Planning guide for new pre-physician assistant students

Introduction #

In this section you’ll find information for planning for admission to physician assistant (PA) programs, beginning with your first semester in college. When you meet with an academic advisor during New Student Orientation, please make sure you mention your intention to follow a pre-PA preparatory program. You will be subscribed to the Health Professions and Prelaw Center (HPPLC) mailing list, and receive information about important upcoming events, such as the Pre-PA Orientation Meeting for new students. Consult resources from University Division and/or the school/department where you intend to enroll for more information on planning for summer orientation.

Description of the profession #

Physician assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. As part of their comprehensive responsibilities, PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries, order and interpret lab tests and x-rays, counsel on preventative health care, assist in surgery, and write prescriptions. PAs work in all areas of medicine, both primary care (e.g., family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, obstetrics and gynecology) as well as specialty and sub-specialty medicine. Skills and characteristics important to this profession: critical thinking and problem-solving skills, empathy, ability to work quickly and make good decisions under pressure, compassion, excellent time management skills, curiosity, effective interpersonal communication, love of science, resilience, the ability to work with a team of care givers, cultural competency, and willingness to invest in continued education as healthcare methodology and technology changes.

The degree path #

To become a licensed physician assistant you must earn a graduate degree from an accredited PA training program. Before being admitted to a PA program you must successfully complete all prerequisite courses and other admission requirements, most by the time of application. These requirements include your successful completion of a bachelor’s degree and prerequisite courses. Prerequisites are not the same for all PA programs, but most require all or nearly all of the prerequisites listed below.

Choosing your degree and major #

Almost any degree and major works fine for pre-physician assistant students. Most PA programs have no preference as to what major and degree you earn! There does not need to be an obvious connection between your major and the PA profession. You should select a major that interests you, allows you to build strong intellectual skills, and one that could provide opportunities for graduate work or employment if you choose not to pursue physician assistant school. It is also perfectly fine to be exploratory in the beginning, and to work with your academic advisor throughout the year to discover a major that is a good fit for you, as you continue to work in PA prerequisites.

The Explore Programs tool at IU can help you discover your options!

Physician assistant program course admission requirements #

The courses required for admission vary from one PA program to another. The Academic Preparation page under Physician Assistant contains a list of IU PA prerequisites, many of which are also required by other PA programs. By choosing from the courses listed in the section below you can be confident that you will begin to lay a foundation that will enable you to apply to a variety of PA programs.

Your course load #

A normal course load for most preprofessional students is 14-16 total credit hours. That means you’ll probably be enrolling in from four to six classes. During New Student Orientation, an academic advisor will help you double-check your options, choose appropriate courses, and plan an appropriate course load in which you’ll be able to be successful. To earn strong grades and succeed in being admitted, most pre-PA students need to devote about 30 hours per week outside of class to studying and class preparation.

Planning your fall course options #

For your fall semester, you should begin completing pre-physician assistant coursework, but you’ll also need to complete other courses for your particular undergraduate degree and major. Consult resources from University Division and/or the school/department where you intend to enroll on how to plan your fall course schedule for any of the majors you are considering.  During your first semester at IUB, you will also need to enroll in other courses besides your pre-physician assistant coursework, including courses for the major(s) you are considering and courses that fulfill General Education requirements at IUB.

Below is a partial list of IU PA program prerequisites, many of which are required by other PA programs, too.  Plan to register for at least one pre-PA course for the fall semester. Try to register for 5-8 credits of these courses for the upcoming semester. We strongly advise that you not take more than one 5 credit course in the same semester.

As of this writing, the IU PA program generally accepts Advanced Placement credit as fulfilling prerequisites as long as the course is recorded on a college transcript and you received an AP score of 3 or higher. If you think you may have AP credit or other credit for one or more of the courses below, be sure to tell your Orientation advisor. For the most current policy, visit IU PA Admission Requirements and select Academic Prerequisites.

Generally, math and science courses must be courses for science majors to count for PA admission. If placement exams recommend or require you take a prep course or prerequisite prior to a required course, don't worry: with careful planning (and consultation with an academic advisor) you can still stay on track.  

Some PA programs may not accept Advanced Placement (AP credit), credit-by-exam, or exemption from degree requirements in place of admission requirements, or may only accept such credit under specific circumstances. If you have placement credit and/or exemptions, you will eventually need to check with programs to confirm their policies.

Other activities for pre-physician assistant students #

Clinical observation (or job shadowing) is important to the PA admission process. Clinical observation will also help you decide if a career as a PA is the best choice for you, or whether you need to explore other fields. Furthermore, extensive clinical observation in a variety of settings can help you become a more competitive applicant to PA programs. 

We strongly suggest you undertake some observation prior to beginning classes in the fall. After freshman year, continue with more observation.  Log your shadowing hours and take some notes during your experiences. Refer to the PA professional development page for more detailed suggestions. 

We suggest you give yourself time acclimate to college and the increased demands of IUB courses before you begin devoting much time to student organizations or community service. You may visit the related section on Pre-PA preparation for more information. Make sure to attend HPPLC’s Pre-Physician Assistant Orientation Meeting in the fall to explain the process of preparing to enter a Physician Assistant program in more detail.