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Writing Your Personal Essay For Pharmacy School

Writing the personal essay, as part of an application for a college pharmacy, can be a daunting task for some. As compared to very objective information like grade point average or PCAT score, the personal essay can seem like a very subjective exercise with no clear beginning and no clear end. The PharmCAS application states that: “Your Personal Essay should address why you selected pharmacy as a career and how the Doctor of Pharmacy degree relates to your immediate and long-term professional goals. Describe how your personal, educational, and professional background will help you achieve your goals.” What follows are a few tips for preparing and writing your essay.

There is no formula for the “perfect” personal statement. It is important to realize that different admission officers or committee members will look at the essay from varying vantage points.  Reading an applicant essay is a bit like looking at a painting.  Everyone’s interpretation will be a bit different. The statement above (from PharmCAS) is one that THEY have chosen to put on the front end of the application portal. That does not necessarily mean that it is what each admission reviewer is looking for.  As a result, it is best to approach the personal essay without a set formula. Applicants often make the mistake of asking a student who has gotten into pharmacy school about how they wrote their personal statement. The belief is that the successful student has the golden nugget and if they can mimic their format, they will achieve the same end. These formats get passed from applicant to applicant with posting on different student website forums (e.g. studentdoctor.net). As a result, many of the personal essays that I read look and sound alike.

Prepare a rough outline before you begin writing a personal statement. Jot down the things that you think are important to tell about yourself. Focus on telling YOUR story. By the time a reviewer gets to your personal essay, they have likely reviewed a number of other aspects of your application including your course history, grade transcripts, PCAT scores (if required), background, letters of recommendation, etc. This creates the beginnings of a painting in their mind of who you are. The personal statement should continue to fill out this canvas. The narrative that you write must be consistent with the story that the rest of your application tells.  For example, if a college transcript clearly appears “pre-med”, or marine biology, then it would ring inconsistent with a personal essay that states that the applicant has wanted to be pharmacist since they were very young. It is more important for a personal essay to be consistent and complementary to the application, than for it to have a “hook”, or interesting story that has to “set you apart”.

Why is it YOU decided to become a pharmacist? There are many different reasons that people decide to go into a healthcare profession (and pharmacy in particular). Before I was going to be a pharmacist, my college plans included being an architect, veterinarian, oceanographer, chemist, and park ranger. Hopefully your decision to go into pharmacy is a little more planned and thought out than mine. My point is that it is best to spend some thoughtful time about your choice and then translate that into some statements within your personal essay that are specific to you.  Not what you think (or someone has told you) the admission committee wishes to hear.

Be honest and sincere. Again, there’s no formula for the successful essay.  In reading many different personal essays, I get the impression that some applicants believe it is being graded like an essay question on a physiology exam with checks given to specific words, phrases and concepts.  As a result, their goal is to try to infuse the essay with a set of “talking points” rather than telling a personal story. This causes many personal essays to read as detached, impersonal and formulaic, to the detriment of the applicant.

Fill in gaps in your application.  Everyone’s path to pharmacy school can be a bit different.  For example some individuals may have gone to college for a few years, taken some time off and then returned.  Others might have started college as a first generation college student.  Still others might have had difficulty adjusting at first, or run into a semester where personal events occurred that took their attentions away from their studies.  The PharmCAS application includes a section that allows you to explain “Special Life Circumstances” (personal data section) that is separate from the personal essay. Be sure to use that section to explain gaps or lapses that might exist in your application. You may also use the personal statement to address how these events have refocused you on your goals and objectives. Don’t forget to use the essay to help fill-in or tie up loose ends that you feel may exist in your application.

Spelling, grammar and punctuation are important. The personal essay is a written communication and is being evaluated as such by the schools that are looking at your application. Just like the interview serves as an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the applicant’s ability to verbally communicate, the personal essay serves as an opportunity see how the applicant communicates in writing.

Have someone read your personal essay before you send it. This isn’t just to “proof” it. Instead, it is to help you understand what it is saying about you. DON’T ask your proof reader if they liked it. A good friend will likely tell that they do. You want actual feedback!  Ask them to tell you the three important things that it says about you, including why you want to become a pharmacist.  Make them point to where these are articulated in your essay.  Sometimes we become too attached to the things we write. An external reader can give us a different view of what it is we are saying.

Avoid plagiarism! NEVER use personal essay websites, friend’s or acquaintance’s personal essays to write yours.  Use your own original words to tell YOUR story.  The PharmCAS portal states: “Please be aware that your admission essay may be subject to submission for textual similarity review to Turnitin for Admissions for the detection of plagiarism duplication and other potential violations of the applicant code of conduct. All submitted essays and other materials will be included as source documents in the Turnitin for Admissions reference database solely for the purpose of detecting plagiarism of such documents.” Plagiarism is taken seriously by PharmCAS and by individual colleges of pharmacy.

The interpretation of the personal essay is in the eye of the beholder. These tips represent my perspective on the personal essay as a pharmacist, pharmacy educator and admission officer. That being said, four different admission officers would likely give you four different sets of perspective on the essay, including what is important.  Be truthful and be genuine. Allow the reader the opportunity to learn about who YOU are and why YOU have chosen to become a pharmacist. A genuine story tells itself!

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PCAT: Friend or Foe?

Ferris State University Logo

One of the primary sources of anxiety for pre-pharmacy candidates is the Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT). According to the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy website, approximately two-thirds of colleges of pharmacy require the PCAT. This standardized test provides an overall comprehensive score along with sub-scores in the areas of chemistry, biology, math (quantitative ability), reading, verbal and writing. Proper preparation for the PCAT is complicated by the fact that in 2012 the PCAT blueprint was changed with shifts in content related to biology and chemistry. So, why are pharmacy schools so enamored with the PCAT; how should one best prepare for it; and under what circumstances should an applicant consider retaking it?

Pharmacists are scientist by their nature and training. As such, they are data driven. When it comes to admissions, one of the challenges is finding data that predicts success. Success in progressing through the Doctor of Pharmacy program. Success in becoming a pharmacist. Success in becoming a health care professional. There is no single piece of data that will predict all of these things. The purpose of the PCAT, is to provide a predictor of baseline knowledge (given differences in pre-pharmacy requirements) and academic abilities. How good is it at doing that? Fair to Midland.

A number of studies have been done examining the relationship that exists between the PCAT and “success” in pharmacy school (typically defined in terms of GPA in the professional degree program). Some studies have also looked at the relationship between PCAT scores and NAPLEX scores (the pharmacy board exam). For the most part, the results of these studies have shown that higher scores on the PCAT translate into higher GPA’s in pharmacy school and on the pharmacist board exam. That being said, the appropriate question is: If it is a predictor, to what extent?

One of these studies was recently published in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (2011;75(5):Article 81). The authors examined the relationship between PCAT (along with pre-pharmacy GPA) and first-year pharmacy school GPA from 22 colleges/schools of pharmacy. As expected, they found a relationship. What is interesting is the magnitude of that relationship. In a regression analysis, PCAT score combined with entering GPA explained 25% of the variation in first-year pharmacy school GPA. PCAT alone explained only 10% of the variation. What does this mean? There are other variables that explain success in pharmacy school above and beyond PCAT and pre-pharmacy GPA.  That being said, the PCAT will likely remain the cornerstone of many college of pharmacy admission “formulas”.

Since the PCAT is here to stay, what is the best way to score well on it? Preparation, preparation, preparation. It is arguable that the relationship that exits between PCAT and NAPLEX is (in part) an artifact of the test taking and preparation abilities of the subjects. Successful preparation should include:

  1. PCAT practice tests. It has been shown that individual who take the “official” PCAT practice tests do better than their “un-practiced” counterparts.  These are available on-line at the PCAT site. There is a cost associated with these, however.
  2. PCAT preparation books.  There are a number of PCAT prep-books available from different sources.  These include practice questions and explanations that can provide more concentrated information.  Be sure to use more recent versions that reflect the revised 2012 blueprint for the PCAT.
  3. Getting full nights of sleep leading up to the exam.  The brain uses restorative sleep to help process and file information for later retrieval.  Pulling a couple of “all-nighters” before the PCAT is NOT going to help your brain prepare the information for your usage during the test.
  4. Eat well. Provide your mind and body with good nutrition leading up to the PCAT.
  5. Practice relaxation techniques for use during the exam. Some of the errors that occur on any exam can be avoided by staying calm, reading the question (and answers) and carefully selecting responses.

Finally, under what circumstances should an individual consider retaking the PCAT? This is one of the most common PCAT-related questions we get. There is no magic percentile “cut-point” that I can give. Before deciding whether or not to retake the PCAT, be sure you understand clearly how the colleges of pharmacy you are applying to handle multiple PCAT scores. Different colleges have different policies. One might average the scores, another might take the most recent. Ferris’ current policy is to utilize the highest score and all the sub-scores associated with that sitting. As a result, for Ferris, you can not harm your application with a retake. If the score is higher, it will count. If it is lower, the previous PCAT will be used.

Remember that the combination of your GPA and PCAT provides a summary of your academic portfolio. If the college of pharmacy publishes their “averages” (for GPA and/or PCAT) then you can also use that as a guide in deciding whether or not to retake the test. There are four quadrants that you can fall in that might aid in making this decision:

  1. Candidate GPA > School Average; Candidate PCAT > School Average
  2. Candidate GPA > School Average; Candidate PCAT < School Average
  3. Candidate GPA < School Average; Candidate PCAT > School Average
  4. Candidate GPA <School Average; Candidate PCAT < School Average

Avoid simple comparisons to other applicants. I see many posts on Studentdoctor.net that look something like: “You got in? What was your GPA and PCAT?” Colleges of pharmacy may use complex formulas or decision algorithms that take into account multiple factors, different “mash-ups” of GPA and varying PCAT sub-score weightings. Not to mention, experience, role (or weightings) of higher level courses and recommendations. This means that two identical GPA/PCAT combinations may translate into dramatically different rankings. Strive to build the most competitive application across all facets of your portfolio.

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Alternate PCAT Dates for 2012

We received notification today that NCS Pearson is offering alternative PCAT dates for 2012 (the 2012-2013 cycle).  If you are applying for Fall 2013 entrance, BE SURE to review their announcement.

This would appear to mean that they are opening an additional testing window in late October/early November just for this year (2012).  Complete information on the PCAT can be found at the Pearson site.

We have updated our website admission policies to reflect the fact that any additional dates offered in the “prior year” would be accepted as meeting this requirements.  Please see our admission policies, Section #4 under The Admission Process entitled: “Pharmacy College Admission Test (PCAT)” for complete information.

This is the first time in recent history that we’ve seen “alternate dates”.  It is unclear whether this means an additional window will be available going forward (e.g. 2013, 2014…).  Of course, contact our office if you have any questions.

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Ferris Early Decision Program

Ferris State University College of Pharmacy began participating this cycle (for Fall, 2013) in the PharmCAS Early Decision Program (EDP).

Be sure to read through our description of the EDP, including a question/answer section.  There have been a number of additional questions about the EDP, above and beyond that covered in our description.  Here is an excerpt of some of those…

Candidate: So, what is the EDP?

The Drop Off Window: The EDP is basically an early application window with a binding acceptance.  Ferris’ “regular cycle” deadline is December 3, 2012.  The EDP opens an early application window that runs from September 4, 2012 to October 19, 2012.  The EDP early window still applies to the Fall 2013 entering class.  It gives applicants who see Ferris as a “first choice” destination for their pharmacy education an opportunity to apply, interview and be evaluated, with a decision rendered by October 19th.  If an offer is made, the applicant is bound to an acceptance for Ferris for the Fall, 2013 entering class.  Applicants may only apply to one EDP school.

Candidate: What do you mean by “bound”?

The Drop Off Window: Applicants are allowed to apply to one EDP college. If offered admission, then they are obligated to accept and will not be allowed to apply to any other PharmCAS schools for the Fall, 2013 entering class. If an applicant were to turn down the admission, they would not be allowed back into the PharmCAS regular cycle for Fall, 2013.

Candidate: If I am not admitted to an EDP school, can I still apply to other colleges of pharmacy?

The Drop Off Window: Yes.  One of three results can occur from an EDP application.  1) Offer of Admission – This would bind the applicant to Ferris for the following Fall semester. 2) Deferral to the regular cycle for Ferris, with the December deadline. The applicant would then be reviewed with the regular cycle pool. 3) Denial.  Options 2 and 3 would allow the applicant to designate other college of pharmacy to receive his/her application AFTER the October 19th deadline.

Candidate: Will the EDP program be more selective?

The Drop Off Window: Possibly, from the standpoint of offers only. In some cases, we might be evaluating applications without the benefit of the Fall semester grades.  As such, different “cut points” might be established.  We provided some suggested guidance to applicants on our EDP page.

Candidate: Does that mean that if I don’t have a 3.5 GPA and a 70th percentile on the PCAT that I shouldn’t apply for the EDP?

The Drop Off Window: No.  These are just suggestions.  Because this is our first year participating in the EDP, we tried to provide general suggestions.  Each applicant pool is a bit different.  This will also be the case for the EDP pool.

Candidate: I am worried that if I apply to the EDP, I might have a greater risk of being denied admission to Ferris College of Pharmacy, as compared to applying to the regular cycle…

The Drop Off Window: This is the most common concern we hear. There is NO greater risk of a denial in the EDP pool then there is in the regular cycle pool.  Remember, one of the decision options is a deferral to the regular cycle. If we feel it is necessary to review Fall grades as part of an applicant review, we would simply change the candidate status to regular cycle and consider them with that pool.

Candidate: If a decision on my application is deferred to the regular cycle, will I have to pay the PharmCAS fee again?

The Drop Off Window: No, not for Ferris.  If the candidate wishes to have other colleges of pharmacy consider their application when deferred or denied, then they would be assessed the PharmCAS fees for the additional schools.

Candidate: I am taking the September PCAT.  Will that scores get to you in time?

The Drop Off Window: We don’t know for sure.  The October 19 deadline is firm for all EDP schools. We do NOT have a guarantee from PharmCAS that the September PCAT scores will available for the EDP window.  PharmCAS is dependent on Pearson for the PCAT scores transmission.

Candidate: If I am offered admission as part of the EDP, does that mean I don’t have to worry about my grades in the Fall or Spring?

The Drop Off Window: Admission to the program is conditional on criminal background check, completion of all immunization requirements, deposit, completion of BLS training, and completion of the remaining pharmacy prerequisites (C or better work). So, those admitted through EDP should continue to focus on good academic performance.  All student who enter the pharmacy program comment on the need to improve their study/classroom skills after admission.  As a result, successful applicants should continue to focus on their studies and study skills.  Finally, the material covered in the later prerequisites (e.g. organic chemistry, anatomy an physiology, microbiology, etc.) features large in the first two years of the Pharm.D. program.  Mastery of this information is important to success.

Be sure to review all of the admission policies and the additional information on the Early Decision Program hyperlinked above.

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“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…!”

Welcome to our pharmacy admissions blog!

To begin with, it would only be appropriate to say thank you to the inspiration for setting up this blog provided by Joel Gonzales’ University of California San Francisco blog entitled Reports from the Pharm.  His outstanding presentation during the Admissions Workshop (AACP Annual Meeting July 14, Kissimmee, Fla) provided the catalyst for our site. Thanks again Joel, and great job!

Gaining admission to a professional degree program like pharmacy can seem like a very mysterious process. A long and arduous journey down a brick road filled with arbitrary requirements and difficult obstacles.  Even with published criteria, it can sometimes feel like there are many aspects of the process that are out of the control of the candidate.  As we respond to questions from applicants, and read through the forums on http://www.studentdoctor.net, it is clear that many candidates are looking for the secret “X-factor” that we are measuring that will determine ultimate admission.

The purpose of this blog is to help to pull back the curtain.  All along, the scarecrow had the brains, the tin man had the heart and the lion had the courage.  The purpose of this blog is to help applicants better understand that they control the variables that ultimately can lead to the successful pursuit of becoming a pharmacist.  There is no mysterious X-factor.

We hope you’ll take the time to follow our blog and submit your comments and questions to us.