“Physician assistants, also known as PAs, practice medicine on teams with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare workers. They examine, diagnose, and treat patients… Physician assistants work in all areas of medicine, including primary care and family medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, and psychiatry. The work of physician assistants depends in large part on their specialty or the type of medical practice where they work. For example, a physician assistant working in surgery may close incisions and provide care before, during, and after the operation.
“In some areas, especially rural and medically underserved communities, physician assistants may be the primary care providers at clinics where a physician is present only 1 or 2 days per week. In these locations, physician assistants collaborate with the physician as needed and as required by law.” (Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Physician Assistants, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.htm(visited June 16, 2021).
Some students choose a career as a physician assistant rather than as a physician because the educational training is shorter and does not include a residency requirement. In addition, PAs can switch between specialty areas without returning to school for additional training, and often have a more flexible schedule than physicians.
Example Four-Year Academic Plan With Gap Year
Summer between 3rd and 4th year: Take GRE exam if required for your PA schools and apply for admission using CASPA as soon as possible after the system opens. Some schools have rolling admissions! PA-schools do not require a PPH Committee Letter.
a A student should choose to major in a field he/she is passionate about and in which he/she will excel. A major in biology or biochemistry will require significantly more science and/or mathematics courses than the specific PA school prerequisites.
b A minority of schools require Calculus I, but most require a statistics course. Note that majors like Biochemistry require Calculus I and II, and both Biology and Biochemistry require Physics I and II.
c BIO 302 (Genetics) is required by Upstate Medical University’s PA school, among others, while BIO 310/311 (Biological Chemistry with Lab) can be used to meet the Biochemistry requirement that some PA schools have. Some PA schools also require additional upper division BIO courses.
d We recommend that all students interested in the health professions take PSH 110 and SOC 100 as general education courses. Some PA schools require additional social science courses. You may also consider the Pre-Professional Health Minor.
e PA schools require either 3 or 6 credits of writing courses. Check with the schools that interest you most.
f Many PA schools require a medical terminology course but accept either a 1-or3-credit course, either in-person or online.
- This is just a sample plan, based on the current requirements of several New York PA programs that our students have applied to in past years. Many variants are possible. Check the requirements for the programs that interest you!
- Because PA programs typically require 500-2000 hours of direct patient experience, many students do not apply until the end of their 4th year—or even later—in order to have sufficient time to gain that experience
- PA schools vary in their prerequisite courses—see Physician Assistant Education Association, with links to web sites of individual PA schools for more information.
- Check with individual schools regarding their policies on AP, IB, or CLEP fulfilling these science and mathematics admissions requirements. For example, the Upstate Medical University’s PA program does not accept them. Note that in-person laboratories are explicitly required by many schools. Online labs are not accepted.
Academic Guidelines: GPA and GRE
Admission to PA schools is competitive. Typical median cumulative GPA’s for entering classes at many schools are around 3.5, both for science courses and overall. Students whose academic records fall significantly below the averages are less likely to be accepted. Many schools require that no prerequisite grade be below a C to qualify for admission, and prefer students without significant numbers of W’s and retaken courses.
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is required by many PA programs but not others, and some will accept the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) as an alternative to the GRE. Check your schools of interest to be sure which exams are accepted, and the date by which the exam scores must be submitted. For schools that accept the GRE, the mean and median scores are 153 to 154 for the quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning sections, respectively.
Non-Academic Guidelines for Admission
Admission to PA school requires more than high grades and test scores! One of the distinguishing features of PA programs relative to many of the other health professions is the number of hours and nature of experiences in health care that are required for admission, with 1000 hours being typical. From the Upstate Medical University website: “The rationale behind the health care experience is that candidates realize the challenges involved in the delivery of health care and demonstrate one’s commitment to delivering health care.” Note that you should check PA schools that are of interest to you for the number of hours required, as well as the guidelines for the nature of these experiences. Make sure that you can document all of these hours.
Other important non-academic factors include high ethical standards, excellent interpersonal skills, evidence of leadership potential, good judgment, dependability, conscientiousness, detail orientation, and critical reasoning and thinking skills. Each student is unique and prepares to apply in his/her own way, but here are some possibilities.
- Participate in organizations that serve others, within or outside healthcare.
- Participate in leadership opportunities, such as serving as a peer mentor; becoming a leader in a Brockport
student club; or through participation in Brockport’s Leadership Development Program.
- Consider exploring research opportunities with science faculty members if you are interested. It is one way
to develop critical thinking and reasoning skills. Credit for research can be arranged for BIO 424, 493 or CHM 399, for example.
Diversity in the Physician Assistant Profession
Physician assistant schools seek a diverse class of students. Programs seek to recruit individuals of the highest possible quality from diverse ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and life experiences to the PA profession and to equip them with the necessary clinical and professional knowledge, skills and abilities to provide high quality, compassionate medical care to diverse patient populations. Students may contact their pre-PA advisors and individual PA schools for more information.
The Application Process
Students should begin researching schools early in their academic careers, as programs have different admission requirements. Students may find the information contained in the free online Physician Assistant Programs Directory helpful. A free listing of PA programs is also available. Although the information in the directory may be limited, there is always a link to the website of each program, where more information can be found. To help you determine whether the program is a good fit for you, always look at the mission statement of the program.
Students can apply to most PA schools through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). Programs not requiring CASPA will accept applications directly to their schools. Schools using CASPA may or may not require a supplemental application; check with each program. The application system opens in April of the year prior to the year that you intend to enter PA school. It is to your advantage to apply as early as possible in the application cycle.
Letters of Evaluation
Letters are processed through the CASPA application service and must be submitted electronically via the Letters by Liaison portal. Schools vary somewhat in the number and nature of the evaluators required, but most require three letters. You can upload up to five letters and each school to which you apply will see all five. Check your specific programs to make sure that your letters meet the requirements for each school. For example, SUNY Upstate Medical University’s program requires three letters, including an academic reference, one from an employer/supervisor, and one from a PA, while other programs simply require three letters. These letters may not come from a family member or friend, but do select letter writers who know you well. Letters should be received by CASPA by the application deadline.
Physician assistant schools require personal, on-campus interviews. The schools will contact selected candidates to arrange interviews. Interviews vary by school; applicants should check with the schools to which they have applied for the interview timeline. The interview is an important part of the selection process, and candidates should prepare well for the interview. There are many sample questions available online, and you should practice them. In addition, members of the Pre-Professional Health Advisory Committee are happy to do a practice interview and to coach you on your interview performance. Practice interviews are also available through Career Services in Rakov Center.
Criminal Background Checks
PA schools require satisfactory background checks as a condition of acceptance. The CASPA application asks whether you have been disciplined or placed on academic probation while attending an academic institution, and whether you have been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. Students answering “yes” have the opportunity to describe what was learned through the experience. This information is communicated to the PA schools. Students should make careful decisions throughout their undergraduate years, since incidents of drug and/or alcohol use or possession, academic dishonesty, and others, can have negative consequences for a PA school application. Students found to have been dishonest on their applications are not admitted or are dismissed. The lesson from this is that you must disclose everything in your application: The consequence of not disclosing is greater that the consequence of disclosing!
- Explorehealthcareers, a website that provides reliable information about many possible careers within the area of health.
- American Academy of Physician Assistants
- Physician Assistant Education Association
- Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA)
- Directory of PA programs
- Pre-Professional Health
Pre-Professional Health group on Blackboard for current students. Contact Preprofessional Health at firstname.lastname@example.org to be added to the group. Include your goal of veterinary medicine in your email, so that you are placed in the correct subgroup.
Dr. Laurie Cook