PA School — What to Expect

Many students, after overcoming that first big hurdle of securing a spot in a PA program, may not be fully prepared for what they have actually gotten themselves into. Oftentimes, students assume that PA school will be simply an extension of their time spent in undergraduate studies, only to discover that the reality is that PA school is much more intense and challenging. So being prepared and strategic about the experience can make the difference between succeeding and even thriving — or just barely making it through.

Rethinking Study Habits

While in college, students don’t always feel the need to keep up with their reading and studying and often wait until the last minute to cram for midterms or finals, but PA school compels you to have a very different set of study habits. The information presented in the PA curriculum builds upon content previously presented, which means that students will have to not only understand the material but be able to retain it. This may necessitate a different approach to studying then they were previously using while in undergraduate school. In other words, PA school requires students to go beyond just studying for the test — they must become lifelong learners, as they will need to continuously employ the knowledge learned once they have graduated and are in practice.

There’s no doubt about it — PA school is fast-paced. What was spread out over two semesters in undergraduate studies, may be presented in just two weeks. There’s a lot of information to absorb in a short period of time. This means that setting aside regular dedicated study time has to be a priority. Also, as an undergraduate, students typically mix some easier classes with the more difficult ones, but in PA school, most of the classes will be challenging. “Gut courses” don’t really exist, so students need to be highly organized with their time in order to keep up and stay on track with all of their classes.

Collaboration Is Key

Some students may need to break free from their silos. While many students enjoy studying alone, given the interdisciplinary aspect of the PA profession and the emphasis on teamwork, group work becomes somewhat of a necessity. In fact, PA students can benefit greatly from collaboration and creating learning communities. This also will help them build on their communication and people skills, which will ultimately enable a smoother transition into the PA profession. 

It’s important to remember that competition for grades does not serve anyone well. Class cohorts are created to maximize learning — and not just from professors or instructors but from one another. The variety of health care experiences that students bring to the table and the technical skills that classmates have can be useful adjuncts in study groups or skills-building small groups. The team-based approach to medicine can and should be modeled in the classroom setting.

The shared camaraderie of a class cohort has the potential to provide lifelong friends and professional colleagues. Being open to meeting new people and appreciating the various perspectives contributes to a rich PA school experience.

A Demanding Schedule

Don’t make any big travel plans! Everyone deserves a break, but most programs run straight through for an average of 27 months, so it’s best to hold off on any major trips as breaks might not be as long as students expect them to be.

While many students might have worked during their undergraduate studies, it may not be feasible in PA school. PA school and clinical rotations are almost a 9–5 job that will demand all of your time — or even more than a 9–5 job with certain rotations.

The Power of Positive Thinking

Students should have confidence that they belong in their programs. Faculty believe in the students who have been selected as part of a class cohort. While the work will be challenging, they would not have been chosen if the program didn’t believe they could succeed.

They should think about developing a growth mindset based on Carol Dweck’s work. She talks about the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe the underlying beliefs that people have about learning and intelligence. “When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore, they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.”

Students should not be afraid to ask for help, whether from faculty, university resources, friends, or family. PA school is rigorous, and they really cannot do it alone. Health care is also rigorous —  knowing when to ask for help in the patient care setting is a critical component of being a good PA.

The life lessons that a student takes away from their PA educational experience will serve them well, whether it has to do with keen attention to detail, lifelong learning, or the flexibility to navigate new settings and hone strong interpersonal skills. Students matriculating into a PA program should be prepared to be transformed. PA school can be a life-changing experience offering an outstanding opportunity to learn, give back, and grow — both professionally and personally.

Thank you to PAEA staff members Karen Hills, MS, PA-C, Olivia Zeigler, MS, PA, and Denise Rizzolo, PhD, PA-C, for their significant contributions to this article.