A full and comprehensive understanding of physician assistant programs in the US will help you make the best, most informed decision possible as to where you want to study for your future career.
There are literally hundreds of programs for PAs in the US, not to mention physician assistant programs in Canada, and understanding PA school requirements can be overwhelming. What you want is a comprehensive overview of what types of programs are out there, what kinds of students they are looking for, and any tips and advice on how to get in.
Fortunately, we will be looking at exactly that, right here in this article. We’ll start by giving tips on how to find the right program for you, how to get in to those programs, and what kind of experiences and students those programs are looking for. We’ll round off with a brief section about how to apply.
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List of Programs
The complete and official list of PAEA – the Physician Assistant Education Association – programs is extensive and exhaustive. You might be discouraged from researching where you want to go to school just by looking at it. Don’t let the size of the list daunt you, however. There are a few quick ways you can use to sort your way through the list. We will go over how to use the list, but first, here are all the schools of the PAEA:
Don’t start by looking at the program list completely and trying to work your way through the whole list in one sitting. The first thing you need to do is use PAEA’s sorting tools to account for your priorities.
Perhaps going to school in a certain state is of maximal importance for yourself. Maybe you want to do a master’s degree, or have a starting month requirement. Whatever your top criteria are, needs and wants, sort the list before investigating the programs.
How to Navigate PAEA
First, at the top of the page, click on the “filter programs” drop-down menu and you will see a section open up with several filter options:
- Degree Offered
- Healthcare Experience
- Minimum GPA
- Start Month
Each of the above options is another drop-down menu and allows you to select cutoff criteria with which to filter your list. State sorting, for instance, allows you to see only schools from a particular area in the United States.
There are more options, however:
- GRE Requirement
- Bachelor’s Degree
- CASPA Member
- Accept Initial Applicants
- Master’s Degree Completion
- On-campus Housing
- Part Time Options
- Pre-professional Program
- Veteran Support
- Distance/online Learning
Each of those options are checkboxes you can toggle on and off to further filter your list.
Example: Drop-down Menu Option:
Based on GPA:
Schools can be sorted for GPA requirements, for instance. If you have a certain GPA and it’s below a cut-off, you don’t need to worry about applying to schools over that cut-off.
Example: Check-box Option:
Based on GRE:
If you wanted only schools with a GRE requirement, you check that box and proceed with your filter.
Example: Multiple Options:
If you want to include multiple preferences, set all filters you want. Let’s say you’re a veteran with a high GPA, interested in schools in Arkansas. You have some healthcare experience and you want a part-time program.
Pick the pull-down menu for states and select AR. Select “preferred/recommended” under the healthcare experience menu, since you have some experience, but not a lot. Use the GPA pull-down menu to select 3.5 or above. Finally, check the boxes for veteran support and part-time options.
If you don’t get any hits, you’ll need to change your criteria until you find some programs you match with.
Check out this infographic to learn how to write a strong PA personal statement:
Don’t just figure out your needs; you also need to know your preferences. Out of the subset of schools on the list, sorted by starting date, state, and other criteria, start learning about the programs and develop a list of wants. What do you want to get out of the program? Do you want to emphasize learning hands-on, or more academically?
Using this filter system, you can whittle down the huge list of programs into a manageable short-list from which to choose your final priority programs. Priorities should come from your needs and wants in a program. Know your schools inside and out from academic potential to physician assistant acceptance rates in the US.
Select a subset of great schools for yourself. There are a large number of programs out there, so you can probably find enough to be enthusiastic about. Never apply to a school that you don’t want to attend. You might have a top choice, second-tier, and so on, in terms of preferences, but just because you have a hierarchy in mind doesn’t mean you should think of any of the schools on your list as “bad”. Only apply to somewhere if you could say “yes,” attend the school, and have a satisfying academic experience. If you don’t want to go, don’t apply.
How to Get in - Advice and Tips
Here are a few, good, general-advice tips for physician assistant programs, generally.
How to Build the Best PA CV
What is being looked for on your physician assistant resume? What skills should you emphasize as a PA candidate? Well, the job is similar in many ways, to an MD, and you will need a similar skillset. Medical expertise, but also communication skills, and a certain amount of office work knowhow will go a long way toward crafting your finest-possible curriculum vitae.
Out of the roughly two-hundred and fifty programs on PAEA’s list, one-hundred and thirty-nine require medical experience. That’s well over half, even without considering schools that prefer you to have medical experience, or those that just appreciate it. The vast majority of programs on the list want to see medical experience on your CV. Without medical experience, you have no hope of becoming a PA, and in fact, you’ll need around 2,000 hours of medical experience just to get in the door!
Different kinds of medical experiences will be appreciated. If all you have done is one area, you will be more limited than somebody who has worked in different fields.
To that end, don’t just list where you worked, but highlight some of your key takeaways and accomplishments from each position – whether volunteer or professional. These lists can’t be exhaustive, but just give one or two of the best elements from each.
Your resume should demonstrate that you have a certain amount of knowledge or expertise with patient care, diagnostics, treatment and treatment planning, and basic examination skills. Coming up with all of these will show you have a well-rounded and appropriate knowledge base applicable to your desired profession.
How to gain this experience:
Most people applying to a PA program have existing experience in the field. You might find your work on nursing, physiotherapist, EMT, caretaker in an old folks’ home, a hospice, or anything else in the medical field. Without such work, you stand little or no chance of making those 2,000 hours. If you are a little shy, here are some great ways to gain the experience:
One of the easiest ways to have a little experience is to take first aid courses and develop a medical skillset.
Shadowing a doctor, including virtual shadowing, will let you see and experience the medical professions and the day-to-day life of a healthcare professional firsthand. These are highly valuable experiences, even if your school doesn’t require them.
Volunteering or working at a hospital is great, but if there is no hospital in your town, or there is but it has no jobs available, you could try gaining experience at a care facility. Retirement communities, for instance, can be a great place to get medical experience.
Under your education heading on your CV, you will want to include a note or two about specific courses you have under your belt – in addition to any awards won or deans’ honors lists that you have acquired.
Showing your knowledge could mean highlighting lab work or relevant courses you have taken. Relevant could include more than just biological sciences or chemistry lab, too; sociology courses can show you have an understanding of underrepresented persons, for instance.
You can also add notes about any first-aid courses or other medically-relevant courses you’ve taken.
If you have gaps in your medical knowledge that can be filled quickly – such as with a first-aid course – now is the time to pick up a class and add those lines to your resume. These might seem trivial to you. What does one line on a resume matter? But if an admissions committee member is looking over your CV, wanting to note that you are first-aid trained and certified, that person should check that box, right?
There are other skills which you might want to note, even if they don’t seem immediately pertinent to medical professionals. Did you take a communications course, or were in a debate club? Speech and communication are vital skills for most professions, including physician assistant. Being able to communicate clearly, kindly, and effectively is integral to the job, particularly as you will be attempting to communicate with patients and coworkers alike. To that end, showing your communication skills on a resume is an excellent idea. Make sure that you show off your best extracurriculars for PA school.
Your PA personal statement needs to be in essay format.
Start with a “hook” sentence to draw in the reader – make it so good that they can’t help but read on, so mesmerizing that even if it wasn’t their job to read it, they would.
Move on to the body of your statement: several paragraphs which answer the question, “Why do I want to be a PA?” Show the committee (show, don’t tell!) why you are the perfect applicant. Stick to two or three main points, drawing from your academic successes, professional experiences, and life.
Finally, wrap it up with an ending that ties everything together and makes the committee want to know more and bring you in for an interview.
As stated above, your reference should be somebody who knows you well. They should be a mentor, teacher, supervisor, manager, or some other authority figure from your professional and academic world.
Approach this person politely to ask for a great letter of recommendation for your PA application.
Not sure how to prepare for a CASPer test? This video can help:
What Kind of Student is a US PA Program is Looking For?
The short answer is that PA programs are looking for all kinds of students. There is such an abundance of institutions offering a PA program that it should come as no surprise that almost any type of student can find a program to suit themselves. Here are some categories into which you might fit – you might even fit more than one!
The majority of PAEA PA programs offer support for veterans. A military background can help you, either with your application chances themselves, or with support and assistance once you are accepted – or both.
Likewise, the majority of PA programs offer assistance to underrepresented communities. Recognizing diversity as being valuable and desirable, PA programs, in recent years in particular, have focused more on giving persons from underrepresented communities a fairer shot at succeeding in their applications. Whether through financial assistance or application tracks, if you are an identifying member of an underrepresented minority, you will find most schools are understanding and encouraging for you to submit an application.
Any program will be interested in an academic high-achiever, so acing tests, picking up awards, and putting a polish on your academic merit is always helpful. With that said, only one school on PAEA’s list is insistent on a GPA of 3.5 or more – the Mayo Clinic. If that is your top-choice school, you’ll need to have a stronger academic showing than other applicants.
While there are many programs with no requisite GPA at all, having higher grades can’t ever hurt.
What this means for you is that, if your preferred institutions don’t have a high GPA requirement, you likely won’t need to center your academics, but if they do have a high cut-off for the GPA, you’ll want to make sure that your test scores, transcripts, and similar empirical achievements are front-and-center in your application.
These PA programs will appreciate dedication and commitment to the idea of being a PA. This shouldn’t be a position taken out of “convenience” because the programs aren’t as long as those for MDs. This profession should be appreciated for its own value.
Apply with that in mind, and let your enthusiasm for your chosen career show through. Somebody who views becoming a physician assistant as a compromise or stepping stone won’t do as well in any interviews or writing about their passion for “why I want to be a PA,” for instance. Keep your goals and passion forward and that spirit will come through.
Experienced in the Field
If you have a background in medicine or experiences working in medical environments, you will be of use and value to a PA program. Any applicant who demonstrates such a background will certainly be appealing to an admissions committee. Not all programs have experience as a primary consideration; as with academics, know which schools value experience and are best suited to your experience-heavy CV.
How to Present Yourself
So, with so many different possibilities, how does this affect you? Well, again, it comes down to how you’re going to choose the institutions that you choose. You've already narrowed your list down through requirements such as location and GPA, but now you can take a close look and see where your strengths match and your weaker elements won’t hold you back.
That should give you, more or less, your best shortlist for programs. After that, you just have to find the ones that you like best and start working on your application.
The PA Program Application Process
Most US PA schools use CASPA, the Centralized Application Service for Physical Assistants, is a system used to allow students to send one application to multiple schools. Not every school uses CASPA, just the majority.
How you can use this to your advantage is to rank your top programs and find out how many use CASPA. If they all do, you can allocate your time accordingly, spending the majority of it working with CASPA, familiarizing yourself with the system, and preparing your final application draft.
If some of your schools fall outside of CASPA, you’ll have to focus a bit more on time management to learn CASPA as well as those other programs’ systems.
Some advice on time management: look for areas of overlap. If CASPA and the other programs require similar essays, for instance, you can save yourself time by writing one great application essay and then tweaking it – rather than trying to start from scratch every time.
This goes for every step of the way: if CASPA requires something that the other, non-CASPA schools on your list require – and you know what these are going in to your application process – then you can eliminate redundancies and save yourself a lot of time and energy during that process.
With such a tremendous amount of choice in schools and programs available to you, it’s easy to get overwhelmed in your hunt for the perfect place to become a physician assistant. The main thing is to give yourself the time to go through all the programs that you are interested in applying to and finding which ones suit you best.
1. How many programs should I apply to?
We recommend that you apply to between eight and ten schools. Cast a wide enough net to give yourself options, but not so many that you are overwhelmed with the application process.
2. Is a PA a good step to becoming an MD?
You can absolutely go from PA to MD. Becoming a PA first will get you into the workforce faster, allowing you to start paying down student debt and keeping yourself more financially stable.
On the other hand, you then have to juggle a career and med school, which is a lot to take on.
Finally, even if you are thinking of becoming an MD after being a PA, focus on PA first; commit to the application process. A program is less likely to take you if you view their program as a stepping stone to “something better”. Love the career for what it is, not what you’ll ditch it for later.
3. What exactly does a PA do?
That varies from location to location; there are different rules for different countries, and even states or provinces within those countries.
Generally-speaking, a PA has similar responsibilities as an MD. They can make diagnoses and write prescriptions, but sometimes there are restrictions on the type of prescriptions they can write.
Often, PAs work with a physician directly, who will sign off on certain things the PA needs to do.
4. If a PA is an MD with less power, should I just become an MD?
Your life path is your choice.
For a start, try not to think of a PA in terms of how they stack up to a physician; that comparison probably isn’t going to be helpful.
Think of a PA as a valuable and unique component in a healthcare team.
The advantages of becoming a PA include less schooling – and therefore debt – so you get into the workforce faster. You also will likely be dealing with less stress, generally-speaking, than an MD. Although, the disadvantage is a lower earning potential, on average.
5. How long should I spend on my application?
The shortest answer is, “As much time as is possible,” but as that’s likely not a very useful answer to you, let’s elaborate.
As soon as applications open up, you should begin to work on yours. You should work on your application a couple of hours a day until one of two things happen: either the deadline arrives and you must submit it, or you cannot think of anything that could possibly improve the application.
6. What if I don’t have top grades and test scores?
How to get into college with a low GPA can be tricky, but not impossible. If you don’t meet a cut-off, of course, you’re stuck, and you might need to take some time to improve your grades. If you are above the cut-off, though, focus on your experiences and personal background, which might compensate for the lower scores.
7. Can I change an application after submitting?
You can make small changes to your CASPA after submission – to coursework, for instance – but not to everything.
If you are submitting to a school directly, you’ll have to contact that program to ask.
Either way, it’s best to avoid needing to change things after the fact, if possible.
8. I don’t have much medical experience; do I have a shot?
Some programs don’t require experience at all, so yes, you do, but you need to be careful about where you are applying; make sure they don’t require medical experiences, or have them at a lower priority.
You also might volunteer somewhere and gain a little experience before submitting your application, but this will only account for a small amount of experience, so you shouldn’t count on it getting you into an experiences-oriented program.
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