Abdullah Muhaseen has a degree in psychology and neuroscience from the University of Toronto, so he knows a bit about the brain. But what he didn’t expect was how taxed his grey matter would be vying for a place in Centennial College’s paramedic program.

“I just didn’t anticipate how competitive it was to get accepted,” says Muhaseen, 24, who graduates from the two-year full-time program in May.

Every year, between 1,000 and 1,500 men and women from across the province apply for a place in the program, but little more than 100 are accepted.

Walter Tavares, the program’s co-ordinator, says applicants are selected solely on their academic results and, although the majority of his students have a degree, it’s not mandatory. Still, being accepted is just the start of the process. There’s also a written test, an interview and a “lift” test, and students must also have valid CPR and First Aid certificates.

Only 21, Megan Bulario was one of the youngest students in her class, and graduated from the program in 2008. Bulario, who now works for Peel Region EMS, says it was a “real step up” from high school. “The work is tough, but there’s tons of help available,” says Brampton’s Bulario.

Bulario, who enrolled at Centennial a year after leaving high school, says she particularly enjoyed the program’s clinical and field placements. “You actually get to do what the books are telling you to do,” she says. Bulario did her clinical placement at Scarborough Grace Hospital. It was a chance to learn what happens when a paramedic delivers a patient to a hospital. She spent time observing in emergency, the labour ward, accompanying a respiratory therapist and so on.

She spent time in the back of a real ambulance as well. Not on the road, but set up at Centennial where a sophisticated manikin could simulate just about any medical condition.

Right now, Toronto-raised Muhaseen is also hard at work learning by doing, completing the 450-hour work placement all students take in their second year. With a qualified paramedic supervising him, Muhaseen goes out on actual Toronto EMS calls so he knows what to expect when he’s on his own. But before that, he and all new graduates must pass a six-hour provincial certification exam before the EMS hiring them rolls out yet more tests of its own.