When I was writing my CASPA essay, the challenge was to shorten it enough to meet the requirements, but include enough detail that the elephant in the room -- how come you're applying to grad school at the age of 35? -- was sufficiently addressed. In a way, that made me one of the lucky ones, because the biggest problem PA school applicants have is identifying the specific goal of their own essay.
I know this because I've had the opportunity to assist a few newbies with their essays. There seem to be two major traps people can fall into: either they overestimate the uniqueness of their situation, or they completely fail to recognize it. For example, "I experienced how the serious illness of a loved one affected me and my family" is certainly a story worth telling, but in that stack of PA school applications, perhaps as many as 1/4 or 1/3 of them will tell a story along those lines. Likewise, a kid who barely graduated high school but buckled down and aced an accelerated EMT course because he was so intent on being part of the ski patrol will, not realizing that's a powerful story in its own right, focus instead on his time volunteering at the front desk of a clinic.
While it was stressful and challenging, I also had a pretty good time getting my essay together. I had just finished the post-bacc in Vermont, after leaving the stability of my previous career, and the essay was a good opportunity to tie it all together. I got (and actually used) some feedback from my good friend Jeff, whom I've known since we were both 13. He's the professional writer; I'm just a dude who knows a couple of things, including who to ask for help.
Here is what I put together. It was part of a package that got me interviews at every school I applied to.
I am not by nature a spiritual person, yet I understand what people mean when they say they have been 'called.' My parents gave me a sharp curiosity and respect for intellect, but at the same time my family prizes 'street smarts' over intelligence. I went to work after high school, finishing my BA degree ten years later. It would be another five years before I would discover my calling and return to school to pursue medicine. Like many future PA's, I have been a 'non-traditional' student my entire academic life.
In the years I worked in offices, I helped people buy houses, and gain access to higher education. I worked to become a trustworthy, effective advocate and a solid part of every team I was on, including those I led. Ultimately, although I was on a comfortable path, I came to the decision that the rest of my working days should be spent doing something I not only appreciated in an abstract way, but truly respected, and furthermore which uses my talents. Exploring those ideas led me to the county hospital.
Volunteering at the (Name of Hospital) Emergency Department revealed that medicine was that kind of work. Soon, I was certified as an EMT, and hired part-time as a clinical assistant in that same ED. That's when I learned medicine is something I could do well, and love doing for the next 25 years. My calling wasn't a dramatic or a transcendent moment; it was simply recognition of something that made sense.
There were days when I'd finish a workday at the office, walk to the hospital, and work another eight hours. Usually, I felt less tired after taking care of patients than I had been earlier, after eight hours at a desk. Once, during the day, I referred to customers as 'patients.' Clearly, my mindset was changing. Meanwhile, the staff of the ED, particularly the PA's, not only answered questions but encouraged me to take steps toward joining them.
I know now that medicine is an excellent arena for the skills I developed in college, and at work in my previous fields. I am a natural problem-solver and detective, recognizing and connecting the most important pieces of an emerging puzzle. I'm a communicator with a knack for explaining complex issues in simple ways, as well as asking the right questions. I thrive in conditions that are fluid, even chaotic. I have the passion of an idealist, and the work ethic of a realist. And of course, having spent more than two years working in a busy ED, I am aware of the day-to-day realities of patient care.
It's this last point that drew me to the PA route specifically. I have varied interests, including research, teaching, and medical writing. The focus of my practice will always be my patients, but I am drawn to the PA paradigm, where the expression of that focus is allowed, even encouraged, to evolve over time. When I consider what I would like to do, and the way I would like to do it, PA is closer to a perfect fit than most people ever find. I'm grateful to have made these discoveries, and excited about what's next.
I'm not saying this is a perfect essay, but it accomplishes several goals, and it hangs together in a way that is crucial to making this part of the application more than background noise. I may have mentioned it the other day, but it's my opinion that a bad essay can work against you even more than a good essay can work for you. Once interview day rolls around, of course, the essay matters much less (although interestingly enough a good essay can stack the deck in your favor during that moment when you're about to walk into the room and the interviewer is reminding him- or herself about who you are).
Today is PA Day, and the beginning of PA Week. Best of luck to everyone working on a CASPA application, and to all those out there in the trenches. I'll be joining you very soon.