Put Your Best Face Forward: PA School Interviews

You’ve (finally) made your way through your CASPA application and are now afraid you may break your phone from refreshing your email so frequently in hopes of seeing a program’s name flash into your inbox.

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You’ve hit the worst part of the application process: phase 1 of the waiting game (phase 2 comes after you interview and are patiently awaiting their response. THE WORST!)

FINALLY…you receive an email that invites you to interview at a PA program! You quickly accept their invitation, and begin preparing for interview day! But wait…where do you even begin? What are you expected to wear? What are they going to ask you? Are the questions going to be hard? What if I don’t know an answer? What if they don’t like me? …And the “what if” list continues on and on and on…and the nerves of that day start to hit.

Hold up…first of all, everything is going to be ok! Truly the worst thing that can happen that day is you do not get accepted into their program. As much as that blows, in the whole scheme of things…it truly isn’t the end of the world and you can take a lot of really good learning points away from the day. So when you realize that is the worst case scenario, it puts it into perspective and doesn’t make the whole thing seem nearly as scary or intimidating….But you’re reading this blog right now so I’m going to give you some tips on how to avoid riding the strug-bus on interview day and totally dazzle those programs!


First stop: What To Wear On Interview Day

Style Points: You don’t want to knock those interviewers dead with your mad style, but you do want them to think you are one classy candidate. Typically I see males and females rocking (basically) the same outfit. Females tend to wear a nice blazer (usually black…but I’ve seen gray a lot too) on top of a solid-colored scoop-necked shirt. This is accompanied by dress pants, which are also usually black. Shoes are dealer’s choice…I’ve worn both flats and heels to interviews. The one important tip I have: make sure you can walk in whatever your choice is. Everyone is already feeling a little self-conscious and nervous on interview day, so don’t exacerbate those feelings by stumbling around a school tour looking like Bambi on ice.

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Guys, you have it a little easier because you most likely own and wear this outfit whenever you have a family wedding, fancy church outing, or any other occasion that requires you to break out the ole suit and tie. For interviews, most guys wear a full suit paired with a solid dress shirt underneath, and nice tie (mad props if you research the school colors and match your tie to it). Same rule goes for shoes: find a pair that is comfortable. Also, invest in a pair of dress socks. I have 5 younger brothers and a boyfriend…and I’m not sure why they all have come to the conclusion that Nike socks are acceptable to pair with dress shoes. BE BETTER THAN THE ATHLETIC SOCKS, BOYS!

On another note: you know those super small, travel-sized deodorant sticks? Ya, those are never a bad accessory to have on interview day either…just don’t get deodorant all over your nice clean black outfits!


Next stop: Interview Styles

There are plenty of ways these interviews can go down…1-on- 1, 2-on-1, 3-on-3, etc. Most schools send out an email prior to interview day listing the itinerary and what to expect. With this, they may give you a heads up on how individual interviews are done. This info can give you some time ahead to mentally prepare for it!

So without further delay, let me share with you a couple of ways I was interviewed!

  1. 1-on-1: You and the interviewer. For me, this was the least intimidating set-up for interviews, which of course meant I only interviewed at one school that had this kind of interview style (of course). To begin, we started out in a large group (so me and 14 other candidates) in a room where they gave an overarching introduction of the what the program is all about. After that, we got a short tour and then began our day of interviews. In total, I believe I had 4, 1-on-1 interviews with various people involved in the program: the program director, two faculty members, and a former student (who was a current PA). All of my interviews were not back-to-back, and when I wasn’t being interviewed I was in a large room with the other candidates that had down time too.  Obviously, this poses the opportunity to be a tad awkward while chillin’ in a room and making small talk with people you are technically competing against…but honestly I had some pretty fun times getting to know other candidates! I even met a really cool girl that had flown in from Poland the day before for the interview…and I had the joy of explaining to her what a cheese curd was haha! So have some fun with it, it tends to be more relaxing when you do!
  2. 2-on-1: So this seems to be the popular format of interviews. This interview entails you sitting down and chatting with some combination of 2 people tied to their program. I’ve interviewed with 2 program faculty that were PAs, a PA program coordinator and a PA, a PA and a doctor, and 2 PA students. For this one, I definitely emphasize talking to BOTH of them (which sounds intuitive but when you’re in the moment you may get nervous and focus on the “friendlier” faced one…usually, they have a good cop/bad cop facial thing going on even if they don’t mean to haha). Also, when you’re 2-on-1 it means there is two of them…and 1 of you. Having two people’s attention on you may feel intimidating, but try to relax! You’ve made it to an interview (which is a super big deal), so remember you’re supposed to be there! Have some confidence and rock that thing out!
  3. 3-on-3: Alright, my opinion is about to rear its ugly head for this one. Thank the Lord, I only had to suffer through only one of these interviews. It was 3 faculty members…and 2 other candidates (plus yourself). We were given 30 minutes to answer questions. The faculty members started with the question “why do you want to be a PA?” (side note: this is a question you will be asked in EVERY SINGLE interview, so be prepared to answer that!). I , of course, was the last one to be asked this question after the other two candidates gave their answers. I’m sure I answered it just fine, but it was hard not to be intimidated after hearing two other candidates nail their answer to that question. So besides feeling really intimidated, there was also no one in that room moderating how long a candidate spent on their answers. Long story short, one of the candidates spent probably 20 of those 30 minutes answering her questions…leaving the other candidate and myself only 10 minutes to split. I definitely left that interview feeling defeated because I didn’t think that the faculty really got the opportunity to get to know me***. But, no one likes a Debbie Downer so after some reflection I realized I actually learned a lot in that interview on what NOT to do during an interview.
    1. First, I learned that you can totally tell when you memorize answers to questions. One of the candidates in that interview appeared to have read an interviewing tips book and committed their answers to memory. NOT GOOD. After getting into PA school and helping with this year’s incoming class, I asked one of the faculty members what they look for in these interviews…and her number one answer was genuineness. Yes, you may have to stumble and stutter through an answer here and there…but if you’re straight up honest and sincere in your answer, it’s going to come off a lot stronger that someone spitting out some cookie-cutter answer!
    2. Secondly, let us remember what a PA is: it is a healthcare professional that works collaboratively within a team. So when you are in an interview that requires you to share time with other candidates, it is a test. This test is to see if you are able to share time (somewhat) evenly with these other individuals. As a PA, you will use this skill on a daily basis, so it only makes sense that programs seek out individuals that can demonstrate this quality, especially in a high stress/competitive setting. So if you find yourself in this situation, make sure to answer your question thoroughly, but do not spend unnecessary time elaborating on something that can be concluded within 2 minutes.
    3. Looking back on it, it was actually rather interesting to see how other candidates answered questions, interacted with interviewers, and handled stress. Yes, I was intimidated as all get-out while I was in the room with these super accomplished individuals…but I think it was also reassuring to know that other candidates, regardless of how poised they come off, can stutter during a question, may not have a super eloquent answer to every question, and are nervous too (all things I totally did at EVERY one of my interviews). So, I guess group interviews are not all that bad!

*** So fun story time. After we were done getting grilled with interview questions, the PA faculty told us they were done. As we were about to get up, one interviewer said she had one last question for us. She was an avid reader and wanted to find out about some good books for her future reading endeavors. So she hit us with the question “what is the last book you read and why did you read it?” Now, a lot of candidates are prepared with a really good, intelligent answer for these little off-hand questions…and I was NOT one of them. The first candidate described a book about women in war and how important their duties were and how they really paved the way for winning the war (maybe it was the way she described it, maybe it’s my absolute lack of interest for history…but that book, kind of reminded me of something I was forced to read in high school, and probably SPARK-noted. I digress…). The second candidate spoke about a book that involved a son who committed murder and his parents (knowing he did the crime) being torn between their unwavering love and commitment to their son, and also doing the lawful thing in the courtroom by confessing to their son’s crime (now this book actually sounded awesome and I’m pretty committed to tracking it down once I finish school and have some free time to read). And then there was me. All I could think of was oh, sh@# (pardon my language…I usually do not swear but that was the only appropriate response after hearing the other two candidates and knowing what my answer was going to be). See, the last book that I had read was Harry Potter. So you know what, that is exactly what I said. I told them that I absolutely love Harry Potter and that I was re-reading the series for the second time. And to answer why I was reading them…”because only a Muggle wouldn’t love a good Harry Potter book!” Funny enough, all the interviewers actually were huge Harry Potter fans and laughed pretty good at my answer. A few weeks later I got an e-mail offering me a spot in their PA program. I am convinced even to this day that Harry Potter was the main reason I got into that PA school. What can I say, 50 points to Gryffindor!

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Group Activities on PA Interview Day

  1. I’m not exactly sure what to label this, so I’m going to call it “PA-Wannabees Trying to Piece a Diagnosis Together That Was Completely Wrong”- To set the scene, we were given a schedule at the beginning of interview day. 8 students at a time were designated to a vague “group activity”. When my time came to partake in this activity, the 8 of us were escorted down a hallway into a classroom with a table in the middle, a projector, and a panel made up of 3 current-PA student judges. We all sat down and the projector flashed to a picture of a 20-something female in a hospital gown. The moderator then explained what we would be doing. This group activity entailed the 8 of us attempting to formulate a diagnosis based on a patient presentation. Basically, at that moment my heart sank. This was not an activity I was going to be much help in, as I worked as a CNA in a nursing home and later in-home care and never even came close to diagnosing a patient. But, I gave it my best anyways.  As an extra catch to this activity, we were not given all the information on the patient right off the bat. First, the moderator gave us a patient who seemed to be presenting with common cold symptoms. For the first round, all 8 of us had to come up with (and agree) on 10 questions to ask the patient to narrow down our differential diagnosis. We were next presented with the patient’s co-morbidities and family history. We again had to figure out 10 new questions to ask the patient to narrow down the differential. The next round consisted of us picking 8 diagnostic tests we wanted to run on our patient (and rationalizing why we ordered these tests) to further diagnose her. This is kind of hysterical in retrospect because I distinctly remember another member of our group saying we should order a CBC and me thinking “what in the world is that”?. (Disclaimer: by the end of didactic year you will DEFINITELY know what a CBC is. It is truly amazing how far you come in PA school lol.) Needless to say, we thought this lady had pneumonia and I now know (after learning a thing or two in school) that she was most definitely suffering from a PE. So what was the point of this activity they gave us? Clearly, this program did not expect us to come up with an accurate diagnosis (obviously we would have all been booted out the door if that was the case), but more so wanted to evaluate how well we worked in a group setting. They ranked our communication skills, leadership, and more importantly…our ability to effectively listen to others. In a competitive environment, most individuals want to take all of the glory for themselves. But, as a PA in the real world you will be collaborating with lots of other healthcare professionals…and listening effectively to others is going to be a key skill to hone in on. No one gets to be a hero all on their own in the medical world. During this activity, I was actually amazed how effectively we worked together to figure out a diagnosis even though we were all complete strangers. So if you find yourself in a group setting similar to this one, remember to make an effort to contribute, but also do not overtake the entirety of the conversation. Balance is key to rocking these types of group activities!
  2. Another form of a group activity I participated at in at an interview was one that tested our moral and critical thinking. In this portion, 4 other candidates and I had to come to a decision on who to save:  Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 10.01.34 PMAs you can see, picking only 6 people to save is hard…and is designed to really question your moral compass. Do you pick someone who is “good” morally, or do you pick someone that is going to help you survive at sea? Hard to do alone, let alone with 4 other people! There is obviously no “right” answer to this activity, but it is important to interact with one another in a respectful and polite manner. In addition, contribute to the conversation! When you throw out an option for a person to save, make sure you back it with your own well thought out reasons! Also, have fun with it…it was actually kind of a stress-reliever to work out a problem!

Interview Questions

Everyone always worries about what questions they will ask you…and if you’ll be able to answer them effectively. You want to prepare prior to going to the interview, but you also don’t want to memorize answers (because they totally can tell). You worry if you’ll say too much, or not give a long enough answer. You worry that you’re going to say something dumb, sweat through your blazer, or find out you have a nervous twitch that you conveniently discover mid-interview.

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So to kick off this party off, let me hit you with some of the most common questions I was asked while interviewing.

  1. Describe to us your story, how you got here, and why you want to be a PA
  2. What is the role of a PA in your eyes, and what are the positives and negatives of that role?
  3. What is an ethical situation you have been in and how did you handle it?
  4. What do you do for fun?
  5. How would your professors describe you as well as your family?
  6. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  7. Describe a time when you’ve been disappointed about something and how you handled that situation
  8. What’s the most difficult decision you have ever had to make and how did it affect you?
  9. Name a time you’ve been involved in a conflict and how did you resolve it?
  10. Of all the items on your resume, which one has shaped you the most?
  11. If you were on a plane and you hit tremendous turbulence going over the Grand Canyon and everyone started to panic…what would you do?
  12. Name a time you’ve had to deal with stress and how you handled it
  13. Name your biggest role model and why they are so important to you
  14. Describe a time when you’ve made a decision/did something that was not what the majority of people were doing
  15. If you could be an animal what would it be and why?
  16. Why do you think you are a good fit for our program?
  17. If you could be anything besides a PA, what would it be and why?
  18. What are your favorite qualities about yourself?
  19. What experiences have you had that will help you work with underserved populations?
  20. Buck…or doe? (ok this one was just at the Wisconsin interview…of course lol)

Of all these questions…every single interview, without fail, asked me “why do you want to be a PA”? A pretty legit question, considering what you’re interviewing for. Now, it seems like a simple enough question to answer, right? WRONG (well at least that’s what I found for myself). Internally I knew why I wanted to be a PA, but when I tried to put in into words I found it was much harder than I imagined! So if you were going to “practice” any answer to a question…that would be the one to tackle!

Another fear people have about interviewing is “freezing up” or stuttering through an answer. Guess what, I did both (on multiple occasions)! Interviewers know it is a stressful situation for you…even if you typically are a calm individual. For me, this was the biggest interview of my life up to that point so you can imagine why I fumbled through a few of the first questions! I think the best way to combat that is to remember that this interview is simply a conversation. These interviewers are people too, and for the most part, they aren’t going to try and “scare you”, but more want to get a feel for who you are as a person! So relax, and (tactfully) dazzle them with your golden personality!

…But if you blank on a question, or truly do not have an answer for them, be honest! One of my first interviews of the cycle asked the question “name a time you had conflict in your workplace, and how you resolved it”. For the life of me, I couldn’t think of a time I had problems at work…so that is what I told them. But, I wouldn’t leave it at that answer alone. For my answer to be more complete, I said “although I have never experienced conflict in my workplace, I have experienced conflict in other areas of my life. Whenever a conflict occurs, it is best to try and remove emotion from the situation and take a step back to view the other person’s side of things. The conflict may involve walking away from the situation to cool down and then coming back to resolve it with a clear mind. With anything, communication is key…as well as forgiveness. Even if the resolution of the conflict isn’t the way you ideally wanted it to go…it is best to move past it and move forward”. Although my answer didn’t match perfectly with their question…it still showed the interviewers that I have dealt with conflict in my life, and I’ve been able to effectively deal with it maturely (disclaimer: although I this is the way I try to deal with conflict, it is not necessarily how always goes. I am human, and more importantly, I am slightly sassy…I’m working on it…).

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Lastly, if there is a question you maybe fumbled over and are feeling less than confident about…write that question down! Ideally, I wrote down the questions I struggled with right after I got out of the interview so that they were fresh in my mind (programs give you so many handouts and usually a free pen…so you have no excuse not to jot it down)! Then when I go home after the interview, I can think a little more clearly about what I would have wanted to say instead of what I did. A lot of programs use similar questions, so when I was asked my problematic question again…I felt SOOO much more confident with my response!

Lastly, at the end of every interview…they always ask if you have any questions. As simple as it is to say “no”, that should never be what you say. Always have a question ready to go on interview day. Some of the questions I commonly asked were:

  1. What is the number one quality your top students possess?
  2. What is your favorite part of the program?
  3. If you could narrow down one reason I should choose your school over another, what would it be?
  4. What resources are available to me, should I need the academic assistance? (which I’m sure some people may think this is putting into question the ability for you as an applicant to be qualified for PA school, but I think it actually shows that you want to know that there are resources for you to succeed in school)
  5. What global volunteer opportunities, if any, do your students have the ability to participate in?

Even though you are being interviewed to see if you are a match for the program…you also need to ask questions in order to see if the program is the right match for you! Don’t be afraid to ask them questions, most of the time they will really appreciate that you put in the effort to come up with them!


Miscellaneous Tips, Hints, & Tricks

  1. Some schools choose to have a student panel where candidates can ask current PA students various questions about life as a student. Many times, you are given the impression this is not a time you are being “evaluated”. This would be a wrong assumption, as you are always being looked at on interview day. So maybe don’t ask current students what the best bars are around campus (you can ask this once you’re admitted haha). A more common issue is looking attentive. Interview days are long…and it can be easy to take a student panel a little more lightly than other parts of the interview day. Stay engaged, whether that be asking questions or simply showing that you are listening. Students a lot of the time are asked for their input on candidates, and something as simple as looking bored out of your mind during a panel can jeopardize your chance at that PA school.
  2. Do something fun the night before your interview! Chances are your nerves are on overdrive…and you’re going to start over-thinking the next day! So go distract yourself with something you love. My dad and I had the tradition of going and finding the best chocolate cake in the area before my interview! It was simple, but it was really fun to spend time with my dad while also drowning my emotions with double chocolate calories.
  3. When you get out of the interview…smile! Yes, it was stressful. Yes, now you’re going to go home and replay every single second of that interview in your head. But you know what…you got a PA school interview and that is HUGE! You should truly be proud of yourself for such an accomplishment! Don’t forget to celebrate all of the little wins you have along the way of reaching your “big win” of getting an acceptance.

Congrats…if you have made it this far in the post, you are truly a warrior. My fingers now feel like they might fall off from typing this mini-novel. But, I honestly hope this gives you a glance into what a PA interview may look like. There is no way to get around the fact that it is stressful, but remember…most interviews only last 4-6 hours. And more importantly…every interview usually has multiple opportunities for free food.

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So in closing (did you ever think I’d end this post?), whether you interview at 1 school or interview at 40…remember the most important factor of any interview is the confidence you have in yourself. You should be proud of who you are, and you clearly are a rockstar if you’ve managed to get an interview. So go into your interview remembering that the program liked you so much on paper…that they want to meet you in person! That’s actually super amazing and impressive! So now, it is your time to shine. Show them the amazing, hard-working, genuine, and delightful person that you are…and the rest of it will fall into place!

Best of luck to you all 🙂

-J

pics compliments of giphy.com

Capsizing ship pic taken from www.takingtheescalator.com

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