The best PA schools in the US comprise several institutions ranked based on their academic offerings, as rated by PA school deans and administrators across the country. A majority of PA programs take only two years, and physician assistant acceptance rates are much higher than medical school acceptance rates, which makes a career as a PA attractive to someone who wants to work in health care without dedicating years of training and financial resources to becoming a doctor. Many medical schools also offer PA programs, so PA students can benefit from similar educational resources to those made available to MD students, but they do not need to study for as long as their physician counterparts do.
This article will list the best PA schools in the US based on the quality of their academic programs, but not in any particular order, and give you tips on how to get accepted.
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The Best PA Schools in the US
1. Quinnipiac University
Quinnipiac University in Connecticut offers applicants to the school both a standard 27-month PA program and a dual-degree, entry-level program for students to enter directly from high school. The latter program includes a four-year bachelor degree combined with 27 months afterward for students to earn a Master of Health Sciences degree. Both tracks must also interview, if selected, and answer common PA school interview questions, like what are your goals as a PA and the "tell me about yourself" PA school interview question.
The two programs boast a 94% and 95% pass rate, respectively, for graduates who take their Physician Assistance National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Interested applicants must submit an application via the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) and meet all the stated academic and non-academic requirements. Some of the other requirements include taking Altus Suite situational judgment tests comprising both the CASPer and Snapshot tests.
Applicants to the 27-month program must have at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in the US or Canada to apply. They must also submit at least three letters of recommendation, but applicants do not have to take the MCAT or GRE to apply, nor do they have to submit MCAT scores since they will not be considered as a basis for admission to the program.
Part of what makes the PA program at Quinnipiac one of the best in the country is its myriad teaching and educational facilities. Students take a majority of their classes at the 35,000-square-foot Center for Medicine Nursing and Health Sciences, where students from other disciplines like medicine and nursing also take instruction.
The facility hosts a 350-seat auditorium, training labs dedicated to several areas such as pro-section and patient examinations, a health sciences library, and common areas for students to relax or study. The curriculum is also noteworthy for the variety of subjects covered and the fact that students are introduced to pre-clinical experience in their first year, as they are paired with a licensed health care professional. One more statistic that makes Quinnipiac rise above the rest is its 100% success rate for recent graduates finding employment as a PA within six months of graduating.
2. George Washington University
Located in the nation’s capital, the PA program at George Washington University also offers students two tracks to complete their PA training. One program is the standard two-year physician assistant program, while the other is a combined degree program that pairs a Master of Public Health with a Master of Science in Health Sciences degree and lasts three years.
The school boasts a higher-than-national-average pass rate for its graduates of both programs for PANCE exams, and it also gives students unique, non-medical opportunities based around the school’s location in Washington DC, such as attending sessions of Congress to learn about health care policy or going to watch a Washington Nationals game.
The two-year program introduces students to basic medical sciences in the first year, as well as clinical and assessment skills. Students also learn about the importance of equality and social justice in health care via courses like the Role of PA in American Health Care, and Health, Justice, & Society, both of which are vital aspects of your training to become a PA and something that sets the school’s curriculum apart from others.
The faculty at GWU is also an important factor in its consistently high rankings among PA schools. Students are taught by physicians, scientists, and researchers who are all experts in a variety of PA specialties and teach in small class size seminars so that they can benefit from a more personal approach to education. The school also offers students the chance to study in a hybrid format; they can take classes online as well as in person.
3. Emory University
Emory University follows other PA programs around the country by offering students two options to complete their PA training. You can apply to either the Master of Medical Science in Physician Assistant (MMSc-PA) degree or the dual-degree program that gives students both an MMSc-PA and a Master of Public Health at the end of 29 months. The school's location in Georgia means it has a focus on rural medicine, primary care, and working with underserved communities in the state and beyond.
For example, students in the PA program at Emory are told where and how to prepare for clinical rotations in rural hospitals and clinics, and even go out to farms to treat farm workers. But underserved urban communities in Atlanta and other cities in Georgia are also seen and treated by PA students. In a recent year, 92% of all graduates passed their PANCE exams on their first attempt, and many have gone on to direct primary care, helping to treat AIDS and Ebola patients in overseas postings, or have earned other degrees to become faculty at other universities.
The curriculum for both PA programs skews more toward medical science courses, rather than looking at the social impact and implications of becoming a PA, as is the case with other PA schools. Students take a total of 8 clinical rotations after their academic training, which are performed in underserved communities lacking primary care physicians and PAs.
4. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
The PA program at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center is hosted by one of the most well-regarded medical schools in Texas and can boast of a 98% pass rate for its graduates taking the PANCE exam for the first time. Graduates have also completed 100% of their clinical rotations in underserved communities in Texas and beyond, so the school is committed to helping people without direct access to primary care physicians.
The UT Southwestern PA program strays from other programs at other medical schools in the US in only offering a Master of Physician Assistant degree but no other dual-degree programs. Applicants to the program are reviewed holistically, as the school looks for qualities such as a demonstrated interest in serving in a primary care capacity, bringing diversity to the PA profession, and the reasons for why you want to be a PA.
The 30-month program lasts a little longer than other programs on this list, but those extra months are dedicated to 15 months of clinical rotations, which is much more than other similar programs provide. These clinical rotations are done throughout the state, but students can opt to take advantage of the school’s central Dallas location to perform rotations at the famed Parkland Hospital or the newly constructed William P. Clements Jr. University Hospital.
The program’s high academic standards are present throughout, as students are expected to maintain a good academic standing, demonstrated by a 2.75 GPA for all completed coursework. While it does not require students to learn how to study for the MCAT, it does ask students without a master’s degree from a US school to take the GRE, which is one requirement that explains the program’s 3% acceptance rate; it is a very competitive program to enter.
5. Drexel University
The Drexel Medical School hosts a nationally renowned physician assistant program with a 3.3% acceptance rate, so it is equally as competitive as other programs on this list. The PA program is also one of the oldest of all PA programs at various medical schools in Pennsylvania, while also being one of the most diverse in terms of admitting non-traditional medical school applicants from various backgrounds.
Among its unique academic programs, Drexel Medical School offers a Bridge Program for qualified high school students who are interested in pursuing a health care career as a physician assistant. Applicants to the Bridge Program complete both a Bachelor of Science and Master of Health Science in 5½ years, rather than the six years it takes to complete both degrees individually.
The school’s urban location in Philadelphia belies the fact that 100% of its graduates perform either clinical or volunteer work in medically underserved communities in Philadelphia and the rest of the state. The program’s graduates have also scored an average pass rate of 94% over five years, and they consistently pass the PANCE exam at higher rates than the national average.
A high attrition rate (13.64%) points to how rigorous and strict the academic standards are of this particular program. Students must maintain a GPA of 3.0 throughout both their pre-clinical and clinical phases while also scoring a B or higher in all the required courses to complete the program.
6. Baylor College of Medicine
The Baylor College of Medicine offers a 30-month PA program at its Houston campus that offers students a balanced approach to education and training, as the program is split between a 13-month pre-clinical phase followed by a 17-month clinical rotation phase. But the interesting aspects of the PA program at Baylor are the pathways that give PA students a chance to earn certificates in specialized programs.
The pathways are tied to the school’s various research centers. The Baylor Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy offers PA students the chance to earn a Certificate in Biomedical Ethics by taking a one-year course in Medical Ethics Policy. If successfully completed, students will earn the certificate and then continue with the rest of their PA curriculum.
The other pathway involves the university’s National School of Tropical Medicine and awards a Diploma in Tropical Medicine to students who complete the program’s four modules. The modules are divided by subject and include: Tropical Bacteriology and Virology, Tropical Parasitology and Mycology, Tropical Medicine in Practice, and Epidemiology, Public Health.
Aside from these pathways, the other outstanding features of the PA program at Baylor are the community-building initiatives sponsored by both the school and student groups. In many of their early courses in patient assessment and history writing, students are encouraged to act as each other’s teachers so that they both learn from each other and create a lasting bond to carry them through the remainder of the program.
Diversity is another milestone of the PA program at Baylor. More women (78%) than men (22%) are current students, even though more men applied to the program in a recent year than women. The school, unlike other medical schools in Texas that use the TMDSAS application service, also accepts non-Texas residents, and does not show preferences for Texas applicants.
7. University of Colorado
One distinguishing factor of the PA program at the University of Colorado is that it began focused solely on the medical needs of children, infants, and teenagers, making it the first of its kind among other PA programs offered at medical schools in Colorado. The program eventually expanded its scope and added a curriculum to address the needs of people at all stages of life.
What replaced the original CHA/PA curriculum is the Colorado Curriculum, which eschews the traditional in-class, instructor-led course for a performative model. This means that first and second year students interact with a live patient model presenting with symptoms (breathing problems, for example) associated with the system of the body that is currently being studied, such as the respiratory system. It is one of the only PA schools that use this teaching modality, and it means the program length is extended to three years, rather than two. This also means that students are exposed to clinical experiences in their first two years, rather than waiting until the third year to gain clinical skills.
There were 2,061 applicants to the program in a recent year, with only 44 being accepted (44 is the class size every year), which means the acceptance rate is only 2.3%, so it is not one of the easiest PA schools to get into. The school’s PA program is one of the few among PA programs that require the CASPer test, which only goes to show how elite this nationally recognized program is.
The PA program lasts three years with a fourth year added for students who want to participate in any of the program’s several specialized tracks, as follows:
- Global Health Track
- Pediatric Critical and Acute Care Longitudinal Experience
- Care of the Hospitalized Adult in a Novel Graduated Experience (CHANGE)
There are only a few spots available in each track for every new class, so being admitted to the regular PA program does not guarantee you admission to any of these tracks, making the school’s academics even more select and challenging. Diversity of students and faculty is also something that sets the CHA/PA program at the university apart. More women (40) than men (4) were admitted to the most recent class, which has been the norm for the past two years.
8. University of Utah
The PA program at the University of Utah takes a local-is-global approach to its curriculum, which it describes as a “mission-based program” that sees students work in underserved communities, both in the States and abroad. The program promotes mentorship and guided learning, as students pair up with a professional PA in the third semester of their first year. This duo meets every Friday – the program is known as the Friday Clinic – and the student assists the licensed PA with examining patients, taking patient histories, and recommending different therapies based on the patient’s condition. This program lasts up until students successfully graduate from the PA curriculum and is considered one of the main highlights of the program at the University of Utah.
The entire curriculum lasts for 27 months, and students are involved in community engagement projects throughout. In the second semester of their first year, as a precursor to the Friday Clinics, students are again led by 15 different community-based, practicing PAs, who mentor small groups of students on basic clinical skills, such as patient assessments and problem-solving.
Students can also opt to take on a Master’s Project in their first pre-clinical semester, which consists of a research project based around community health supervised by a faculty member and community health expert. The community engagement component of the entire program sees students enter farmers' fields to serve migrant farm workers by providing vaccinations and other health services.
They can also perform their clinical rotations at several clinics that serve the needs of diverse communities such as Native peoples, who can get diabetes screenings, check-ups, and other primary care services at two student-run clinics: Maliheh and Doctor’s Free Clinic. The international component of the program, which is on hold due to the global pandemic, sees students perform an elective rotation in one of three locations: Thailand, Nepal, or Guatemala.
9. University of Iowa
The PA program at the Carver College of Medicine exposes students to early clinical experiences over the 27-month span of the entire program. The CCOM uses a cutting-edge, “triple-helix curriculum” that integrates three distinct theoretical strands into the entire program, which are Mechanisms of Health and Disease, Medicine and Society, and Clinical and Professional Skills.
The Mechanisms of Health and Disease track is similar to the systems-based approach other medical schools use to train physicians and physician assistants. But the difference in this program is that students learn the basics of human anatomy and physiology while also learning about diseases and disorders that can impair and affect these particular systems.
Throughout the first three semesters that make up their pre-clinical years, students are also taught Clinical and Professional Skills (CAPS) that form the basis of their training to perform their clinical rotations in the final two semesters of the program. The Medicine and Society track is also present throughout the entire program and gives students a broader understanding of the underlying causes of disease and illness, such as social and environmental factors.
This unique curriculum has borne fruit, as the University of Iowa has maintained the almost-impossible feat of never having a graduate of its program fail the PANCE exam. It has kept a perfect 100% first-time pass rate for the PANCE exam since the early 1990s and has never fallen below the national first-time pass rate average.
10. Duke University School of Medicine
The Duke University School of Medicine can make a claim that no other PA program in the country can make, which is that it is the birthplace of the physician assistant profession. The original, first-of-its-kind physician assistant program was created by the then chairman of the Department of Medicine, Dr. Eugene A. Stead Jr., who created the profession as a way to solve a national doctor shortage in post-war America.
The university’s PA program has worked hard to live up to its legacy while also remaining at the forefront of PA educational advances, so students can benefit from the latest in pre-clinical and clinical training. The 28-month curriculum focuses on integrating several components into those months, as students are exposed early on to clinical experiences while also learning the basics of medical science through a variety of modalities, such as lab and research work, cadaver dissection, simulation labs, and the experience of its faculty.
Students can avail themselves of the 34,000-square-foot facility dedicated solely to the PA program, while also having access to the full complement of the Duke University School of Medicine, including the Duke University Hospital, Duke Raleigh Hospital, and Duke Community Hospital.
The best PA schools in the US are the “best” for several reasons, including their innovative curricula, program mission and values, and the wealth of their educational and training facilities. But these programs are very competitive and have a series of rigorous academic and non-academic requirements that students must meet to be admitted, as well as a long list of extracurriculars for PA school, like direct patient experience and shadowing.
The intense, challenging nature of these programs means that physician assistant graduates will be prepared for the obstacles that come with the profession, as they must work hard to maintain their academic standing and meet the requirements of their program. These schools all offer something different, and their variety means that you can find a program that meets your own academic standards.
1. What makes these PA programs the best?
Officially, these programs have been given high marks by an objective panel of PA school administrators and deans, who have reviewed each school’s academic offerings and assigned them a number grade. These grades are based not only on the school’s academics, but their facilities, student feedback, and variety of specialized tracks or pathways.
2. Should I apply to these PA programs?
Whether you apply to the PA programs listed here or not is up to you, but you should understand that these programs are very competitive and have several admission requirements that you must meet to even be considered. For example, having a lower than required grade in any of your coursework or a GPA lower than the stated minimum automatically disqualifies you from many of these programs, so you need to make sure that you meet all the criteria for entry.
3. How do I get into these programs?
You must make sure that you meet all of the basic admission requirements, such as having a high GPA, writing a PA school personal statement, and completing all the prerequisite courses. Other programs require you to either take the MCAT or GRE exams, as well as the CASPer test, so you need to make sure you understand each program’s different requirements.
4. What is direct patient experience?
Direct patient experience is defined as either paid or volunteer work where you interacted directly with patients in a clinical or health care setting. There are many types of direct patient experiences you can list, including being an athletic trainer, paramedic, or EMT, but there are some health care-adjacent professions that do not qualify as direct patient experience. Before you apply to PA school, you should know the PA school requirements and what kind of direct patient experiences the school accepts or not.
5. How long does it take to become a PA?
The average length of any PA program is two years, but many programs often stretch into three years to give students a more well-rounded education, balanced out with pre-clinical and clinical training.
6. Do I have to take the MCAT to enter PA school?
Taking the MCAT is often not required for PA applicants, but it also depends on the program. Some programs do not require it, while others like the University of Iowa require students to submit either GRE or MCAT scores. Some schools will not consider MCAT scores, even if you submit them with your application.
7. How do I apply to these PA programs?
Similar to how medical schools, both allopathic and osteopathic, use a centralized application service to accept, review, and organize medical school applications, PA applicants must submit their application via the CASPA service, which is the physician assistant equivalent. CASPA lets students submit their official transcripts, personal statement, and letters of recommendation.
8. Are there secondary applications for PA programs?
Yes, many PA programs do require students to submit a secondary application after their primary application has been submitted. But some programs do not require it and use only your CASPA application.
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