Do you want to become a physician assistant? Here's what you need to start doing right now. (Part 2)

I'm soon to start physician assistant school, and I recently wrote about how, when I talk to others who are interested in pursuing this path, I find myself always giving out the same advice. I wanted to start writing that advice down. Here's Part 2 on what you should start doing right away--if you haven't already, be sure to check out Part 1 here.

Do you want to become a physician assistant? Here's one of your first steps: Make a list of the schools you're going to apply to.

One of the first things you need to do if you're serious about applying to PA school is to make a list of the schools you're going to apply to. Different programs can have very different requirements, so you need to plan early on in the process where you're applying. This is so you can then plan out how you're going to complete all application requirements. Applying to PA school is not an easy or quick process, and you need to create a game plan early on.

Here's a list of ways different programs differ--these also happen to be the things you need to research for each program and take into account when you're making your application game plan:

  • What prerequisites are required. For any PA program, you can generally count on classes like biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. But there are a huge range of other possible requirements—and all schools seem to have their own unique mixture of them! You might see Spanish, abnormal psychology, genetics, organic chemistry, statistics, microbiology, biochemistry, nutrition, upper-level science classes, medical terminology, and more. One program I saw even required applicants to have a sociology class!

  • Whether you can have uncompleted prerequisites when you apply. Some programs allow you to have a few classes to go when you apply, other programs require you to have everything completed and reported on a transcript.

  • GPA. Many programs require a minimum cumulative GPA and/or a minimum prerequisite GPA.

  • Whether health care hours are required, and, if so, how many. Historically, the PA profession was started for military medics, who had tons of hands-on medical training but weren’t recognized as health care providers. Many programs come from that tradition, and look for applicants who already have lots of medical experience. Others don’t require any medical experience at all! In addition, different programs will accept different types of experience—I, for example, had experience working in my parents’ vet clinic. If you’re unsure about health care experience and if it counts, you’ll need to check with the specific programs you’re applying to.

  • Shadowing requirements. All schools want you to shadow a PA, and this is a part of the CASPA application. This is to insure you know what you’re getting into! Some schools might require a certain amount of shadowing, but other programs just offer suggested guidelines—or just want you to have done some shadowing of some kind.

  • Supplemental applications. Some programs have additional forms or essay questions that you’ll need to complete in addition to submitting your CASPA application.

  • Required exams. Some programs want you to take the GRE, the same test you take for most other graduate programs. Some want something called the CASPer test--confusingly, it has nothing to do with the CASPA application; it is supposed to evaluate your ethics and people skills. There is now even a new PA version of the MCAT, called the PA-CAT, that I’m sure the testing companies want to become more and more common. For any and each of these that are required, you’ll need to prepare like crazy for them, schedule taking them, and make sure you get your scores back by the time you complete your PA school application.

  • Whether you get an advantage for applying early. Some programs review applications as they come in (called “rolling admissions”); others don’t evaluate them until their application deadline has passed. You’ll want to know about any rolling admissions, since applying to those schools as fast as possible after CASPA opens for the year can give you a leg up!

  • Timeline. CASPA only opens once a year, but different programs have different deadlines for you to submit the application to them. Some programs also start sooner than others. (One program I applied to was scheduled to start in January, while most of the others didn’t start until August of the same year. A huge difference!)

  • Fees. As of this writing, CASPA charges $179 for the first program you apply to, and $55 for each additional program. But—surprise! Some programs require you pay an additional fee directly to them on top of that for them to consider your application.

  • How they evaluate your application, and how they weight different components. Different programs use different methods to evaluate your application—and they look for different things in their applicants. For one school, having lots of volunteer hours will really boost your application—when it might not matter at all for another school. A low GPA might get you knocked out early in the admissions process of one program, but not really matter for another. Basically, different programs value different things, and are looking for different kinds of applicants. Speaking personally, I’m attending Idaho State University for PA school. They use a mathematical formula (considering prerequisite GPA and GRE percentiles) as a cut-off to determine which applications they evaluate for interview invitations. I was rejected by the University of Utah. Out of the nine programs I applied to, they required the fewest prerequisites but highest number of health care hours (2,000!). This is obviously a program that values candidates who already work in health care, something that I didn't have. I was accepted to the University of Southern California, a program emphasizes diversity and service. They don't even require a certain number of health care hours—but do require Spanish-language experience. With lots of volunteer hours, two Spanish degrees, and an unconventional background for a PA (as a former teacher), I was their ideal candidate! Different programs are looking for different things, and it can be helpful to think about what programs want someone just like you.

Different programs have very different requirements—so planning is key. Choose what programs you’ll apply to early in your pre-PA process. You need to make yourself a roadmap and timeline of everything that needs to happen.

Here’s how I decided what programs to apply for:

After I decided to become a PA, I scheduled a year to prepare to apply. I started this process after I finished my bachelor's degree, but before I had done any prerequisites for PA school.

This is what I did to determine where I would apply:

1. First, I looked at geography. My home is Utah, so I didn’t want to be further than a day’s drive away for PA school. I made a list of all the programs in that radius.

Click here for a list of all accredited physician assistant programs in the United States listed by state.

2. Next, I looked at all those programs' prerequisites. To do this, I actually looked at each program's website. I made a list of how often each prerequisite class came up, creating a “frequency chart.”

A screenshot from my PA school planning document, showing my prerequisite frequency chart. I made this by looking at the prerequisites for each PA program within the geographical radius I was interested in. This showed me what prerequisites I should focus on completing.

3. I did my PA school prerequisites years after my bachelor’s degree, so my next step was planning out a timeline just for these classes. I prioritized the classes based on their frequency from my frequency chart, at the same time working backwards and figuring out the prerequisites I needed for the prerequisites.

After making a plan for what prerequisite courses I could complete in my timeline, I could further refine my list of programs I would apply to: I eliminated programs with prerequisite requirements that just wouldn't fit in my plan.

4. Next, I looked at all the other application requirements requirements of the programs that were left on my list--these are things like volunteer hours, health care experience, GPA, and shadowing. If the other requirements were impossible for me to complete within my planned amount of time, the program got eliminated from my application list. The requirements that I hadn't yet satisfied but would be able to got carefully added to my overall game plan to make sure I'd get them satisfied in time for when that program's application was due.