Pre-Physician Assistant

What is a Physician Assistant (PA)?

Physician Assistants (PAs) are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine under physician supervision. PAs are employed by doctor’s offices, clinics, hospitals, and other health care agencies.  As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, assist in surgical procedures, counsel on preventive health care issues, and write prescriptions. Although PAs work under the direction of a licensed physician, they are given the autonomy to diagnose and treat patients based on their education and training.

Preparing for a physician assistant program is much like preparing for medical school.  Most PA programs require the same pre-requisite courses that medical schools require. In addition to natural sciences, many PA programs require courses in humanities, human development, social sciences, statistics, and medical terminology.  To be a competitive applicant, it is advised that students check with several PA schools early on for an understanding of pre-requisite courses.

PA programs are typically 24-29 month master’s programs which culminate in awarding a Master of Science (M.S.) in Physician Assistant Studies.  This degree is recognized through the U.S. and in certain international locations.  Graduates of an accredited PA program are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination.

What should my major be?

PA programs do not require a specific undergraduate major.  In fact, the profession as a whole sees more career changers than any other professional medical career. When selecting a major, you should consider a major which you enjoy, where you will perform well and which may serve as a basis for further graduate work or employment should you choose not to apply to or are not admitted to a PA program. Admissions committees expect variety in educational programs, so you should take courses in a wide variety of subject areas, no matter what you decide to declare as a major.

What is so hard about being pre-PA?

For many students, the most difficult task is to acquire the study skills and self-discipline necessary to attain academic excellence. The success of your transition to college level work depends not only on ability, but also upon preparation, motivation, organization and how well you learn. It is important that you really learn the material, not just memorize it, as it is crucial to develop your critical thinking and problem solving skills. The rigorous curriculum of a pre-PA student demands tenacity and stamina and is virtually identical to preparing for medical school.

Is it difficult to get into a PA program? 

Yes. Students often shift interest to physician assistant programs when they feel they are no longer competitive for medical school. As mentioned above, PAs carry significant responsibility in diagnosing and treating patients and thus are expected to be highly knowledgeable in the natural sciences.  Being a PA is more than an “assistant”. For many patients, some or all of their health care is delivered by a PA. PA programs look for applicants who have demonstrated at the undergraduate/post-baccalaureate level strong academic ability and desire to do well in advanced study.

What are the minimal admissions requirements?

There are over 170 PA programs across the country. Somewhat like medical school, PA pre-req requirements typically cover the basic sciences, but may also require additional natural and hard sciences. Generally, most PA programs require the same coursework as medical school. At UC, that translates to:

Required courses:

  • Biology I and II                         BIOL 1081/1081L  and  BIOL 1082/1082L
  • General Chemistry I and II   CHEM 1040/1040L and CHEM 1041/1041L
  • Organic Chemistry I and II   CHEM 2040/2040L  and  CHEM 2041/2041L
  • General Physics I and II        PHYS 1050/1051L and  1052/1052L (*algebra-based, though calculus-based physics is accepted)
  • Anatomy & Physiology I and II   BIOL 2001C and 2002C   OR   Human and Comparative Anatomy   BIOL 3020C
  • Microbiology    BIOL 2031C  or BIOL 4011/4011L
  • Statistics         STAT 1034

Possibly required/recommended courses:

  • Biochemistry   CHEM 3040   Introduction to Biochemistry (one semester – usually taught spring semester)  

                                or

  • MG 4010   Introduction to Medical Biochemistry (usually taught fall semester via the College of Medicine)

                                or

  • MG 6010 and MG 6011   Principles of Biochemistry I & II (Both courses are required to fulfill the requirement if choosing this option.) Courses are offered fall and spring semesters respectively via the College of Medicine.

  • Introduction to Psychology—see advisor for further information
  • Human Development —see advisor for further information
  • Medical Terminology —see advisor for further information

 

It’s best to research several PA programs early on to understand what courses are required and recommended by each school. Some schools require or recommend additional upper level sciences, a year of English composition, humanities and/or social sciences. You should consult admissions literature for specific requirements and recommended courses at each school in which you are interested.

What is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is a standardized test that measures analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning skills. Most of these skills have been acquired over a long period of time and are not related to any specific field of study. PA programs require that you take the GRE prior to admission. We suggest familiarizing yourself with the GRE as early as your freshman year so that you can plan for the test. Understanding the test can positively affect what you learn in class and how you choose to retain that knowledge. Stretch yourself in general education courses at UC and by reading beyond class requirements. The training will serve you well when you take the GRE.

Many PA programs require the GRE; however, not all do. Typically, you apply to PA programs before the beginning of your senior year (or a year before you plan to enter), so you should plan to take the exam by the spring or summer after your junior year. The GRE is usually offered five-six days a week and may be taken by appointment at UC Testing Services or Prometric Testing Center.  More information regarding the GRE may be found at Educational Testing Services (ETS).  

What do PA programs consider when evaluating applicants?

The criteria for admission varies from school to school, but usually include academic record (GPA), standardized admissions exam (GRE), letters of recommendation, demonstrated knowledge and commitment to the profession personal statement and interview. To be a competitive applicant to PA programs, it is HIGHLY encouraged that you have recently shadowed a PA and have hands-on clinical care experience. Some programs require a minimum of 1000 hours of patient care experience at the time of application. Personal characteristics such as integrity and maturity are considered. Early in your college career you should consider exploring the medical field through volunteering, employment, shadowing and research for credit.  Additional information may be found at Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).  

What GPA do I have to have to get into a PA program?

This varies from school to school. However, the majority of students accepted to a PA program have a GPA of approximately 3.5 or higher. It is particularly important that you perform well in your science (biology, chemistry, physics, and math) courses. It is important for those considering professional school to be realistic about the extent to which performance meets admissions expectations.

Is it all over if I have a bad semester?

Admission committees look at the "big picture" as they evaluate applicants. They realize that every student does not hit the ground running when they enter college. Admission committees expect an excellent academic record, but will make some allowances for a problem quarter, slow start or rough spot. If academic problems arise, you must bounce back and perform better than ever to show that the problem was an exception, rather than the rule. Use resources such as professor and T.A. office hours and the Academic Excellence & Support Services office.

So will I need letters of recommendation?

Yes. Most schools require two letters from science professors that have had you in class and one letter from a non-science professor.  Many programs also recommend a letter from a PA or physician.

Is financial aid available?

Amounts and types of aid vary from school to school, as does the cost of your education. You should investigate the costs early in your undergraduate career. Knowing that you are probably going to incur a substantial loan debt for medical school may affect the way that you borrow for your undergraduate education. Most applicants are eligible for government originated aid; apply during January of your application cycle, even if you are still waiting to find out whether or not you have been accepted. Apply for aid at http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/.

Health Professions Scholarship Program is offered via the US Air Force; US Army; and US Navy. These programs typically cover 100% of graduate tuition and fees, along with a bonus or stipend.

How can the Pre-Professional Advising Center (PPAC) help me?

Preparing for admission to PA program requires careful long-range planning and accurate information. The PPAC specializes in providing you with necessary information and helping you develop good planning skills. The staff of the PPAC provides you with help through each step of the way. PPAC provides services including course selection, career exploration, time management tips, information on individual schools, admissions test preparation advice, managing letters of recommendation and links to ways to get experience in health care settings.

You probably have more questions. Please contact the PPAC at 513-556-2166 or PreProAdv@uc.edu to make an appointment. It is never too early to start planning.