“The pandemic has demonstrated how critical PAs are to healthcare teams.”
Affirmed by Beth R. Smolko, The American Academy of PAs (AAPA) President and Chair of the Board, the statement above reflects the broader acknowledgment of the work and utility of physician assistants (PAs) during recent times. While nurses and doctors are often given the most focus, PAs are a crucial component of the health care service.
According to US News & World Report's ‘The 100 Best Jobs,’ ‘Best Health Care Jobs,’ and ‘Best STEM Jobs’ annual rankings, PAs have risen to the No. 1 spot. Speaking about this ranking, Smolko says it “serves as another reminder that our profession is continuing to grow and that the healthcare system must evolve as well to make the most of the quality care PAs provide.”
This guide will explain how to become a PA, what skills, experiences, and grades are needed to get into PA school, and how to become a fully-licensed medical professional.
Educated in the medical model, PAs are licensed medical professionals who examine, diagnose, and treat patients in collaboration with a licensed physician or surgeon. “I diagnose and treat patients, illnesses and diseases and counsel them on their path to wellness,” says the former president of the AAPA, Jeffrey Katz. Though the exact duties of a PA depend upon the type of medical setting they work in, they can:
PAs are not independent practitioners; depending on the scope of practice outlined by each state, MDs must delegate and supervise the work of PAs to varying extents. Despite this, “PAs provide 80 to 90 percent of the services ordinarily provided by physicians," claims Dawn Morton-Rias, president and CEO of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).
Becoming a PA is no walk in the park. Good academic grades, combined with substantial hands-on healthcare experience, and the drive to succeed are essential.
The first step to becoming a PA is to identify your target programs. Take our free PA school selection quiz belwo to dicover the ideal programs for you!
Once you've identified your target PA schools, you’re on the right track! In terms of steps to becoming a PA, they are as follows:
Most PA school applicants already have a Bachelor’s degree. Although requirements between the 267 PA programs accredited by The Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), most institutions have particular scientific course prerequisites:
While any major is accepted, if these core topics are not covered, you may have to take additional classes before applying. Look at the full list of PA programs and their requirements provided by The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) for more comprehensive information surrounding a schools’ specific prereqs. For example, while both James Madison University and Duke University require applicants to complete several semesters in physiology and anatomy, their other desired courses vary slightly.
One crucial detail to note is that this coursework must be completed before applying. Amelia Maurer, a senior at American University and PA school applicant, recalls that “I was totally caught off guard when I realized all of my prerequisite courses had to be completed before applying to the majority of schools.” The lesson? Research what prereqs are needed and prepare for them ahead of time.
In terms of academic success, rigorous standards must be met by each applicant; a cumulative GPA of 3.0 to 4.0 is required by the majority of schools. Although many have different standards, most set minimum GPA cutoffs. For a competitive application to most PA schools, a 3.47 minimum GPA in science classes and a 3.5 minimum GPA in non-science classes is desirable.
Indeed, James Madison's PA studies ' Prerequisites to Admission' page states that “an overall grade point average (GPA) of 3.0 or higher is preferred. However, students who are successful in gaining admittance typically have an overall GPA higher than 3.0.”
While most PA schools do not require the MCAT, applicants are expected to take the GRE, which can be retaken if needed. For a competitive score, making it into the top 50th percentile in each section and obtaining a minimum combined verbal and quantitative score of 300 is advisable.
Perhaps the most distinctive prerequisite for PA school is the amount of hands-on healthcare experience required; eight of the 12 leading PA programs require between 1,000-4,000 hours of paid healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE) for admission. According to the AAPA, “healthcare experience is work in which you are not directly responsible for a patient’s care; patient care experience is when you are directly responsible for a patient’s care.” Although specific requirements vary between different schools, fields that are typically accepted include:
After pursuing a degree in medical laboratory science at the University of South Florida, Lieutenant Junior Grade German S. Herrera, a primary care PA at Coleman Federal Corrections Complex in Florida, says that he "spent the majority of the following year completing prerequisite courses and developing a resume to be a competitive applicant for PA school.” He worked as a flow cytometry medical technologist at Tampa General Hospital to satisfy the required healthcare experience.
Once you have completed your bachelor’s degree, taken the required courses, and acquired the necessary health care experience, you are ready to begin your application. You’ll most likely use the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) as 90% of accredited PA programs use CASPA, and it enables candidates to apply to multiple PA programs with a single application.
After creating your CASPA account, you should start preparing your application and gain an accurate understanding of the submission deadlines. PA schools consider applications on a rolling basis, so submit your application as early as possible.
Though applications aren’t usually due until September or October, you should aim to submit between late-June and early July. After talking to “a lot of PA students and other pre-PAs,” Maurer advises that “most of the PA students I’ve talked to recommend applying as early as possible,” “the best time to apply… [being] ‘in the J’s:’ June and July.”
It’s important to note that CASPA charges application fees; $179 for the first program you apply to, $55 for each additional program, and supplementary costs depending on the program.
Your CASPA application is comprised of several elements:
The number and type of recommendations vary between schools. However, these are typically written by PAs, professors, physicians, and supervisors. These are used to assess your intelligence, integrity, character, and work ethic.
Obtaining your undergraduate/post-graduate transcripts early in the application process is vital as they may take weeks to reach CASPA. Additionally, some institutions charge for transcripts.
CASPA requires an accurate appraisal of your HCE/PCE. Make sure you differentiate between the types of experiences you have had, i.e., HCE/PCE.
As noted above, the required courses differ slightly between PA schools, but many share similar prereqs.
“Keep your topic general,” the CASPA website recommends, as your 5,000 character essay is sent to all of your chosen programs. The content depends entirely on what you want the admissions teams to know about you that the rest of your application doesn’t show.
Erin Myhre, a cardiology and critical care PA at Piedmont Healthcare, recommends that you “don’t leave anything for the admissions committee to assume – use lots of examples, stories, personal experiences, and lessons you’ve learned.” “Let the admissions committee see evidence of” your passion about the profession, she continues, and “demonstrate your knowledge of the PA profession.”
The American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants (AASPA) states that “the strongest way to ensure your success as a PA applicant is to know exactly the roles and responsibilities of a PA, why you desire to become a PA and how your previous clinical and non-clinical experience has prepared you for a career as a medical and clinician to possess a keen awareness of the intense level of training necessary to achieve such responsibility.”
To maximize your chances of success, check out our PA School Admissions Consulting Services; it'll help you with every aspect of the application process, including the primary application stage, interviews, and much more!
Now, the waiting game begins as receiving notification from PA programs can take some time. However, once schools contact you, some do not give much notice for interviews. Many interview dates are non-negotiable, so having a degree of flexibility in your immediate schedule is essential.
Our advice? As soon as your CASPA is completed, research, plan, and practice.
PA schools use three interview formats: multiple mini interview (MMI), traditional, and a hybrid of the two. MMI is usually a series of mini stations where a prospective student can interact with real or fake patients, respond to ethical questions, or answer traditional questions. Traditional interviews are the more standard one-on-one or panel format where you are asked a series of questions about your motivations, experiences, and application. A hybrid is a combination of these two where several stations are often coupled with one or two more traditional, one-on-one interviews.
The five crucial elements that you should aim to impress upon an admission committee during your interview are:
Due to the current circumstances, Kristopher R. Maday, an Associate Professor and the PA Program Director at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis, says that you should “prepare for virtual interviews.”
One advantage of this form of interviewing is that it is far cheaper; it can cost several thousand dollars to interview with multiple schools. However, as Maday advises, “it is hard enough to try to make a connection in a 20-minute interview, but now we have to do it through a screen." So, practice virtual interviews with friends and family members, maintain good eye contact during the interview, and keep a professional workspace – no virtual backgrounds!
Staging mock interviews with friends and family members is a great way to simulate a real PA school interview and practice answering questions on the spot. One thing Savanna Perry, a practicing dermatology PA in Georgia, recommends to do is “use every opportunity to incorporate a personal story to illustrate your point. You want to relate to your interviewer and this strategy makes you more memorable.” Perry also explains that interviewers love to ask questions about recent events, so stay up-to-date with current events, especially those involving PAs and healthcare.
Interviews are an essential part of the application process, but don't be stressed! By getting to this stage, you have advocates on the admissions committee, says the AASPA. The interview is merely designed to “confirm their understanding of your academic excellence, clinical maturity, why you want to be a PA, your understanding of the various roles PAs play in the medical team and your level of ability to communicate under stress,” they conclude.
Most PA programs take 2-3 years of full-time studying to complete, and, though they vary, most PA programs' annual tuition fees range from $30,000 to over $120,000. Compared to medical school, the PA school curriculum is more generalized; students are exposed to various medical procedures, specialties, and skills that provide strong foundations for use in a clinical setting. Around 1,000 hours of classes are taken inside classrooms and laboratory, which include:
PA programs typically require the student to complete approximately 2,000 hours of supervised clinical training, known as ‘rotations.’ Emphasizing physician offices, ambulatory clinics, and acute or long-term care facilities, your rotations could focus on:
This exposure to various medical fields is to broaden their practical and medical knowledge and introduce students to the demands of performing within a medical environment.
The first step after graduating from an accredited PA program is to obtain a state license. According to Ann Marie Strong, a Family Medicine Physician Assistant in Minneapolis, “most PAs round out their skills with on-the-job training” instead of undertaking “optional residencies” and additional training.
To acquire a license, prospective PAs must sit the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) from the NCCPA. The PANCE consists of 300 questions, and candidates are given five 60-question sections, which must be completed within five hours. Once you have passed the PANCE, you can now practice as a PA and use the credential ‘Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).’ All that is left now is to find a position and apply all the knowledge you have learned.
PAs are in high demand; three-quarters of those who graduate from PA school will receive multiple job offers. According to the BLS, PAs earn an average annual salary of $108,610, though this can increase depending on the specialty.
Although the work of a PA is physically and emotionally demanding, only 1 in 4 PAs work 61-80 hour weeks, with most working an average of 51.5 hours a week, according to The Physicians Foundation’s Physician Survey.
One of the most unique aspects of working as a PA is mid-career flexibility. Chris Hanifin, academic chair of the department of physician assistant at Seton Hall University, states that “once you have your PA license, that basically affords you an opportunity to work in any medical specialty." The AAPA has found that, throughout their time practicing, 49% of PAs changed their specialty.
To maintain their certification, PAs must sit a recertification exam every ten years and complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years.
“PAs do the same type of work” as MDs, argues Jonathan Sobel, the president and chair of the Board of Directors of AAPA. “For the average person who goes in to see a provider, you’re not going to notice much of a difference whether you’re seeing a physician or a PA,” Sobel continues.
A crucial difference between PAs and MDs, however, is their respective levels of autonomy. Unlike PAs, who are not independent practitioners, MDs act as the most responsible provider, have full liability over their patients and perform their duties independently.
Ultimately, as Sobel concludes, the service “you can expect to receive from your PA provider” is “very similar to what you’re getting from your physician provider.”
Despite the numerous benefits of shadowing a physician assistant, it does not count towards your required HCE/PCE hours. Similarly, helping sick family members does not satisfy this prerequisite. Paid, or voluntary, hands-on healthcare experience is required.
Presently, the MCAT is not required by any PA programs, though applicants must take the GRE.
Brian Palm, a PA who practices emergency medicine in Georgia, lists five factors to consider:
Your decision depends on you, your motivations, and your future ambitions, so taking the time to research your preferred schools is an integral part of nailing the application and enjoying your training.
Medical assistants do not practice medicine and, instead, perform routine clerical and clinical tasks, whereas PAs are licensed, medical professionals.
Both careers are emotionally and physically demanding and require a substantial time commitment. Burnout is experienced by both professions, though the percentage of MDs who experience this stands at 42% compared to 32.6% of PAs. Joshua Johnson, a PA-based in Hawaii who focuses on orthopedic surgery, notes that the PA lifestyle is “a little less stressful” as there is “less schooling” and a “little less responsibility involved.”
Hopefully, you are now fully aware of how to become a PA! The road to becoming a fully certified PA isn't an easy one. However, once you have accomplished it, you’ll be in a dynamic, collaborative, rewarding career where you can help people every day.
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