This week we begin a new project: a series of PA school application tips that will help you put your PA school application on the top of the pile, and secure your seat in class.  In the coming months, we will be adding tips, one at a time, until we have a set of cardinal rules for applying to physician assistant school.  If you have thoughts about something that should be added, or about which you’re unsure, please comment – there is genius in community beyond any individual.

The Telling Trap

Telling is an essay and interview pitfall.  It happens when you want to share with the admissions committee something about who you are – maybe about how good you are at communication, or how much you love helping people – and you just tell them:

  • “I have excellent communication skills.”
  • “Helping people is important to me.”
  • “Having integrity in my work is something I value highly.”
  • “I’ve always been good at Biology”

How could telling them these things a trap?  You can’t keep them secret, can you?

No, you can’t.  But telling is a trap because after you tell, your cards are on the table.  What do you do next?  You’ve closed off hundreds of great opportunities to prove your point, and to help them understand who you are and how you differ from the rest of the applicant pool.

PA school application committees are told all day long.  They read hundreds – in some cases thousands – of applications that make claims like those above.  How should they decide which of these things is true (or wishful thinking, important, trivial, unique)?  Often, they can’t.  Sadly, because so many people fall into the trap of telling, most these claims sound the same, and the result for you is the Probably Not pile.  Instead of telling…

Show Them

Showing is demonstrating to the reader what you want them to know, or proving it to them with supportive information. 

Showing can be accomplished by

  1. Providing examples
  2. Sharing anecdotes, and
  3. Using language that “paints a picture.”

Drawing from the examples above, showing could look like this:

  • “After volunteering with hospice patients and their families for three years, I have learned to listen carefully when others speak, and to be clear with them about what I can do.  Sometimes sitting with them in silence is the best way to show that I understand their needs.”
  • “In my work as an EMT, helping has been such a key ingredient that I became a training officer to make sure that new employees will always provide great care.”
  • “I hold myself to a high standard of integrity.  The running joke among my fellow L.A. County Search and Rescue coworkers is that if I were trapped in a mineshaft, I’d still find a way to get to work early so I could look for myself.”
  • “My natural love of Biology makes my work as a teaching assistant in the anatomy lab feel effortless.  I often stay late to enhance my dissection skills.”

See the difference?  No longer hollow, boring, and debatable, these illustrations are interesting, illustrative, and even funny.  They help the reader/interviewer to see the real you, and prevent the real you from blending in with the masses.

One Caution

You’ll notice that in all four of the above examples, showing took more words.  When you show, you usually provide more detail, but that can waste precious space/time.  The trick here is to use the minimum number of words necessary to get your point across while showing.  Here’s an example of a wordy statement that shows, and one that is more succinct:

Showing and Wordy:

I try to know each of my patients just a little.  A patient I worked with on the ambulance once told me that she had never worked with such a capable young lady who was so friendly and helpful.  By the time we arrived at the emergency room she was calling me “sweetie,” and offering to send cookies over to our headquarters.  Things like that happen to me all the time, and they help me to develop a rapport with my patients.

Showing and succinct:

I try to know each of my patients just a little.  Sometimes all it takes is asking “What’s the most interesting thing about you, do you think?” Building rapport doesn’t need to be complicated – you just need to make the effort.

Each of these examples accomplishes the same thing, but the second says it in three short sentences.  To fight wordiness, write out what you want to say, and they go over it a few times to take out anything that isn’t necessary.  In an interview, keep your anecdotes short, and if you are giving examples, use one or two brief ones at most.


If you show, rather than tell, you will be sharing proof of your claims, and you will be doing so in an interesting way.

  • Back up what you say with examples, brief anecdotes, or language that provides interesting detail
  • In your essay, write down your point, then remove unnecessary words and rewrite until it “shows” succinctly
  • In an interview, provide 1 or 2 examples when you make a point, and keep them brief.