The Finer Details of the Personal Statement
By Hannah Turner
Writing is a special form of masochism. You construct something you’re deeply proud of, fretting over the mechanics of each sentence and the placement of every word, only to ask peers and editors to tear it apart completely. You take in their criticisms, ditch the bad ideas and get right back to work on the next draft. Along the way you have to let go of concepts that you were deeply attached to, and it hurts. In the end, the writing process is satisfying in its own right - in search of perfection you can create something really remarkable.
The personal statement is an especially challenging form of writing, mostly because it’s so… deeply personal. The ideas and words that you choose to share are reflective of who you are; not only is it difficult to write about and articulate your own personal experiences and feelings, but you then have to submit this material to the editing process, which at times can be brutal. When applying to PA school, the personal statement is a challenging rite of passage that each of us must endure.
So, what exactly is the PA school personal statement? At first glance, the parameters appear to be simple - it’s a 5,000 character essay which asks the question “Why are you interested in being a PA?” Although this question seems direct, there are nuances to the essay that are left unstated. First and foremost, implied in any personal statement is the idea that this piece of writing should explain who you are. That means that this is your chance for the admissions committee to get to know you. In addition to answering “Why PA?” and “Who are you?” your personal statement should also chronicle your background, experiences in healthcare and understanding of the PA profession. Although the prompt asks a singular, unassuming question, it quickly becomes a complicated web. A good personal statement will integrate the answers to all of the stated and unstated questions seamlessly.
A big piece of understanding the personal statement is recognizing how programs utilize this portion of your application. The admissions committee will have your transcripts, summaries of clinical, volunteer and non-healthcare work experiences, information about awards or scholarships and explanations of any extracurricular activities. Although this is a major part of your application, a lot is left unsaid. They have your resume, but that doesn’t encompass who you are as a person. Are you are deeply passionate about caring for the medically underserved? Do you have a desire to work in primary care so that you can give back to your community? Tell the admissions committee about it! Here is your big opportunity to shine and leave your mark.
The personal statement can also give you the chance to discuss any personal issues, discrepancies in your application or bumps in the road. Some applicants choose to address their upbringing or any disadvantages they experienced in their childhood and adolescent years. Others will briefly touch on academic struggles and extenuating circumstances they dealt with that caused disruptions in their coursework. The floor is yours to expand on anything you feel isn’t clear.
Writing your personal statement will almost certainly be challenging, but it’s a necessary evil. This essay will allow admissions committees to understand who you are and what has been driving you towards the PA profession. It will give them an idea of what was happening in all of the space between the lines of your resume. Be genuine and get personal, because the personal statement can make or break your application. No pressure.
For tips on writing your personal statement, check out this article about the five steps that make the process easier.
The Five Steps to Writing a Strong Personal Statement
By Hannah Turner
The process of writing a personal statement is so overwhelming… Where do you start? How do you say so much with so few characters? In the beginning, it all feels so unattainable. Many applicants struggle with writing their personal statement, and I certainly struggled to write my own.
In the end I utilized a five step process that allowed me to produce a strong personal statement. Below I have detailed each step.
Step 1: Start Early + Free Write
First and foremost, start early. Not “give yourself a couple months” early, but “start thinking about this in the year before applying” early. Create a working document on your computer, keep a running note on your phone, carry around a notebook to log your ideas - whatever you need to do to keep track of your thoughts, DO IT. This is the most simple form of free writing. It’s low stakes, no pressure, and it allows you to write when the experiences are fresh in your mind.
So, what should you write about? Anything that answers the questions, “Why PA?” and “Who are you?” is a great start. It doesn’t have to be logical or organized, just keep track of things that feels important. For me, I would often be at work and something would happen and I would write it down. Other times I would be out and about or at home and think of sometime interesting that I wanted to convey and I would add that. Keep track of experiences with providers, memorable patients and breakthrough moments in your journey. This will make your life SO much easier when you sit down to formally write your personal statement.
Step 2: Organize + Trim the Fat
Now that you’ve got your material, it’s time to start organizing. Put all your notes into a word or google document and bullet each idea/statement/paragraph. At first everything, will feel unrelated and you’ll have much more to work with than what you will use. That’s okay. Start sifting through everything and identify the weak points. Get rid of anything that feels unimportant or trite. This is where you really start trimming the fat.
This is also a good time to expand on those ideas that resonate with you and really communicate who you are.
Step 3: Create a Story
After editing each bullet, begin to arrange things in a way that feels more like a story. I personally arranged my thoughts along a timeline allowing things to progress in chronological order. This can naturally lead to flow as your journey towards the PA profession happened in real time. There are other ways to create a story, like by identifying a common theme which can give your essay a backbone. Find what works for you.
Here you will continue to trim the fat and keep paring everything down. Keep those big questions in mind, “Why PA” and “Who are you?” This will allow you to find the main points that you want to get across about yourself and why you are pursuing this profession.
Step 4: Finishing Touches
At this point you should have some kind of working draft. Now you should concern yourself with adding some finishing touches. Make sure that there is flow within each paragraph and between. Add transitions so that each idea will feed into the next. Polish your introduction and conclusion, making sure that each are strong and interesting.
Things do not need to be perfect right now. This is a draft. Keep telling yourself this, and don’t worry that it’s not exactly how you want it. Don’t feel discouraged as your personal statement is still a work in progress.
Step 5: Editing
Step 5 is editing, and it’s crucial. It will make or break your essay, so take it seriously. Once you have a draft you need to get other eyes on your personal statement. After working your material over and over there are flaws that you can no longer see. To remedy this, reach out to current or former professors, PAs, friends, the writing center at your school or even this forum for editing.
From here, take it all in and just keep making edits. Each comment on your draft will provide you with a jumping off point to rework or change an idea. I went through at least 3 or 4 drafts, maybe more. Remember, your personal statement doesn't need to be perfect from the very beginning, so please don't be discouraged! Writing is a process and everyone's first draft kind of sucks. That's why editors exist.
Bonus Step: Keep the Faith
Eventually you will be done editing, and it’s kind of a strange feeling. There will be no more comments and you will be satisfied with what you’ve created. It’s hard to see the point from the beginning, so you have to resign yourself to taking the writing process one step at a time.
The most important thing that you can do is start, having faith that at some point it will come together. Start making notes, start writing, and don’t get discouraged when you don’t get it right the first time. If becoming a PA is your passion, a narrative will come through if you devote your time to this.
Some of the schools that i am applying to requires 1 credit of medical terminology. I have my transcripts verified and have met all the other prerequisite courses. I don't know if i am missing something, but how do i input an in progress class into CASPA? I am planning on taking the 1 credit medical terminology course online. Can somebody please help? Each time i call CASPA, i just get the automated message and i don't want the programs to think i'm not planning on taking this course.
Thank you so much!!
edit: fixing typo
I recently started a job as a pharmacy technician two weeks ago but I submitted my CASPA about a month ago. I wanted to go in and include my new job on my CASPA to show that I was hired and that I will be working as a pharm tech from now on, but I am not sure if this information will be distributed to schools or how to even update my CASPA. Has anyone done this and if so, how did you do it? Thanks!