Physician assistants (PAs) are similar to doctors in many ways and serve as important members of any healthcare team: They improve the ease and speed with which patients are able to see a healthcare provider; they take on most of the same activities as doctors in patient care; they see patients to diagnose, treat, and prescribe medications; they assist patients in all clinical settings and work across all specialties in every state in the U.S.; they can even become a patient’s main provider! However, there are some limitations to the services that they can provide, as well: They can only perform surgical procedures under the direct supervision of a physician, and there are some limitations as to what they can prescribe without the direct approval of an MD, depending on the state.
Why become a PA?
The physician assistant profession is one of the fastest growing in healthcare today. The U.S. Bureau of Labor ranks it in the top five fastest growing occupations, with an expected growth rate of 31% between 2018 and 2028. With an entry-level education the equivalent of a Master’s Degree, it has a high compensation rate in comparison to other longer educational tracks. PA programs usually last about three years. The average income for a PA in 2018 was $108,610. U.S. News and World Report ranks it #2 on its list of the 100 Best Health Care Jobs in 2020.
PAs also tend to have higher professional satisfaction than physicians for three main reasons:
- They are able to spend more time with patients and less time on paperwork.
- They have the freedom to move across specialties, unlike physicians who commit so much time to their specialty education and training that they cannot easily change tracks.
- They are better able to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
A couple of years ago, a student who was in her fourth year of medical school contacted me because she wanted help applying to PA programs. She was pregnant and realized that she would not be able to commit the hours required to being a physician while raising a family. I was surprised, but agreed to help her since it was an unusual situation. Nowadays, more and more people are choosing the PA path, especially students with families. PA programs provide the same life-long learning opportunities with significantly less education and student loans, as well as the benefits listed above.
What is CASPA?
There are over 250 PA programs in the U.S. This year roughly 95% of these PA programs will use the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). Surprisingly, as the profession has grown in popularity and in demand, the application process has become less competitive in recent years – which is good news for you!
Academic requirements for PA programs
In preparing to apply to PA programs, check the programs’ individual websites for required coursework and test scores. They can change from year to year so double check their requirements on a regular basis – especially as you get closer to applying. The course requirements vary dramatically from campus to campus. Some schools require biochemistry or psychology while others do not. The most competitive PA programs require a Bachelor’s Degree and the following coursework:
Required By Most:
- Human Anatomy and Physiology (2 classes or 1 year)
- General Chemistry with lab
- Second Chemistry course, of your choosing, with lab
- Other biology course, of your choosing
Required By Some Schools, Not All:
- Psychology, required by some schools
Recommended, But Not Required, By Some:
- Organic chemistry
Most schools require that you earn a C or better in these prerequisites, however, a few schools, like George Washington University’s PA program, require a B- or higher. To be certain, check the requirements where you are applying. Many programs accept community college coursework. To be safe, complete all prerequisites by December of the academic year prior to the year when you intend to start school. Check individual program’s websites for complete information on each school’s policies regarding pending, prerequisite courses.
Most PA programs require GRE scores. If you have taken the MCAT, they will expect you to share those numbers. GRE scores should not be more than five years old (four years for some programs) and cannot be taken any later than October in the academic year that you are applying. Usually the GRE is used, but some schools will also accept the MCAT.
Who gets into PA programs?
In the 2016-17 cycle, the last cycle for which we have public data, 26,768 applicants submitted applications through the CASPA system. This reflects a consistent year-to-year increase in the applicant pool, with 25,593 applicants using the CASPA system in 2015-16. While the number of applicants increases every year, more programs are becoming available, and already-established programs are growing. Put simply, this field is ballooning in popularity, and with increased applicants comes increased educational options!
With an increase in programs, applicants, and GPAs, becoming a PA is a goal for many people, and there is hot competition.
For GRE scores, the last year for which we have data is 2015-16, where the average matriculant scores were: Verbal: 153.5; Quantitative: 152.6; and Writing: 4.0.
Based on the data that has been released about students who have applied via CASPA, there is a significant lack of diversity within the applicant pool. In the 2016-17 cycle, 74.4% of applicants were white, 13.7% were Asian, 10.5% were Hispanic, 7.3% were black or African American, and 0.4% were American Indian. Schools will therefore be seeking to increase the diversity of the student body, and thus, if you are a student of color, it will be to your advantage to apply to PA programs because you will enhance the diversity of the applicant pool and your entering class.
There is also a significant gender disparity. In 2016-17, female applicants continued to make up the majority – 71.8% female vs. 28.2% male. Programs will be looking to improve gender equality within the profession by accepting more male applicants.
Researching physician assistant programs
To learn more about the programs and about their class profiles, you’ll have to visit their individual websites to see if they provide data on the applicants they have selected in previous cycles. Some schools do, like Tufts, and others do not, like Midwestern (Downers Grove, IL). U.S. News and World Report provides a ranking of PA schools. They rank the top ten programs as follows (many are tied):
1. Duke University
1. University of Iowa
3. Baylor College of Medicine
4. University of Utah
5. Emory University
5. George Washington University
7. University of Colorado
7. University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center–Dallas
7. Wake Forest University
10. Drexel University
10. Interservice Physician Assistant Program
10. Oregon Health and Sciences University
10. University of Southern California
Applying to physician assistant programs
The PA personal statement
To gain acceptance to a PA program, use your personal statement to share the personal qualities that make you unique and that will make you an outstanding, caring and compassionate physician’s assistant. It may be easier to work with someone you know and trust to help you create a list of unique characteristics. Choosing three personal traits to emphasize in your statement will help you identify themes that you can use to strategically develop a better essay that will resonate with the selection committee. Taking the time to put thought and effort into your work will contribute enormously to your receiving secondary applications and interviews, not all PA programs have secondary essays – lucky for you!
The PA application activity section
Since there is no limit to the number of experiences, certifications, and achievements that you can include in the activities section of the CASPA application, you’ll want to cover any and all that apply – from college and after. Do not include any activities from high school, unless you have continued your involvement throughout college and/or after.
There is now a “leadership” subsection in the activities section. PA programs are looking for people who can balance working independently with being a member of a dynamic team. I recommend getting involved with leadership roles and team activities as early as you can in your undergraduate education and highlighting in your application how and why you thrive in these environments. In describing your participation, focus on the outcomes of your contributions in your activity descriptions, which have a 600-character limit. While they are brief, there is enough space to go into some detail.
PA programs will evaluate the extent of your clinical (direct patient contact), healthcare (exposure to medical settings), and community service experiences. They prefer students who have 1,000 hours or more of hands-on experience in clinical settings and who work well with people of all backgrounds. Emory has a minimum requirement of 2,000 hours of patient care experience. Double check the requirements for the schools where you are applying. PA programs prefer experiences like EMT, health educator or coach, nurse, certified nursing assistant, medical assistant, technologist, therapist, and clinical research assistant. They do not count any hours from shadowing, student EMT training, student athletic training, interning, or junior volunteering towards the direct patient care hours. Additional certifications will reveal your level of expertise in clinical settings. Achievements can include academic honors, employee awards, athletic events, and any other forms of recognition that you have received.
PA letters of recommendation
PA programs require three letters of recommendation. Some schools will only accept two letters. Make sure you only ask people who know you well. If you are asking professors, only ask those who have given you A’s in their classes – because they will rank you based on the grade you earned in their course.
You should have letters from:
- A healthcare professional who supervised you (shadowing letters will not be accepted)
- An academic reference
Family members or friends should NOT write letters of recommendation. Their objectivity and credibility is suspect.
When requesting letters of recommendation, provide your letter writers with a final draft of your personal statement, an updated copy of your resume or CV, and a list of bullet points to update them on what you’ve been doing since you’ve last been in contact with them (or since the last time you applied if you are reapplying and getting updated letters).
Most importantly, give your letter writers a DEADLINE. All writers need the pressure of a deadline. Give them a deadline that is actually much earlier than the date by which you need the letters. Expect to have to send them gentle but firm reminders.
Now is a better time than ever to apply to PA programs given the fact that the application is currently less competitive than in previous years, combined with the high satisfaction levels and growth rates projected for this profession. My colleagues and I would be delighted to guide you through this application process to acceptance and ultimately, to a rewarding career on the cutting edge of medicine.
- From Example to Exemplary, a guide to writing outstanding application essays
- How Did This Successful PA Applicant Get Accepted? a podcast episode
- Macy’s Journey Through Yale’s Online PA Program