2020 is an interesting year to apply to PA school. And by interesting- I for sure mean complicated.
From classes going online, to being called to the frontlines/being canceled from your job and/or experiencing unforeseen personal or financial difficulties, this cycle is definitely a doozie.
So what's up with this COVID essay being "OPTIONAL"?
Well, the good news is that the new 2500 character essay added to the CASPA application designated specifically to your COVID related experiences is "optional".
But what does this really mean?
And how can you make sure that if you choose to write that essay, that it helps you and not hurts your chances of getting accepted?
Allow me to offer some perspective.
But first, let's start with exactly What you need to know about the COVID essay.
1️⃣ It offers students an opportunity to disclose any COVID related academic, professional, and personal hardships that might have affected their path to pursuing the PA profession.
2️⃣ It is truly optional, and not filling it out will not count against you when considering your acceptance. However, if you do fill it out- you will be assessed on it.
3️⃣ There are specific question prompts inside the CASPA application. To see the exact prompts, you will have to log in to your CASPA application. The questions are separated in those 3 categories I mentioned above: academic, professional, and personal. These questions can help you know what things to focus on in the essay, but according to the CASPA website, you may also speak on other topics not mentioned as you see fit, as long as it addresses COVID and your path to PA.
4️⃣ The essay has a limit of 2500 characters, which is half the character limit for your personal statement. If you chose to write it- it has to be concise, direct and to the point, keeping embellishments to a minimum.
5️⃣ Although not clearly stated, I recommend against including CASPA related hardships in your personal statement. Instead, utilize the COVID essay for that.
Will writing this essay help or hurt my chances of acceptance into PA school?
If you use the COVID essay as a place to air your grievances, complain or make excuses for shortcomings in your application- especially if it's clear in your records that those shortcomings begun before the pandemic, then writing it may actually hurt your chances.
However, if you position your essay in a way that speaks to how you have overcome the pandemic related hardships, grown as a person, and strengthened your desire to enter the PA profession, then I believe it will help your chances.
Always Start with Why
Let us dive into why the CASPA people added this optional essay in the first place, what types of personal and professional qualities they're looking for when reading your essays, and how to use your own why to position yourself intelligently when you write it.
Even though the essay is optional- keep in mind that if you do submit one you will be assessed on it, so not putting any thought or strategy into this can hurt you.
Just like the rest of your application, going in blind is not an option.
The COVID essay will likely be read by ADCOMMs aka the Admission committee. They likely decided to add this essay to this year's application first because they didn't want students to focus their entire personal statement on it, and secondly, just like the rest of your application- they are looking for specific qualities in the students who write them.
The correct way to use this essay to your advantage is to take it as an opportunity to make yourself stand out instead of an opportunity to rant, whine or complain about why you weren't able to make all your prereqs.
ADCOMMS will be scouring these essays and looking for these type of students:
The Overcomers: These are the students who had all sorts of obstacles thrown at them on their journey to PA and despite the pandemic, they met the challenges with perseverance, grit, grace. Much like PAs do-when, they're faced with difficult clinical problems or patients or in dealing with a pandemic. An example of this is one of my students who had to go back to work full time to help his family while still taking challenging online classes to apply this cycle.
The Creative Problem Solvers: These are the students who found unconventional ways of keeping their journey to PA on track, despite the COVID related challenges. Just like PAs are doing with the lack of PPE and COVID tests- we're out here getting creative and getting the job done one way or another. An example of this is students who were canceled out of their health care hours or shadowing and took it upon themselves to find other creative ways to get their hours either by taking virtual volunteer opportunities or did virtual PA shadowing on Youtube of different PAs in various specialties, or even the student who transferred to a different school with more online options to get their prereqs done in time. Flexibility and the ability to deploy to almost any health care crisis is what the PA profession is all about.
Students that help others in times of crisis: These are the students who despite all its challenges with this pandemic like social distancing, academic load, and other hardships- they found a way to be of service to others. Just like the PA profession steps up to all healthcare crises. Examples of this can be: taking on a leadership role in your local community to help deliver groceries, make masks, send care packages to people on the front line, or anything else along those lines. Another example: Pre-PA students that have gone on social media to help other pre-pas to prepare this cycle. There are countless other ways.
Supporters and Allies of the PA profession: These are the students who have kept their finger on the pulse of the PA profession even as is adapts and evolves through these COVID times. This is what us PAs do to advance our profession and what you will have a duty to do when you become a PA. Why not start now? For example: Since the crisis and in an effort to be better utilized on the front lines PA legislation has immediately adapted and has called for PA autonomy to remove current administrative burdens in some states that require PAs to have assigned supervising physicians. This prevents PAs from changing specialties, qualify for certain jobs on the market, going to help out in another state, and our ability to be paid directly by Medicare for helping patients in this crisis.
As a student, you have the opportunity to sign our petitions, write, or call your local governor and help us push our profession forward by supporting this legislation. You can do this by reaching out to your state's PA organization and seeing how you can help.
Notice that everything they're looking for, as I have highlighted above, are attributes that embody PAs and the PA profession as a whole. So in essence, they want proof that you can handle the challenges of the profession in every way.
So is writing a COVID essay right for you ?
My answer remains a solid maybe.
My best tip is that If you fall into some or most of the categories of the type of students they are looking for that embody the qualities of the PA profession in crises, yes, write it!
Even if you are not quite there yet, you still have time to do more and/or look to the positive side of your hardships. What you want is to keep a consistent pattern of growth across all the elements of your application- including this essay.
If you can tell a story of triumph over obstacles and how you are determined to figure things out and get ahead even if they're way out of your personal control, then, by all means, welcome this opportunity to differentiate yourself from the masses!
If you have not quite figured out how to learn/overcome any COVID related obstacles then I would say hold off.
You see, when you are feeling genuinely defeated, whether you like it or not, that will translate into your writing. If you try not to sound defeated it may likely come across as inauthentic so be careful with this one.
This may sound a bit woo woo but I'm a huge believer in energy transference and intentionality. I believe that how you feel about something and your intention behind doing it can be picked up by others, so spend some time making sure that how you truly feel and your why are strong first before writing anything. This is a concept I teach to every student inside my Personal Statement writing courses.
Also in the spirit of tough love for your greater good, I need you to hear this:
The last thing you want is to come across as a person who gave up, wants pity or that is directly or indirectly blaming outside circumstances for not being able to overcome things.
Remember that acceptance comes from merit not from getting ADCOMS to feel sorry for you or worst, using the essay as a way to emotionally offload.
But Karen, what if I want to explain some part of my application that isn't up to snuff because of COVID?
I'm not a huge fan of using any statement to explain any shortcomings in your application. This is a gray area that a lot of students get stuck on and although there are some special circumstances that call for this, I find that very few students actually qualify to use the statement in this way.
This is because they have your records. They can and will extrapolate your timelines, trends, and patterns of behavior based on your transcripts, resume, essays, LORs, and anything else you submit.
Your records tell a story about you. ADCOMMS notices your trends and patterns.
Do your records show a pattern of overcoming struggles or do the numbers show a failure to launch? If its the latter, only mention it in the event of exquisitely unique circumstances and always make sure to focus on how you grew from that.
As a general rule, if your academic transcripts or resume can reflect a pattern of triumph and overcoming obstacles, meaning your records clearly show that maybe at one point you weren't on track to meet the requirements but now you are, then there's no need to be redundant and also write about it in your essays- they have your records.
However, if there are important pre-requisites with a trend of sub-standard performance with no evidence of improvement over time you may want to address this, but only if COVID was the only cause, and only if you will turn it into a positive growth experience.
For example, in the event that a student is unable to complete required patient care or health care hours, their pre-COVID records should reflect they were on track to complete them this should be mentioned but only if you come up with an alternative way to make up for it, i.e you were working as an MA and got laid off but you did a bunch of COVID continuing education online or something like that.
Overall review the real reason why you want to share this with ADCOMMS in the first place. Is it to complain or is it to be understood? Neither of those is a good reason, in my humble opinion. They are not seeking to understand what makes you tick or to psychoanalyze you, they are seeking to know if you have the attributes of a PA so that they can determine if you will be able to handle and be successful in the profession.
Always ask yourself, What would a PA do?
Remember that a calling to be of service to humanity, showing resiliency and strength during challenges and crises, overcoming obstacles with grit and grace, creative clinical problem solving, and never giving up on our patients pandemic or not, are the hallmarks of the PA profession.
These are the same exact attributes that a student exemplifies on their journey to PA when they overcome academic, professional, and personal obstacles, solve problems creatively, find a way to help others in times of crisis, and do everything in their power to support their future profession.
Whether you are writing the COVID supplemental essay or your personal statement, always keep in mind that they are looking for students who already strongly possess the attributes of Physician Assistants, and whatever you choose to write has to be a clear reflection of this in order to work to your advantage.
Got questions? Leave them in the comment section of this blog post and I'll try my best to answer everyone.
At the time when I wrote this blog post, I'm in the process of creating a How-To Guide to the COVID essay for PA school. All current and former students inside of my personal statement courses will get a free copy and they will be available for purchase for any student.
Sign up HERE to be the first to know when it becomes available.