In this blog, we will go over general PA school requirements that most physician assistant programs in the United States and Canada expect of their applicants. Whether you are just starting to research what is a PA, or choosing between PA vs MD, this blog will help you understand what will be expected of you as an applicant to PA schools. Use this information to guide your journey to becoming a PA and make sure to review the specific requirements of your schools of choice before you apply.
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How to Research PA School Requirements
Getting accepted to PA programs is not easy. According to the latest data, the overall PA school acceptance rate in the United States is 31.6%, compared with about 40% acceptance rate for medical schools.
There are over 290 PA programs in the United States and 4 in Canada, each with its own requirements and expectations. If you are deciding between PA vs MD, or just looking to gain more information about what is required of both types of matriculants, it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the general admissions requirements of both professions. If you are applying in Canada, it's best to look at the admissions requirements of every Canadian medical school and every PA program that interests you.
If you are applying in the United States, learn how to use MSAR to select the best medical schools for you and check out the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) Program Directory to research PA schools in the United States.
The PAEA database provides all the necessary information regarding PA school requirements, including the program's mission, prerequisites, GPA and GRE scores, tuition, clinical experience, letters of recommendation, and more. While you research, reflect on how your own experiences and achievements fit in with the programs you review. Do you need to improve your GPA? Do you need to get more clinical hours under your belt? Have you considered who you can ask for a reference letter? Use the database to compare the programs and choose the program that is right for you.
And while each school in Canada or the US will have its own expectations, let’s review some general requirements all PA schools have.
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Undergraduate Degree and Prerequisites
Just like medical schools, PA programs do not expect applicants to major in any particular discipline during their undergrad. You can pursue a course of study that interests you and the one you excel in – remember, you must achieve a high GPA to be a competitive candidate and the best way to do this is to study what you enjoy. As you are completing your undergraduate degree, don’t forget to make room for the necessary PA prerequisites. There are some courses that you must take to ensure that your application will be reviewed. These are not unlike medical school prerequisites:
- Chemistry with lab
- Anatomy and physiology with lab
- Microbiology with lab
Many schools may also ask for additional coursework that will prepare you for the PA program. While these tend to be recommended rather than required, having these courses in your transcripts could give you an advantage:
- General biology
- Organic chemistry
- Social science courses
As we established, each school will have its own list of mandatory courses. Most will require you to take undergraduate courses that are “upper” rather than “lower” level. As an example, let’s take a look at the Baylor College PA program, which requires its applicants to cover most science coursework in upper-level classes:
What makes an undergraduate course upper- or lower-level often depends on how undergraduate institutions’ registrar designates them. While a genetics course at A University might be allocated as a 100-level course, B University might cover the same material in a 200-level genetics course. However, I strongly advise you to take the upper-level courses that are offered in your college.
While each school has different registrar systems, the PA programs will not investigate whether your coursework covered the necessary material. So, if your desired PA program requires upper-level courses, make sure to take 300- or 400-level courses to fulfill those requirements. While this does not guarantee you an acceptance, it at least eliminates the chance that having lower-level courses will be used against you in the applicant selection process.
A final note regarding coursework: If your program requires an upper-level course and you choose to take a lower-level course, try to avoid enrolling in classes where the name begins with "Intro to" or "Survey of". This will immediately indicate that the course is not sufficient.
The latest PAEA data demonstrates that the overall average GPA of PA matriculants is 3.6, the average science GPA is 3.5, the average non-science GPA is 3.6, and CASPA biology, chemistry, and physics (BCP) GPA is 3.5. Check the GPA expectations of your programs of choice before you apply and keep track of your GPA in each category as you prepare for your applications.
When it comes to your GPA, there are some rules you should follow. Firstly, to ensure a high overall GPA, you are strongly encouraged to pursue a course of study you truly enjoy. Remember, PA programs do not care about which discipline you study in your undergrad. Major in something you excel in and take courses you know you will ace.
While your overall GPA is important, as you can see, PA schools will pay attention to each of the GPA categories during the application review. Those science and non-science prerequisites averages will not be hidden amongst courses you did well in. So, this means that you have to do well in your course requirements. Here’re some tips that can help you increase your science, BCP, and non-science GPAs:
Remember, while the GPA is not the only important component of your PA application, it is the number one indicator of your academic history and abilities.
To apply to Physician Assistant programs in America, you will need to write your Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Most PA programs do not accept MCAT scores, but you can check what kind of scores your programs of choice accept using the PAEA database. GRE tests students’ verbal reasoning skills, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. It is composed of three sections:
The test takes about 4 hours to complete. You can take the test every 21 days up to 5 times within a continuous 12-month period. A big advantage of the GRE over the MCAT is that you are allowed to choose which GRE scores you want to send to your chosen programs. The programs will not be able to see whether you have taken the GRE multiple times. So, you can re-take the test to improve your score – in fact, you’re encouraged to do so! The average GRE scores for PA matriculants are as follows:
Even though the test assesses skills you develop over time, like writing, critical thinking, comprehension, and so on, you still need to prepare for the test structure and content. To get a good score, you will need to take a full-length practice test to see your baseline score. Based on your initial practice test experience, you will be able to create a study schedule that will prepare you for the test. This schedule should include complex reading, essay writing, practice quantitative questions, etc. Research what kind of study schedule works for you and plan to commit a few hours a day to your GRE prep.
A growing number of PA programs require their applicants to take the CASPer test. If you’re unfamiliar with this test format, let’s have a quick recap of what’s expected of you.
CASPer is an online situational judgment test that aims to assess your suitability for professional programs. The entire test is completed on a computer. The test is composed of 15 scenarios dealing with real-life situations, including personal dilemmas, professional emergencies, and other moral predicaments. Once faced with the scenario, you are asked 3 follow-up questions based on the scenario observed. Essentially, the questions will prod you to answer how you would deal with the situation in front of you. You are given 5 minutes to type your answers for the three follow-up questions in the first section and 1 minute to video record your answer for each of the 3 follow-up questions in the second part of the test. Each station is given a score between 1 (lowest) and 9 (highest) - note: your performance in each scenario is rated as a whole, not each individual answer.
While notoriously difficult to prepare for, CASPer skills are coachable. To do well, you must practice with sample CASPer questions and develop a method for answering different CASPer question categories. To start your prep, review our blog “How to prepare for CASPer.” This detailed article will provide you with everything you need to know about this test. Additionally, check out our CASPer questions to familiarize yourself with CASPer question types and read expert responses that will help you understand how to approach them.
PA applicants are expected to demonstrate versatility, community engagement, and altruism by participating in a variety of extracurricular activities. In fact, PA applicants are expected to have much more clinical experience than their MD counterparts. As a PA candidate, you should aim to have at least 2000 hours of hands-on patient experience at the time of application. This is 20 times more than the number of shadowing hours required for medical school!
Start earning those hours as soon as you can. First, reach out to your local hospitals and retirement homes to see if they are looking for any volunteers. When you contact these institutions, explain that you are a student on track to apply to PA programs and that you are looking to get exposed to clinical work. While they may start you with something small and insignificant, i.e., something with no patient interaction, your dedication and integrity can certainly help you get work that's more patient-centric.
While 2000 hours seem like a lot of hours to gain for undergraduate students, you should know that most PA applicants tend to work in a clinical setting before they apply to become physician assistants. PA applicants work as nurses, caretakers, paramedics, etc. If you are a current student or a graduate looking to get more clinical hours, here are some options you can consider:
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): Becoming a CNA is a great option for undergraduate students. Not only do you collect the necessary clinical hours, but you also earn extra cash. CNA certification programs are available in most colleges, so check your own school and local community colleges to find the right program for you. Each program has its own schedule and length, but it should not interfere with your main school schedule. Plus, CNAs enjoy flexible hours, so you can create a schedule that works for you without neglecting your coursework.
Volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT): Becoming an EMT is also possible during your undergraduate studies, as these programs do not require an undergraduate degree to qualify. First, you will need to enroll in a Paramedic program at a local college. Upon completion, you will most likely need to pass a certification exam which allows you to work as an EMT.
Caretaker: Whether you work/volunteer at a long-term care home or a hospital, becoming a caretaker exposes you to patient-centric healthcare and provides you with insights into the challenges that such institutions face. For example, becoming a caretaker for a patient with chronic illness can teach you about the staggering cost of their medications, medical procedures, and nutrition. Such knowledge inspires empathy and compassion – qualities highly valued by all PA programs.
Hospice Volunteer: working in a hospice is not for the faint of heart. A patient’s demise is the most difficult time for the physician, not to mention the patient’s family and loved ones. Being part of such events first-hand is an invaluable, yet devastating experience for a future medical professional. As a hospice volunteer, you will interact with patients, their families, and loved ones and learn how to communicate with them in the most vulnerable and painful time of their lives.
Don’t forget that PA programs also look at your other experiences and skills that demonstrate your suitability for PA programs, such as leadership, research, community service, and hobbies. Quality experiences outside of academia can make your application stand out and depict you as a versatile candidate.
It is a good idea to keep a log of your activities and hours. If you are still in your undergrad, start writing down this information now. When you fill out your PA applications, it will be easier to recall which activities you participated in and what you would like to highlight in your application and essays.
Your PA personal essay is the application component that can really make you shine as a candidate. While your grades, scores, volunteer hours, and prerequisites show that you’ve done your homework to complete all the necessary admissions requirements, your personal statement makes your application come alive. You are no longer just a collection of data – your essay will demonstrate your background and environment, values, and objectives. Doing this in 5000 characters or less is not an easy task – this is why it’s important to start writing your essay early.
Start by brainstorming what experiences and events lead you to pursue medicine. There might be an abundance of such experiences but try to narrow them down. These will be the basis of your body paragraphs. While it is difficult to choose the main talking points of your essay, try to create a cohesive, captivating narrative using 2 or 3 experiences. Remember to demonstrate how these events or experiences impacted your decision to become a physician assistant. Rather than simply saying “Caring for my grandfather made me interested in medicine”, tell the reader a deeper story:
“As a teenager, I watched my grandfather struggle with Alzheimer’s. While it certainly impacted my grandfather’s life, I was absolutely blown away by how much it affected the rest of my family. The feeling of helplessness I felt morphed into motivation to help other patients and their families who are faced with health issues. This is why at the age of 16, I started volunteering at a retirement home as a visitor to the elderly.”
This short paragraph evokes feelings of empathy from the reader. More than that, we want to continue reading this statement because we want to find out what happened further. This is the point of a personal statement – it must captivate the admission committee members. Remember, that along with the rest of your primary and secondary applications, the purpose of a personal statement is to get that coveted interview invite.
Lastly, I would like to invite you to review our PA personal statements blog. This comprehensive article will teach you everything you need to know about writing an outstanding PA essay and provide you with successful personal statement samples that will inspire your own.
Recommendation letters are extremely important components of your PA application. They provide an objective assessment of your skills, experiences, and personality. Each PA program has its own recommendation requirements, so make sure to research your chosen schools to find out their recommendation policies.
Generally, PA schools will ask for 3 reference letters, but some schools may ask for more. A school may also ask for letters from specific referees. For example, if you are a recent college graduate, a PA program may ask for a letter of reference from one of your college instructors. If you have been in the workforce for a while, you may be asked to provide letters from your work supervisors. So, pay attention to the recommendations specifications of each program you apply to.
Receiving support from the medical and academic community is invaluable; this is why you must carefully plan who will be your referees and how you will ask them to be your recommenders.
The number one rule to remember: your letters must be outstanding - you cannot submit references that are lukewarm or mediocre. When you approach your potential referees about writing your PA recommendation letter, make sure they show absolute support and enthusiasm about your plans. If your chosen referee shows any signs of reluctance about writing your letter, it is best to ask someone else.
Whether you approach each referee personally, through email, or by phone, make sure to ask them for a strong letter of reference. If they agree to write it, provide them with anything that can help them write the letter, i.e., your transcripts, CV, GRE score, PA personal statement, lists of awards and recognitions, and so on. This information will not only provide a wider context of your candidacy, but it will reinforce their desire to write you a stellar reference.
There is a chance that your writers may ask you to draft your own recommendation letter. In this case, make sure to learn how to write your own letter of recommendation.
There is a variety of interview formats used by PA programs to screen their applicants. Typically, if you receive an interview invite from a PA school, the email will contain all the necessary information about your interview, including its format, date, and location.
To get ready for your interview, go over PA school interview questions you may encounter. While you are likely to confront profession-specific questions about PA duties and regulations, you must also be ready to answer more common questions like “tell me about yourself” and “what is your greatest weakness?”
If your school holds MMI interviews, make sure to get ready for this format. While the questions may be the same as traditional interview questions, you should learn the different MMI question types and practice with realistic simulations. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect. It will be hard to ace your MMI interview if you have not had the chance to time your answers and practice with different question categories common for MMIs.
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The Application Process
Many PA programs in the United States participate in the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). However, check if your programs of choice require you to apply to the individual programs directly. If you are applying to programs participating in CASPA, you must submit your application through the CASPA website. There are three kinds of CASPA deadlines:
Tip: use the PAEA Program Directory to check if your program of choice is a CASPA participant.
1. What are the PA school requirements?
Each physician assistant program has its own specific requirements, but some application elements are required by most schools. These include required courses, GPA, GRE score, CASPer, extracurriculars, application essays, and recommendation letters.
2. How can I find out the requirements of individual PA schools?
Firstly, start by visiting the websites of PA programs that you are interested in. Research the profile of their last year's matriculants, check out their mission statement, and pay close attention to their admissions page. You can also check out the PAEA database. This online tool allows you to review programs’ profiles and compare your own accomplishments with the expectations of your chosen schools.
3. What is a competitive GPA for PA programs?
Remember that PA programs look at 4 types of GPAs: overall GPA, science GPA, non-science GPA, and CASPA biology, chemistry, and physics (BCP) GPA. The average overall GPA of PA matriculants is 3.6, science GPA is 3.5, non-science GPA is 3.6, and BCP GPA is 3.5. When you are searching for the right PA programs for you, find out the average GPA of their former matriculants. Apply to programs where you at least meet or exceed the average GPA of the previous year's class.
4. Do I have to write the MCAT to apply to PA programs?
No, most programs do not accept MCAT scores. To be an eligible PA applicant, you must write the GRE. The average GRE scores of PA matriculants are as follows: Verbal reasoning: 153.7; Quantitative reasoning: 153.1; Writing: 4.1.
5. But I have already written the MCAT, should I submit my score to PA programs?
If your score is really high, you can reach out to your chosen programs and ask whether submitting your MCAT can give you a competitive edge. However, most programs will still require your GRE score as part of the application.
6. How much clinical experience should I have at the time of application?
PAs are expected to have around 2,000 hours of hands-on patient experience at the time of application.
7. How can I get clinical experience?
It is difficult to collect 2,000 hours of clinical experience as an undergrad. This is why most PA applicants pursue PA programs after working for at least one year in a patient-centric environment. Many PA applicants are nurses, paramedics, caregivers, etc. Taking a year to work in a clinical environment might be a good idea if you do not meet this requirement at the time of graduation.
8. What kind of experiences should I include in my PA personal statement?
Everyone’s story is different. You must focus your narrative on 2 or 3 experiences that made you choose the career of the physician assistant. To be frank, the examples that demonstrate your journey can be related to anything – an illness of a family member, a class you took in high school, a particular patient you worked with, a film, a song, a performance you saw, and so on. Be creative! The PA application essay is your time to explore, to create a compelling and exciting narrative. There is no set standard for which experiences you should include.
Don’t forget to have a captivating first sentence and a strong conclusion, which motivates the reader to get to know you even more!
9. Do I need recommendation letters for PA programs?
Yes, you do. Most schools ask for 3 reference letters, but make sure to check with the schools of your choice to learn how many letters you need to submit.
10. Is there a general application timeline for PA programs?
CASPA participating schools have the same application deadlines. There are three types of deadline for CASPA participating schools: the submitted deadline, the complete deadline, and the verified deadline. Please review our blog to get details for each deadline type.
Schools not participating in CASPA have their own application timelines, so make sure to follow each school’s deadlines directly.
11. Are PA school requirements different for Canadian PA programs?
Each Canadian PA program has its own requirements. For example, while the University of Manitoba outlines a detailed list of prerequisites and requires its applicants to submit a statement of intent, McMaster does not require applicants to submit any essays, letters of recommendations, or written tests. If you are applying to Canadian PA programs, make sure to research each school's requirements and expectations.
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