As with any graduate school, applying for PA programs takes a good deal of thought and planning. Even those who fulfill their course requirements and work part-time in a health care field during their undergraduate years still usually take a gap year or two to accumulate extra experience and prepare their applications. In this article, I talk about what’s involved in putting together a stellar PA application.
PA programs will usually require general chemistry, biology, microbiology, anatomy, and physiology. They may also require English, statistics, and psychology. For science courses, many schools will require a C or above. That said, achieving the bare minimum will not distinguish you in the admissions process (or if it does, it will be for the wrong reasons). If you have a C in a science course, the safest option is to retake the course to earn a higher grade or take one or more higher level science courses to show you can handle the rigor.
Some schools will state a minimum GPA required to apply. If they don’t, the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), which is the national organization representing PA educational programs in the US, releases a report with admissions trends compiled from all accredited programs in the US. You’ll see from the report that the median GPA for successful applicants in 2020 was 3.60. Strong science grades and picking a major that is suited to your strengths is a good strategy for ensuring high marks.
PA applicants generally take the GRE instead of the MCAT. Some programs offer a choice between the two, but since the GRE is more ubiquitous, it’s a good idea to prepare to take it. In a 12-month time frame, you can take the GRE up to five times (with a required wait of twenty-one days between test attempts). While the ideal score will vary slightly depending on the program, a “safe” GRE score is generally considered to be 300 or higher, with 150+ in both verbal and quantitative and a 4 for analytical writing. PAEA reports a median scores of 153 for both verbal and quantitative for successful applicants and a 4.0 for analytical writing.
You will need to have experience working in several medically oriented fields. There are two main categories that these experiences will fall into: patient care experience and healthcare experience. Patient care experience hours are generally earned on the job (part time or full time) as an EMT, CNA, phlebotomist, dental hygienist, or other hands-on patient-serving profession. Some programs specify that only paid patient care experience hours are accepted.
Healthcare experience hours are more likely to include both paid and unpaid work. This category is distinguished from direct patient care by the level of responsibility you have for patients. Working as a scribe for example counts as healthcare experience—you are interacting with patients, but you are not responsible for their care.
Accumulating enough hours of experience is often a main sticking point for those applying to become PAs. The PAEA shows that the median student accepted into PA programs applies with over 2,500 hours of direct patient care experience and over 1,000 hours of healthcare experience.
It would be ill-advised to focus on simply medical-related activities. Other activities, like shadowing, volunteering, research, and non-health-related employment, are ways to show the admissions team a broader, more authentic picture of the person you are and what passions drive your career goal. I almost always recommend a gap year (sometimes even two) between graduation and program application to allow for time to gain the experience needed for a strong application.
In addition to strong grades, good test scores and experience, you’ll need to pen a 5,000-character personal statement. And through the years in college and the one or two you spend working, you’ll also be able to solicit good letters of recommendation from health care professionals (usually MDs or PAs) who have seen you interact with patients—you’ll be asked for three to five recommenders under the Evaluations section of your CASPA application. The system will email recommenders directly.
Your applications can be completed via the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). It is sponsored and administered by PAEA and enables prospective PA students to apply to multiple accredited PA programs with one application.