How to Tackle the CASPA: Beginner's Guide
Wow, first blog post! The intention of this blog is to document my journey as a physician assistant student and maybe help some other aspiring PAs along the way. When I was in the process of applying, I felt sort of lost. There were no clear guidelines to follow or lists detailing every step of the way. Now, having crossed the stormy CASPA waters and come out on the other side as an excited, accepted PA student, I know that there is no perfect recipe for acceptance but there are certainly some key ingredients, which is the basis for this post. Also, check out my FAQ about PA school. It will answer A LOT of questions that I get asked regularly!
Now that you have made the very exciting decision to apply to physician assistant programs it’s time to start planning. I cannot stress enough how crucial it is to begin planning way ahead (like way, way ahead) of when you plan to begin completing the CASPA.
When I began to research programs, I was surprised to find how much variance there was in prerequisite and experience requirements among various schools, even in the same state. For example, some programs require that you complete 3 different psychology courses but others might only require 1. Some require that you take organic chemistry I and II with labs but others, like mine, might not require orgo at all (thank God). Some require 1,000 hours of hands-on patient care experience while others don’t require any. My point is, research potential programs while you still have time to take any missing pre-reqs or gather any additional experience.
Another factor to consider when choosing schools is the cost. Private schools are more expensive than public and schools in your home state will cost you less than schools out of state. If you are considering an out-of-state school, research the Academic Common Market, a program which allows out of state students to pay in-state tuition under certain circumstances.
To simplify this process, I made a spreadsheet of potential schools, the cost of attendance (which you can get from any school website) and the required prerequisites. For clarity, there are certain prerequisites that basically all schools require (including anatomy, biology, general chemistry, things of that nature).
Speaking of the GRE, (you guessed it) plan ahead! I am a very nervous standardized test taker and needed all the help I could get. Not to mention, the test covers things that you haven’t even seen since middle school. Seriously. Remember SOHCAHTOA? No? Better start studying! One of the best resources I ever found (and used religiously) for GRE prep is Magoosh.com. For an extremely reasonable price, you can download daily or weekly study plans that accompany instructional videos and practice exams. You can also live chat with tutors to help you understand any of the material. If you actually follow the schedules they make for you, you will thank yourself later. It’s easy to stick to schedule because you can access it from your phone, tablet, or computer anytime, anywhere. I used the 90 day study plan because I really needed a lot of preparation, particularly in the math section, but they have a wide variety of plans, everything from 6 months in advance to 1 week in advance! You will not regret utilizing this study service. I absolutely could not have done it without them.
Another invaluable way to plan ahead is to begin keeping a record of LITERALLY EVERYTHING that you do while in undergrad. You will be amazed at what you’ve accomplished. If you’re not involved in student life, it will really benefit you to find something you’re interested in and get in there! I was overly involved in undergrad which, in the end, only gave me more talking points and experiences to draw from during my interview. Here are some things you can include. This list is by no means comprehensive!
Healthcare experience of any kind
Group projects in classes
Service learning courses
Volunteer work of any kind
Greek organization affiliation/officer positions
Jobs (on campus or otherwise)
Work study positions
Any publications (research, art, poems, photographs, etc.)
College athletics or intramurals
Special interest clubs (Spanish, video gaming, yoga, etc.)
I’m serious when I say to begin keep track now. You also want to keep track of the dates of participation and the hours you spend. The CASPA separates your experiences into Patient Care Experience, Healthcare Experience, Employment, Shadowing, Research, and Volunteer. There is also a separate section for Achievements and Certifications.
You will also need several letters of recommendation from several different people. The minimum number that you can have is 3 but many programs require letters from specific people. For example, one school that I applied to required a letter from a currently practicing physician assistant as well as former professors. Because of this, begin thinking of people who know you very well and could write a sincere letter recommending you to a program. It is unwise to ask professors who you have not ever spoken to or advisors who you see only once a semester for letters. While they might be willing to write you one, they will not be speaking from their personal experiences with you, which will be clear to the reader. It is critical to develop meaningful rapport with professors and school faculty.
It will also benefit you greatly to get to know the faculty of the programs you’re applying to, if possible. I was lucky to have many opportunities to meet with program faculty and staff before I applied so that they had at least heard my name and knew my face. If you can, go to interest sessions of the programs you’re applying to, introduce yourself to faculty and staff, attend mock interview sessions, and make appointments to meet face to face to answer any questions you may have about their program. I met with one of the professors (and candidate interviewers) multiple times each year starting during my sophomore year to make sure that I was doing everything possible to increase my chances of acceptance. I have no doubt that this made a difference at the round table.
Also, it is worth noting that the CASPA itself is a monster. It took me weeks to complete it. Give yourself plenty of time. You do not want to be under pressure when you’re trying to prove yourself worthy of an interview through a comprehensive list of your achievements, grades, etc. Give yourself time to review the information you provided, check for typos, and make sure you remembered everything. I almost forgot to include many of the experiences that my interviewers asked the most about. It’s easier to complete this application little by little, and with a lot of preparation! By the way, if you already nailed an interview, check out my tips!
I hope you found this information helpful. If you have any questions that you’d like to ask me, recommendations or requests for articles, comments or concerns, I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Instagram @coutureinclinic.