How to Stand Out in your PA School Interview

The PA program I work for recently finished up interviews for 2020. We typically do an MMI, but were forced to use a more traditional interview style via Zoom due to COVID-19.

Most PA programs use a 2:1 to 3:1 ratio of interviewees to seats. Meaning, if they accept 50 students, they will interview 100-150 applicants. Many programs receive hundreds of applications, all of which have to meet minimum qualifications to even apply.

A few candidates always stand out before the interview process. They have 4.0 GPAs, thousands of HCE/PCE hours, and stellar recommendations. A handful of applicants on the other end of the spectrum barely pass the threshold for meeting minimum requirements. Most applicants fall somewhere in the middle. On paper, they are very equally qualified.

The interview is where applicants have an opportunity to stand out. It’s where programs decide who is a good fit for their culture. I don’t know if it was the virtual setup, or the change from MMI to standard format, but this year more than ever it was challenging for applicants to stand out.

There are more resources for PA applicants than ever before. This is a good thing. When I was applying to PA school there was NOTHING out there. Now you have everything from books on the topic, virtual shadowing opportunities, Pre-PA clubs, and personalized pre-PA coaching or application reviews.

One problem this has created, however, is that applicants are frequently giving the same canned answers for many of the standard interview questions. Specifically questions like “Why PA over physician?” and “Why do you want to be a PA?”

I quickly started to identify buzz words for lack of a better term on these topics.

Let me give you a few examples. “Lateral mobility.” “Work-life balance.”

Don’t hear me wrong, the ability to switch specialties and a better work-life balance are some of my favorite things about our profession. But as an applicant, you need to be able to tell me why this is important to YOU. This can be particularly tricky, because it can come out sounding like you’re choosing the “easy” road. One colleague of mine often states he feels like PA applicants don’t seem to understand that just because they’re becoming a PA and not a physician doesn’t mean their job isn’t going to be stressful.

Another popular topic this year for PA programs is diversity and inclusion. Anyone with a pulse can say they think diversity in healthcare is important. Anyone should be able to recognize the lack of diversity in healthcare. But again, 90% of applicants had the same generic and very basic answers to these questions.

The answers provided were not wrong. The problem is, they weren’t PERSONAL. Remember, programs are interviewing dozens of candidates. In many cases over 100. I need to remember something about you when the interview is over. The best way for me to remember you is to tell your story. When I ask a question, I’m not looking for a canned answer. I’m looking for YOUR answer.

An interview is nothing more than a marketing campaign for yourself. One marketing expert I follow named Donald Miller discusses how neuroscientists claim we spend more than 30% of our time daydreaming. Basically, we can’t focus. However, something very interesting happens when you read a book or watch a movie – you don’t daydream. The reason is when you’re engaged in a story, it does the daydreaming for you. He teaches businesses how to use storytelling to market their products. I believe this concept can be applied to selling yourself in an interview, too.

If you want to capture the attention of someone or want them to remember you, you have to tell a story. Your story. I promise you when I’m on the twentieth PA interview candidate telling me about how PAs have “lateral mobility,” it’s all I can do to keep from daydreaming. But when I hear a candidate tell me about a personal experience they had with a patient that made them want to become a PA, I’m engaged.

You still have to answer the questions though, right? That’s ok. You can do both. When practicing interview questions, think of your answer in two parts. First, the most direct answer to the question. Second, why this is the correct answer for you personally.

Let me give you a few examples:

“Why are you considering PA over physician?”

If I were answering this question, I would say:

“I considered several pathways including physician. Something I kept coming back to is PAs have more flexibility with changing career paths. One thing in particular that solidified this for me is I have a friend who finished her medical residency and was extremely unhappy with her specialty. I watched her work tirelessly through medical school and residency only to find out she is very unhappy with her decision, and now she’s stuck. She encouraged me to think about this, and the more I did, the more I realized having flexibility to practice in different specialties was more important to me than having the benefits that come with being a physician.”

I made the question personal and I told a story.

Here’s an applicant who was asked this same question a few years ago, and I still remember his response:

“My family always struggled with being in debt and never having enough money. I want to do things differently. I’m ready to start working as soon as possible. If becoming a PA allows me to do what I want to do, which is practice medicine, in a shorter amount of time and with a third of the student loan debt, that’s the clear choice for me. A PA income is more than enough for me to live comfortably and I don’t need the status that comes with being a physician. I just want to practice medicine.”

This person answered the question without making it sound like becoming a PA was the “easy” thing to do, and he made it very personal, all in under 20 seconds.

Let’s use diversity as an example. A lot of applicants struggle with this because they may not have a lot of life experience and really fumbled with how to answer questions that called for giving personal examples. If that’s you, it’s ok. You can still own your lack of experience and show us how it will make you a better PA.


“I actually don’t have any personal experiences where I’ve seen discrimination happen. I think this may be because I grew up in a town and went to schools with very little diversity. I grew up in a small town where everyone in my school was white. My college was mostly white. What I’ve learned from watching events unfold this year and from listening to others is, just because I haven’t witnessed it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. I’m learning I need to be proactive in learning about discrimination in health care and learning about the experiences of others.”

This response owns the fact they don’t have an experience to share, tells a little bit of a personal story, and discusses how it will make them a better PA.

Let me say here, this isn’t intended to be a canned answer either. My hope is everyone truly understands the importance of diversity and inclusion among healthcare providers and we all recognize the disparities that exist for minorities when it comes to healthcare. Don’t give an answer that isn’t sincere.

If you’ve worked in healthcare as a scribe, medical assistant, etc, and you can’t come up with ANY example about how a minority or someone of low socioeconomic status was treated differently or struggled to navigate the healthcare system, you probably aren’t paying enough attention. That’s ok, it’s never too late to start.

If I were interviewing for PA school, I would write down all of the standard questions you know are asked. “Why PA?”, “Why our program?” It’s very likely you’ll have a question about diversity.

Make two columns. In one, write down your short answer. In the second, write down a personal story or why this answer is true for you. Then practice merging the two columns together to come up with a prepared response.

2020 has been a crazy year, and the PA interview process was not spared from this. I hope these tips help you express your true self during your interview.

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