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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.