Do you want to become a physician assistant? Here's what you need to start doing right now. (Part 1)

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

The physician assistant profession is still a relatively new one, but a popular one, with lots of people interested in becoming a PA.

I was recently accepted to physician assistant school, and will officially become a PA student at Idaho State University in August 2020. This is a career transition for me. Before this, I was a junior high and high school French and Spanish teacher for seven years (and education and language-learning will always be things I love).

The decision to become a PA meant going back to school to complete the prerequisites to be able to apply. It also meant careful planning and preparation, and a fair amount of work.

Since I started this journey, I’ve talked to others in the process of becoming a PA, or who are interested in that possibility. I started to realize that, even though I’ve talked to a lot of different people, I always seemed to want to offer the same advice. I decided to assemble that advice as a blog post—and once I sat down and started writing, I had a lot to say! This post is just Part 1! (See Part 2 here)

Do you want to become a PA? Here's the first thing you need to start doing right now (plus 4 resources to help).

Though I did have a degree when I decided to apply to PA school, I didn’t have practically any math or science prerequisites. I did these at the local community college not too long ago. One day during summer semester, in the lab for my microbiology class, I was completing an assignment when I overheard another student talking about going to PA school.

“I have a few more prerequisites to go,” she was saying to a lab partner. “I’m planning on starting PA school at the University of Utah in the fall.”

When I heard this, it became obvious to me that this student didn’t understand the process of getting into PA school. For one thing, it isn’t just a matter of completing the prerequisites and enrolling. PA schools are competitive. The profession is rapidly expanding, and many programs receive thousands of applications for a double-digit number of slots.

Besides this, her timeline was off. CASPA, the general application used by the vast majority of PA schools, opens for the new admissions cycle in the early spring—and there is just a single cycle (or window to apply) every year.

If a program likes your application, they'll invite you to interview. Most programs don’t start interviews, though, until the fall after CASPA opens—and that’s generally for the students they accept to start the following fall. If that student in my microbiology lab hadn’t applied yet, it would still be months to a year or more before starting a PA program--when she was assuming she'd just sign up and start the next semester.

Besides that, it made sense this student wanted to stay local and attend the University of Utah—but that particular program happens to be one of the top ten in the nation, which meant serious preparation if she wanted to be a competitive applicant.

A photo from my time in the lab...

I tell this story to illustrate my first and biggest recommendation for starting the journey of becoming a PA: You have to learn about the process of becoming a PA.

The process requires a lot of different pieces, and isn’t just a matter of doing some prerequisite classes and finding a program you like the looks of.

Here’s a list for where you should start:

Learn about the physician assistant profession. When you apply, you’ll need to demonstrate that you understand what a PA is and does, and you’ll need an answer to why you want to become one (including versus pursuing other options, like medical school). Learn about the history of the profession, what PAs can and can’t do, laws surrounding them, what they make, and so on. Shadowing is one way you do this—more on that coming soon in another post.

Figure out CASPA. CASPA is the common application used by the majority of PA programs in the US. You’ll want to know how it works, when it opens, and what information you’ll need to complete it, in addition to planning out a timeline for applying.

Learn about the application process and timeline. Applying for PA school is a multi-step process. Here's a rough sketch of the timeline:

  • You need to earn your bachelor’s degree and complete prerequisite coursework.

  • You also need to shadow PAs, volunteer, and gain health care experience (more on this coming soon!).

  • You need to figure out what programs you’re applying for, and make sure you do everything they ask. This might include taking additional tests like the GRE.

  • When you’re ready to apply, you complete CASPA when it opens for the year in the early spring. This involves entering information about yourself, volunteer and health care hours, shadowing, classes you’ve taken and your grades, and work experience. You’ll write a personal statement about why you want to become a PA. Also, you'll need to get three people to fill out recommendations through their system.

  • Submit CASPA to each program you’re interested in, pay the fees, and check for and complete any supplemental applications.

  • Now it's time for interview prep. If a program is interested in you, they’ll reach out and schedule an interview with you.

  • And then you...wait!

Find out about different programs and what they want. All PA programs have different application requirements, and different things they’re looking for in an applicant. Get familiar with what programs exist and what exactly they require to apply.

Learn from people who have gone through the process. Reading about other PAs, PA students, and PA school applicants and their PA journey can be incredibly useful in navigating this process.

GRE, CASPer, personal statement, oh my! Make sure you learn about all the different components of a competitive application.

Does this look overwhelming? The good news is that this information is out there! You just need to start accessing it.

Here are resources I recommend to get you started:

There are tons of great PA blogs out there. I have a Pinterest board where I assemble the blog posts that look especially useful for learning about becoming a PA. Check it out here!

The Pre-PA Club Podcast: This podcast was hugely instrumental in me getting accepted to PA school. You can find lots of episodes on the things you absolutely must know about in order to be a successful PA school applicant, including shadowing, the PA profession, getting health care experience, CASPA, the personal statement, interviewing, what PA school is like, and more.

AAPA News Central: The American Academy of PAs is the national PA professional organization. They have an academic journal, run conferences—and do a lot to advocate for the profession. Check out their newsroom to learn about the profession and to see the latest updates on evolving laws and policies that affect it.