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How to Overcome Failing in PA School

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

Let’s talk about failing and failure! Everyone seems to be selling unicorns and rainbows when it comes to PA school, but what happens when you fail a test, an assignment, or even a class! Why is no one talking about this?

As a mentor, I intentionally share my “failures” upfront. Let’s call these failures hurdles because that is more accurate. I want them to bring me back down to human-level, to clear the glossy-eyed illusion of perfection they have created about me.

Here are my PA school hurdles.

At the beginning of my program, we were given the guidelines. Basically, you can only have one grade of “C” in a semester before needing remediation, and if you earned a “C” just mentally prepare to retake the course. So in my head, I aimed to just get A’s and B’s, but PA school was NOT like my undergraduate experience.

In nursing school, I studied, but truthfully, I did not have to study-study. I did not have to set aside hours to study, sometimes I would cram and that would be enough. This was not the case with PA school. I cannot remember all my first semester PA school courses but I do remember Biochemistry and Gross Anatomy kicking my butt! Biochemistry seemed like a foreign language. Gross Anatomy just had so many things to remember. Rote memorization was not my ministry. All I could think of was" why are there so many muscles in the arm!"

In the first Gross anatomy practical exam, I earned a 93%. I was happy with that, but in the written portion of the exam I super-failed with a 56%! Never had I ever seen a number so low in any of my college career. Biochemistry was trying to kill me it seemed. The Krebs cycle still makes me shake my head.

When the first semester progress report was released, I was sick with disgust! I had one “A” in medical terminology. All of my other grades were a “C.” I legit had four C’s on my progress report. I remember crying, feeling like I was not going to make it out of PA school, and doubting my capabilities. Why was PA school so hard for me? I spoke with my advisor and let her know I need to probably quit before I fail out. She looked me in the eye and said “Jackie, you will be ok, you can do this.” Maybe God was speaking through her because listen! I did not think I was going to make it, but I did.

I had to really change how I thought and how I approached PA school. Keep in mind, at the time, I was a mom of 1 year-old twins, a 6 year-old, and was married. I had an entire life outside of school, but here is how I overcame failure.

  1. I changed my definition of failure. I was so hard on myself and often expected perfection or an “A.” Getting a B or C is not failing.

  2. I became my own competition. I did not care to hear what scores or grades my classmates earned. I focused on scoring higher against myself. PA school is competitive and you find yourself surrounded by other super smart, competitive people which can lead to comparison. Do not fall down the comparison trap. Learn medicine as well as you can to be the best provider.

  3. I asked for help. I needed help understanding Biochemistry, so I asked the professor. I also asked family members and friends to help watch my children so I could dedicate time to studying.

  4. Adjust your learning style. I am a visual learner, so I wrote everything down and created charts. I am not an audible learner, but I did use a recorder for some of my classes, especially if the instructor had a heavy accent or spoke fast.

  5. Assign time to areas you need improvement in. Every Saturday, for 4 hours, I would drive to the school library and study. I drew out the reactions and processes in biochemistry and rewrote notes for other classes.

  6. I gave myself grace.

  7. I didn’t allow negative thoughts or doubt to live in my mind. I thought of negative things at times, I immediately recognized it as such and replaced it with positive thoughts instead.

  8. Set goals with your advisor or faculty so you can have an accountability partner.

  9. If you suffer from anxiety or any other mental illness, make sure that is being managed appropriately. I wish I had my current anxiety medicine back then because I vividly remember being so anxious, I thought the world was going to end.

  10. Give yourself some time to process your hurdle.

  11. Most importantly, do not give up on yourself. Put in your best work.

I understand that failing a test is different than failing a course. In both scenarios, you must remember your goal, adapt, and push through. Some of the most successful people in the world have failed at something. Failure is quitting and giving up because you will never know your true potential in that scenario. Failing is not the end of the world, but remember you aren’t actually failing. You are facing an obstacle that you are equipped to conquer.

Dr. Jackie the PA

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