How to get into PA school

The physician assistant profession continues to be one of the fastest growing careers in the healthcare sector for many appealing reasons, both professional and financial.

Recently, US News listed the physician assistant profession as the #3 best job in the United States. With the growing nature of the profession, the number of physician assistant schools and graduates in the U.S. has also increased exponentially.

Despite the increased number of physician assistant schools, competition to enroll in a PA program has remained fierce. As the number of applicants has increased, schools’ admissions data, such as average GPA, average number of patient care hours, and overall number of applicants for available seats, has also skyrocketed.

At Medgeeks, we are always trying to put things simply, so we ask ourselves: how hard is it to get into PA school?

Today’s article will be a great transition into the rapidly approaching application season. With CASPA (Centralized Application Service for PAs) season just around the corner in April, it can already feel like crunch time for those applicants preparing to enter the cycle.

Today we will explore how the competitiveness of the application cycle has increased, look at some PA school matriculation data, and then give you our best advice on how to get into PA school.


How hard is it to get into PA school?

According to the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), PA school is quite difficult to get into. During the 2016 to 2017 cycle, there were a total of 26,768 applicants. This is up approximately 20% in just the past few years.

Of those total applicants, only about 31% matriculated into a physician assistant program. When looking at the raw data, it can be daunting. For any 10 applicants, 3 ended up matriculating, while the other 7 were forced to consider the next step in their career, or reapply next year.

For individual programs, the overall number of applicants to those who end up matriculating into the program averages at about 6%, but for some programs, only less than 1% of applicants matriculate into the program.

During the 2017 applicant cycle, Boston University received 2,103 applications. Of these, 90 applicants, or 4.2% were offered interviews. Of the 90 students who interviewed, 30 matriculated into the program. The overall acceptance rate for Boston University: 1.4%.

The Pennsylvania State University received 4,786 applications during the 2018 cycle, interviewed 2.4% of applicants, and admitted just 39. The overall acceptance rate for PSU: 0.08%.

Duke University received 2,861 CASPA applications during the 2018 cycle, interviewing 250 students (8.7%) and matriculated just 90 students. The overall acceptance rate for Duke: 3.1%.

As students of medicine and science, we love to analyze numbers, but the numbers presented above are downright terrifying. Thankfully, numbers are not everything. There are hundreds of variables that come into play during your application, including GPA, prior health care experience, shadowing, volunteering, letters of recommendation, interviewing, and so much more.


The Application Process for PA school

Today, we are here to give you the blueprint for a successful application. The numbers may be intimidating, but we are here to help improve your chances of matriculating at your dream school! We’ll go piece by piece, each step of how to get into PA school, and in the process, we’ll transform your nerves into confidence!

The first step to a successful application is to prepare. It seems simple, but this is a step that a lot of people miss. One of the biggest errors we see and one I committed myself was that I did not prepare appropriately.

I had no idea how much the application process would cost, how much time I would need to expend, and how long and arduous it can be.

The financial commitment to applying to PA school can be daunting, especially when one has student loans piling up. I generally recommend that applicants set aside at least $1,000 dollars to prepare, but some may require more, as CASPA, interviews, plane tickets, and admission deposits can add up quickly.

Another initial step is to think about where one would like to go to PA school. Is there a PA school right around the corner at your alma mater or will you require a cross country move? I recommend having an open and honest conversation with family to help plan. This basic planning and thinking is key to future decisions down the road.


Understanding CASPA

Once a candidate has a basic idea of the financial cost, number of schools, and general time line on when they would like to matriculate, I recommend logging in to CASPA (Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants) and getting a feel for the website. It is wise to set up a username and password and get comfortable with navigating the site.

The next CASPA cycle will open at the end of April. This is the time where candidates can go in and start filling out their information. I suggest filling out all of the easy portions first, such as the demographic information. Next, go through it with a fine tooth comb and make sure there are no errors.

The next key point is to set up a timeline on when it might be reasonable to have your entire application completed. Data shows that candidates who are quickest to get verified and complete their applications are more likely to matriculate to the school of their choice, so there is value in completing things early.

Even before April, steps can be taken to assure that the application is completed as soon as possible once the cycle begins. Candidates should be thinking constantly about their personal statement, writing drafts, editing, and having others read your work. Throughout my application, I revised, re-drafted, threw out, and thought of many different directions of which my personal statement could go. Having a good draft and a solid idea early on, even prior to logging into CASPA, helps you stay ahead of the game.

A word about CASPA, this is your lifeline. Can you imagine having to fill out an application for EVERY school you applied to? It would be impossible. CASPA is used by about 95% of PA schools and is a centralized service that communicates between you and the school. They mail transcripts, calculate GPA, send information to the school on your behalf. They are a life-line for the stressed out pre-PA student and simplify what is a very complicated application process.

CASPA does have fees associated with them, and rightfully so. Remember when we talked about saving $1000 earlier to pay for your application? The charge associated for one initial school is $177 dollars and then each subsequent school is $51. As you can see, applying to 5 or 10 schools can become expensive very quickly. We haven’t even started talking about supplemental applications yet.


Applying to PA School

The decision to apply to a specific school is multifactorial. Students apply different places for many reasons. Perhaps your undergraduate college also has a PA program. Perhaps there is convenient location.

Some general guidelines include looking at average GPA, average health care experience/hours, minimum GRE scores, whether there is a supplemental application, types of letters of recommendation, cost, convenience, location, probation status, new program status. The wise candidate should make sure that they are at or above the minimum categories for GPA, GRE, healthcare hours.

Something that candidates commonly miss is that you are also interviewing the school! This did not click for me until my second or third interview.

Keep in mind, you should look at:

  • Cost
  • PANCE pass rates
  • Does the program have a primary care focus or a specialty focus?
  • Cost of living in the region
  • Student happiness
  • Job market in the area

After all, would you really want to go to a school that only passes 80% of its’ students on the PANCE?

It is impossible to give specific advice on what school(s) to apply to, because everyone is different and we choose to apply to schools for different reason. This is the scope of our individualized interviews and question and answer sessions, but more on that later!


Know Your Deadlines!

Once the list of schools has been finalized, the candidate should be cautious about timing of application and deadlines. There are a number of different types of deadlines as part of CASPA and taking the extra time to be thorough assures you do not miss deadlines and lose your application fee (like this writer did a few years ago!).

Mapping out the timing of your submission can be challenging, but this is key to make sure that you make the deadlines. General consensus among applicants is that it takes 6 to 8 weeks to verify your CASPA application once it has been submitted.

So this means if you are planning for a school whose deadline is October 1, you must have your CASPA submitted by August 1. The actual time is takes to verify can vary, but we recommend airing on the side of caution, especially with the rising number of applicants.

There is a wonderful CASPA page that goes over all of the different types of deadlines. Each school is different in their deadline requirements. These are demonstrated via blue, orange, and green colors.

A school with a blue deadline indicates that the application must be submitted by the deadline. A school with an orange deadline requires application submission, payments, verification, and 2 letters of recommendation by deadline. A green school indicates that the application must be verified by CASPA by the deadline.

This can be confusing, but is important not to miss: you can submit to blue deadline on the day the application is due, but a green school needs to be verified by that time! So you might need to have that submitted months before!


CASPA: GRE, Personal and Academic History

Once the application demographics are completed and school deadlines have been planned, the remainder of CASPA is conveniently divided into sections. The remainder of sections are divided into: Personal history, academic history, standardized tests, evaluations, achievements, essay, memberships, experiences.

The personal history is very self-explanatory and will not be discussed in depth here. My two recommendations for this section are to have both a professional sounding email and voicemail. These are the ways that schools will contact you for interviews.

The next category is coursework, where the applicant lists all of the courses they have taken. AP classes from high school do count and should be entered carefully. CASPA does offer a transcriptionist service, in which one of their employees will enter all of your information, but this is a $65 fee.

Under standardized tests, it is the responsibility of the applicant to choose where to send GRE scores to. One should pay close attention to the minimums for particular schools, and assure that the GRE is taken in enough time so that scores are available at deadlines.


CASPA: Evaluations (letters of recommendation) and Achievements

The evaluation section is the portion where your evaluators write about you. There are instructions that are self-explanatory about how to have your evaluators submit to CASPA. You can waive your right to read your evaluation.

Applicants should assure that they have the necessary required letters, for example if a school requires a letter from a PA. Applicants can submit up to 5 letters of recommendation. Allow 1 to 2 months for evaluators to complete recommendations, remember, your professors and clinicians you worked with are busy!

A common use of our question and answer service includes sections on how to get a good recommendation, when to use a committee letter, and much more!

The achievements sections includes honors or awards that the candidate has received throughout their academic or professional career. This might include publications, scholarships or awards one received.

This is a place to show unique opportunities or notoriety to help improve the overall level of the application. CASPA does provide a section on what is appropriate in this spot.


CASPA: Memberships and Experiences

The next section includes the memberships and experiences section. The distinction here is direct patient care versus health care experience. If the candidate worked as an EMT or another profession where direct patient care was encountered, this should be listed and hours should be given.

The website does give a list of what qualifies as direct patient care. I have found CASPA very responsive to e-mails in regards to specific questions or situations. Shadowing can also be listed. Certifications, licensures, and membership in clubs as well as leadership positions are also relevant here.

Candidates should note duration and try to estimate the number of hours for each. It is important to be honest and not exaggerate hours.

As we discussed earlier, it is important to keep the personal statement in mind long before the CASPA page is ever opened. It is important to have a clear understanding of why the candidate has chosen to become a PA. The scope and focus of the personal statement will vary with each candidate.

General recommendations include editing early, often, and doing a final screen for spelling errors. The limit on the personal statement is 5,000 characters and should not be confused with 5,000 words.

Our service does review and edit personal statements and has helped many students narrow down the scope of their personal statement. It is available through the packages discussed below and has been very successful in helping students achieve their dream of getting into their top choice PA school.


Submitting Your Application to PA School!

Once the personal statement is finalized and the CASPA sections have been reviewed with a fine tooth comb, it is time to submit! As discussed above, it is best to submit as soon as appropriately possible during the cycle.

This is the time where I recommend relaxing. It is not helpful to check CASPA every day to see if you were verified, nor is it helpful to e-mail schools asking if they received your application.

Candidates should keep a close eye for information from schools, as it may come in the form of e-mail, or even a personal phone call for an interview. Supplemental applications are a secondary, more focused part of the application that schools may send to you for further information.

When an interview is extended, this is great news, but it is not the end of our work! As discussed above, many schools interview numerous students, but certainly the chances of being accepted have increased. It is important to plan out the trip and to figure out if driving or flying is reasonable. Arriving early and doing a dry run of the campus or hospital helps quell day of interview jitters. Attire should be professional.

There are numerous techniques out there to help prepare for interviews and there are also resources in the form of practice questions. Every school is different in terms of the actual format. Some are one on one, group, Multiple Mini Interview. Some even incorporate a patient encounter into their interview day.

It is hard to prepare for anything specific, but having a variety of interests and an ability to talk about academic backgrounds, current events, and healthcare in general is helpful

Another service we offer here through Medgeeks is tailored mock interviews. Our students have found this tremendously helpful in terms of overall preparation, easing nerves, and thinking “outside the box”. It’s a very valuable service!

Once an interview is complete, it is reasonable to send a thank you card to the admissions committee. Keep in mind, many of the professors are educators and clinicians and are very busy. They took time out of their lives to meet with you and you should thank them for the time. Taking time to comment on something specific you liked about the program is helpful.


After the Interview

The waiting game after an interview can be an intense emotional challenge. Some schools are very quick with decisions, while others may take weeks or months. I generally advise against emailing schools to check your status. In the case of having another acceptance to another school and needing to make a decision, I do think it is reasonable to let the school know that you are under a time crunch to make a decision.

Once an acceptance has been achieved, it is time to celebrate! Your years of schooling and months of conquering CASPA have paid off! It is certainly time to relax, take a break and thank the family and friends who have helped you throughout the way!

Confirming an acceptance, placing deposits, and preparing for PA school will be discussed in a future article.


Need More Help?

Certainly each individual situation is unique and this article has been a summary of the major points for each category. We could easily to an article on each particular topic, CASPA, interviews, pre-pa experience and discuss many other topics. Today’s goal has been to give you a blueprint of the process and steps you can take to better your application.

The numbers that were shown above can be scary, but with a well-rounded application, good time management skills, and excellent interview skills, your chances of matriculating to the school of your choice are much, much higher!

Still feeling nervous about the application process?

Don’t fear, we are here to help!

Click here to join us on our Free webinar: How to Get Into PA School

We’ll also review the different services we have available, such as a custom power point reviewing the process, personalized mock interviews, as well as question and answer sessions directed by you with our certified PAs.

You won’t want to miss this!