Preparing for Your PA School Interview: How to Stand Out & Get In

From knowing what to wear to portraying yourself as the perfect future PA student, learn how to ace your admissions interview and make an impact on the panel.

MEET THE EXPERT

Courtney Fankhanel
Courtney Fankhanel

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Courtney Fankhanel, MMSc, PA-C, is an Assistant Professor in the Yale Physician Associate Program, and the Associate Director of Clinical Education. Among her responsibilities at the university are clinical curriculum development and assessment, lecturing and teaching transitional skills, cardiology didactics, surgery, and an EKG course. She also earned her MMSc degree at Yale.

The road to PA school has been littered with challenges, but you’ve found the strength and ambition to make it to your final hurdle. The PA school admissions interview represents one last obstacle you must overcome in order to achieve your dream career in healthcare. So, how can you be sure you’re ready for such a momentous occasion? Determination. With thousands of qualified applicants vying for the same spot you are, your willingness to practice, practice, practice can make the difference between rejection and acceptance. Keep reading to start down the path of practice questions and gain valuable insight from experts who’ve been there. 

PA School Interview 101: The Fundamentals

Before you begin the rigorous interview questions preparation, there are a few fundamentals you need to understand first. From making a good first impression to being a well-informed applicant who’s done their homework, covering these basic aspects of the interview process ahead of time can help you put your best foot forward.

Make a Good First Impression

You never get a second chance to make a good first impression and that goes for your admissions interview as well. While some of these aspects may seem obvious, it can be easy to overlook the importance of seemingly insignificant gestures and presentation in the moment, especially if you’re nervous. It’s important to dress professionally, make eye contact, offer a firm handshake, and maintain good posture. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure that you remember the interviewers’ names so you can address them directly in your responses. We offer some more tips in this area below.

Know the Profession

You’ve taken your prerequisite courses and gained hands-on experience hours, so you know a thing or two at this point. That’s great, but you need to be able to speak with your interviewers beyond generalities. You must express in no uncertain terms that you have chosen to become a PA for specific reasons, that you know exactly what PA’s in your desired area of the field do, and what makes them different from other healthcare professionals like a physician or an NP.

Research Your Program

There are over 200 accredited physician assistant programs in the U.S., so it’s important to know the specifics of the programs you apply to and interview with. Experienced PA professional and academic coach, Ryanne Coulson, argues that most PA school hopefuls often have a vision that is too general and fail to target schools that will meet their personal and academic needs. If you pick out programs that will serve you well, you should be able to speak in detail about the unique offerings that each program has during your interview. You should be familiar with the clinical requirements of the school, the curriculum, faculty strengths, and any standout characteristics. This shows your interviewers that you’ve done your homework and have chosen to pursue PA school at their institution for identifiable and intentional reasons.

PA School Interview Question Types: The Big 6

You never know what questions your interviewers will ask you, but you can count on a few questions from each of the main six categories. Preparing your answers to sample questions ahead of time will not only help you seem confident during the interview, but it will give the interviewers the impression that you’ve put in the effort required for future success. Here are some of the questions you can expect to be asked along with expert answers to give you guidance.

Biographical Interview Questions

Question examples:

Tell us about yourself.

What experiences have prepared you to become a PA?

Why do you want to become a physician assistant?

Why should this program accept you?

If you had to pick a role in healthcare other than a PA, what would you pick?

General description

These questions are used by interviewers to learn more about the applicant’s background, education, experience, personality, and values. They are some of the most important questions you’ll be asked during your interview. Understanding how to talk about yourself effectively and confidently is key to answering these types of questions. You can be positive that you will be asked these questions during your interview, so it’s crucial you come prepared.

Key to answering

Tell a story. It should go beyond a list of your accomplishments, that much they can gather from your application. Try sharing information about yourself that helps the panel understand the type of person you are. What brought you to this point? Why should they care? It can be challenging to tell your story without practicing, so be sure to rehearse your answers to these questions beforehand but try to sound as unrehearsed as possible.

“What do you want to become a physician assistant?”

Sample answer:

“Though I have enjoyed working as an EMT, I really hope to serve patients in a greater capacity and play a larger role in their care. I have interviewed and shadowed nurses, nurse practitioners, PAs and physicians, and found that the role of a PA has the balance of autonomy and collaboration that I am looking for. I am interested in a patient-focused career where I can be fully trained to start serving patients in just a few years. For me, being a PA aligns perfectly with what I am looking for in a medical career.”

Source: Be a Physician Assistant, PA School Interview Questions

Behavioral Interview Questions

Question examples:

Can you tell us about a time when you had conflict with someone in the workplace or a supervisor?

What’s a failure that you’ve learned from and why?

Describe a time when you had to conform to a policy that you didn’t necessarily agree with.

What are two of your most significant accomplishments?

Describe a situation or task where you motivated yourself and succeeded even though you didn’t really want to do it.

General description

Behavioral interview questions can be tricky because they are pretty open-ended and leave a lot of space for you to speak. The questions allow interviewers to stretch beyond what’s on your resume and learn more about your personality, values, and experience. Many experts consider this category to be the most important of the six.

Key to answering

The interviewers want to know about your experience with specific details, and you know that better than anyone. Answer confidently by telling them short stories that speak to your ability to handle conflict, show how you deal with failures or mistakes, and display how your smarts and creativity helped you along the way.

“Can you tell us about a time when you had conflict with someone in the workplace or a supervisor?”

Sample answer:

“One time when I was working at [a retail job] as a cashier, my boss, Mary, really laid into me one day because, she said, ‘When I came in this morning, the alarm wasn’t on, and it was the third time this month. Every time you forget, we risk getting robbed!’ I was embarrassed and upset, because it was my first-night closing, and I remembered locking the door very clearly. So at the end of the day, I asked her if I could speak with her privately. We sat in the office and I said, ‘Mary, I’m really sorry that the store didn’t get locked last night. I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I would definitely admit it if I had forgotten.’ I told her ‘I really want to be on good terms with you because we work together. Next time you think I’ve done something wrong, do you think you could ask me about it so that we could go over what happened?’ She apologized for snapping at me and suggested that we close together when we were finished talking. So when she locked the door that night I realized that there was a step to setting the alarm that I was never taught in training. Sensing an opportunity, I told her that I would be glad to go over that step with the other employees as a way to make sure that I wouldn’t forget it and to assure that the other employees wouldn’t either. She agreed, and things turned out so well that I ended up being promoted a month later. ‘I liked how you handled the situation with the alarm,’ she told me, ‘and I realized that you deserved a little more responsibility.’”

Source: The PA Life, PA School Interview, 300 PA School Interview Questions You Should Be Ready to Answer

Goodness of Fit Interview Questions

Question examples:

Why do you want to go to our school?

What values do you share with this program?

How will this program help you grow as a PA?

Which faculty members’ work excites you and why?

What about our curriculum draws you in?

General description

These questions aren’t trying to figure out if you’re simply a “good fit.” Rather, the interviewers are trying to see how close to a “perfect fit” you are for their particular program. While nobody is perfect, they want to see how close your personality and values match up with theirs.

Key to answering

With this category, you should answer the questions with specific information about the program itself. Explicitly tell the interviewers why it makes sense for you to be a student in their school. You’ll need to cite concrete examples without sounding too salesy.

“Why do you want to go to our school?”

Sample answer:

“There are several reasons I want to go to [school name]’s program, and they all have to do with the structure of the learning that takes place here. I’ve read about many programs and yours seems progressive in its curriculum. The online resources for learning physical examination, for example, show me how hard this program has worked to keep current and to evolve with medical technology. I want to attend a school where what and how I am taught really matter to the faculty. The fact that many of the courses are taught in small group seminars tells me that student interaction and relationship with faculty is a priority. With that, I know that I won’t be just a number. I love that as a student I will have the opportunity to put my new knowledge to use right away by working in student-run programs like Clinica Esperanza in downtown [city]. I’ve worked at community clinics in [the state] already, and that emphasis on helping the Latino community is refreshing to me!”

Source: The PA Life, PA School Interview, 300 PA School Interview Questions You Should Be Ready to Answer

Projective Interview Questions

Question examples:

If you won the lottery, what would you do with 100 million dollars?

What was the last movie you saw and enjoyed?

When do you feel like a bull in a china shop?

At the end of your life, how would you want people to remember you? What type of ice cream are you?

General description

These questions may seem like they come out of nowhere. That is because they often do. While oftentimes questions in this category seem unrelated to PA school, the interviewers are trying to learn about you indirectly and see how you think on your feet.

Key to answering

There may not be right and wrong answers to any projective interview questions, but they do provide you the opportunity to get creative and tell the interviewers about your personality. Experts recommend that you work backwards to answer these questions. For example, if they ask you what type of footwear best encapsulates you as a person, you could say something like: “I’m generally comfortable in tough situations and can be pretty adaptable on the fly. I’m most like a pair of hiking boots.”

“When do you feel like a bull in a china shop?”

Sample answer:

“Knowing that I’m a person who is very driven, I need to be careful not to be a bull in a china shop. I can’t let my enthusiasm and drive alienate my coworkers, and I can’t blindly charge through every obstacle; I need to ‘negotiate’ them. Like when I came up with the new system of tracking lab specimens at Dr. Sharp’s office. There were some [older professionals] there who my plan could have rubbed the wrong way. So I was careful to include them and to ask for their feedback. It got me their buy-in. Driven is good, but I’ve learned that if it isn’t tempered with flexibility and teamwork, it just comes across as overbearing.”

Source: The PA Life, PA School Interview, 300 PA School Interview Questions You Should Be Ready to Answer

Ethical Interview Questions

Question examples:

Is there a time that you witnessed a PA interacting with a patient in a way that you considered unprofessional?

Describe a time you had to make a tough ethical decision. 

You are seeing a Jehovah’s Witness patient that does not accept blood transfusions due to religious reasons, but it would be lifesaving.  What do you do?

Is it okay to ever lie to a patient?

What’s your opinion on the topic of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia?

General description

Interviewers want you to think on your feet but also see how you handle ethical issues that arise in the workplace. It’s not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when” you’ll face these types of difficult decisions on the job.

Key to answering

You’re being assessed mostly on your ability to be thorough and fair, based on medical evidence, in situations where the correct choice might not be obvious. When formulating an answer, try to base what you say in facts, no your personal opinion. Be sure to explicitly say that you’d closely examine all of the factors at play in the situation before making a knee-jerk decision. Then detail a course of action that makes the most sense based on the information available to you.

“Is there a time that you witnessed a PA interacting with a patient in a way that you considered unprofessional?”

Sample answer:

“I have not seen anything that stands out in that serious of a way among PAs. I did, however, see a nurse forcing a patient, who was dying, to get a CHG bath because it was protocol and they didn’t want to look bad. It came down to an ethical decision and they compromised by washing around the PICC line.”

Source: Quizlet, PA School Interview

Questions about the PA Role & Careers

Question examples:

How would you explain the role of a PA to a middle school student?

What’s the biggest issue in healthcare that directly affects PAs right now?

How important is cultural competency in the healthcare workplace today for a PA?

What do you predict will change for PAs over the next 10 years? What is a physician assistant?

General description

The PA role and careers category is designed to check up on your level of knowledge about the major historical, recent, and current issues that PAs face in the field. If there’s a glaring gap in your knowledge, it may signal to the interviewers that you haven’t done your homework or that you’re not as invested in the field as you need to be.

Key to answering

While there’s no way to predict the questions you may get in this category, there’s a few main topics to keep in mind. First, know exactly what PAs do on the job and how that training and work differs from nurses, NPs, physicians, and other common healthcare roles. You’ll also want a firm grasp on the history of the profession and know the major players and locations of significant developments. Further, you should know how PAs earn credentials both at the national and state levels. Lastly, stay abreast on recent news and standout topics in medicine more generally, as well as those topics that are central to conversations surrounding PAs. You may be offered a drastically open-ended question about the PA’s role today or historical significance, so just be ready to take the reins and offer a concise, on-point answer.

“What is a physician assistant?”

Sample answer:

“A PA is a licensed healthcare provider who works under the supervision of a physician. Some work closely with their supervising physician, and some with a lot of autonomy. PAs work with patients diagnosing illnesses and injuries, ordering diagnostics, and planning treatment. Besides these particulars, I think PAs fill a need in our healthcare system. They are trained first as primary care providers but have some freedom to specialize, educate, and coordinate care.”

Source: The PA Life, PA School Interview, 300 PA School Interview Questions You Should Be Ready to Answer

Seven Ways to Make an Impact in Your Interview

While being prepared looks and feels differently for everyone, there’s a handful of things you can do or think about in advance to make sure you put your best foot forward in the PA admissions interview. Here’s some tips to try and keep in mind as interview day approaches.

1

Be Prepared to Ask Your Own Questions

Interviewers will almost always ask you if you have any questions for them regarding the program or anything discussed throughout the interview. Make sure you show up with questions already prepared. Even if what you ask is something as general as, “what does the upcoming school year look like for the program?”, that’s better than asking no questions at all. If you can, ask questions about any recent changes to the program or a feature that makes that program unique. The interviewers surely take pride in their program and would be happy to speak more to those standout aspects of what they can offer students.

2

The Handshake

It might seem fairly insignificant, but your handshake can convey a lot of information to your interviewers right from the start. A firm handshake, coupled with solid eye contact, displays confidence. There’s no interview situation, whether for PA school or otherwise, where confidence doesn’t go a long way.

3

Reiterate Why You’re There

One of the main things you’re trying to get across as a PA interviewee is why you make sense as a student in that particular program. With this in mind, the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants (AASPA) recommends that interviewees keep in mind a few points when asked a question they didn’t anticipate. In the event that you’re caught off guard by a question, remember that you can still respond confidently with points that reiterate a. who you are, b. what you’re good at, c. what you want to do as a PA, and d. specifics about what interests you in the field.

4

Be Honest

It’s best to tell the truth in your responses. Even if you’re not quite sure how to answer, the AASPA recommends that you tell the truth. Not only is this a good policy so you don’t misrepresent yourself but staying truthful will help you remain calm and confident.

5

Question Variants

In the event that you’re presented with a question that you didn’t quite prepare for, take a moment before you answer to think if it’s tied in any way to those topics or talking points that you did prepare. AASPA refers to these as question variants. This strategy will save you from being totally stumped or tongue-tied.

6

Get to the Point

Sure, it’s a good idea to provide a personal touch or context for one of your answers by presenting it as part of a story or anecdote. They help interviewers get to know you better, beyond what’s on your resume. However, you need to keep tangential information short and avoid letting your stories or responses drift too far off track. One valuable quality for PAs is excellent communication. Be sure that you can put that on display in your interview with concise, thoughtful answers. Think of it as a good practice to offer good contextual and supporting information while avoiding what might be considered “unsolicited” information.

7

Call Ahead

If it’s  possible to call the school ahead of time, let them know that you have a PA interview and that you’d like to ask a few basic questions. You don’t have to use your name or any identifying information. Many departments are happy to confirm specifics that will help you prepare, such as how many interviewers there might be, if you’ll be expected to participate in a campus or facility tour, if there’s anything you should bring with you, etc. If you feel like it, you can also confirm your interview date, time, and location to be sure you’ve got those essential facts correct.

Insight from the Expert

Courtney
Mic

Courtney Fankhanel, MMSc, PA-C, is an Assistant Professor in the Yale Physician Associate Program, and the Associate Director of Clinical Education. Among her responsibilities at the university are clinical curriculum development and assessment, lecturing and teaching transitional skills, cardiology didactics, surgery, and an EKG course. She also earned her MMSc degree at Yale.

*The answers in this Q+A section represent the views of Courtney Fankhanel alone and are not necessarily shared by Yale University or the Physician Associate Program.

1. In your experience, what are some common mistakes that you’ve seen among interviewees in PA school admissions interviews? How can we avoid them?

A lot of times, the interviewee can spend too much time reiterating what is already on their resume or CASPA application. That’s not the best use of your time. The interviewers already have access to that information and already know it. One of the best overall strategies is to present yourself in a more personal light than what’s on the surface of your application materials. Try your best to give natural responses that don’t sound scripted. There are benefits in being practiced and sounding confident, but there’s a fine line between confident and scripted responses. Also, in my experience, it is never a good idea for interviewees to speak poorly about former employers or offer up information about their interview experiences at other PA schools. Avoid this type of information in any capacity. It doesn’t help your case in any way.

2. Since each interview will be different, with varying questions of specificity and detail, what are some strategies that the interviewee can do ahead of time to prepare?

As far as getting ready goes, know as much about each individual program before going into the interview. Find out how it’s organized and where the program’s strengths are. See if you can determine some of its well-known extracurricular opportunities that might be unique to that school. Ideally, you’ll get a chance to talk to a current student or alumni of the program prior to interviewing. This is one of the best ways to get a little more background information that you might have trouble finding on your own or overlook. If you know a lot about the program going in, then you’ll be able to honestly answer what it is about that PA program that makes you want to be a part of it. There are hundreds of PA programs out there, really good ones, so tell the interviewers what makes this one the right one for you.

3. If an interviewer asks, “How do you handle stressful environments or work scenarios?” (or a similar question), how can a PA interviewee really hit that out of the park?

The question about handling stressful situations or some iteration of it is likely a very common question in PA school admissions interviews. In my experience, it’s best when the interviewee uses concrete examples. Whether it’s from a time in their past academically or personally when they faced a very stressful situation, they can use that anecdote to show how they handled it. I think it’s good to be able to show that you’ve had some thoughtful, honest self-reflection on those examples, as well.

4. Seemingly out of nowhere, projective questions such as “If you’re a dessert, what kind are you?” might pop up during interviews. How can an interviewee take advantage of these moments to provide some spot-on, engaging, and stand-out responses?

With those types of random questions, just remember that there is no right or wrong answer. I’m sure one could think of or find an appropriate canned answer to these things. But honestly, a lot of the time, your interviewers can tell when you aren’t being sincere. You might get an off-the-wall question like that, but the best way to handle them is to answer sincerely and put your personality on display in the answer. The question is, in part, being able to see how you answer something off-the-cuff. The interviewers want to see if they can get a little view of your personality, too.

5. Is there anything about PA admissions interview-etiquette that’s different from other types of formal interviews? Any special insight on this topic that people should know?

There are a lot of common themes among interviews, whether it’s for a job, graduate school, or something else. What’s different about PA school admissions interviews is that you are interviewing for a very specific field within medicine. While it’s not necessarily an etiquette-related characteristic of these interviews, it does happen to be something that interviewers expect to hear in one form or another. Come prepared to explicitly express why you want to be a PA, and what it is about this opportunity that’s going to make that happen in the best way possible for you.

Resources

Accepted.com, “How to Get Accepted to Physician Assistant (PA) Programs”: Here you can find a long list of important points to consider as you research schools and develop your application materials.

American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants, “Interviewing Strategies”: This site offers a good overview of important points to practice ahead of time and commonly asked questions.

How to Get Into PA School by Trevor Thomas: With years of experience in the medical industry, Thomas offers insider advice on interviewing and applying for PA school.

The PA Life, “PA School Mock Interviews: Prepare with a Live, Recorded Video Interview”: The PA Life offers this valuable interview prep resource. All you have to do is schedule an interview appointment and pay a one-time fee.

The PA Life, “The Top 46 Physician Assistant Applicant Interview Questions”: Students can browse through some of the most commonly asked questions during these interviews, as well as a robust comments section (with many experts’ responses) to see how other readers weigh-in on the subject.

The Physician Assistant Insider Podcast, “What’s Your Story? Set Your Interview Apart from the Rest”: This podcast for PAs offers a special episode dedicated to helping students nail their admissions interview.

The Physician Assistant Life YouTube Channel: From interview tips to background information and tours of dozens of PA programs, this channel is a valuable resource for any up and coming PA student.

The Posh PA, “How to Get Into PA School with a Low GPA”: For those of us with GPAs on the lower end of the spectrum, here’s some good tips on bolstering your application and putting your best foot forward.

The Ultimate Guide to Getting Into Physician Assistant School by Andrew J. Rodican: Rodican offers good tips in this book on financial aid, application strategies, how to locate the best program for you, and the PA interview.