Physician Assistants (PAs) are Advanced Practice Providers; these are medical professionals who provide medical services in collaboration with one or more physicians. PAs are licensed in the states in which they practice and are certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Graduates from PA programs receive Master’s degrees from institutions that are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Most programs take 27-28 months to complete. PAs are in high demand and the PA field has one of the most positive occupational outlooks of any healthcare profession. As of June 2016, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the average salary for a Physician Assistant was $95,820. PAs practice in a wide variety of medical fields, including all primary care areas (e.g., family medicine; pediatrics; internal medicine) as well as all specialty areas (e.g., cardiology; surgery; orthopedics).
As summarized in Appendix A, physician assistants may choose any major, but must successfully complete a core group of science courses focused in biology, anatomy and physiology, and chemistry. Additionally, programs require that students complete a genetics, microbiology, and statistics course, along with courses in introductory psychology and other social science areas (we recommend developmental or abnormal psychology). As competition for slots in PA programs is very competitive (roughly 10 applicants for every available opening), strong performance in one’s coursework is essential (the minimum GPA for most programs is 3.0, but the mean for accepted applicants is much higher). This is especially true of your performance in the prerequisite science classes.
Physician assistant programs are also interested in a variety of other factors in choosing applicants for their programs, including previous direct patient care experience, shadowing a practicing PA, and civic engagement/service work. The average applicant has two-to-three years of healthcare experience prior to their acceptance, with 1000 hours being a typical minimum amount of previous healthcare work necessary for applicants. Most programs require a minimum of 20 hours of PA shadowing experience.
Similar to the medical school application process, students applying to most PA programs complete a common application, the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA; https://portal.caspaonline.org/caspaHelpPages/participating-programs/), for all schools to which they wish to apply. The start date for programs varies and, as such, the deadline for completion of the CASPA also varies depending on the program start date. The overall preparation timeline is similar to the one found for students applying to medical schools, which may be found in Appendix B. In addition to the completion of the course prerequisites, most programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE; http://www.ets.org/gre/), write a personal statement, and obtain three letters of recommendation, one of which usually must be from a clinician. Programs have different deadlines for the submission of their requested materials; therefore, it is essential that students check specific programs’ website for their deadlines.
The GRE is composed of questions assessing verbal and quantitative reasoning as well as analytical writing. Verbal Reasoning is assessed in two, 30-minute sections consisting of approximately 20 questions. There are also two sections of Quantitative Reasoning with 20 questions with each section lasting approximately 35 minutes. The Analytical Writing component consists of two 30-minute essays. There are a number of print and online guides available for preparing to take the GRE. Additionally, there are in-person courses offered from time-to-time at area colleges/universities.
On the CASPA, you will be asked to write a personal essay explaining the reasons you are interested in becoming a physician assistant. There is a 5000-character (not word) limit so it is critical that you are able to succinctly and clearly describe your motivation for becoming a PA. You should have one of your professors or pre-health advisors review your statement before you submit it as this is a very important component of your application. Many programs also require applicants to write a separate statement detailing why they chose that particular program.
Students should obtain three letters of recommendation. The letters should be from individuals most familiar with the applicant’s work and potential for success as a physician assistant. Generally, one letter is written by a former or present professor, one from a healthcare professional, preferably a physician or PA, who has supervised your work via a shadowing or internship experience, and one from a former supervisor or employer. It is important to contact those being asked for recommendations well in advance of the time in which their letters are needed. Also, be prepared to follow-up with your letter writers to cordially remind them of the deadline for the letter, stressing your appreciation for their willingness to write on your behalf.