Getting Admitted to Your Top PA Program: Hint- It’s Not All About Grades

Graduate school admissions, especially when it comes to nurse practitioner and physician assistant programs, are quite competitive. With opportunities for healthcare providers expanding, more and more students are looking to pursue a career in medicine. So, how do you as a prospective student make your application stand out above the rest?

This morning I had the opportunity to chat with Kim Hammonds, Recruiter for the College of Health Sciences at Bethel University in McKenzie, TN. I reached out to Ms. Hammonds to answer a few pressing questions students commonly have regarding the physician assistant admission process. With my phone in one hand and a steaming cup of coffee in the other, I listened intently as Ms. Hammonds gave advice for prospective physician assistant program applicants dispelling a few application myths in the process.

What qualities make a PA program applicant stand out among other prospective students?

I decide to get down to the basics right away as I am anxious to hear an admissions expert’s perspective on the PA application process. Ms. Hammonds is quick to answer.

“At Bethel, we aren’t all about numbers” she says. “Yes, good grades and test scores do matter, but at Bethel we consider the whole student”. I can’t help but think to myself how refreshing it will be for many aspiring physician assistants to hear these words. As a result of this philosophy, Bethel does not have a minimum GPA or GRE score requirement for application to the PA program. Ms. Hammonds acknowledges that for some schools GRE scores and grades are the ultimate predictors of admission, but other schools have a similar philosophy of seeking well-rounded applicants. 

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Ms. Hammonds notes that at Bethel University, community service and volunteering are a big deal. The University actively seeks to admit students who align with these values. Bethel is located in a rural Tennessee community and the physician assistant program actively seeks to admit students looking to give back in similar environments with their future careers.

What are the biggest mistakes you see PA program applicants make on their applications?

Ms. Hammonds is uniquely qualified to address this question as she has recently met with a panel of admissions faculty from other universities like Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.  PA program application blunders seem fresh on her mind. Two common application mistakes, a misdirected personal statement, and not making the most of extracurricular experience on an application, stand out as the most common mistakes she sees.

“At the conference” she says, “we were discussing how personal statements on applications have gotten a little crazy over the past few years. It seems someone out there is advising students to tell dramatic stories in their personal statements”. According to Ms. Hammonds, admissions faculty don’t want to read stories, they don’t want to hear your drama, they want to get the real you. 

Ms. Hammonds advises that students stick with the basics when it come to writing personal statements for physician assistant program applications. She says the most powerful personal statement is one that shows how a student overcame a challenge or hardship, but that is real and drama-free.

Another important aspect of the personal statement is to “show that you understand the role of a physician assistant” says Ms. Hammonds. “Physician assistant programs want to know that you understand what you are signing up for, that you have an idea of what a physician assistant actually does on a day-to-day basis”, “show this in your essay” she advises.

A second mistake Ms.Hammonds frequently observes on physician assistant program applications is mis-categorizing extracurricular opportunities. “Students are cutting themselves short” when is comes to highlighting extracurricular involvement on their applications she observes. “If you just say you were in a sorority, that doesn’t mean a lot to me” Ms. Hammonds explains. Instead, she recommends getting specific.  List the committees you participated in, especially if they include community service. “Placing your sorority involvement as it applies to the community service portion of your application is more impactful than listing it elsewhere” Ms. Hammonds advises.

One tip Ms. Hammonds offers to help avoid these mistakes is to keep a journal throughout your undergraduate years. Document information about your volunteer and community service experiences so that when you are applying to graduate programs you can easily recall these opportunities and pull from your journal to help write your personal statement and fill in your application in a way that maximizes your chances of admission.

How heavily does healthcare experience weigh in the PA program application process?

I imagine that experience working in a medical setting is of utmost importance when it comes to being accepted to a physician assistant program but Ms. Hammonds is quick to correct my misconception.

Bethel University does not require healthcare experience for admission to the physician assistant program. “Undergraduates without healthcare experience and the dream of becoming a physician assistant can still make excellent students” Ms. Hammonds says. Admissions faculty at Bethel feel that it is more important for students to fit the school’s vision and culture than have worked in the medical field. “Healthcare experience is great” says Ms. Hammonds, “but it won’t put you out in front”.

Although Bethel does not require that PA program applicants have experience working in healthcare, they do require that applicants have spent at least 40 hours shadowing a practicing physician assistant. The university wants to make sure that applicants have a solid understanding of the physician assistant career.  The desire to work as a PA is more important than having healthcare experience in general.

How important is the admissions interview in making admissions decisions?

Ms. Hammonds is quick to point out that interviews are important to the admissions process for Bethel University’s physician assistant program. The interview has several components including a 45 minute essay-writing period where students draft a second personal statement outlining their educational and career goals. Students also meet with faculty as a group to learn about the academic and clinical experience for PA students at Bethel. Finally, students interview individually with three separate faculty members.

Ms. Hammonds emphasizes the importance of professional appearance for graduate school interviews. Dressing unprofessionally is the top mistake she sees interviewees make. “Don’t wear flip flops or capris to an interview” Ms. Hammonds says.

A second mistake many students make is being too nervous. When students “have a deer in the headlights look”, or don’t talk because they are nervous, this is a red flag for admissions faculty says Ms. Hammonds. Admissions faculty are looking for laid back, down to earth, confident students as this translates to good bedside manner as a physician assistant.

If you could give one piece of advice to students applying to a physician assistant program to increase their chances of admission, what would it be?

“Prepare in your undergraduate courses” Ms. Hammonds advises, “don’t take the minimum and barely get by”. Ms. Hammonds recommends taking classes like organic chemistry, even if they are not required. “In the long run this will make a difference not only on admissions decisions but also you will be very prepared for the first year of your PA program” she says.

A big “Thank You” to Kim Hammonds for answering our pressing questions about PA program admissions and correcting some common misconceptions.


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2 thoughts on “Getting Admitted to Your Top PA Program: Hint- It’s Not All About Grades”

  1. This is a great article! We have been editing 100’s of PA essays as of late and recently, just as you mentioned above, I have found applicants becoming a bit heavy on the drama. The balance here is a tough one. You want to be original in your essay and tell an original story, but it is like a great movie, it needs to be subtle, yet effective in getting it’s point across. It is hard to teach this and many applicants are afraid to let go of what they think is a great idea, and make the necessary edits.

    As the field becomes more competitive, the personal statement has become that much more important. I feel for today’s applicants, when I applied 10 years ago it was tough, now it is just that much harder!


  2. The article states that admissions is “Not all about grades” but the final advice is “focus on undergraduate courses” which is a slick way of saying “grades.” I don’t think you can just take Orgo without actually doing well in it. What do you want me to believe now?

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