What You Need to Know About Health Professions Advisors

Earlier this summer, Kelli Hutchens, a health profession advisor at the University of Mississippi, sat for an interview with Erika Brooks, PAEA’s admissions services manager.

Hutchens, who also serves on the CASPA Advisory Steering Committee, shared how academic advisors, especially those who serve as health professions advisors, help students navigate their pre-PA journey.

Can you explain what a Health Professions Advisor does?

A health professions advisor provides support for students on their unique health professions path. Academically, this encompasses everything from advising students on which courses to take, to how many courses (or science courses) to take at once, to helping them access resources and support if they run into challenges, to helping them understand the importance of building relationships with professors.  Beyond courses, we help students understand what it takes to be a competitive applicant for each health profession and how to seek experiences in line with their passions that will enhance their application. For pre-PA students, for example, we help explain patient care experience (PCE) versus health care experience (HCE) versus shadowing and how to find opportunities to gain clinical exposure and ensure the PA profession is the right path for them.

What does the workload for a typical health professions advisor look like? 

This varies dramatically by institution, office, and person. I am a full-time professional health professions advisor who works primarily with students pursuing careers as a physician and as a PA, but also some Allied Health Studies majors pursuing interests outside of PA and medicine. Most of my time is dedicated to 20-minute student appointments which can include advising students on academic or matters related to their major or candidacy as well as reading and giving feedback on personal statements, activities, and supplemental/secondary essays, along with mock interviews. I also keep up to date with medical and PA schools on changes they are making and seek feedback regularly on what schools are looking for in an applicant. I write a lot of letters of recommendation, analyze data on our acceptances and matriculants, and spend a whole lot of time communicating with our applicants to ensure they are receiving the proper information and support to be successful. On MCAT score release days, I get many text messages and phone calls! 

In addition to my regular job, I created a class for pre-medical applicants and one for pre-PA applicants (1 credit, pass/fail) who are getting ready to apply, where I go through the application process, assessing strengths and weaknesses as an applicant, writing personal statements and experiences, the timing of test taking and application, and more.  

Many schools lack a health professions advisor, or the health professions advisor has primary duties in teaching, research, or other administrative support, so health professions advising is only a small portion of their job. This is a huge challenge as health professions are constantly changing (especially PA)! We are fortunate to have multiple health professions advisors in our office so we can be more specialized in our assigned health professions.  

How do you support your students who are interested in the PA profession? 

In every way you can think of. This can be ensuring students meet prerequisites for PA schools they plan to apply to, finding the right major, assisting them with how to find shadowing and hands-on clinical experience, helping them think through volunteer experience that would be fulfilling, and being a support for them when they struggle as well as when they succeed.  

Does that support look different depending on when a student indicates they are interested in the profession (for example, going into undergrad knowing they want to be a PA VS switching from a pre-med/ Pre-nursing pathway in their sophomore or junior year).

I do my best to ensure students have shadowed and know about the many options within health professions from the beginning. As soon as a student seems interested in PA in any way, I encourage them to shadow and look at certification and/or seeking direct patient care experiences. Certainly, the students who come into college knowing they are interested in PA learn about and typically seek PCE/HCE earlier. Sometimes I even meet with high school prospective students whom I encourage to gain CNA or other certifications so they can hit the ground running. 

When a student pivots health professions from pre-med or nursing, I try to break PA down into pieces and talk first about the academic side – how schools are not consistent in their requirements but there are certain courses they will likely need to take to be competitive, what those are and how to fit them in. We then talk about how PCE is different than shadowing, but shadowing is often a steppingstone to PCE and how to start seeking those experiences. The last piece comes later when a student is entering their final year. We look at the PAEA Program Directory and pick six to eight PA programs. I charge them with looking at each program’s requirements and timelines to ensure they are on track to be a competitive applicant, take the GRE and/or CASPER if schools require, and work their way through the reflection and writing required for a successful application.  

What are some of the biggest challenges you face advising students who are trying to enter the PA profession? 

Inconsistency. Prereqs are inconsistent (including if upper level or lower level is acceptable for given prereqs), what counts as direct patient care vs health care experience is inconsistent across schools, programs’ deadlines and start dates are inconsistent, whether their admissions are rolling or not is not uniform, what if any standardized tests are required and when they need to take them is inconsistent, what and how many recommendation letters are required and from whom (especially with the limit of five letters and not being able to specify which letters go to which schools) is tough, when they should apply is inconsistent depending on when prereqs need to be completed by and start date and required graduation date and when PCE minimums need to be met if applicable. It is a lot for students to digest! I do my best to break it down and help them organize everything. For students who are first generation and those underrepresented in medicine, the application process is particularly daunting and confusing.  

What is something you would like PA programs to know about from the applicant’s perspective? 

There is so much that goes into being a successful applicant. Not just in terms of GPA and clinical hours but in application writing, taking different standardized tests, understanding the many admissions timelines and that every school looks at your application differently, and organizing everything. Even finding a PA to shadow is very difficult in a small town like Oxford, Mississippi, where two residency programs have recently been started, and competition/space is fierce. CASPA is well-intentioned but very confusing. Only being able to put in a date range and average number of hours per week and then having to not only choose an experience type (often putting one experience in more than one entry/category) but then also choose full-time, temporary, per diem adds extra confusion to an already confusing process.  From my experience, most programs see themselves as being similar to other PA programs, but in my 10+ years advising PA, that is hardly ever the case. Many programs do not have an understanding of how the CASPA works and what information can be updated once they submit.Each program seems to have a different preferred method of updating hours (particularly PCE hours) post-application, some have their own portal, and others use an email or other system. While it may not seem like a big deal to add or change a prerequisite course or standardized test (like the PA-CAT), it puts an additional burden on applicants which can often result in a less diverse and robust applicant pool. 

What advice would you give to a PA program that would like to partner with an undergraduate institution’s advising office? 

We love to hear from and connect with programs and directly connect our students to you! When a school comes to visit us, I try to schedule a time where I can ask common questions to add to my encyclopedia of notes for future reference. Doing simple things like translating prerequisites to acceptable courses from each institution, clarifying mission and what counts as direct patient care and how different pieces of an application are weighed can be very helpful. Also, sometimes students don’t believe me- they need to hear it from the program! Be directly in contact with schools to determine how best to reach them/their students. We have found, for instance, that 1:1 meetings with our students after a group presentation are most fruitful for both the program representative and our students.  

How can PAEA and our member PA programs support you and your colleagues in the health professions advising space? 

I love the PAEA Program Directory. Encouraging programs to continue adding information there is very helpful. I love how you have added the GRE requirement filter and start month filter! Integrating ARC-PA somehow within this database would be super so students can see accreditation status. I also appreciate how many programs have gone away from standardized tests which is often an additional cost and barrier for applicants.  I am on the Advisory Steering Committee and Erika Brooks has helped make some amazing small changes that have really helped advisors and students! One thing programs can do to increase the diversity of their pool would be allowing applications for supplemental/secondary waivers whether they are within CASPA or in a separate application/portal. A recent study has shown that for Black applicants to PA school, their chance of acceptance increases 24.3 percent for each additional application beyond one application up to seven. Creating fee waiver opportunities for supplementals should increase the diversity of the pool of applicants and future PAs. I will continue to push for some CASPA changes that would ease the burden on applicants, including increasing the poverty guideline percentage for fee assistance eligibility, (and not requiring recipients to use it within 14 days), and eliminating categories like per diem vs. part-time vs. temporary! CASPA’s recent change in allowing advisors to see acceptance/matriculant data sooner has also really helped me stay in touch with applicants and matriculants to increase our allowing PA pipeline. I LOVE the PA field and PAEA is a phenomenal organization. I know they are working hard to make student-friendly changes to diversify the field and get much-needed future PAs into the pipeline!