Applying to physician assistant programs

Research programs #

There is a great deal of variation in the characteristics of and requirements for PA programs. As soon as you decide that you want to study to be a PA, you should start compiling a list of programs that you are considering. A spreadsheet is a good way to track the differences. You can find links to programs on the PAEA Program Directory.

Some PA programs require the Graduate Record Exam (GRE - revised General Test) #

The GRE is a standardized exam required by some physician assistant programs. This exam is designed to measure general academic ability and is a computerized exam offered year-round by Educational Testing Service (ETS). The GRE is typically taken in the spring or summer prior to application and you should plan on spending at least two to three months preparing for the exam. For more information on the GRE, visit the ETS website.

Central application service for Physician Assistant (CASPA): the primary application #

The vast majority of PA programs use CASPA to manage their application process. You can find the application on the CASPA application website and instructions for the application process. The application opens each year about late April. Schools have different deadlines, the latest of which is in March. Many programs utilize rolling admissions, so applying early can give you an advantage. You do not need to submit the application on the first day it opens, but you should submit it well in advance of the programs’ deadlines. Do not sacrifice quality of your application for a little extra speed.

The CAPSA consists of four sections.

  1. Personal Information
    This section captures biographical information about you, your family, citizenship, race and ethnicity, how to contact you and information about where you grew up. This section also asks about academic infractions, and felonies and misdemeanors.

  2. Academic History
    In this section, you will type in information on all the college or graduate-level courses you have taken. These would include college courses you took during high school or during summers, whether at IUB or other colleges. CASPA will use this information to calculate your annual, cumulative and science GPA’s. You will also send a transcript from IUB and any other college or university where you enrolled in a class. CASPA will use these transcripts to verify the accuracy of what you typed onto your application.

    PA programs derive most of their understanding of your intellectual capabilities from reviewing this section. They will be able to see the degree to which you challenged yourself with breadth and depth of education, rigor, and they will put that into the context of what you were doing with your life outside of classes and study.

  3. Supporting Information
    Personal Essay
    As part of the CASPA application process, you will need to submit a personal statement of up to 5,000 characters including spaces. The admissions committee will read your personal statement to learn why you want to become a physician assistant.

    Writing a personal statement requires that you reflect on your motivations and the personal experiences that have shaped you. An effective approach is to write about the series of events in your life that have led you to this career. What started you on the path toward becoming a practitioner, and what kept you on that path once you started, even at times when it wasn’t easy? Drawing material from your healthcare journal can provide useful insights and help bring your writing to life.

    Admissions committees will be evaluating your application based on your ability to express yourself coherently and effectively, as it may correspond to your ability to communicate with patients later.

    Make sure to attend one of the Personal Statement Writing Workshops offered by the Health Professions and Prelaw Center. Schedule an appointment with a HPPLC advisor for feedback on a draft of your personal statement.

    Evaluations (Letters of recommendation)
    Most PA programs require two to three letters of recommendation. Some programs require letters from instructors and possibly from a practicing Physician Assistant you shadowed. If you are applying to programs via CASPA, the letters must be submitted directly by the recommender through CASPA. For CASPA programs, consult CASPA's Letter of Reference FAQ before submitting recommender information.

    Help your instructors get to know you by engaging in office hours and brief conversations after class. You are not trying to curry their favor. Instead, you are asking for help understanding things you do not get or getting a better understanding of things you do get. Request letters of recommendation six or more weeks before you plan to submit applications.

    This section captures your life outside of the classroom since you graduated from high school, whether during the school year or breaks. There are several categories of information requested: direct patient care, health care experience, shadowing, non-health care employment, volunteerism, student activities, research, leadership, and teaching.

    In this section include accomplishments such as Dean’s list, merit scholarships you earned coming into college, academic achievements or grants won in college, recognitions from employment or service organizations, and authorship or co-authorship of publications.

  4. CASPA Program Materials
    Before submitting your application, you select the schools where you would like to apply. Some of those programs will have additional materials for you to provide in order to complete the application. This might include additional essays, a form for you to designate which of your courses fulfill their prerequisites or forms to send to the supervisors of your direct patient experience.

Admission interviews #

Before admitting you, PA programs want to meet you in person so they can evaluate personal qualities they can’t observe directly in your written application. Each PA program has its own “taste” so an applicant might interview at some programs and not others. “Taste” includes academic readiness, direct patient care and other experiences, what you derived from those experiences, GRE, and fit. Selected applicants are invited for an interview. You should prepare carefully for this crucial component of the admissions process.

PA programs use interviews to gain insight into how you would interact with patients. Schools also use the interview to assess factors such as motivation and ability to cope with conflict. They want to know how likely it is you would take a spot if they offered one, so it is important that you express your enthusiasm and sincere interest in the school!

PA program interviews often involve more of a psychological dimension than most job interviews. In a job interview, the most important question for your interviewer is probably, “What can this person do for our organization?” For your PA school interviewer the most important question may be, “Would I trust this person as my own caregiver?”

One of your most important goals is to demonstrate you have the ability to connect with others on a personal level. As a practitioner you will need to be able to walk into a room, meet a stranger, establish trust, and build rapport within a few seconds so that person may open up to you to help you make a correct diagnosis.

To prepare, review your personal statement, activities listed on your application, and think about why you chose those activities, how you impacted others, and what you derived from each. It’s helpful to practice responding to interview questions (obtain a list of questions in the HPPLC office). You may be asked situational ethics questions that require you to think through how you would respond when faced with difficult decisions in medicine. Study the school’s curriculum via its website and prepare to ask questions about the school’s program in the interview.

Make sure to attend one of the HPPLC-sponsored Interview Skills Workshops in the fall semester and schedule an appointment with a HPPLC advisor for a mock interview.

Managing acceptances #

You may be informed of acceptances as soon as a few weeks after interviewing or as late as a couple of weeks before a program starts. You are allowed to accept offers at multiple schools, but most PA programs require a nonrefundable deposit that is applied to your tuition costs if you attend (or kept by the school if you elect not to attend). Programs will usually give you two weeks or more to decide before requiring a deposit. It is expected that if you know you will not attend a program you will inform them in a courteous, timely manner. Your interactions with schools should always be professional.