PA School Requirements – the Complete Guide

The world needs qualified healthcare professionals, now more than ever.

We rely on not only doctors and nurses to take care of us, but also physician’s assistants. In many ways, PAs do the hard work of healthcare, diagnosing illness, developing treatment plans for patients, prescribing medications, and acting as a patient’s principal healthcare provider in many cases. 

That’s important work. And to do it well, PAs must have extensive medical training. That means not only going to a good school, but passing the many classes and tests one must face. 

It’s tough work to be sure, but there’s good news. Like every other medical professional, PAs are in high demand and earn good salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician assistants take home an average of $115,390 per year, and the field is expected to grow by 31% over the next few years, much faster than average. 

But before you can start earning that money, you have to go to PA school. And before you can go to PA school, you have to apply, and that’s a challenge in and of itself. Like any other type of medical program, PA schools ask a lot of applicants. 

It may be hard to apply to these schools, but it isn’t impossible. This guide can help you navigate the complex process of PA school applications. 

In the same way that we’ve covered some of the best PA schools in various states, we will walk you through the steps of creating your application. Over the next few paragraphs, we’ll cover employment requirements, which classes will best prepare you for PA school, how to stand out in your application, and more. 

So read on, and take your first steps toward that important and lucrative career. 

Healthcare Employment Requirements

Even if you hope to make a physician’s assistant your final job, you shouldn’t plan for it to be your first job. In fact, most PA programs require you to have some medical experience to be accepted. 

Not only can medical experience make the difference between a weak and a strong PA school application, but some schools require anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 hours of direct patient care experience. Even when applying to schools that do not require it, medical experience will always improve an application. 

As you might expect from such a vague term, there are many types of experience that a future PA can develop. The most important form of experience is directly working with patients. In these cases, future PAs demonstrate their ability to interact with patients and take responsibility for their care. 

Anything from performing procedures to developing or even directing treatment for a patient will strengthen an application. That might seem like a tall order, but students can gain this type of experience as an EMT, a CAN, a phlebotomist, an LVN, or an RN.

If you don’t have direct patient care experience, paid or volunteer experience in a healthcare setting can be effective. In any case, where you’re interacting with patients – such as delivering food, acting as a scribe, or taking vitals – counts as experience. 

Even if you can’t get experience as an official worker, shadowing a healthcare professional, especially a physician assistant, provides students with some experience. 

Several schools also consider several other activities as experience, even if they’re outside of a healthcare setting. Performing scientific or medical research can improve your application, as could doing volunteer work, such as tutoring and fundraising. 

Any leadership roles held within an organization demonstrate your ability to care for others, as can any form of teaching or tutoring experience. Certain extracurricular activities can improve your application, especially those taking place within a medical or healthcare setting. 

GRE Requirements

Although it is not required by them all, many PA programs require scores from the GRE general test. The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) helps graduate schools determine the best students for their schools by examining the knowledge they’ve gained as an undergraduate. 

In addition to a general GRE, which covers basic knowledge, there are also several specialized versions with questions that focus on a single field. Even though not every school requires a specialized test, most grad schools expect applicants to take the general GRE. 

Students will answer questions that test their verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking on the general GRE. Over the exam’s six sections, students will demonstrate their advanced vocabulary and their understanding of complex mathematics. 

The timed analytical writing section asks students to draft two essays, one explaining a pressing issue and the other persuading the audience to take a certain position. 

To be successful, students must enlist their rhetorical skills and recall their English composition courses. Readers then assign the essays a 0-6 grade, and average them together. 

Students have 30-35 minutes to complete the verbal and quantitative sections, each of which consists of 20 questions. In the verbal section, students must complete sentences with the best word, identify analogies, and analyze a section of text. The quantitative section asks test-takers to finish math problems, analyze data, and compare geometric objects. 

Some programs don’t require applicants to provide GRE scores, but there’s an advantage to submitting them if you’ve done well. 

A good score on the GRE proves to admissions committees that you have grown throughout your academic career, that you take your learning seriously, and are hungry for more. In short, GRE scores can strengthen your application, even if they aren’t required. 

Required Classes for PA School

Duke PA School
Duke Medical School houses their PA program: Public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons

Because they are graduate programs, most PA schools require that applicants take certain courses before taking on a higher course of study. 

The specific requirements can change from school to school, but most expect that applicants pass some introductory science courses. These classes include general chemistry, biology, microbiology, anatomy, and physiology. 

You’ll also need to pass many non-science courses, such as English composition, statistics, and psychology.

While that list covers a wide range of classes, most are common among anyone earning a bachelor’s degree in science. In other words, nearly everyone applying for PA school will have these classes on the application, and, therefore, yours will not stand out. 

To help improve your application, you should take additional courses, particularly those that train you for tasks you’ll undertake in PA school. 

Some of the most important classes for PA schools include courses in organic chemistry and biochemistry, medical terminology, genetics, physics, and sociology. 

In some cases, foreign language classes can improve your application, especially if that language helps you care for patients in the area. 

As they choose their classes, future PAs would do well to specialize in their applications

When they talk about specialization, scholars mean that strong academics have their areas of expertise, where they know not only the most important elements of their field but also the lesser-known and foundational parts. 

As this description demonstrates, a strong focus means that you’re an expert. The knowledge shows to people that you know what you’re talking about and have something to offer the community. 

With this knowledge – and more importantly, achievements such as awards – your application will show Imperial that you will contribute to the community. 

Combining the suggested classes listed above with a strong specialization, students can show that they not only have the knowledge needed to be a PA, but also the scholarly focus required for a successful academic career. 

PA School Interviews

If your application materials all look good, you might be asked to come to campus or to contact the school via internet video and participate in an interview. In many cases, application committees use interviews as the final step in the process, one last chance to see if you belong in the program. 

When the stakes are that high, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. But don’t worry. There are many things you can do to increase your chances

To be sure, no two interviews are the same. The exact questions you’ll get will differ depending on who is conducting the interview and the materials you submitted. But you should be well prepared to answer questions about your biography because it’s your story. 

The trickier questions are those involving significant issues in the field. Many PA school interviews involve critical thinking and behavioral questions, which measure your problem-solving skills. 

Example questions include “how would you deal with an ungrateful patient?” or “tell us about a mistake you made and how you handled it?” Interviewers will likely ask you to explain how your skillset fits the school program, questions that come down to “why us?” and “why now?”

The most difficult questions in a PA school interview are often ethical or projective questions. In the former category, you’ll be asked something like, “is it ever OK to lie to a patient?” or “what do you do if a patient refuses medical treatment?” 

These questions serve to assess your philosophical approach to the subject. In the latter, you’ll be asked questions that seem irrelevant, such as “who is your favorite superhero?” or “what is your favorite fairy tale?” They help interviewers get a sense of your character and desires from an unusual perspective. 

In addition to thinking about your response to these more significant questions, being practical is the best way to prepare for your interview. Map out the place where you’ll meet representatives and plan for bad traffic. If you’re going to meet virtually, have a backup plan ready if your computer dies or the internet goes out. 

Doing simple things like picking out clothing and planning your meal for the day can give you a greater sense of control. Once you have the practical steps down, you’ll be in a much better place to make a case for your candidacy. 

Essays & Personal Statements

If you’re planning on being a physician’s assistant, you’re probably more of a hands-on person and a very analytical thinker. You know what you need to do and want to do it without spending too much time explaining yourself. 

If that’s you, then the personal statement essay might be the scariest part of the application. In this essay, you must write one or two pages about your qualities and attributes. Your answers will come in response to prompts such as, “what brings you to health care?” or “what type of experience have you had with PAs?” 

In other words, you must do a lot of telling and can’t do any show, which is tough for left-brain thinkers. 

But if you break it down, piece by piece, the personal essay statement need not be so frightening. 

Structurally, the essay makes the exact same movements as those five-paragraph essays you wrote all throughout high school. 

The essay will begin with an introduction that catches the reader’s attention, then you have several body paragraphs full of details and evidence, and you end with a concluding section that ties everything together. 

Easy, right? 

Well, you might say, the structure is one thing, but what about the substance? 

You’re right that a personal statement essay for a PA school needs to have excellent content. But here’s the good news: that content is you. 

In the essay, you must tell your story. You are the main character, and you’ll outline your journey from high school student to great PA. In the middle, you’ll explain how the school to which you’re applying helps you become that great PA. 

If you focus on yourself, using exciting anecdotes and details from your life as evidence, then you can easily craft a strong essay, something that will convince the committee that you belong at their school.  

GPA Requirements

Although PAs do practical work, PA schools are fundamentally academic programs, so grades matter. But how much do they matter?

That’s not so clear. Many programs don’t indicate a minimum GPA requirement, while others indicate 3.0 as the norm. Still, others list higher or lower requirements. So what is a future PA to do? 

First, applicants should keep in mind that PA programs do not weigh all grades the same. Because they are a science-based program, your science-based GPA carries more weight than your non-science-based GPA. 

And your GPA in science and chemistry is more important than that. These distinctions do not mean that non-science courses don’t matter at all (after all, poor grades might suggest problems as an academic), but they do indicate the emphasis for most schools. 

More than a specific number, your GPA is an indication of the type of student you are. If a program sees a high GPA, then they’ll take that to mean that you’re a serious student, someone who works hard. If it’s lower, then they’ll assume that you don’t take your studies that seriously. 

For that reason, when minimum GPAs are listed on admissions requirements, sites don’t really tell the whole story. They inform you what a school expects, not what actual students do. 

A better use of GPA is to look at the averages at a particular school. For example, at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the minimum GPA is 3.0. But on average, students have a 3.4 GPA. 

That information should indicate if you fit within the program. If your GPA is 3.0, you might be technically eligible to apply for Nova Southeastern, but you probably can’t handle the workload of the school. If your GPA is 3.4 or higher, you fit among their students and can handle the school’s demands. 

Letters of Recommendation

As the previous discussion indicates, schools want to know if you will be a good student and will fit in their programs. While GPAs are certainly one way for schools to make that decision, letters of recommendation are far more effective. 

Schools like letters of recommendation because they are conversations between professionals. Sure, you’re the subject of that conversation, but these letters involve one expert telling another that you have merit. 

On a basic level, this means that a letter of recommendation should come from a professor (or other leader) who is respected in the field. But there’s so much more to a good letter. 

It’s not enough to just get a big name to vouch for you. You shouldn’t go knocking on the door of the person who just published an important monograph and ask them to draft a letter for you the next day.

Even if they agree (which is highly unlikely), what would they say? They don’t know you. 

Rather, the ideal letter writer should be someone who commands the respect of the institution to which you’re applying and who knows you well enough to talk about your abilities. 

For that reason, your recommenders must be people who have seen you at your best and can answer questions about your abilities. If you earned a B or lower in a prof’s class, you shouldn’t ask for a letter, even if they’re famous. 

The secret to a good letter of recommendation is planning. As soon as your undergrad career begins, work to get into courses taught by influential people. Work hard in those classes and foster a relationship with the prof, so you can show off all of your abilities. 

If you can, give your recommender plenty of time to write the letter. If your relationship is strong enough, the recommender will discuss the process with you and ask about the qualities you want to be emphasized. 

In some cases, you may not have time to take a class with a prof before asking for a letter. That doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. 

If you have a few months, you can still contact the professor and ask about securing a letter. They will often have work for you to do to prove your abilities, but the letter will be worth it.  

In short, a good letter can make up for a lot of other shortcomings in an application and can seal the deal in a robust application. Even better, a good letter can be easily had, with thoughtful planning and some basic people skills. 

How to Stand out in a PA School Application

University of Utah PA School
UofUHealthCare, University of Utah Hospital in 2009, CC BY-SA 3.0

While all of the elements we’ve described in this article will help you construct a strong application, every applicant will have many attributes. 

What can you do to stand out among those with high GRE scores, a solid GPA, compelling letters of recommendation, and a compelling personal essay? 

The short answer to that question is, “Do more.” 

But not all activities have equal weight.

There are certain things you can do to increase your profile among those deciding on admissions.

The most common way to improve your application is to secure an internship. Internships are not required by any PA program, but they can be a great way to get involved in the fild and learn the standards. 

Plus, you can use that experience to develop abilities and experiences that will serve as the content for your personal statement essay and interview. 

Demonstrating interest in a school is another effective way to stand out in an application. 

By that, we don’t just mean letting the school know that you want to attend their program. After all, that’s what the application does. 

Instead, you demonstrate interest by getting involved with the school. Most schools offer official tours, in which you can visit the campus and meet students in the program. Online webinars are becoming increasingly popular and are an easy way to meet faculty members. 

In fact, there are many chances to meet with faculty. A conversation or two with a professor can not only give you important information about the admission committee’s preferences, but can also possibly earn a good word in your favor. 

It might sound intimidating to schedule a one-on-one meeting with a professor, especially if you haven’t met them before. But most professors will happily meet with a potential student, especially if you are polite and accommodating with them

Finally, remember that employment can be proof that you’re a worthy candidate. When they look at your work history, committees want to know that you’re a hard worker, a good communicator, and a critical thinker

For obvious reasons, a job in healthcare is more impressive than other types of work. Even shadowing a PA can be instructive. 

Whatever your history of employment, you should work it into your story. Tell the committee how that experience helped prepare you for a career as a PA. Explain that going to the school will let you build on that experience and become a better professional. 

The best way to stand out in your application is to construct a compelling story, one in which every life event makes you a great future PA.