If you have chosen to pursue a career as a physician assistant (also known as a physician associate), you likely have a good understanding of the field. However, pre-PA school students may have limited knowledge about how to pursue admission into PA school.
The PA school admissions process tends to be complex and competitive. Requirements are stringent, and acceptance rates are low .
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply if becoming a PA is your objective. However, to pursue admission into the program, it’s beneficial to stand out in the pool of applicants. Therefore, having a thorough understanding of the admissions process could be crucial.
This comprehensive guide describes the PA school admissions process step by step and provides tips that could help you increase your chances of getting accepted. Topics covered include:
- Prerequisites and eligibility
- Application components and tips
- The interview process and tips
Overview of the PA Admissions Process
Securing admission to PA school is a multi-step journey. Before you even fire up your computer, you may need to complete a sequence of tasks; and there could be more to come when the application has been filed.
Before Filling Out the Application
- Research and choose programs. At this point you may have already chosen programs. Make sure the programs you chose are a good fit with regard to competitiveness, quality, values, cost, and accreditation.
- Accrue experience hours. PA programs may require healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE). Check the requirements of your particular PA program.
- Register with the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). You could apply to multiple PA programs with just one application through CASPA. There are nearly 400 participating schools in the CASPA program. If the school you are interested in is not part of the program, you must apply directly to the school itself.
- Gather materials needed for the application. You may need items such as test scores, letters of recommendation, education records/transcripts, and lists of HCE and PCE hours.
- Complete the prerequisite courses specified by your program.
- Fill in and submit the application. If you are applying through CASPA, aim to complete your submission by the end of May. Check application deadlines for schools you apply to directly.
After Submitting the Application
- Check the status of your application often. If you applied through CASPA, you may use the “My Status” menu in your application portal. It might take CASPA up to 4 weeks to verify your application.
- Check that your transcripts and letters of reference have been received. Once again, you may use the “My Status” menu in the CASPA portal. If you applied to schools outside of CASPA, check directly with them.
- NOTE: Once CASPA verifies your application, they send all application materials to the programs you selected. After that, CASPA is no longer involved in the process, and you could communicate with the schools themselves.
- Interview with schools. If the applications committee is interested in your application, they may invite you to one or more interviews. See the “Interviews” section below to learn about how you could prepare and what you might expect.
- Stay in touch. Communicate with any schools you may have been waitlisted by.
- Research scholarships and financial aid information. Once you are accepted (fingers crossed!), you may want to find sources of financial aid to see if you qualify.
PA Program Admission Requirements
PA schools have eligibility and prerequisite requirements. Eligibility requirements are the minimum necessary qualifications, while prerequisites are conditions that need to be met before applying.
Entry-level PA programs customarily require an undergraduate degree, sometimes in a science-related field. Some PA programs include a pre-professional phase for recent high school graduates and those who have earned some college credit. These programs could last up to 4-6 years.
PA programs may require a minimum GPA for undergraduate work, prerequisite courses, and/or post-baccalaureate study.
Minimum test scores
Some schools may require that GRE, TOEFL, or MCAT scores be in a particular range.
Although not all schools require it, it may be good to have PA-related experience before entering a program. This could come in the form of healthcare experience (HCE) or patient care experience (PCE).
HCE refers to both paid and unpaid work in a health-related field where you might interact with patients but are not directly responsible for a patient’s care. Examples may include filling prescriptions, performing clerical work, or delivering patient food.
PCE refers to experiences in which you provide direct care for patients. Examples may include EMT, nurse, paramedic, and CNA.
Schools that require work experience may stipulate anywhere from 200 to 1,000+ hours.
Shadowing may be an invaluable experience. By shadowing a practicing physician assistant, you could have an opportunity to learn what it might take to become successful, while also assessing whether this profession fits with both your skills and interests. It is usually not mandatory, but highly recommended for applicants considering PA school.
Schools might recommend 40 hours minimum and as many as 100 hours to be considered a strong applicant.
Prerequisite courses for PA school
Entry-level PA programs generally require applicants to have completed courses in areas such as:
- Organic Chemistry
- English Composition/Writing
- Medical Terminology
- Psychology (general)
Completion of prerequisite courses may not be required until the time of matriculation as long as applicants could show they are in progress or scheduled.
Unless you are applying to one of the few programs that don’t partner with CASPA program schools, register with CASPA and fill out an online CASPA application. Following are the some of the main components .
PA School Application Components
- Add Program. Here you list the programs you are interested in.
- You must choose at least one.
- You must add or delete programs BEFORE you submit your application.
- After you submit it, you may only add programs.
- Personal Information. Includes fundamental information such as date of birth, address, etc.
- Supporting Information. This includes:
- References (5 max).
- Experience—patient care and health care, shadowing, volunteering, extra-curricular activities, teaching, research.
- Achievements—dean’s list, published works, scholarships, etc.
- Essays—personal statement plus response to a prompt
- Academic History. You may need to:
- List all colleges you’ve attended.
- Order transcripts. You could do this on CASPA application portal. Alternatively, you could enter information from your transcripts in the application.
- Fill in the standardized tests you may have taken and your score for each. These may include the GRE, TOEFL, or possibly MCAT.
- Program Materials. Some programs may have other requirements, such as a specific essay or additional questions.
- Submit. After you submit, pay the application fee.
For 2021–22, the CASPA application fee was $174 for the first program and $55 for each additional program.
A limited number of fee waivers are provided at the start of the cycle. To qualify you need to show that you meet specific income requirements .
- Apply to more than one school.
- Proofread your application carefully, including any essays and personal statements. Make sure contact and test information are correct.
- Don’t wait until the last minute. Some schools may start accepting applicants before the close of the application period, which reduces the number of available spots for those who have not yet applied.
If the Applications Committee believes your qualifications align with their program, they may invite you to participate in an interview. Here’s what you could expect.
Types of Interviews
PA schools may differ when it comes to conducting interviews, including both number and format. However, schools generally require that you complete one or more of the following types of interviews.
Multiple mini interviews (MMIs)
This type of interview could consist of “interview stations” that each focus on a different question or scenario. MMI stations may include role-playing with an actor, completing a specific task, or responding to a scenario/prompt. Usually you are given a few minutes to think about the prompts before answering.
Individual interviews are typically conducted by faculty members, program directors, alumni, or community PAs. They could last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. Some schools may require more than one.
Although some schools might define a group interview as being one applicant interviewed by several interviewers, for many these interviews refer to a group of applicants interviewed by one or more interviewers.
Sometimes the group interview might consist of questions that candidates take turns answering. Other times candidates might have to work through a group activity together.
Types of Interview Questions
PA school interview questions generally fall into five categories.
Crafting a meaningful biographical narrative may require more than just cursory knowledge of yourself—you must be prepared to communicate your background, education, personality, and experiences in an authentic way.
This part of the interview might also include basic questions about your knowledge of the field. Make sure to arm yourself with the fundamentals so you could confidently address any queries related to the field.
- Tell us about yourself.
- What experiences have you had that make you think you might succeed as a PA?
- Why do you want to pursue a career as a physician assistant?
- Tell us about your experiences in undergraduate school.
- Tell us about your related work experience. What did you have a chance to learn?
- What do you know about the PA program?
- What issue in healthcare are you most passionate about?
Critical Thinking and Behavioral Questions
Critical thinking is one of the essential skills for PAs. Showing interviewers that you could effectively analyze information and draw logical conclusions may give them a sense of your ability to stay adaptable when faced with diverse situations and challenges.
- Describe a time when you had to make a decision but did not have enough information to make an informed decision.
- What is the biggest mistake you made in your life? Why is it the biggest mistake, and what did you do to correct it?
- Imagine you encounter a patient who demands to take a test that they don’t need. How would you respond?
- What solutions do you propose for the rapid rise in healthcare costs?
Culture Fit Questions
Interviewers look for applicants who demonstrate not only their enthusiasm to join the PA profession in general, but also a special connection and affinity towards THEIR program. They seek individuals passionate about being part of their organization’s unique mission, culture, and objectives—those whose skills could contribute to making it even greater.
- Why do you want to attend our program?
- What would you bring to our program if we admitted you?
- What makes you stand out from other pre-PA students?
- What is your vision for your future as a PA?
- Do you work better individually or in groups?
As a PA, you may encounter moral challenges that could test your values and integrity. An interviewer is interested in how well-equipped you are to make sound ethical decisions during difficult moments.
- Is it ever okay to lie to a patient? If so, under what circumstances?
- Imagine that two patients come to your emergency room—an intoxicated driver and the pedestrian they hit. They both need care urgently. Who would you care for first and why?
- What would you do if you knew a patient needed medical treatment, but they refused it?
- Would you prescribe a placebo to a patient who insists on getting a medication you think is unnecessary?
These questions are out of the ordinary and often do not relate to the PA profession. Interviewers may pose them to gain insights into your thought processes and how you approach problem solving.
- What is your favorite book and why?
- If you won the lottery tomorrow, what’s the first thing you would do with the money?
- What is the best gift you have ever received, and why was it the best?
- If you could bring a famous person from the past back to life, who would it be and why?
- Which cartoon character is your favorite, and why?
- Focus on quality rather than quantity during interview preparation. There are a plethora of sample interview questions all over the web. However, trying to prepare for every single one could be incredibly taxing and may prove fruitless, as interviewers often ask different questions anyway. If you concentrate on fewer questions, you could prepare responses that may have the depth and thoughtfulness interviewers look for.
- Do your homework. Interviewers may want to see that you are familiar with their school and its PA program. Research the school’s culture and values, the details of the program, the faculty and staff, class size and diversity, and resources offered by the school.
- Get a complete 8-hours rest for the few days prior to your interview. You may feel more relaxed, and your mind might be sharper.
- Eat a healthy breakfast. Food may get your mind working and energize you.
- Dress professionally. But also make sure you have dressed comfortably!
- Arrive at least 30 minutes early. And leave plenty of time to travel to the location.
- Relax. Use relaxation techniques that could help you calm your mind and body.
- Be yourself during the interview. Don’t provide answers that you think interviewers might want to hear—be genuine and authentic.
- Don’t be afraid to sit silently while you think about a question.
The application process for PA school may seem daunting, but with a bit of tenacity and dedication you could make an impactful difference in getting accepted into a program.
Put time and thoughtfulness into tailoring each part of your application; and don’t let yourself become discouraged if things don’t go as planned the first time around. Reapply, but this time spend more time on your application to improve your chances.
Good luck in your journey!
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