We sat down with Woto, a second year physician assistant (PA) student, so she could give us the ins and outs of year two.
As a second year student, Woto is in the midst of rotating in hospitals around NYC. During this second year of school, students on rotations are encouraged to study after work in order to prepare for the PA boards: the PANCE, or Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination.
After living for a year in the hectic frenzy of didactic (where students have on average three exams a week for the entire year), she’s thoroughly enjoying this clinical year where despite still having to work and study, she has more time to keep up with friends, travel, and log in to her favorite games.
Q: You’re studying for the PANCE exam. Why do you want to become a PA?
When I was preparing to apply to PA school, I was really drawn to the profession because of how well it fit my timeline. I’m a nontraditional student (I majored in a non-medical, unrelated profession and I worked in that profession prior to applying to PA school) so having to “start over from the beginning” seemed really daunting when you put several years or possibly a decade behind that decision.
I wanted to be able to see my own patients, prescribe medications, and order labs and imaging that they needed, and with PA school being two to three years on average, the timeline was perfect for where I was in life.
Q: Your program is two years long. What’s life like as a student?
A: Year 1
Our first year is didactic year, where we learn all the “book stuff”. We learn all the systems of the body, pharmacology, pathophysiology, and anatomy as well as have simulated patient encounters. Usually we have 2-3 exams per week; the material really comes in a rush.
There’s a reason why the saying behind PA school is “trying to drink out of a fire hose”. It’s so much information just bombarding you at such a fast pace and you’re basically just trying to retain as much as you can for each exam.
I studied pretty much every waking minute during the didactic year. I woke up early and slept very little every day, including weekends. You kind of spend every moment trying to absorb every last drop of information. It’s very difficult but with a good study schedule and friends to study with, it’s manageable.
Now, in our second year, we’re in Clinical Rotations, so we essentially work at various hospitals around the city. We have 9 rotations, and each rotation is 5-6 weeks long. This year is really fun because we get to put all that information we learned in didactic year to practice.
We get to see patients, help with procedures, talk with doctors, PAs, and nurses to see which specialty we feel we are most interested in, so that after graduation we have more of a vision of what we want to move forward with. It’s also a great time to hone your skills (hard skills like suturing and soft skills like empathy) in preparation for the future as well.
Q: Do you have any favorite study tools?
Yes! So many. During the didactic year I had some study tools that I really could not have done without.
I liked Miro, which is an online endless whiteboard tool. It’s also collaborative so you can add your classmates to it. I’m a visual person, so it was a little better for me to visualize rather than a traditional study guide. You can add shapes, change colors, add images, make flow charts, whatever you want.
2. Sketchy Learning
This is a great tool for visual learners. Sketchy was my go-to study tool for pharmacology. It creates memory visualizations so that remembering the mechanism of action, side effects, indications, and contraindications of medications became easy.
3. Rosh Review
My school also supplied us with access to Rosh Review, which is a commonly used practice exam site for PA students. You can choose to separate questions based on subject, and after you answer a question, an explanation will pop up, as well as the percentage of answers of other students. Rosh Review has a limited bank of questions that it pulls from, so the reusability of it was not high for me (I’m the type of person who remembers which answer is wrong and which is right if I get the same question again).
Now that I’m in my clinical year, I’ve moved away from study-guide and initial-learning type tools (like Miro) and moved towards more conceptual, understanding, and critical thinking study tools.
I’ve been using Anki as a spaced repetition tool for general maintenance of previously used material, which is convenient because I have it on my phone and my laptop and can do it on the go. In all honesty, I’m not a very intrinsically motivated person, so functions on Anki such as the “streak” really are great at making sure I come back every day.
One of my school’s textbooks (Lange) has a question bank in it, so I occasionally use that to study as well. I find the questions in Lange are on the more difficult and specific side, so sometimes it can be a bit disheartening to be doing questions in a subject you feel quite strong in but you miss lots of questions anyway, haha.
6. Pocket Prep
I like Pocket Prep because it’s a question bank tool, but what’s great about it is that it feels like the question bank is unlimited. I don’t know if it actually has “unlimited” questions, but so far while using it I haven’t come across repeat questions. Pocket Prep, like Anki, has a “streak” function, so I make sure to do it every day. Each day, there is a “question of the day” to do. In addition, there are a variety of quizzes that you can take.
I’m a big fan of the Quick 10 Quiz, which takes a random assortment of 10 questions and gives them to you. Like Rosh Review, Pocket Prep also gives you an explanation of why an answer is wrong or right, and it also lists reasons why the other answer choices are wrong or right. At the end of the quiz, you get a score.
But one of my favorite things about Pocket Prep is the Missed Questions Quiz. It saves all the questions you’ve ever missed and keeps them, and you can create a quiz based on those questions. I like that because it makes sure that I understand the concepts of those questions I got wrong, rather than those questions just disappearing forever.
Q: What’s been the most surprising or difficult thing about your study journey so far?
The most difficult part about my study journey during didactic was the sheer amount of material we had to learn in such a short amount of time. I think this is a common answer among PA students in their first year.
The most difficult part about my study journey this year is making sure that I study a little bit every day. I mentioned earlier that I’m extrinsically motivated – so it’s not in my nature to just study “just because”. I need to have a goal and a reason to study, so I usually set small goals every week that I try to keep up with, as well as small rewards for myself if I reach those goals (like snacks – I love snacks)!
I like to study in the library or in a cafe where these “rewards” are easily attainable.
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Q: Do you have a favorite subject?
My favorite subject was neurology. The brain is just so fascinating. And if certain areas of the brain are adversely affected, it can change entire aspects of your personality or how you function. Actually to be extremely specific, I am fascinated by sleep and its effect on the body (or lack of sleep).
I think it’s amazing how it’s an essential part of everyday functioning, where you lose consciousness and are completely vulnerable for ~6-8 hours of the day, and yet that is when your body does some of the most important functions.
Q: Any advice for someone just starting out in PA school?
Don’t fall behind on your studying! Studying is very important to get through PA school, and having a good management of your time is very important.
In the didactic year, you are learning both the current unit and the next unit while you are studying for the exam in two days, so you need to be able to balance your time well to make sure you are well-studied for the exam, while still making sure you start studying for the next exam.
It is a delicate balance, but finding out your rhythm early is a great way to get through a didactic year. I also highly suggest having friends who you can either study with, or if you aren’t someone who studies well with others, who you can text questions to for practice. It’s also a bonus when you have a friend who has the same sleep schedule as you, because you guys can make sure you both wake up in time to take the exam, haha.
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Q: What’s one thing you wish you’d known before starting your program?
A lot of people, Instagram accounts, and blogs that I looked at before PA school were along the lines of “you won’t have a life in PA school”. This isn’t true! It’s totally possible to have a life while in PA school. However, you need to set realistic goals.
PA school is HARD. You are going to have to sacrifice some things for your studies. I’m not saying that you will have to give up everything and totally give your life over to studying, but you’ll have to accept that most of your life will be studying, but if you balance your time well (aha, see how this bit comes back again) you’ll be able to get an occasional dinner with friends, go to a music festival, take that trip to your best friend’s wedding. It’s possible. But you need to plan around those things and study accordingly!
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Q: Where do you hope to be in five years?
In five years I’d like to be a practicing PA at a great hospital! It would be fantastic if future me was three years into her neurology PA position at a New York City hospital. I’d like to continue mentoring pre-PA students at that time too (currently I only do personal statement reviews, but one day I’d like to be a mentor for prospective students.)