Academic preparation

Choosing a major #

If you are planning for physician assistant school, your major doesn't matter nearly as much as the competencies you build. While you need to complete certain prerequisite courses, you don’t have to have any particular major or even major in a science field.

PA programs regularly receive many applications from applicants who have nursing, paramedic or other health care degrees and experience working in these fields, but many programs desire to admit more applicants who are applying after completing non-health care majors, including non-science majors.

IU Bloomington has more than 200 undergraduate majors. How do you choose among these? Foremost, select a major you will enjoy.

Regardless of your major, PA programs will expect you to complete a rigorous set of coursework in the natural sciences. Being a strong student in the sciences isn't enough though. You will need strong analytical and critical reasoning skills. Good practitioners must be able to relate to their patients on a personal level. Communication skills are important for PA's, too.

For these reasons, there is no one major that is considered the best for PA applicants. You could become a strong applicant by majoring in a non-science field, as long as you excel in your science coursework and demonstrate that you are fully prepared for the demands of PA education. You could also become a strong applicant by majoring in a science field while taking advanced-level coursework in the humanities and social sciences to develop your communication and critical reasoning skills. There is no one path to becoming a physician assistant.

Why are good communication skills important for PA's? Just stop and imagine the thousands of interactions that take place every day between practitioners and patients, in which patients describe their symptoms and PA's must listen skillfully and ask the right questions. The process of diagnosing and treating patients is highly dependent on language use. To become a good physician assistant you will need to build strong communication skills. Coursework in the humanities and social sciences can deepen your abilities to communicate with patients in a variety of ways.

Pre-Physician Assistant coursework #

Before applying, physician assistant programs will expect you to complete certain coursework, particularly in the sciences. Research the requirements of the programs where you plan to apply.

Course Requirements for Indiana University Physician Assistant program #

The following coursework is required for admission to the Indiana University Physician Assistant Program. The left hand column shows the program’s requirement and the right hand column shows courses at IU Bloomington that can be used to fulfill the requirement. All prerequisite courses listed below must be a minimum of three credit hours (with the exception of Medical Terminology, which is a minimum 1 credit hour). All science courses must be a course for science majors and include a lab.

Requirements for other Physician Assistant programs #

One of the challenges in completing the prerequisites for physician assistant programs is the variation of those prerequisites. Different PA programs require different prerequisites. It is important to research the prerequisites of the programs where you plan to apply. Begin to build a spreadsheet or list of the prerequisites required by the programs in which you are interested. We have an example spreadsheet here.

In addition to the courses listed above, following are some common courses that are required by some PA programs. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive but instead to illustrate the variations among programs.

Biochemistry

A growing number of PA programs require biochemistry. For those NOT majoring or minoring in chemistry one option may be CHEM-C383 Chemical Organization of Living Systems (P: CHEM-C 341). CHEM-C 483 Biological Chemistry (P: CHEM-C 342 or R340) and CHEM-C 484 Biomolecules and Catabolism (P: C342) are also possible options, especially for chem majors and minors. All of these courses are very intensive courses and will require a substantial investment of time each week and a willingness to seek consistent help.

Psychology

Most PA programs require some coursework in psychology. If general psychology is required, then PSY-P 101 and perhaps 102, or P155, may be acceptable. If an upper level course is required then most 300-level PSY courses should be sufficient. Confirm with the given program. Please be aware that most upper level psychology classes require PSY-P 101 and 102 or PSY-P 155.

Lifespan Development or Developmental Psychology

For PA programs requiring Lifespan Development or Developmental Psychology options may be SPH-F 150, EDUC-P 314 (pq: PSY -Y 101 or 155), or PSY-P 315 (pq: PSY-Y 101 and 102, or PSY Y 155). PSY-P 315 may be a more flexible option, depending on program preferences. If Lifespan or Developmental Psychology is required it may need to cover the full lifespan, birth to death. Confirm with programs.

Genetics

For PA programs requiring genetics: BIOL-L 311 (P: BIOL-L 211).

Immunology

For PA programs requiring an immunology course: BIOL-L 321 Principles of Immunology (P: BIOL 211 and CHEM-C 117; R: BIOL-L 312).

Molecular Biology

For PA programs requiring molecular biology: BIOL-L 211 (P: BIOL-L112 and CHEM-C 117).

Physics

Some PA programs require a semester or two of physics. Options for physics courses would include PHYS-P 201 or 221 (if one semester is required) and PHYS-P 202 or 222 (if a second semester is required). Confirm with each program to which you plan to apply.

Humanities

Some PA programs require a certain minimum number of humanities course credits. For options, refer to the Arts & Humanities (AH) list of approved courses on the General Education website.

Academic record and GPA #

Your undergraduate GPA is one of the primary ways PA programs will evaluate your application for admission. It provides the program with evidence of your ability to excel at their curriculum. What is a competitive GPA for admission to PA school? The average cumulative GPA for students admitted to PA schools is about 3.6. PA programs pay attention to grade trends and ranges also. A student who had a difficult first semester as a freshman but went on to earn A’s in rigorous science courses in future semesters could still be viewed favorably.

There is not a uniform way that all PA programs look at academic records. Some put greater emphasis on the cumulative GPA while others favor the science or prerequisite GPA.

Some students assume that the GPA range needed for admission to physician assistant school is automatically much lower than for medical school. This is not the case. PA school admission has become quite competitive, so that admission to many programs requires a GPA very similar to what is required for admission to many medical schools.

Since your academic record is important, you should plan your courses carefully with the assistance of your academic advisor. Think about the course load you are attempting in light of your commitments outside of the classroom such as a part-time job, obtaining patient care experience, and involvement in student organizations or community service. Be sure to set aside time for yourself to exercise, meditate, watch the grass grow–whatever helps you to shed stress. Adding something to your daily routine that gets your mind off of classes and exams will result in greater productivity and better mental health.

Thinking about retaking a course? #

The CASPA application that is used by most physician assistant programs does not replace grades for repeated coursework. If you retake a course, both the original grade and the new grade will count toward your GPA.

A small number of PA programs do use grade replacement and will only use the second grade of a repeated course when calculating GPA’s. This latter approach to evaluating an academic record is not wide spread and should be considered a 'gift' from the admission committee and not viewed as a strategy for getting in.

Before you re-take a course to try to earn a higher grade, you should speak with an advisor and carefully consider all the ramifications of your decision.

What’s the secret to a strong transcript?

Building a strong transcript requires careful planning, excellent time management skills, and dedication. Make use of resources such as instructor office hours and tutoring. Tracking your study time and devoting about 25-30 hours per week to preparation outside of class times can enhance your success!

A word about parallel planning #

What is parallel planning? It's a smart strategy to ensure your success. There are many possible paths to your goal of a healthcare career! Some students convince themselves that there is only one career for them – but the truth is that you could potentially be successful in a wide number of fields. A parallel plan is a plan you create that you can pursue right alongside your first choice of a career. This parallel plan serves you in two ways. It provides you a seamless transition to another career path if you decide that a particular health field is not for you. It also provides you with a second area of experience and knowledge to take into your career if you stay with your primary goal.

How could you create a parallel plan? Explore your interests, goals, and values. Meet with a career advisor. Think about other goals you would like to achieve alongside being a practitioner– for instance, would you like to encourage healthy lifestyles, improve global health, develop health policy or new treatments through research? Your answers to these questions may help indicate additional career paths through which you could find meaning and expand your career.

Your career center also has tools to help you parallel plan and explore your career interests. You can find the career office associated with your school on the Career Services website. Summer experiences can also help you explore your interests. Your career office can help you do an internship search and assist with your resume and cover letter or application. Pre-PA students typically also use summers to gain direct patient care hours.