A majority of the personal statements that applicants write for admission to a variety of programs in the health professions fall into one or several of the following categories:
· A dramatic story about delivering care
· A story of personal illness or caring for a loved one with an illness
· The desire to provide care for others
· Fascination with science and medicine
· Stories about working in the health care system
If most application essays talk about the same themes, how do you make yourself stand out? How do you talk about yourself without falling into a bottomless pit storyline that doesn’t help the admissions committee get to know you? Selling yourself well and pitching your application, without coming off as arrogant, is a challenge that could mean the difference between getting an interview and having your application put aside.
The personal statement is a longstanding tradition of school applications and it is the chance to tell your story and fill in the blanks that the rest of your application leaves open. There is no cookie cutter template to follow that will get someone into PA school. The cognitive elements of the application (GPA, GRE, etc.) remain the most important factors for getting screened in. The personal essay is part of the non-cognitive factors that help programs round out their decisions about who might be a good fit for them and for the PA profession. When someone reads an essay, they want to get a sense of the applicant’s personality, motivation, and fit. Since programs want a variety of student types, every essay has the potential to shine in its own right.
The common themes mentioned above are not inevitably trite. For example, it makes perfect sense that many people applying to a health profession choose to talk about a desire to care for others. What isn’t helpful to an admissions committee is when the applicant simply states, “I always knew that I wanted to care for people” because it doesn’t really tell us anything about the applicant. It would be more helpful for that person to describe their experiences caring for people and the context they were in. Anything that helps the reader pick up on the applicant’s personality, motivation, and fit. Then, the applicant’s desire to care for people would be implicit.
The personal essay is also the place for an applicant to explain things that may not seem standard on their application. For example, academic discipline, extended leave of absence, or undergraduate credits taken at several different institutions. These things are easily noticed by an admissions reader and if they are not addressed in the essay, the reader might think the applicant is unpredictable or hiding something.
At the other end of the spectrum, the personal essay is the place for the applicant to tell their story and shine. A PA application can easily be dozens of pages in length and wonderful pieces of information can be lost on the reader. For example, if you speak a second language or you won a special award or you are an author on a manuscript, it needs to come out in your essay, even though you have already listed those things in the designated box. An applicant should not be afraid to sell themselves boldly by pitching their accomplishments and positive attributes. The essay is not the place to be shy and there is a way to do this without being pompous. So, for example, if you say that you are a highly experienced lab researcher, you sound arrogant. But if you say that the work you did in a lab gave you the chance to coauthor a manuscript that was published, you sound impressive.
No matter how well you write, you can never fully predict how you will appear to someone else on paper. Always have two people read your essay: one who knows you well and one who barely knows you at all. Both of them should give you style and grammar edits but the one who knows you well can help you sell yourself through your story and accomplishments. The one who hardly knows you at all can give you honest and open feedback on whether your essay brings out your personality, motivations, and fit.
If you enjoyed this article, please check out the book I published on this topic called Pitching Yourself for PA School. It is written in the style of a fictional story with a retired PA professor and a PA school applicant. The characters are fictional. The essays discussed are also works of fiction and meant to serve as examples of common essays and how an applicant might be perceived by the admissions committee. I have woven a blend of anecdotal and evidence based advice into the fictional story. The story in the book is meant to help you get to know a fictional applicant named Sarah, and then see how Sarah learns to translate her personality, motivation, and fit into a finalized essay, even while using many of the common PA school essay themes, which are discussed in the story.
 Selected references listed here. Book reference section contains additional sources.
1.Ding H. Genre analysis of personal statements: Analysis of moves in application essays to medical and dental schools. English for Specific Purposes. 2007;26(3):368-392.
2. Forister JG, Jones PE, Liang M. Thematic analysis of personal statements in physician assistant program admissions. The Journal of Physician Assistant Education. 2011;22(2):6-12.
3. Jones PE, Simpkins S, Hocking JA. Imperfect physician assistant and physical therapist admissions process in United States of America. Journal of Educational Evaluation for Health Professions. 2014;11:11.
4. Lopes Jr JE, Delellis NO, DeGroat A, Jacob N. An analysis of theme content in CASPA personal statements. The Journal of Physician Assistant Education. 2014;25(4):43-46.