The Essential Guide to Getting into PA School

You’ve decided you want to be a PA? Now what? Read this article, of course! This is the essential guide to getting into PA school. 

Why Should I Become a PA?

There are many reasons to become a PA. It might be job security, earning a decent income, or helping others. You’re not alone, however. You might have noticed that Physician Assistants (PAs) seem to have one of the top jobs in the country. 

And for good reason! With a Master’s degree in medicine, PAs do much of what a physician does. Instead of 3-5 years of residency training, PAs finishing their training on the job in an apprenticeship model. 

Traditionally, PAs have remained in a state of dependent practice for the rest of their careers. But with the need for healthcare providers at an all-time high, PAs are stepping up and rising to the challenge

Patients need PAs practicing at the height of their training and experience. As a result, it’s necessary that PAs are not dependent on any other individual to do what they’ve been trained to do. It won’t be long before PAs are expected to get a doctoral degree

What Does it Take to be a PA?

Pre-med is pre-med. There isn’t much difference between applicants for PA school and medical school. Expect that PA students are traditionally older with previous careers in healthcare. This is rapidly changing, however. 

Traditional medical education is evolving. Medical schools are realizing that there’s some redundancy in the system and that PA students receive much of the same education as medical students in half the time. You might even say some physicians are over-trained

Grades

Whether you plan on attending PA school or medical school, you need to be a top student. Most schools require no less than a 3.0 but you’re not going to be competitive with a lower GPA. 

PA education is rigorous. You must learn to practice medicine in 2 years. While medical students have 3-4 years to absorb the required material, PAs must do it in 2. Now that’s not to say that PA school grads are ready to practice independently after 2 years–med school grads aren’t even capable of that. But your academic foundation must be just as robust. 

Experience

The first PAs were battle-tested Navy Corpsmen who learned their first lessons in combat. These were not 21-year-old college grads who get queasy at the sight of blood. Almost all PA programs still honor this heritage by requiring between 1,000 and 4,000 hours of direct patient contact. 

What type of experience counts as direct patient contact for PA school?

Direct patient contact is just that–directly caring for patients. That doesn’t mean that time as an ER scribe is worthless or won’t look good on an application, but it not be considered patient care. 

The best experiences, and the students who are the most prepared for PA education, are those with a background in nursing, paramedicine, and research. “Techs” are also charged with patient care duties such as obtaining vital signs, scribing, administering injections, and performing basic studies such as spirometry and EKG. 

Will volunteer work help me get into PA school? 

Of course, it will help and it doesn’t even half to be medically-oriented. PA school is grueling and actually being a PA isn’t much easier. It’s easy to get burned out. Having some volunteer experience not only shows that you value service but that you’re a well-rounded person. Well-rounded students and PAs are less likely to feel trapped and unhappy. 

Will shadowing help me get into PA school? 

Yes, but shadowing several PAs is much more important than that! Without actually spending some time with a working PA, you have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. It’s also important to get an accurate picture of the profession and what PAs themselves are fighting for

The day-to-day life of PA can change drastically depending on their medical specialty. For example, a pediatric PA might work 9-5, Monday through Friday just as any other outpatient PA but they’ll typically see 30+ patients a day. They may or may not have to take call which ranges from answering a  call phone to admitting patients to the hospital. 

An internal medicine PA might only see 15 patients a day but those patients tend to be older and medically complicated. They may also be required to round on patients in a hospital or nursing home as well as performing or interpreting stress tests or sleep studies. 

Surgical, emergency medicine, and critical care PAs will obviously have a much different lifestyle. These PAs often work long hours as well and nights and weekends. That’s not for everyone but some of these PAs are likely to tell you that they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

What type of undergraduate degree is best for getting into PA school? 

There’s no real “best degree” when it comes to getting accepted into PA school. There will be more emphasis placed on prerequisites and science GPAs. 

That being said, it’s a good idea to incorporate prerequisites into your overall degree which will save time and money. Better yet, get a degree that gives you some skills and a potential career path if you don’t make it into PA school. A degree in Laboratory Science would be more helpful than Health Science if you need work for a year while reapplying. 

Should I join PA organizations like AAPA? 

Absolutely! Not only does it get you into the habit of supporting your professional organization but it shows commitment. The future of the PA profession is not certain. Some physicians mistakenly believe that you have to be an MD to practice good medicine. And the nursing lobby is aggressively battling for independence. If PAs don’t evolve, they may be left behind. 

Don’t forget your state organization, either. Joining your state’s AAPA affiliate organization could open doors to network with future colleagues and employers. 

PAs and pre-PAs alike should consider also donating to the PA PAC, a fund devoted to lobbying efforts. 

Is there an entrance exam for PA school?

Up until recently, the GRE was the most commonly required entrance exam for PA school. The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is a general grad school exam and has nothing to do with science or medicine. 

The GRE is divided into 3 sections:

  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning 
  • Analytical Writing 

The strength of the GRE is that it requires “skills that have been developed over a long period of time and are not related to a specific field of study but are important for all.”

The obvious weakness of the GRE, besides the fact that it has nothing to do with medicine, is that it’s hard to study for. While it’s possible to brush up on some algebra and geometry, it’s much harder to increase your vocabulary or become a better writer in a matter of weeks or months.

The PA-CAT, or Physician Assistant College Admission Test, is an attempt but the Exam Master corporation to create a standardized entrance exam for PA schools. It’s important to note that at this time, very few schools actually require it. 

Similar to the MCAT, the PA-CAT is designed to “providing admissions committees with an objective, normed assessment of what their applicants do and do not know in the foundational science subjects key to success in the PA curriculum.”

According to the PA-CAT, the foundational sciences include:

  • Anatomy
  • Genetics
  • General and Organic Chemistry
  • Biochemistry
  • Microbiology
  • Behavioral Sciences
  • Physiology
  • General Biology
  • Statistics

Noticeably absent from the PA-CAT are questions testing the applicant’s knowledge of physics. 

The PA-CAT is administered over four and a half hours and 240 questions. Testing begins May 2020 and will set you back $228. You can download a practice test here

What should I write in my personal statement for PA school?

The PA school personal statement serves a few general purposes:

  1. Allows you to explain why you’ve decided to become a PA.
  2. Offers a chance to let admissions committees know why you are unique. 
  3. Separtes applicants who are effective communicators and those who can’t put two sentences together. 

Number one is personal. While it can be helpful to see others’ examples, this needs to come from the heart. If you don’t have a good answer to this question, you should probably rethink you decision to apply to PA school. Getting though the program unscathed is one thing, creating a successful and fulfilling career is another. 

Number two is also obviously personal. You are unique. This is another good reason to be wary of trying to hard to make your PA school personal statement like someone elses. Just be honest. Tell the ad com how you got to be where you are today–what aren’t you doing something else

This is also where you volunteer and shadowing hours can really help you out. If you have’t put in the time to have distinctive experiences, you probably aren’t ready to be a PA. You can’t draw from an empty well. 

Number three can go either way. Perhaps you’re already a talented writer. That’s great. PAs must be effective communicators. Part of being a PA is educating patients and peruading them to give up some things or incorporate others. 

If you’re a bit lacking in this area, there is hope. Again, don’t worry about what others are doing (they’re probably not doing it right either). 

How can I be a better writer?

  • Read more! Remember the empty well thing?
  • Consider taking a creative writing or public speaking class.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Just start writing and learn to let it flow without worrying about spelling and grammar at first. 

Preparing for the PA School Interview

Congratulations on being offered an interview! You made it this far by being a competitive candidate–that phase is over. Now you need to prove why you are somebody they should want to work with. 

Here are some basic tips to help you get through that big day:

  • Be on time, duh.
  • Bring a copy of your resume.
  • Bring water. 
  • Dress professionally but comfortably. 
  • Don’t worry about showing off.
  • Smile, for heaven’s sake–you made it!

What are some common PA school interview questions?

Sometimes the best advice is pretty basic. So here it goes: If you can tell your story well, it doesn’t matter what they ask you. The absolute worst thing you could do is to try and tell them what you think they want to hear. Be authentic. Be honest. 

Besides the common questions about interests, strengths and weaknesses, you ought to be able to have a conservation with working PAs about issues in the profession. Have you heard of OTP? What about FPA? Where do you stand on a name change and the entry-level doctorate

You need to know what you’re getting into. This goes back to shadowing, but far too many students start PA school only to realize that they’ve made a mistake. Sometimes that mistake is really wanting to be an MD but convicing yourself you can “settle” for PA.

Which brings up one question you are sure to get asked during your PA school interview: Why be a PA and not an NP or MD?

PA vs NP

Rule number one: 

  • Never use the term midlevel. Not only does it lump PAs and NPs together (see rule #2), but it’s actually pretty offensive to PAs and patients alike. No PA sees themselves as offering “midlevel” care. PAs are often preferred to physicians because they are perceived as more approachable, willing to research what they don’t know. Almost as worse as using the term midlevel is not knowing why you shouldn’t use it. The same goes for physician-extender, and non-physician practitioner. 

Rule number two:

  • Don’t lump NPs and PAs together. Terms like APP (Advanced Practice Provider) are certainly less offensive but completely miss critical differences between PAs and NPs. You should know how PAs and NPs differ in terms of training, certification, and regulation. Consider shadowing a few NPs just for context. The single most compelling reason to be an NP is freedom from restrictive bureaucracy. 

PA vs MD

This is better covered elsewhere, so start here and then go here and here and here.

Here’s what not to say, however:

  • “I don’t want to work so much.”
  • “I don’t want the ultimate responsibility of caring for someone.”

Just like their physician colleagues, PAs take call and work long hours. And just like physicians, PA are responsible for the medical decisions they make. 

There is often very little difference in the outpatient between the patients managed by a PA and those by an MD. Each patient demands the right diagnosis and the correct treatment. PAs aren’t issued a separate set of PA-diagnoses and PA-medications. As a PA, you have to make the same call with less formal education than a physician.

What are my chances of getting into PA school?

If you don’t apply to PA school, your chances of getting in are zero. Obvious, right? If you’re looking for statistics, you won’t find them here. What you find, however, is perspective. Yes, PA students are among the top of their undergraduate classes, and yes, PA school is harder than college. If you struggled in the core sciences of chemistry, biology, etc., you will struggle even more in PA school. What’s worse than not getting into PA school? Failing out of PA school. 

On the other hand, you won’t know until you try. And you shouldn’t let anyone tell you what you can or can’t do. There’s certainly a time to be realistic about your chances of getting into PA school but life is too short to not live for your dreams. Start preparing right now. 

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