While some accredited associate’s degree programs for PAs do exist, this article is aimed at the person pursuing a bachelor’s or master’s degree as most PAs today are prepared at the graduate level.
Once you decide to become a physician assistant, the road to achieving your goal is challenging but fairly straightforward. A good foundation in high school science courses such as biology, chemistry, and microbiology will better prepare you for what lies ahead. You will be immersed in science over the next few years and it’s important to have a solid foundation in the sciences before embarking on this career track. Secondly, and sometimes more importantly, because of the competitive nature of PA programs, you should have some healthcare work experience under your belt. This might prove challenging for those just coming out of high school, but if you can find a job as a nurse’s aide or orderly in a nursing home or hospital it will help your chances of getting into a good PA program down the line. If you are an undergraduate and able to work part time, it is highly recommended that you secure employment in a health-related field. Physician assistant programs differ, so research admission criteria for your schools of choice, but the following are some general guidelines and suggestions to get you started on your way to becoming a physician assistant.
The American Academy of Physician Assistants recommends the following when applying to a physician assistant program:
If you are currently working towards your bachelor’s degree and you’ve decided to become a physician assistant, understand that a BS in biology or any of the sciences, nursing, public health, physical therapy, or human development will provide a good background for entering a physician assistant program. Other undergraduate degrees can also gain you admittance to a PA program. Remember, competition to get into a PA program is extremely tough, so doing well in the sciences can only help you achieve your goal.
Another important tip is to brush up on your interviewing skills. Bruce Bair, PA-C, made the following statement regarding the application process. “The two things that will really set your application apart are your essays and your references. These get you an interview if you are equal in every other way, i.e. great GPA and GRE. The INTERVIEW gets you accepted.” Practice mock interviews with friends, family, and/or co-workers. Speak with a career counselor at your school, and ask if any kind of class or workshop is offered to help strengthen interview skills. Interviews often make people nervous and anxious. These are feelings you don’t want to transmit during something as important as your graduate school interview. You want to appear confident, like you can handle the toughest assignment—PA school.
In 2001, the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) launched the Central Application System for Physician Assistants. This service is a centralized application portal that allows students to submit one application to numerous schools. “CASPA offers applicants a convenient, state-of-the-art, Web-based application service that will allow you to apply to any number of participating PA educational programs by completing a single application” (caspaonline.org, n.d.). Considering all the work that needs to be done before applying to a PA program, CASPA aims to make life easier for the prospective PA student. Once an application is submitted to the service, CASPA does a lot of the work of applying to PA school. The organization verifies application components for accuracy, calculates grade point averages (GPA), and sends the materials to the PA programs chosen by the applicant.
There are several things to know before submitting your application to CASPA. First, you need to check whether or not your school participates in the CASPA program. You can find participating schools on the CASPA website (caspaonline.org). Fortunately, most schools do accept applications via CASPA. Approximately 80% of all PA programs nationally utilize CASPA as part of their admissions process. Second, you need to be aware of requirements for the specific program(s) to which you are applying—it’s the applicant’s job to know these requirements, not CASPA’s. Many schools require an application through CASPA as well as a supplemental application to the school itself (physicianassistanted.com, 2010). Another important point is to educate yourself about CASPA’s requirements and how the service works. When you enter the website you will be instructed to create an account. At this time, you will be assigned an identification number that will allow you to enter and access your application(s) as well as track the progress of your application. You will enter personal information about yourself and upload transcripts, work history, and essays. The only things not included in your application through CASPA are test scores from graduate entrance exams such as the GRE and MCAT. These scores need to be sent directly to the schools to which you are applying.
The CASPA website recommends that applicants submit their applications early (at least four weeks before their program’s deadline) so that CASPA has sufficient time to verify all information in the application. You should know that there are fees associated with CASPA. The fees charged are per number of CASPA programs to which you are applying. Prices range from $170 for one application up to $2,265 if you were to apply to all 132 CASPA eligible programs. CASPA does not accept personal checks as payment. You may submit payment via money order or credit card, and no refunds are offered once the application process has begun.
Admission requirements for PA programs vary from school to school; however, PA programs are competitive and rigorous. Self-motivated, disciplined, and conscientious individuals make the best PA students. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of PA jobs will increase by 27% between 2006 and 2016. The BLS predicts the total number of jobs in the country will grow by 10% over this 10-year period. The PA profession was ranked the fourth fastest growing profession in the country by CNN.com and Forbes.com in 2007.
According to the Regional Report of the 2007 New PA Student Census Survey, 83% of students entering PA school had already obtained a bachelor’s degree, and 50% of these students obtained their degree in biology. “More than three-quarters of respondents (79%) report having worked in a health care field, either part-time or full-time, prior to entering PA school” (aapa.org., 2007). This data supports the earlier suggestion of trying to work in a health-related field as an undergraduate. This consensus report goes on to state, “the mean college grade point average for (PA) respondents nationwide is 3.5.” The applicants applying to physician assistant programs appear to be some of the most dedicated and hard-working students. Not only are they doing well academically, but they are preparing themselves outside the classroom by working in careers that groom them to be physician assistants, and the number of people interested in becoming a physician assistant is growing. The American Academy of Physician Assistants estimates that there were 88,771 people eligible to practice as PAs and 74,469 people in clinical practice as PAs at the beginning of May, 2010.
The conclusion seems to be a simple case of supply and demand. As competition among some of the best and brightest students in the country for spots in PA programs increases, supply will decrease making those spots more desirable. PA schools will be in the best possible position; they will be able to pick and choose from among the top candidates for their programs. The best advice to prospective PA students is to obtain a bachelor’s degree in a scientific field, preferably biology or one of the health-related sciences, graduate with at least a 3.5 GPA, and work in a health-related field. Not only will you, as a student, improve your chances of being accepted into a top PA program, but the public will reap the benefits of your preparation. One of the most important concerns a health care provider can have is how to provide the best patient care.