Guest Post from Holly: How To Study and Succeed in Didactic Year of PA School

Holly has some awesome tips on how to survive didactic year of PA school.  If you thought getting into PA school was the hard part, you better get ready for the didactic portion.  This post is great for whether you are just getting ready to start school or already pushing through PA school. I agree with so many of these tips, and I experienced or learned a lot of this stuff myself in PA school. 

Congratulations! You’ve finally made it to didactic year of PA school (likely your ultimate dream, just as it was mine). It’s a HUGE accomplishment so be proud, but now it is also time to start working the hardest that you ever have academically (or at least learning in a fast-paced environment that I definitely had not experienced prior to PA school). Didactic year was definitely something I was absolutely terrified of when I first started the journey a year ago, but I am here to tell you that it is not impossible, and in fact, was one of the best years of my life! Being fresh out of didactic year, I’d like to provide some study tips I learned throughout my time as a PA student in the classroom. 

  • Don’t be afraid to completely change your study habits. Your previous study habits may or may not be as effective during your time as a PA student. This was something I was initially super resistant to (I always took hand written notes in all of my past college classes), but I quickly learned it was hugely beneficial to tailor my note taking to each individual class, and what I needed out of lectures in order to properly study and succeed in learning the material. Think about how you might best benefit during lecture for retaining the material long term. I used print out PowerPoint slides for Anatomy (they were all pictures, so I would bring a bunch of colored pens to color in what I was writing about and then write any additional notes about the structure we were discussing). In most of my classes, I realized it was most time efficient for me to type out notes on PowerPoints, and either study from them or create Word document study guides to print out. Pharmacology and Laboratory Medicine were 2 classes I struggled with, especially when only viewing the PowerPoints with my notes, so I made sure to create my own personal study guides for each of those, organize the material in a way that made sense to me, and would print out and write additional notes on my notes especially a few days prior to exams. Flash cards are also a great idea for subjects that require a lot of route memorization (Infectious Disease, for example). Figure out what works best for you, and constantly be willing to re-evaluate if that method is working well for you.
  • Work with others and study alone. This was another thing I was initially resistant to as a new PA student. In undergraduate classes, I never studied in groups because I assumed I wouldn’t be as productive. And it worked for me then, but I found it took way too much time to figure out everything on my own in PA school. I tested out quite a few study groups before I found the right group of people, but it was especially helpful to have a few classmates and friends to rapid-fire study. During finals, we usually had about 2 exams every day for 2 weeks straight, so even if we tried not to wait until the last minute, sometimes it was inevitable, and having others to quickly help me retain information and make me think about aspects I wouldn’t have on my own was extremely beneficial. Again, do what works for you, but definitely don’t be resistant to change if you have not tried a study technique in the past!
  • Use any mean of studying you can think of! Some examples include (but are certainly not limited to!) videos, audio, flashcards, study guides, charts, pictures, writing on chalk/white boards, sketching out images, and more. Really, use anything that will help you to retain the information and truly understand it on a fundamental level. Some of my favorite tools included Khan Academy, Online Med Ed, PANCE Prep Pearls (I highly recommend this book, even for didactic year! It is meant as a review for Boards, but I found it quite helpful for exam reviews and also for freshening up prior to OSCE’s and the PACKRAT exam), Physician Assistant Boards (I found both the Pharmacology and Boards Review audio files particularly helpful for my commutes, especially for solidifying information prior to exams), and the Physician Assistant Exam Review podcast. Many of my classmates shared groups on Quizlet so that we were able to use each other’s Quizlet online flashcards. Our class even had a shared DropBox where we would upload any helpful information or study guides we completed for the rest of the class to utilize. I found it super helpful to hear information over and over through multiple sources, and it has certainly helped me to retain a lot even after exams were finished. 
  • Connect the dots. I cannot emphasize this enough, but making connections between classes is super important. This helped me to not only better understand material in all of my classes (everything eventually starts to overlap!), land a pretty awesome PACKRAT score (the PA student exam that predicts how well you might do on the PANCE, or certifying PA exam), and helped me to feel much less stressed when it came to OSCE’s where we had to put all of the information together in order to diagnose and treat a hypothetical patient. It certainly shows if you are learning the material for life and not just for exams, especially at the end of didactic year when your professors will expect much more out of you. Don’t let yourself fall into a place of complacency – after all, as one of my favorite professors stated, “you are learning this for life and to keep your future patients alive”. It’s a pretty serious task, and I always want to make sure I am doing my best for my future patients. 
  • If you are losing speed and struggling to continue studying, change gears! This happened multiple times to me. Didactic year was a lot of studying. If I found myself losing focus or feeling burnt out, I would make sure to have some fun or reward myself to keep up my motivation. My friends and I often made trips in between classes or during day-long study sessions for coffee, cupcakes, chocolate, ice cream, you name it! Of course, it wasn’t the healthiest choice, but it kept us going and motivated to move on to more material. Another tip I can provide you with is to exercise! I didn’t do much exercising during my first 2 semesters, but at the beginning of my third semester, my friends and I decided it would be a great idea to attend work out classes twice a week through our school’s gym. It was actually a brilliant idea because we held each other accountable to attend every class, and we got in a great work out and felt mentally and physically refreshed afterward to continue studying if needed.
  • Know when you need help. This is probably the most important piece of advice, in my opinion. You’ve worked so hard to get to where you are at, and you don’t want anything to get in your way of continuing through the program and becoming a future PA. Know your limitations and shortcomings, and realize when you need to ask a professor, advisor, classmate, friends, and/or family members for help. Didactic year is super challenging, mostly because of the amount of information they throw at you all at once, and because of the time constraints you might find yourself in because of your dedication to studying and passing your classes. Unfortunately, 2 of my classmates were disqualified from continuing the program due to poor academic performance, and from what I observed, both were too late in asking for help. If you see a classmate struggling, make sure you reach out if possible. Had I known these students were struggling, I definitely would have, but by the time they let me and other classmates of mine know that they needed help, it was too late to bring their grades up enough to pass. I personally struggled with Pharmacology and with my first Psychiatry exam. It was actually a double whammy because I failed both exams in the same week, and immediately went to both professors (one while I was in complete tears). Take your professors’ advice – they are there to help you and it certainly will only benefit you if you can obtain tips for how to succeed in their specific classes. I also let my friends know that these were 2 subjects I struggled with, and asked them for advice especially if they did well in the classes. I studied with classmates that were able to help me in these classes, while I was able to help them in other subjects, and it worked out really well. I also made sure to change up my study techniques to ways that helped me retain the information in a more efficient way, and was able to pass both classes with pretty decent grades! 
  • Know that you might not be perfect, and that is perfectly okay! I watched a few of my classmates strive for perfection, and sometimes it worked but other times it simply stressed them out more than they needed to be. I learned that even though I may not be the smartest person in the class, and certainly did not receive straight A’s by any means, I could still succeed in PA school and make sure I was learning everything I needed to along the way. My hard work paid off and was evident with my PACKRAT score, and if you keep motivated and work hard, I am positive you will succeed! 

Holly is a second-year PA student at Marywood University. Prior to attending PA school, Holly graduated from Temple University Honors Program in 2014 with a degree in Neuroscience and minor in Psychology. She then worked for two years as a mental health worker, direct service professional in an autism center, and as an emergency department scribe. You can find Holly on Instagram at @xohollyd and on her blog XOhollyd for more PA tips!