An Open Love Letter

To all my reapplicants-

This one’s for you. It’s May and you’re attacking this CASPA season like nobody’s business. You have your letters of rec locked and loaded, transcripts triple checked, experiences edited and re-edited (and then edited some more) and now… you wait.

You wait patiently some days, less patiently others. Tachycardia hits every time the phone rings or an email pops up on your phone, no matter how much you tell yourself to breathe. There’s no changing it.

Then the almighty interview invitation arrives. You’re ecstatic! You’ve been preparing, day in and day out, and now you’re buying plane tickets and mapping out traffic times. You’ve been practicing interview questions for three months. You are READY for this.

You go to the interview and you destroy it (in the best way possible of course). Or you fall flat on your face (like I did on my first one). It’s the most exhilarating and anxiety-inducing experience all at the same time. But you love it, you’ve worked hard for it, and you own it.

You may get accepted shortly there after- you rejoice! You finally breathe for real, you sleep a good night’s sleep, and you have butterflies around the clock anticipating that first day of school. This will absolutely happen to some of you.

However, you may also get rejected less than twelve hours later (again, personal experience). It’s devastating. You feel the ground open up beneath you, and you silently sob for a long five hour solo car ride on your way to visit your best friend from undergrad. When you get there, they ask how the interview went. You force a smile and say “It was great!” even though you’re lying, because you can’t just yet relive the heartbreak all over again. You left it all out on the highway and you’d like for it to stay there forever.

You may get rejections, interviews, and waitlists all mixed together as the months go on. You tell yourself to stay strong, that it’s gonna happen. Every day you wake up knowing any of these days could be it.  The holidays come and go, AGAIN, and you’re starting to become unconvinced. Again. You get nervous, like, really nervous. It gets harder to keep telling friends and family that you don’t know if you’re going to school or not. But you ask the universe one more time to help you get there, because you know there is nothing else on this planet that will fulfill you like this will.

You hit February. You’re scraping the bottom of the barrel for emotional resilience. The ever-gnawing “what’s plan B?” conversation floats its way to the top of your brain. You smash it back down, knowing there IS no Plan B because you WILL achieve Plan A.

You get one more interview. It goes incredibly well, but so did most of the others. So you wait more. And some more. You’re told that the next Friday you’ll get news, and you believe that it will be good news. Because it has to be.

You go to work and try your best to focus. You know that today is the day.  Morning comes and goes, so does lunchtime. And all of a sudden, its 4 pm and your phone is ringing with the area code they said it would be. You sit there in shock for so long that you miss the call (AGAIN, true story). You call back immediately and can barely speak because you’re crying so many happy tears. And later that night, you feel the weight of a thousand bricks finally, finally lift off your chest, because YOU’VE. DONE. IT. And this moment stays with you forever.

This is me opening my heart to all of you who are still on your journey this year. I know it is grueling; I’ve lived it. This is my reminder to believe in this with not just your whole heart, but your entire being. Your butt needs only one seat at one program to make this dream come true. It is absolutely okay that all of your fibers are dedicated to this goal. Every new day is an opportunity to live with intention and put your best energy forward. Get out and there get it done. I know you can, and you definitely will.

Love,

A Proud Reapplicant (who will never ever let you give up).

R E A P P L Y I N G

People told me being a reapplicant was a great thing. For the longest time, I would nod my head and force a smile on my face- I just didn’t believe them. I hadn’t met a single person who made it as a PA that had to reapply. I figured everyone was trying to just boost me up and avoid hurting my feelings, as I was unbelievably devastated when I didn’t get accepted on my first attempt. Turns out, I could not have been more wrong! Being a reapplicant is an awesome thing, and you should feel the same!

The basics of my reapplicant story are as follows: I applied for the first time in 2014.  I thought fourteen schools would be enough places to apply. I got around to submitting my application in mid August (oops for rolling admissions!) and got my first rejection no less than three weeks later (it was so fast I actually felt like they must have opened my application and just said “OH HELL NO” and automatically sent out my rejection letter).

That application cycle was rejection after rejection. I didn’t get a single interview or even wait list to interview. By New Year’s Eve it had become clear I would not be starting PA school anywhere the following year.  You can see how I started second guessing myself and everything I’d worked for up until that point. I continued working at the ER where everyone was anxiously waiting for me to come in to a shift with good news- I eventually gathered the courage to tell everyone it would not be happening that year.

One of the physicians who worked with me frequently at the hospital and knew my disappointment pulled me aside one day and asked me “Can you see yourself doing anything else with your life?” I closed my eyes, tried to picture myself down the road in any other career setting, eventually looked up at him and said no. He then told me he was certain I belonged in medicine and that my path to my goals might just take a little longer. “When someone like you is destined for medicine, they end up in medicine,” he reminded me. “The road there just might not be as fast or as swift as you think.”

It was here that I decided to pivot both my actions and my thought process. I started signing up for upper division classes again. I asked for extra volunteering shifts at the clinic. I got incredible news from the PI I had done research for at UCLA that our work from my undergrad years had finally been published. I applied for and was chosen for a surgical mission trip to Guatemala. I doubled my patient care experience hours in the ER. I shadowed three more PA-Cs. I called every program I wasn’t accepted at and two of them made phone appointments with me to explain where I needed to improve my application (most programs explicitly say they cannot call individual applicants back. I called anyway! 😀 )

I decided to wait an entire application cycle before I applied the second time. I knew I would need that entire calendar year to make myself as competitive as possible. (I did spent the 2015-2016 cycle “creating” an application to put in all my grades and experiences however- this saved me so much time in the long run!) Most importantly, I put the CASPA 2016 Opening Day on my calendar like it was Christmas. I couldn’t have been more excited to demonstrate all the work I had put in.

I applied to twenty four programs on my second application. I interviewed at four programs (three of which I had reapplied to!), got wait listed for interview at two, wait listed for acceptance at one and was finally ACCEPTED at one. All you need is ONE. There is no shame in reapplying. Two of the programs I interviewed at had a panel of current students speak to us about their applying process, and one student after another shared that they were a second time applicant. Or a third time applicant that got moved up from the wait list.  As I listened to each of them speak, the smile on my face grew wider and wider. These ARE the stories of hardworking students who get accepted.

I cannot imagine trading everything I have learned over the last five years for starting at a program any earlier than now. I took chances and had opportunities I don’t think I will ever have again, and those experiences have been invaluable.

If you are a reapplicant, either now or at any point in the future, be proud. Tell your story! My biggest suggestions to those who are reapplying are as follows :

  • Take a hard look at your application and be tough with yourself about what needs improvement (for me, it was offsetting my less than stellar GPA with volunteering and PCE hours)
  • Work with an application review service to make sure you haven’t overlooked something
  • Shadow additional PA-Cs to stay familiar with their roles in their respective specialties (and to stay motivated about what your future will look like!)
  • Practice talking about what you’ve done since you last applied (I got asked this at almost every interview I was at) and be PROUD of it
  • Don’t stop making yourself better. Just because you’ve submitted your application doesn’t mean you should stop gaining PCE hours, volunteering, taking classes etc. The application cycle is LONG and by the time you’re interviewing some admissions committees like to know what you’ve been up to!

CASPA Tips & Tricks # 3- Follow Through

Ready for another cringe-worthy story? This one ironically enough involves the program I’m starting at in August! The universe settled in my favor, but it was definitely a close call, and I am hoping to help you avoid the same almost devastating scenario.

This story begins last fall. It’s November 2016. I’ve had two interviews so far (a much better start than the first time I applied!) but I am antsy that there are certain programs I haven’t heard a peep from, particularly ones that offered interviews to applicants who submitted their primary applications long after I did.  This prompts me to send out update letters to the remaining programs, letting them know I am still actively acquiring patient care hours, that I have taken on new volunteering roles, etc. One particular program is kind enough to write back to me to say my application is incomplete.

INCOMPLETE?! How is that even possible? I frantically check back to my Excel spreadsheet– primary application submitted May 10, secondary application submitted May 31, secondary application payment (by mail, as a cashier’s check- that’s the kicker) on June 1. I was told they never received my payment. I call Bank of America immediately and they say the check was cashed. Whether or not it was stolen in the mail and cashed by someone else I will never know (the bank could only tell me what day it was cashed, not a branch location or any other information). At this point in November, the program’s deadline has come and gone—literally by 24 hours, but the date has passed. I try not to panic. Fortunately, after I explain my timeline with all the other application materials, the fact that the check was cashed in June and the fact that it is my second time applying, the admissions office graciously allows me to hand deliver a replacement check the following morning (no amount of rush hour traffic in Southern California was going to stop me)! At this point, I know interviews have already been offered for several months and I think to myself that I am doomed.

Long story short- they review my application, I am offered a seat at their last interview day in February, and am shortly thereafter granted acceptance. What a whirlwind.

The moral of this story is to tell everyone how crucially important it is to keep track of EVERY single email confirmation and application submission date and to follow through the minute something doesn’t seem right. Maybe this advice is already a no-brainer for you. This issue with payment was my fault; I should have kept an eye on the check (it wasn’t from my personal account, which was the biggest mistake of all) to make sure it made its way into the hands of the admissions team. Most programs fortunately take application fees via the internet, which typically yields either an immediate confirmation page or a confirmation email (both of which I printed and saved in my massive applications materials binder).

When you’re applying to 24 programs like I did last cycle, organization and check lists are truly your very best friends.  My Excel spreadsheet tracked every single primary application submission, secondary application submission, secondary application fee confirmation, GRE score receipt, etc. The only thing that slipped through the cracks was that darn cashier’s check. And look how important that one piece of paper turned out to be. I should have known better! And now you can know better too. There are a lot of moving pieces involved in submitting a complete CASPA application, and I know at times it seems like a mountain of information to keep track of. I promise the end results are all worth it.

 

“F” Does Not Stand For Failure

For me, F stands for fearless, fighter, forward….

There was unfortunately one instance back at UCLA where it did mean Failure. On my permanent undergraduate transcript is one of the ugliest things you can see- an F in my junior year Chemistry lab. Not a withdrawal, not a C-, but a full-fledged F.

Here’s what honestly happened (and this is practically verbatim from my secondary application answer) – the quarter I was taking that lab, the professor was teaching two identical sections: one at 8:00 am, and one at 10:00 am. He gave us permission to attend either lecture time, as long as we took our midterms and finals on the days for the section we were actually enrolled in (…some of you can already see where this is going). I had an on campus job that started at 7:00 am, so I would work from 7:00 am until 9:45 am and head over to the 10:00 am lecture. After ten weeks of this routine, my brain got used to that schedule… and low and behold, I wrote down the wrong final exam time in my calendar. The insult to injury was when I figured it all out, I was actually studying for that final in the library right next to the building during the time MY final was being proctored. Can you say OUCH.

Fast forward… begging and pleading with both the professor and the department head did nothing to change my fate. Not only did I have to take the F, I had to repeat the entire course the next quarter. I will never forget that walk back to my apartment- I held my head in my hands and really thought it was ALL over. I didn’t think there would ever be a way to come back from that.

What the admissions committees will want to hear is a much shorter version of that story: that you realize you failed, but much more importantly that you LEARNED and ADAPTED from that failure. This is where I started to change my mind about what that F really stood for. It made me fight so hard for everything I accomplished after that. It made me walk towards the sun and move forward. It made me fearless, knowing the one of the worst academic tragedies was already behind me.

If any part of this sounds like something that’s happened to you (and the lovely Andrea @lifeasapa has a great YouTube video where she admits one of her biggest academic mistakes: you can view it here)  know that it has happened to LOTS of other people. And you DO make it through to the other side.

This whole process is about ownership: owning your mistakes, owning your future, owning your passion for this profession… the admissions committees know you’re human. Otherwise PAs would all be robots. 😉

CASPA Tips & Tricks # 2- Use Resources

With an awesome ten days to go until Opening Day (hehehe-see what I did there?) here is my second round of tips and tricks:

USE RESOURCES! For those of you applying now you are SO fortunate (I don’t want to say lucky because none of this entire process ever has to do with luck) but there have been so many great books and blogs and people coming out of the woodwork since my first application in 2014. This is good news: meaning you don’t have to do this alone!

The best websites/blogs/coaches I used during my TWO rounds of applying were as follows (and not a single one of these people has asked me to talk about them, this is 100% my own opinion)

-All things Physician Assistant: Ms. Danielle Kepics PA-C in her infinite wisdom and true life stories. This is the first true PA blog I started following and I love all the resources tabs she has (the BEST Pre-PA advice, her favorite apps and e-media for PAs and students, favorite books, what to NOT say during an interview)… @all_things_pa_c 

-Inside PA Training: Mr. Paul Kubin PA-C. I started talking to Paul back in 2013 before I had even submitted my first application: I bought his Ebook on writing a “winning personal statement” (and let me tell you, I really think mine was a winner) as well as paid for his coaching services regarding my application overview. He gets very busy as he is incredibly popular, but if you’re going to pay someone, he’s the guy to hire. My favorite part about Paul was that he was VERY honest with me- no sugar coating whatsoever.  Helped me see my application red flags (ahem, like that big fat F in Chem lab…. more on that another day) and made sure I knew how to explain every last one of them. He also gave great advice for applying with a low GPA (like, a really low GPA) and made sure I was covering my bases the second time around, part of which meant applying to 26 schools.

-PA Trek: These guys and their website were new to me right at the tail end of my second application, but they have incredible reviews (and some of my personal friends have used their services and been thrilled) and they are very well versed in the ins and outs of all things CASPA!  @patrek  

-The Applicant’s Manual of Physician Assistant Programs 2016:  HOLY. BEANS.  If this had been around when I applied… would have saved me some major Excel spreadsheet headaches, that’s for sure. While I don’t personally own this book, my suggestion if you haven’t already is purchase it. Mark A. Volpe PA-C (Author), Brittany Hogan (Contributor) @paprogrammanual

-Life With a Stethoscope and Some Sparkle:  I found Erin’s page a little bit more recently, but she has done an awesome job documenting her journey and her didactic year at George Washington! It has been so much fun following her blog and her IG @stethoscopeandsparkle during my last application season. She gave me such a great glimpse into what I could be expecting during my first year as a PA-S and seeing her posts really kept me going!

 

To be fair… ten days away means you’ve probably already invested in a lot of resources! But just in case you haven’t yet, or if you’re waiting until next year to apply (or for your Spring grades to post this year etc)… these are my top recommendations. I recommend them because I used them myself, and I also made it a point to use these resources way more during my second application. Wouldn’t you know, that’s the time I got accepted. But in no way do I mean to suggest you HAVE to go use all these resources. There are plenty of you who can probably write a killer personal statement in your sleep and have an almost (or actually) 4.0 … and if that’s you, I salute you and wish you well (and ask you to please share your secrets!)  For the rest of us- and I feel pretty confident that “us” is a big “us”… resources. Use ‘em. You’ll be amazed at what a fresh perspective (or two or three) can do for you and your application.

HCE and PCE- What counts and how to get it

HCE= Healthcare Experience. In my opinion this is hands down one of the tougher aspects of preparing a great CASPA application.  There is a difference between what is considered HCE (healthcare experience) and PCE (patient care experience). Programs have tightened up on what “counts” as PCE (apparently at some programs now being a scribe doesn’t count?! I definitely don’t agree with that) but that being said, an excellent thing to do is check each program’s website to make sure your type of experience is on their list. My first healthcare job was a non-patient care job (so HCE hours), but nonetheless I was in a hospital which I loved.  I applied to be a Clinical Laboratory Technician (working alongside Clinical Laboratory Technologists, which is a GREAT profession for those of you who like research and lab medicine) in the Hematology department. This was my first job straight out of undergrad and I Ioved every minute of it. My favorite thing to this day is doing the Kleihauer-Betke test (yes, this is my super nerd side-look it up it’s a really awesome lab test) – so much beauty in staining slides! That and the coag cascade- definitely my favorite things to learn about (okay nerd moment over).

 

However- as many of you know- the programs are truly focused on experience where you are DIRECTLY working with patients (PCE!). Handling their blood samples didn’t count. This is where I started kicking myself for not getting my EMT license sooner when I was first interested in doing it at UCLA. Regardless, I knew after a year of working in the lab that I had to find a way to be involved in direct patient care. For me, the fastest and most intriguing route was still to get my EMT license and then try my best to find an ER Tech job.  I enrolled in the EMT accelerated course at the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care, meaning I took three weeks off from work to get the fast and furious version of the course. In hindsight, I might have opted to do the weekend or night course (they just take a lot longer to complete) but at the time, I was focused on moving forward as fast as I humanly could.

 

What I didn’t know was that it would take a while after completing the course to actually get my license and find a job. I had this idea in my head that it could happen all seamlessly- I would interview with ambulance companies and tell them I was still in class, but that I would be certified soon, etc- this was not at all how it worked out. I ended up continuing to work in the lab, taking ambulance interviews on the weekends and in the late afternoon, and a couple of months later I was finally offered an ambulance job (after a ton of paperwork and background checks)!

 

What happened next was truly the stars aligning- the hospital I already worked at had an opening for an ER tech that I saw in an online job posting board. On my lunch break at the lab, I walked up to the ER and point blank asked the nursing director for the job. She appreciated me coming to her in person and being confident in myself. The next thing I knew, the job was mine! I will be very honest when I say this is a rare course of events. Most hospitals want to see a minimum of six months ambulance experience before they will even offer you an interview at the ER (at least in Southern California). That being said- don’t ever be afraid to ask anyway! The show-up-in-person routine (and a great cover letter) is actually how I’ve gotten most of my jobs so far in life.

 

So – what does this mean for you? Start gaining hours as soon as you are able. The more you have, the stronger your application. I had 2,000 PCE hours when I applied the first time and approximately 5,500 PCE hours the second time. I am confident that big of a difference in my PCE hours is what helped me get interviews the second time around. Check with each individual program (via their website) for what kind of experience applies. Typically it means directly interacting with patients, whether you’re an EMT, a CNA, an RN, an ER Tech, a paramedic, a dental hygenist, a surgical assistant… the list goes on! The more and more I reach out to the Instagram current PA-C and Pre-PA community, the more I learn about awesome patient care jobs people have had! The good news is there are many ways to tackle getting the hours in. It just takes time and dedication.

BLS- What it is and who it’s for (hint: everyone)

A year and a half ago I was driving to class during  that very scary hour in the Fall when dusk mixes with LA haze and basically makes it impossible to see. As I turned the corner near my house and squinted through the sea of headlights, my eyes fixed on a dark lump in the center of the road, and as I got closer it was exactly what I feared it to be: a pedestrian that had been stuck by a vehicle, lying in a growing pool of their own blood.

 

I calmly pulled my car to the side of the road, put on my hazard lights and assessed the scene. I dropped into immediate EMT brain: scene and person-partner-patient safety. Based on the shocked look of the driver and maybe one or two other people starting to come out of their houses, I realized I had arrived basically just moments after the accident. When I knew it was safe to approach, I went over to the pedestrian and went on to the next steps: I asked the driver to come assist me and hold C-spine. Then the ABCs: intact, but barely. Ds: absolutely. Es: not any that I could see at the moment. I then went straight on down the list to do a rapid trauma head to toe exam, noting some pretty significant injuries that required immediate transport to the hospital (bleeding from the eyes and ears, step-offs in the spine and a badly deformed ankle) and a low GCS (they were unable to speak back to me or move any extremities in a meaningful way). After about twenty seconds went by I realized a crowd had formed but everyone was just standing in stunned silence. This is when I started commanding the crowd: instructed one person to call 911, another to go look for the dog that had apparently been with the pedestrian, another to go inside to get me some towels to attempt to control some of the bleeding (I now carry a full jump bag in my car at all times, just in case) and another few bystanders to help direct oncoming traffic away from us. Based on the condition of the pedestrian I was fully prepared for them to drop into respiratory or cardiac arrest. Fortunately, the paramedics were only a few minutes away and they quickly rushed them to the hospital. I stayed with the driver until the police arrived, cleaned my hands and went on my way to class.

 

Did my interventions help determine whether or not that pedestrian lived? Maybe, but probably not. Did my ability to help instruct the crowd in a time of panic and give a semi-report to the paramedics when they arrived feel great? You bet it did.

 

If anything in that paragraph above doesn’t make sense to you: that’s okay! That’s years of work experience as an EMT and ER Tech. Yes, I shamelessly admit that any time I’m in a big crowded place like a basketball game or concert venue the first thing I do is look around for an AED.  I owe my ability to calmly assess and act in those situations all to my great education at the UCLA Center for Prehospital Care.  However– my point is that we’ve all been in a situation with someone who’s had way too much to drink, is in a terrible car accident, or simply (and frighteningly) goes into cardiac arrest. EVERYONE should learn the basic steps of how to help control and intervene in that kind of situation. Maybe it just means you’re the first one to call 911, or the one to step up to say you’ve had some CPR training. Maybe it just means you reach out to help comfort an anxious mother when their child falls and hits their head.  You CAN help make a difference in those situations, no matter what level of healthcare or medical training you’re at.  My request is that you spread the word of how important basic First Aid and CPR/BLS training truly are and that you go get certfied- you’ll never know when you might need to step up!

CASPA- It’s finally time! Tips & Tricks # 1

It’s finally here this year- CASPA season! There’s just over two weeks to go before this year’s cycle opens up. Let me tell you- the portal they use now is SO much better than when I first applied back in 2014- it got a massive face lift during the 2015-2016 cycle.

SO- full disclosure- I was a reapplicant last year. During my second time applying I had learned some things the hard way and I want to help make sure you don’t have to go through that yourself. Here are my quick intro tips to applying to CASPA :

  1. If you’re a first time applicant: APPLY EARLY. BE THOROUGH. When you get into the portal it looks like a lot- I suggest carving out a block of time set aside for just getting to know how the website works. Then take a break (it really helps I swear) and come back to tackle each piece at a time.
  2. If you’re a reapplicant- you know the drill now but STILL APPLY EARLY. Some programs work on rolling admissions and others don’t, but it never hurts to be ahead of the curve no matter what. Remind your references writing your letters that the cycle starts in TWO WEEKS- bug them again and again if you must. Last year I had my entire (*primary*)application submitted 6 days after the portal opened (and had my first letters of recommendation in an hour after I had reactivated my application) and while it took a lot of patience waiting to hear back from programs, it was so worth it to have it all wrapped up.
  • Sidenote- some of you noticed I said “reactivated” just now. Using the “reactivate” feature of CASPA was the best move I ever made. I took a year off in between application cycles, so during the 2015-2016 cycle I created an application (this was when they made the portal switch so my 2014 data no longer worked) simply to just enter all my grades and experiences (these definitely take the longest). Then, when April 2016 rolled around I just had to reactivate my application and BOOM there it all was. Not all data rolls over though, so be careful (like your personal statement and letters of rec). If you’re considering taking this year off I HIGHLY recommend doing this. Seriously. DO it.

3. Make time for the application process and stay dedicated to that time. There will be days where the last thing on Earth you want to think about is how to write yet ANOTHER secondary application essay. But as someone who has spent countless hours on this process in two separate instances, I can tell you whole-heartedly it is ALL WORTH IT once you’re through the other side. Stay hungry and stay humble. Own the process, take responsibility, and make it happen for yourself.

Welcome!

Let’s start from the very beginning! My name is Hannah, which is a palindrome! What’s a palindrome you ask? A palindrome is a word, phrase or sequence that is spelled the same backwards or forwards- and it makes for a fun conversation starter whenever I meet someone new.

About me- I am a soon-to-be PA-S heading to USC this August! But before I became a soon-to-be, I was many other things- an EMT-B, an ER Tech, an ambulance attendant, a volunteer undergrad research associate, a proud UCLA Bruin… and most importantly, a persistent second-time applicant.

You heard that right- I didn’t get in the first time around!  I know I’m not alone and I’m here to tell you all about it. My goal here is to reach all aspiring healthcare professionals and to provide motivation and support for those of us who didn’t necessarily find success on their first attempt.  What I have found over these past many years is that the journey is what helps define us- it challenges us, it teaches us, it scares us, and most of all it shapes us into the amazing healthcare providers we will ultimately end up being. My original plan was to take one year “off” in between undergrad and starting a PA program. Now, it’s been five years and I wouldn’t change a single minute of it. I am proud of my accomplishments, however unconventional some of them may have been. I have seen my friends fly past me as they start and finish nursing and medical school and at times I have definitely felt behind. What can be difficult is trying to remember that YOUR start line is all that matters.  Comparison is very truly the thief of joy, so find your joy in your journey. And if you’ve found my page because you’re starting your journey- I could not be more excited for you!