are, you will start to make a memorable connection with him or her.
WRITE ABOUT WHAT YOU DID
Once you’ve zeroed in on your story, I want you to write about your place in the story. How did you behave in the moment that you’re describing? What did you do? What did you think? How did you react? How did your brain work? What did you tackle?
One important point: You don’t have to be the hero. In fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t. It’s been my experience that “aha” moments that help define one’s life are often shockingly small in nature.
Another important point: If your moment intrinsically involves someone else, say your grandfather or your mom, or something else, like a trip or an event, you must constantly be careful to make the essay about you reacting to your grandfather, mom, trip or event. It cannot actually be about your grandfather, mom, trip or event, OK?
WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT AFTER YOUR OPENING STORY
Remember your lists? And that I had you isolate the traits that both help define you as well as demonstrate why you’re suited to becoming a physician assistant? That wasn’t for nothing. After your opening story, I want you to write about the other reasons why you want to be a physician assistant and, likewise, tie them to short anecdotes that demonstrate your traits. Obviously, these will be less detailed than your first story, but they will show different aspects of why you want to be a physician assistant.
So this can include stories about your shadowing experience, your job at an ice cream store, your passion for marching band or debate club or roller derby, your time with a patient, time in a hospital hallway, time at a hospital reception desk.
Make sure you follow up each of your stories with insight that you’ve gleaned from them. So, if you’re writing about falling off your bike, tell your reader why you’re writing about. Often, this means starting a paragraph with the words, “This is the moment I realized …” When using story, it’s important that you share your insight with your reader so he or she knows where you’re going with it, because sometimes the stories shared in personal statements — some of the best personal statements I’ve seen, in fact — don’t have an obvious connection to wanting to be a physician assistant.
WHAT NOT TO WRITE ABOUT
There are stories I think you should avoid. A story about a 6-year-old you bandaging the paw of your stuffed animal is one. I don’t care how many details you add to that story, it’s just been played out. Same for the story of a 7-year-old you using a toy stethoscope to help you perform fake heart assessments.
By and large, I prefer for stories to be about the adult you, rather than the kid you. To me, what you have realized as an adult says more about you than what you realized as a child. If there isn’t a way to work around that, that’s OK, if you stick to being honest and rely on the details. It also works better if you are still involved in whatever it is you are writing about. Meaning, if you write about your passion for music, as the writer does here, it needs to be something you’re still passionate about as an adult.
Writing about “work/life balance” in your personal statement is also a mistake. Yes, becoming a physician assistant will allow you to have both a nice lifestyle and a challenging career, but you don’t want to risk sounding like you’re taking this route because you don’t want to take the longer and more taxing route of med school. You definitely want your reader to feel you are driven and hard-working, not that you’re preoccupied with time off.
Likewise, you should avoid writing about (or even mentioning) med school or becoming a doctor. You don’t want your personal statement to read, “I want to be a physician assistant because I don’t want to be a doctor.” That’s not honoring the profession of the physician assistant. Physician assistants are proud about the role they uniquely play — as they should be. You don’t want to give the impression you think their role stands in conjunction with another.
ADDRESS YOUR SLIP-UPS IN YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT
If you have these slip-ups in your academic record (i.e. failed classes) or your attendance record (i.e. you took time off within your degree), you should absolutely save some space to address them. Remember what I said about vulnerability and honesty? That’s what is important. In fact, these slip-ups say as much about your story as anything — and they don’t have to be a bad thing.
Just focus on what you learned because of them. Again, it might be a time to explain the exact moment (another anecdote!) you realized the benefits of a hardship.
HOW TO END YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT
Once you have established what you’re made of and have demonstrated why you’re passionate about becoming a physician assistant, I want you to answer this in your conclusion:
- What is the significance of what you’ve shown the reader?
- What are its implications?
Basically, your reader is thinking: “OK, so you’ve told me all this stuff about you. But, so what? What do you want me to do with this information?” So expand. Indicate. Send me in the direction you are headed, the direction that you want me to see.
Most importantly, broaden my idea of you and your passion in your conclusion, do not simply restate what you’ve already told me. I know they often tell you to do this in essay-writing seminars, but a restatement is just another way of saying “repeat yourself.” With so few characters to work with, you don’t have the luxury of that. So be sure your conclusion is a culmination, not a summation. It should soar.
PHYSICIAN ASSISTANT STATEMENT SAMPLES
If you want to read a few winner-winner-chicken-dinner essays, click here. Just be aware that everyone else will be reading these, too. They’re helpful to scan, but don’t absorb them too deeply lest you’re subconsciously tempted to emulate their style.
Know that you already have all the material needed to write an excellent personal statement. Using these tips and tactics will help turn good into great. And, as always, if you need more help, don’t hesitate to contact me at [email protected].