How to Get Into PA School

As demand for health care workers increases, the need for physician assistants is expected to grow. PAs are health care professionals who work in a variety of settings from clinics and medical practices, to hospitals. They perform a range of duties including taking medical histories, diagnosing illness, prescribing medication, and conducting physical exams, and usually work under the guidance of a physician.

The 118,800 PAs in the United States in 2018 will see their ranks grow by 31% by 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Demand for health care professionals in rural and medically underserved areas is expected to help graduates in the field find employment. 

While PAs provide many of the same services as physicians and act as primary care providers, their training does not take as long. Those who are interested in becoming a physician assistant can hold an undergraduate or master’s degree in any subject area, but they must get into PA school where most programs average 26 months and include classroom instruction and clinical rotations. Students training to be physicians generally spend about four years in medical school and at least three years in a residency program depending on their specialty.

Completing the requirements for PA school and learning how to create a well-rounded application are essential. The information below may help prospective students through the process.

What Makes a Competitive PA School Applicant?

Prospective students should apply to PA school a year before they want to start classes. Most applications are submitted in April when the Central Application System for Physician Assistant (CASPA) opens.

The most competitive applicants have: undergraduate coursework in pre-med sciences and a GPA of at least 3.0. Applicants may also be required to complete the GRE. It is important for applicants to check the application requirements for their preferred schools as requirements vary greatly.

The Six Steps to Physician Assistant School

Applying to PA schools takes time and requires attention to detail. An applicant to PA school should consider six fundamental parts of most applications:

  1. Academic prerequisites in undergraduate school
  2. Clinical hours requirement
  3. GRE requirement
  4. References for letters of recommendation
  5. Personal statement essay
  6. School interview

Academic Prerequisites for PA School

Many programs require at least two years of courses in basic and behavioral sciences. Some have prerequisites in chemistry, psychology, anatomy, biology, and microbiology. Specific requirements will vary per school.

What Major Should You Choose to Get Into PA School?

A science-based bachelor’s degree can help prepare students for PA school coursework. Relevant undergraduate majors include psychology, nursing, chemistry, biochemistry, anatomy, physiology, and microbiology. Alternatively, students can choose an undergraduate major that is not science-based, but they should ensure their undergraduate curriculum still includes several of the classes listed below.

What Classes Do You Need to Take for PA School?

Common PA course prerequisites include:

  • Biochemistry or Organic Chemistry: Biochemistry covers the chemical processes within living organisms; organic chemistry focuses on the structure and properties of carbon compounds.
  • Calculus or Statistics: Calculus is used to study change and to create mathematical models to achieve solutions; statistics deals with the collection and analysis of data.
  • Genetics: This is the study of DNA and how common traits from previous generations are passed on.
  • Human Anatomy: The study of the structures of the human body.
  • Human Physiology or Animal Physiology: The study of how body parts function.
  • Microbiology: The study of micro-organisms or microbes including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Required Clinical Hours for PA School

Clinical experience is one of the main requirements for admission to PA school. Obtaining this experience allows prospective students to gain skills in the areas of communication, compassion, observation, working under pressure, and solving problems – all of which are necessary in PA school and beyond. Clinical hours also ensure that individuals thoroughly understand the PA profession.

Required clinical hours vary per school, so it is important for prospective students to check the sites of their preferred schools in advance.

PA Schools’ Definitions of Clinical Experience Differ

Schools have different definitions of what qualifies as patient care experience (PCE) versus health care experience (HCE) — but both fall under clinical experience. It is important for applicants to understand how their preferred schools differentiate between the two. Below is a look at how PCE and HCE are typically defined. 

Typically, PCE involves direct care of a patient, while HCE is work that does not always require direct responsibility for a patient’s care.

HCE is everything else (with some exceptions described below) in a medical setting or in the service of providing health care. It can include paid or unpaid work, and a person’s experience might be divided into both categories. Physical therapists, who spend 80% of the time working directly with patients and 20% doing billing and consulting with other clinicians, can divide their hours accordingly between PCE and HCE hours. PA shadowing typically is not acceptable in either category, but it really does depend on the school.

Health Care Experience Hours

Health care experience (HCE) requirements range from 0 to 2,000 hours depending on the PA school. Fifty-nine schools (22 percent) require only 500 hours, but 32 (11 percent) require 1,000 hours. Significantly more hours could make an applicant even more competitive. 

What is considered acceptable HCE and what is not?

The types of health care experience that are typically accepted include:

  • EMT or paramedic
  • Military corpsman or combat medic
  • RN, BSN, LPN
  • EEG or EKG technician
  • ER technician
  • Physical therapy aide
  • Certified nurse aide
  • Medical assistant
  • Respiratory therapist
  • Dietician
  • Phlebotomist
  • International health care mission trip
  • Hospice aide
  • Medical technologist
  • Dental hygienist or technologist
  • X-ray technologist
  • Physical/occupational therapist
  • Medical social worker
  • Mental health counselor
  • Dialysis unit aide
  • Optometry assistant
  • Chiropractic assistant

Some activities that are typically not accepted under the HCE requirement include:

  • Taking care of a sick family member
  • Observation of any kind (i.e., shadowing a medical professional)
  • Research
  • Helping at summer camp health center
  • Clerical work in a medical office or hospital
  • Pharmacy technician
  • Field work or internships that are part of a health care training program
  • Providing first aid as a coach or event volunteer
  • Administrative positions in health care environments

Patient Care Experience Hours

Patient care experience (PCE) is defined by hands-on contact. Most PA schools require candidates to have a specific number of patient care experience hours on their resume. Many PA applicants have experience in nursing, emergency services, or allied health fields such as X-ray technician or occupational therapist. Candidates without this type experience should consider doing volunteer work at a hospital or clinic.

GRE Requirements for PA School

Prospective students should find out if the PA school they want to attend requires them to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Some schools might have an alternative requirement, and others might not need it at all.

Do You Need to Take the GRE for PA School?

PA Schools That Don’t Require the GRE

Not all PA schools require the GRE. PAEA maintains a database of the many PA schools that do not require the test as part of their admissions process.

Applicants may be required to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) instead of the GRE, depending on the PA school.

Letters of Recommendation for PA School

Applicants should select references wisely. For PA school, clinical references are often preferred over academic references. Supervisors, physicians, professors, and PAs are typical references.

What Should a Good Letter of Recommendation Cover?

A good letter of recommendation will give PA programs insight into an applicant’s character, work ethic, and integrity. Additionally, it will provide a sense of observational, communication, motor, conceptual, integrative/quantitative, and behavioral/social skills.

Technical Skills 

Relevant to health care and patient care experience, the letter writer should describe examples of an applicant’s observational skills, diagnostic maneuvers, and quantitative abilities. Problem-solving is important.

Interpersonal Skills

The letter writer should cover the individual’s maturity, ethics, communication skills, and ability to work with others.

Personal Statement/Essay for PA School

The personal statement/essay is another chance to stand out among peers.

What Should a Good PA School Personal Statement Cover?

The CASPA personal statement allows applicants to make the case for admission to PA school. Every applicant has a story, and the personal statement is the place to share their path to the PA profession. A compelling essay could describe an ordinary encounter that became life-changing. The statement needs to stay on topic while demonstrating knowledge in a specific subject area. The essay is also an opportunity to describe any struggles and why there might be gaps in an individual’s application. The essay should demonstrate an applicant’s sincere interest in becoming a PA.

Common Essay Pitfalls

The essay should show an understanding of what it takes to be a PA and a deep and genuine interest in becoming one. The AAPA recommends taking at least a month to write, edit and polish an application essay.

Pitfalls to avoid include clichés, lack of a theme, casual tone, too much medical terminology, vagueness or ambiguity, boring introduction, and noting accomplishments or sharing anecdotes without explanations about what was gained or learned.

Before submission, an external person or people should proofread the essay.

PA School Interview Questions and Tips

Once applications are submitted, applicants must prepare for interviews.

How to Prepare for PA School Interviews

The interview process can differ among PA schools. Applicants should do their research and know what to expect from the schools that received their application. Some programs conduct group interviews while others conduct one-on-one interviews.

Practicing with mock interviews is a helpful way to get comfortable and ready to discuss hands-on experiences that demonstrate potential and skill.

Typical Physician Assistant School Interview Questions and Answers

Common PA school interview questions are designed to get to know the applicant. They should not come as a surprise, but applicants should still rehearse answers and anticipate any potential questions that might be specific to their situation, circumstances, or experiences.

The American Association of  Surgical Physician Assistants (AASPA) has created a general list of common PA interview questions. Here are 10 from their list:

  1. Why do you want to be a PA?
  2. How would you define a PA?
  3. Why do you wish to become a PA rather than a NP, nurse, or physician?
  4. How does a PA fit into the health care model?
  5. How do you see the health care system changing in the next ten years, and how will it affect PAs?
  6. What is managed care and how has it affected physicians and PAs?
  7. What is the most important factor between a PA and his physician supervisor and why?
  8. Why should we accept you?
  9. If you had to be a member of the health care team other than a PA, what would you choose?
  10. Who is the most important person on the health care team?

The AASPA says that responses to interview questions should reflect the following:

  1. That you know the roles of PAs
  2. Why you want to be a PA
  3. How your experience has prepared you to become a PA
  4. That you understand the training needed to be a PA
  5. Why you should be accepted

Before Submitting Your CASPA Application

Before filling out and submitting a CASPA application, it is important to narrow down PA school options. Some factors to consider include faculty, curriculum, ranking, and location. Alternatively, applicants may consider the benefits of online PA programs. Visit schools, attend webinars and information sessions, and speak with faculty, alumni, and current students as you consider your options. Applicants should determine which schools match their expectations and standards by reading more on the school website. Just as with undergraduate school, applicants should choose a few schools that they can confidently apply to and a few schools that are more difficult for them to get into.

After an applicant has their list of preferred schools, they should know the application deadlines for their desired schools in advance. They will then fill out and submit an application via the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), where prospective students submit their applications to PA schools.

Final Tips for the PA School Application Process

Applicants navigating the PA school application process may find the following list of tips helpful:

  1. Be Timely: Allow plenty of time to complete the application; approach references early; take the GRE at least one to two months before submitting a CASPA application if your schools require a GRE.
  2. Be Accurate: Properly categorize clinical experience per the schools’ guidelines; honestly describe achievements, certifications, and memberships.
  3. Have a Plan B: Apply to more than one PA school.
  4. Be Diligent: Check the application status periodically to make sure there are no additional requests from the university.