PA Essay: Common Pitfalls

Posted By: Paul   |   PA School Essays   |   14 Comments

The PA essay is the ace in your pocket if you do it right.  If offers the chance to momentarily step into the limelight to tell admissions committees what you think they need to know about you.  A good PA essay can vault your application to the top of the “Definitely Interview” pile, even if some of your numbers are a weak.  Unfortunately, most people miss this unbeatable opportunity to impress the admissions committee members by falling prey to one of several common pitfalls.  Don’t let that be you!

PA Essay Pitfalls

We’ve read trunks full of PA essays, and consistently see PA essays with very avoidable pitfalls.  Here are our top 5 avoidable PA essay pitfalls.

PA Essay Pitfall #5: Clichés

A cliché is a phrase or expression that is tired and overused.  The rule is: AVOID CLICHÉS LIKE THE PLAGUE!  (That’s one, if you hadn’t noticed – it helps me remember the importance of this rule).  If you aren’t sure if something you write is a cliché, ask yourself, “If I only wrote part of this, could the reader finish it??

Examples of cliché – you can probably complete them, right?

  • Give ’em an inch, and they’ll take —————-> a mile
  • I’m so clumsy that I’m all  —————-> thumbs
  • On a wing and —————-> a prayer
  • Out of the frying pan and —————-> into the fire

Clichés are amateurish and predictable, which makes your essay (wait for it…) predictable, something you don’t want to be.  Hunt for them, and reword them using an original, unpredictable turn of phrase – “I’m so clumsy I can trip while I’m lying in bed!”

PA Essay Pitfall #4: Lack of Specificity

It’s far too easy to be vague when writing an essay.  You know what you mean, and it usually seems like it should be pretty straightforward to everyone else.  Right?  Wrong.  BE SPECIFIC. We see this in many areas of PA essays, but most commonly in descriptions of experiences and people, including applicants themselves.


My son sees a wonderful pediatric physician assistant at our family medical clinic.  He exemplifies the profession, and it’s these qualities that I hope to emulate as a PA.

That’s nice.  But what qualities is the writer speaking of?  Wonderful?  Talk about vague!  Instead, fill in the blanks for them.


My son sees a wonderful pediatric physician assistant.  He is quick with a smile, puts my son at ease, and has the integrity to tell me when he makes a mistake.  For this, I trust him, and hope that I can one day follow his example as a physician assistant who is kind, engaging, and honest about my abilities.

PA Essay Pitfall #3: Weak Conclusion

Your conclusion (your last paragraph) is the place to take the information you have shared elsewhere in your essay and sum it up, get poetic about it, or give the reader an idea what is next for you.  The best conclusions leave the reader thinking about your essay long after they finish reading it.  There should be no new information about you here!  Give the last paragraph a hopeful feeling, and end with a powerful, even unforgettable sentence.  The conclusion is like paying the reader for reading your pa essay.

PA Essay Pitfall #2: No Theme

A theme is a common thread that runs through your essay, binding it together so that no matter what you have shared, it all feels related in some way.  Themes are subtle, but not so hard to use.  You just pick one idea about you or your experiences that you really want to stand out above all others.  Then weave little references to it into your essay.  Make sure to start you theme in the first paragraph.  You don’t need to state it specifically in every paragraph, but in the end (your conclusion) you should find a way to return to it for emphasis.  For example, the theme I used in my own PA essay was about how I wished I could do more.  It allowed me to talk about my experiences and explain why I wanted to become a PA – so that I could play a bigger, more important role in patient care.  Because I wished I could do more.

Without a theme, your PA essay can easily become a blob of unrelated information, like a jumbled list.  A theme gives it focus, purpose, and art.

PA Essay Pitfall #1: Boring Introduction

This is the biggest one we see, by far.  Starting an essay is like seducing a lover.  You want to entice them to “go all the way” with you.

*Cough*  Sorry – I couldn’t resist writing that.

But seriously, who wants to read an essay that begins with “I have always wanted to become a physician assistant because…”?


Instead, use a fact, quote, or anecdote to kick things off and pull the reader in. You can even try something unexpected.

Example: “Her face was dusty with pulverized concrete, and she was in a daze.  I was blocks from ground zero on 9/11/01, and the experience became my baptism into the trying, sometimes painful, and always rewarding world of medicine.”  [Goes on to explain the scene some more…]

Avoid the PA essay pitfalls, and you’ll be well on your way to crafting a winning PA school application essay.[subscribe2]





  1. buffchic July 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm - Reply

    Good post. Good advice. I especially liked your advice on being specific and threading a theme throughout the essay. Giving specific detailed images and examples make writing powerful. And you need that power to make your essay stand out from the pack when you need to be selected for that interview!

  2. Chris July 25, 2012 at 3:34 pm - Reply

    Great article! I’m right at the point that this is useful, and I’m glad to see that my thoughts are on track since you mentioned them (especially the boring introduction part!)
    Thanks again for all your posts!

  3. Brian July 27, 2012 at 10:00 am - Reply

    Hey Paul,
    I am an avid follower and want to thank you for all your time and energy you have put into this site. It has been a great help as I prepare for interviews!
    I haven’t seen much info on this topic and decided I’d throw it here and see what you and others think.
    What is the general consensus on Pa residencies? I have been looking into them and understand that some of the key tenants of the PA profession is the utility and mobility along with the broad medical knowledge. Do you think the residency model pigeon-holds the PA into only relevant specialties? Or can it be used, as I would like to, as a way to augment training…perhaps add some very useful tools to the bag AND shorten the learning curve in say a surgical setting?
    Your thoughts on the topic would be greatly appreciated, as well as anyone else who would like to chime in on the topic.

    • Paul July 27, 2012 at 12:17 pm - Reply

      It’s a good question, Brian, and I’ve made a note to myself to write an article on the topic. But for now, here are my thoughts:

      Residencies are a way to obtain intensive training in a particular area. There aren’t many PA residencies because 1) PAs are trained to be generalists, or at least to be able to move around within medicine from specialties as needed, and 2) someone has to pay for them – training costs money.

      For perspective, the reason we can’t just open up more medical schools or have larger classes in the existing ones in order to fix the doctor shortage is that Medicare pays for MD residencies. And, as you know, Medicare is in big trouble these days. So it will take a small miracle to make that happen.

      Accordingly, an increase in PA residencies is even less likely.

      But if you find one and are able to do it, I think you will definitely get some good, specialized training.

  4. Kaylee July 30, 2012 at 3:44 pm - Reply

    Hey Paul,
    This may be a silly question but I am in the middle of writing my PA school application and wanted to double check if I should be capitalizing Physician Assistant when used in sentences (in the middle, not the beginning)? As of right now I believe the correct grammar would be to write is as “physician assistant” (vs caps) but just wanted to check!

    Thanks for your help!

    • Paul July 30, 2012 at 11:53 pm - Reply

      This one gets tricky, but most often you do not capitalize:

      – I just ran into my friend Dave who is a physician assistant.

      You DO capitalize the name of a department, degree, or title of a person if the title comes before the name:

      – I hope to work in the Department of Physician Assistant Science. [the department]
      – Physician Assistant Dave McCormack has been in medicine for 31 years. [title where it comes before the name]
      – Dave McCormack, a physician assistant, is a friend of mine [the physician assistant comes after the name, so no caps].

      Confused yet? Don’t worry. In most cases, you don’t capitalize, unless it’s being used as a title.

  5. Antonio September 18, 2012 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    Hello Paul,
    I’m not sure if you are still reading comments, but I was wondering, if the statement of purpose is What made you want to become a PA, how would you include your academic struggles into this essay?

    • Paul September 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm - Reply

      You can simply explain why you had a hard time in particular classes and why it won’t be a problem in the future. Do it briefly.

  6. Tiffany May 3, 2014 at 9:31 am - Reply

    I am working on my essay and feel that I have a pretty good start. I would really like for someone else to read it and give me advice. I just recently watched a video you had posted. You stated that you review essays and give advice with that. Where can I send my essay for you to read? I would greatly appreciate any help!

    • Paul May 4, 2014 at 11:10 am - Reply

      Please see our coaching services page on the main menu bar under “Resources.”

  7. Jacqueline Makovy July 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    Hi Paul,

    I am in the middle of writing my essay and have had it edited by multiple people (PAs, writing center on campus, friends, etc) and feel that it is a pretty good essay. However, when I went to add it to my CASPA application, I realized that, for some reason, I thought that the character limit was 2500, when it is actually 5000. I’m not sure if I want to redo an essay that I really like, but I was wondering if you could give me any advice on what perspective schools might think of a short essay.


    • Paul July 16, 2014 at 12:46 am - Reply

      I tend to think that the essay is too important to be THAT short. There is too much you need to communicate to them – how you got interested in PA, why you feel you have something to offer the field, what types of experiences you have had, what matters to you, what kind of person you are. This doesn’t even touch what you might share about academic or personal problems you might have. See our coaching services for details if you feel you need help on it.

  8. Elle September 30, 2014 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Any advice for the supplemental applications? Things to avoid when answering questions like, “Why do you want to go to this school?” Some schools provide a section to explain any academic issues. What ways can a learning disability be including while making sure the program knows it will not be a barrier to success?
    Thank you.

    • Paul October 7, 2014 at 11:06 pm - Reply

      Good questions. Supplementals are aimed at making sure you really like their school and are familiar with it. Start with the big things that you like about the school, rather than things like “I live just a mile away.” What is the FEEL of the school? What do they value? What makes them your favorite? Prove to them that you are itching to go there. In order to do this, you will need to do your research on what is different about that school. They don’t expect you to know everything about it, but you darn well better know some things that separate them from other schools.

      You answered your own question. They want to know that if you have a disability you know how to compensate for it. They want to be convinced that your disability won’t become an issue deep into the third semester of classes. How do you make sure that your disability is “handled?” Self awareness is a good thing to demonstrate to them.

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