The demand for physician assistants—or PAs—is on the rise, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting the PA profession will see an expansion rate of 28% between2021 and 2031.1 And U.S. News & World Report ranks it as the second-best job in the healthcare field and the third-best job across all industries.2
With more than 38,400 jobs expected to open by 2031, the physician assistant career path has become increasingly appealing for those who want to administer hands-on, direct patient care.
Physician assistant programs have, in turn, become highly competitive. During the 2017-2018 cycle, just 32.3% of all submitted applicants actually matriculated into a PA program.3 Consequently, you may be extra motivated to ensure that your PA school application is optimized to showcase your strengths.
What is a PA program’s application like? Whether you’re currently working on your PA application or have just started to explore programs, read on for application process tips and a helpful checklist for applying to PA schools.
PA School Checklist
You might be wondering, “How long is PA school going to take me?” In general, most PA programs are around 27 months, continuing through the summers with short breaks between terms. While this checklist is by no means exhaustive—application requirements for physician assistant programs vary from institution to institution—it covers the basics of how to apply to (and get accepted into) PA school.
#1 Earn Your Undergraduate Degree—and Excel At It
All PA programs require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university; the only exception is programs that offer high school graduates who’ve accrued college credits a pre-professional (undergraduate) phase before they advance to the professional (graduate) phase.
The GPA you must have for consideration for a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) depends on the program, but the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) reports that the average undergraduate GPA of incoming PA students is 3.6.4
#2 Complete Your Prerequisite Coursework
The American Academy of Physician Associates reports that the majority of entry-level physician assistant programs require the following prerequisite coursework:5 However, each program has a unique list; you must be aware of the requirements for the individual programs that you apply to.
- English Composition/Writing
- General Psychology
- Human Anatomy
- Medical Terminology
- Organic Chemistry
- Human Physiology
#3 Obtain Healthcare Experience or Patient Care Experience
Many incoming physician assistant candidates have worked or are presently working in health professions—in paramedics, for example, or as an emergency room technician, surgical tech, or medical assistant. This experience can be helpful for two reasons:
- It allows the candidate to gain hands-on experience.
- Many PA programs require prior healthcare experience (HCE) or patient care experience (PCE).
Because hourly requirements for HCE and PCE vary by institution, it’s best to check with your physician assistant program of interest before completing them. (The average is 1,000 hours.)6
However, some master’s in physician assistant studies programs do not require prior HCE or PCE, based on the reasoning that students will gain all the experience and skills they need in the program. Also, applicants’ HCE/PCE hours are self-reported on CASPA and are not always verified by the schools.
You might also consider shadowing a physician assistant prior to applying to PA school, especially if you’re able to shadow more than one PA across a variety of specialties (such as surgery or acute care).
Although shadowing time may not be counted toward HCE/PCE hours, it shows initiative and may make your application stand out. Moreover, you’ll gain invaluable knowledge about a PA’s daily pace and range of duties.
#6 Request Your Transcripts
Order your transcripts from your undergraduate university approximately six weeks prior to your application deadline to ensure that CASPA or the institution receives them in time.
#7 Ask for Letters of Recommendation
CASPA requires three to five letters of recommendation. These are typically written by professors and former or present employers in the healthcare field.
When you receive a recommendation, it’s good etiquette to send a personalized, handcrafted thank you note and report back once you’ve gained admission to a PA program.
#8 Write Your Letter of Intent
Your personal statement—or letter of intent—will detail why you want to become a physician assistant. CASPA asks for 5,000 characters max or roughly 800 words. If you have a good story to tell about what sparked your interest in the field, tell it in a concise way—but also illuminating and compelling.
After you’ve written your letter of intent, ask a trustworthy, word-savvy friend (or two) to review it.
#9 Submit Your CASPA Application
Once you’ve prepared all of your materials, finalize and submit your CASPA application. Follow up on its status, as well as with any supplemental information requested by the PA schools you applied to.
The application process is now over. Keep breathing as you wait to hear back, and know that going above and beyond with these application tips will likely work in your favor as a prospective PA student.
USAHS is excited to announce its new Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, with applications opening in April 2023. Learn more about the PA program structure, accreditation status, and what sets the USAHS MSPAS Program apart today.
The University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences (USAHS) is developing a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPAS) program. We will begin accepting applications in April 2023 for our first cohort, which will start in January 2024. The program will be held in person on our campus in Austin, Texas, and will consist of a four-trimester didactic phase and a three-trimester clinical phase. Students will complete seven core rotations in a variety of outpatient settings and hospitals, plus two elective rotations of their choice.
USAHS’ MSPAS program has applied for Accreditation-Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). USAHS’ MSPAS anticipates matriculating its first MSPAS class in January 2024, pending achieving Accreditation-Provisional status at the September 2023 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation-Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding Accreditation-Provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.
In the event that the program is not granted Accreditation-Provisional status by the ARC-PA, students accepted into USAHS’ MSPAS program will receive a full refund of their deposit, and the program will not matriculate in January 2024.