I was nearing the end of my final semester at Syracuse University. I switched majors after my freshman year, so I required an extra semester; Or as I liked to call it, a “victory lap.” I was sitting in an EMT class that I was taking in order to boost my PA application.
My phone began to ring. The number was not saved in my contacts, however it was a Boston area code. I knew I was waiting to hear back from my #1 PA program, Boston University, so I was eager to listen to the voicemail they had left. The clock moved fairly slowly as I waited for the end of the class to listen to the message. I remember daydreaming about an acceptance and thinking, “I can’t wait to quit this class.”
Class ended and my very average looking classmates all flooded to the door. I unlocked my phone, listened to the voicemail, and I sighed. “Hi, this is Boston University calling to let you know that your transcript never reached us.” That sucked to hear, but they allowed me to still submit my grades after the deadline. I had a 3.6 GPA, played a sport, and had an exceptional number of shadowing hours. At this point, I was confident that I was going to get accepted to a school and start my pursuit of becoming a Physician Assistant.
Boy, was I wrong.
I quickly realized that this goal I had set a long time ago was going to be harder than I imagined. For those of you that do not understand the difficulty of getting into a PA program straight out of undergrad, I will try to put it into perspective. The average age of a 1st year PA student is 26 years old. They are required to have upwards of 2,000 hours of hands-on experience working in the medical field, and the average program has only about 30-35 seats. Your application must be in the top 10% of all applicants to even get a chance to interview at a school.
That being said, I knew I needed to gain hands-on experience. I got a job as a medical scribe in the Oncology Clinic at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC). There, I was writing medical notes in the perspective of the doctor in real time. I was expected to understand hundreds of different diagnoses, treatment plans, and medications. Every day I would learn something new and apply it to my job to become a better scribe. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention… I got paid minimum wage for this. I had to get a second job on the weekends to pay $700 a month for tuition loans. I was working 7 days a week, one time going 63 days without a day off. I was living paycheck to paycheck, unable to save any money.
After I started gaining some more hours, my applications were looking a little stronger and interviews started to roll in. My first interview was in Richmond Virginia. I took a break in my busy work schedule to drive 8 hours to interview. I was really nervous. The first person I met was a guy who’s name was literally, “Success.” I’m fucked.
My nerves started to decline as the day went on though. This interview was 7 hours. It went from group interviews, to tours, to two individual interviews, and finally a financial aid presentation. One thing that I did not read about was how physically exhausting it is to try to be the perfect person for 7 hours straight. Smiling, holding doors, shaking hands, remembering names… it was physically and mentally draining. My one on one interview was with this older gentleman who seemed to like me. I boxed at Syracuse and we bonded over that. He literally said, “alright you sold me, we’ll just talk about that for the rest of the interview.” I got a sense of relief and felt confident on my drive home back to Connecticut.
A week had past and I was fairly confident I was about to go 1/1 with my interviews. I got a letter in the mail. “Hi, Ryan. We appreciate your interest in our program, however I am sorry to-” Fuck. Waitlisted. I was upset, yet still optimistic. I was still waiting to hear back from 6-7 different schools. I’ll have another shot!
Denied. Denied. Denied.
I would be lying if I said that getting three straight denials didn’t crush me. I was learning so much as a scribe by this point. I was about a year in and I felt like I was really starting to fully understand all the medicine that I was documenting. I was now working in 9 different specialties; Hematology/Oncology, Infectious Disease, Urology, Orthopedics, General Surgery, ENT, Immunology, Neurology, and GI. I had learned so much and felt that I was now a strong candidate for PA School. Current PA students kept telling me that I was far ahead of them before they got into PA school.
I had a glimpse of hope when I received my second interview invite. The joy quickly dissipated when I realized that I was interviewing for a program with only 3 open seats. That being said, I drove another 9 hours to western Pennsylvania where I interviewed alongside 100 candidates for “at most, three seats.” Confidence level? Low. However, I decided to go in there with the mentality that I am the best candidate in the room. I studied all of the program faculty’s names beforehand, reviewed common interview questions, and memorized facts about the program. I absolutely crushed this interview. Every answer was strong and I felt that they got a chance to understand what makes me tick.
One week later…
Waitlisted. Fuck. My hope really started to decline after I got a few more denial letters from schools. Another few months had passed and I got a chance to interview for the third time in the same city as my undergrad, LeMoyne College.
If you know anything about Syracuse, you know that they get a metric fuckton of snow. That day they had a blizzard. I had a rough night of sleep already and had to wake up at 4:30am to clean off the car. I drove over an hour in a complete whiteout to make it to the interview on time (early). I saw 6-7 cars that drifted off the road into roadside ditches. I kept saying to myself, “don’t crash now, you can crash after.” I was wearing a slightly small suit, firmly gripping the steering wheel for over an hour. I needed to keep the heat on full blast so my windshield wouldn’t freeze, so by the time I got there I was drenched in sweat. I was not off to a good start.
One of the Doctors I worked for at CCMC was good friends with someone on Faculty there. Prior to the interview, this woman came up to me and told me that she spoke with the Doctor I know and that I should just relax. Confidence level? Highest it’s ever been. That morning commute was quite a doozy and I was mentally exhausted going into it. This was by far my worst interview. The man interviewing me was this boring, monotone military vet. I must have fed off his energy, because I was not myself that day. I could not answer questions fully and I didn’t feel like I showed off my personality, which I thought was one of my interview strengths.
A few weeks had passed, I was sitting in my little work station in the neurology clinic when I received an email from LeMoyne. My heart sank and I was excited to see the results. Opened it up… denial. Not even a waitlist. I was crushed. I had a connection on faculty and I thought I was fully prepared to enter PA school after this two year battle. This was the lowest I had gotten in the whole process.
Immediately after reading the denial letter, I started looking for Jobs in Boston. While I was working as a scribe, I was also a boxing trainer on the weekends. I applied to some boxing jobs in Boston and started apartment hunting. I actually got a job interview within a few days at Title Boxing Gym as their head boxing coach. I started calculating the cost of living, loans, and how much money I would need to earn to survive in a fairly expensive city. I passed my phone interview and I was scheduled to take a tour of the facility in Boston. It was time for a change.
This was going to be my new life direction. I had been denied from all of my schools and it was time to get a real job that wasn’t minimum wage. I would look at my best friend’s life and be jealous. He had a house, a stable long term relationship, and even a puppy. I told him about my plan to switch career fields. He handle the situation really well without making me feel unsupported. The best thing he said to me was, “everyone is on their own path and are at different points in their career. Don’t compare to people and focus on what you want to do.”
I wanted to be a PA really bad. I had worked hard for two years, obtained unmeasurable knowledge, and matured along the way. I decided that I was not going to give up on the PA route, but I still went up to Boston for the tour of Title Boxing Gym. It went well.
I was literally parking my car in the driveway after returning home from Boston and I got a call from Francis Marion University inviting me to schedule an interview. I kind of forgot about this school because I applied to them later in the application cycle. It was in South Carolina, an hour west of Myrtle. My brother lives in Charleston, so I was kind of familiar with the state. I flew down there and was prepared to interview to the best of my ability.
I felt like I crushed the interview. However, I knew from the past that getting your hopes up only hurts you more when you get denied. I still felt strangely confident. I knew I wanted to be a PA whether I got in or not, so I wasn’t going to give up. I denied the job offer in Boston within minutes of completing my interview. I was never going to give up on what I had worked so hard for.
Three business days later…
I worked a lot, so I enjoyed my occasional nap. I was awoken from one of my naps by buzzing. I had a missed call from a South Carolina number. I didn’t have a voicemail because I would later find out that my voicemail box was full. I called back immediately.
Hi, we would like to offer you a seat in our upcoming class.
I would not be able to put the feeling into words. So much weight was lifted off my shoulders. Stress that had built up over long work days, denial letters, and waitlists had finally been released. I could only describe this as, “that feeling when you have to pee but you’re stuck in traffic and you think you’re going to pee your pants. But you finally make it to the bathroom and go ‘ahhhhh.”‘ I think that quote came out when I celebrated with my friends that night.
Really, really long story short is don’t give up. If you want to be a PA you have to keep working, keep applying, and keep learning. This experience was extremely stressful, however I learned so much and met so many people in this process that I will never forget. We are all on a different path, don’t give up if you know that being a PA is the best thing for you.