How to Study Applied Anatomy in PA School

Saturday, August 20, 2016

I'm done with my first semester of PA school! 3 more to go, then we'll be off to clinicals! Thank you all for your encouraging emails and kind words over these last few months, it means a lot. I get a lot of questions about how I studied for anatomy in PA school, so I thought I'd share my two cents here. Anatomy in undergrad is a lot different from anatomy in PA school (read about that here). In PA school, it's a lot more information, coming at you at a much faster rate, and you're expected to know all of it in a very short time. It blows my mind to think just how little I knew when we started and how much I've learned in 13 short weeks. I didn't think it was possible, but I'm so proud of my classmates and of how far we've come.

We started out with a lecture on the body and then switched to regional anatomy for the rest of the semester. That means we looked at one region of the body (let's say the thorax) and learned all the bones, muscles, nerves, arteries, veins, and lymphatic flow in that region, before moving on to the next region of the body. Some schools may have a systemic approach, where they teach you everything by organ systems, so it varies from one program to another.

Studying for Lecture

You might get tired of hearing this in PA school, but different things work for different people. There are so many ways to study for one class but you only need to utilize the resources that work for you. Some of my classmates used flashcards, made study guides or flow charts, watched videos, or simply read from the powerpoint slides. So what worked for me may not work for you. It's a process of trial and error and once something works for you, STOP listening to other people and how they study. It'll only make you question your ways and cause more chaos then needed.

I'm going to use the back as an example, since that's the region we started out with in our class. Here is how I approached the material:

  • Go through the PowerPoints without memorizing anything and look at the pictures in the book first. 
  • Next, I'd go over it in more detail and learn the bones in the region, origin and insertion of the muscles, then the muscle's function, it's innervation, and what blood vessels it's supplied by.
  • Use Complete Anatomy to visualize everything in 3D (more on that in a minute).
  • Make a study guide of the blood vessels and nerves, since a lot of them supply more than one muscle. I would group the muscles with common functions together and also group blood vessels/nerves that supplied the same region together. That way, you know which muscles have a common function when you get hit with "select all that apply" questions on your quzzies/exams (our professor loved that).
  • I would make a flow chart of the branches that come off a major vessel or nerve. That way, you never miss an artery or nerve.
  • Talk out loud and go through each muscle and all of it's vessels, innervation, etc.
  • Make as many mnemonics as possible. The more silly/inappropriate, the better your chances of remembering them. I referred to Paul's compiled list of anatomy tips and tricks all the time during our first semester. 

Anatomy Lab
  • Spend as much time in lab as possible! I cannot emphasize this enough. The more you see something in lab, the more your lecture notes will make sense. I'm not sure when this happened, but at one point when I would visualize a structure or muscle while learning my notes for class, I started visualizing what I'd seen on the cadavers instead of the pictures in the book. This was such a unique experience and it's amazing to see your brain adapt so quickly to things.
  • Study at least some before going into lab. I know that's not always possible due to time constraints, but it really makes lab easier if you go in knowing what to look for. One of my classmates used to make a compact study guide from our lecture notes of everything we were supposed to find in that week's lab. This helped her be more productive and she was always on top of her game!
  • Look at as many different cadavers as possible. Although you're all finding the same structures, every structure looks a little different on every body. This will help you get prepared for your practicals.
  • When taking your practice, the first thing you want to do is orient yourself. Is the body prone or supine? Is the structure pinned on the left or the right side? Has any structure been cut and reflected aka is the pinned structure deep or superficial? This might seem like common sense, but these considerations are very important while taking your practical. 
  • Always look around and see what where the structure is going or where it's coming from. It is innervating a certain muscle? Is it a branch from a larger vessel? These questions will help you narrow down your answer.
  • Learn to differentiate between nerves, arteries, and veins. Nerves will be more glossy/shiny in appearance. Arteries and veins look very similar in lab, so learn to tell apart which one looks like it has a thick wall compared to a thinner wall without touching anything (since you can't touch anything during a practical). One way to tell them apart is that veins usually look more flat then arteries do. 

  • Complete Anatomy - Since it's a lot of information, I'd layer my learning and add things as I went along. Just looking at the pictures in the book was not enough for me. To help visualize things better, I bought this app called Complete Anatomy (unfortunately it's available only for iPads as of now) and I would find the muscle, it's blood supply, and innervation and look at how everything is oriented. It really helped me to see things in 3D. I would also watch the function of the muscle so I can visualize it and remember it for later. Also, if you know the insertion of the muscle, you can imagine what you would have to do to make it shorten to figure out it's function. You can also buy another app called Essential Anatomy for your laptop or phones. A lot of my classmates used it and loved it. I would recommend buying it for your laptop (you have to pay for it separately if you want it on you phone) because you'll want a bigger screen to look at everything. 
  • Netter's Atlas of Human Anatomy (textbook) - Netter's is known as the bible of anatomy and it truly is so helpful and informative. I carried it around with me everywhere and would highly recommend utilizing it to it's fullest. More likely then not, your school will recommend buying this book. 
  • Gray's Anatomy (textbook) - This was a required text for our class since most of the information came from here. The pictures here aren't as great as Netter's but there are some views that this book has that Netter's doesn't. I didn't use it to read much but it was nice for a quick review in case I was confused about something.
  • Gray's or Netter's Flashcards - I personally didn't used either of these flashcards but I know some of my classmates did and it really helped them, so I thought I'd include them here.
  • AnatomyZone (youtube videos) - our professor shared links of videos from AnatomyZone in our notes and sometimes we'd even watch them during lecture. They talk through everything in a certain region and it helps to see it in 3D while someone is talking about it simultaneously. 
Let me know if there are any specific questions or if anyone wants more details about Complete Anatomy. Hope everyone has a great weekend and thanks for stopping by! 

Disclaimer: all opinions in this post are my own and I will not be receiving any compensation for any of the resources or apps mentioned here. 


  1. Thanks for posting, I will be show to check out some of these resources!

  2. You're destined for success! I feel like it took me forever to nail down a solid study plan but this one looks really good! Congrats!!

    1. Thanks Trisha! I'm sure I'll have to make many adjustments as the next semester starts with a lot more clinically related classes.