There’s a lyric in a John Lennon song that says, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”
I can see his point - life is unpredictable. And if all you ever do is focus on making future plans, you will never enjoy the present moment.
But I don’t think that pre-PAs can afford such a free-spirit approach to their college experience and life goals (sorry, hippies…).
I’m not saying that you need to be hyper-obsessive and plot out every little detail, and I’m not saying that you can’t change your mind or take time to explore.
BUT getting into PA schools is HARD (only 32% of applicants were admitted in the 2019-2020 cycle), and the competition is STEEP (over 8,800 applicants in 2019-2020), so careful planning will be crucial to your success.
And it’s not just about planning in general. You’ve probably heard the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” The same idea applies here. I want to help you “plan smarter” by giving you tips and insights that will give you a strategic advantage.
Before I dive in, I want to cover the prerequisite courses and experiences you’ll need to get into PA school. This will guide the way you develop your plan and timeline for college (and beyond?).
PA school requirements vary between programs, but here is a list of science prerequisites that almost every PA program requires.
We’ll call these Tier-1 Courses:
General Chemistry: two semesters or three quarters (with labs)
Biology: two semesters or three quarters (with labs)
Microbiology: one semester or two quarters (with lab)
Anatomy: one semester or two quarters (with lab)
Physiology: one semester or two quarters (with lab)
Most PA schools require the following non-science prerequisites as well.
We’ll call these Tier-2 Courses:
English: two semesters or three quarters
Statistics: one semester or two quarters
Psychology: one semester or two quarters
NOTE: these are the minimum PA school requirements for the majority of programs.
To avoid limiting your options and hurting your competitiveness, I recommend taking additional courses to fulfill stricter requirements of more selective schools.
We’ll call these Tier-3 Courses:
Organic Chemistry: one semester or two quarters (with lab)
Biochemistry: one semester or two quarters (with lab)
Medical Terminology: one semester or two quarters
Genetics: one semester or two quarters
Physics: one semester or two quarters
Sociology: one semester or two quarters
Foreign Language: two semesters or three quarters
When making your school list, I would check out the PAEA Program Directory to find each specific PA school’s requirements.
Be careful with AP credits. Many PA schools will not accept them to fulfill course requirements!
Most programs will accept applications with two or three prerequisites outstanding—but you’ll want to check each school’s protocol. And you must complete those courses prior to matriculating.
Good news - as long as you complete the above prerequisite courses, your major doesn’t matter when applying to PA school.
Choose a major that you’re passionate about and that will help you maintain a high overall GPA. It’s an added bonus if your major provides some kind of “intellectual diversity” to you as a candidate, such as the social sciences, health administration, nutrition, or a foreign language.
Some PA programs don’t list a minimum GPA requirement. But many use a 3.0 GPA as the cut-off. Schools will look at your GPA in four ways:
Most PA schools will require a “C” grade or above in prerequisite science courses. If you receive a “C” in Chemistry but an “A” in Biology, your science GPA will still meet the 3.0 minimum. However, PA schools will take note of your “C” grade. If this is your situation, I recommend retaking the prerequisite to earn a “B” or above.
In general, looking at minimum requirements isn’t that helpful. You should look at the averages of accepted applicants. In the 2019 PAEA Report, the average overall GPA of accepted applicants was a 3.6. Specific averages include a 3.5 science GPA, 3.6 non-science GPA, and 3.5 BCP GPA.
According to the PAEA Report, over half of PA schools require the GRE. Not taking it will limit your options, so make sure GRE prep and test-taking are part of your timeline and strategy.
Thankfully, you can take the GRE up to five times within 12 months, and you only need to wait 21 days between attempts. Don’t worry about PA schools seeing your multiple attempts. ETS allows you to only send the scores you want to potential schools. So re-taking the GRE to improve your score is in your best interest.
Many PA schools won’t set a minimum GRE score. If they do, it’s usually around 295. Similar to your GPA, you should focus on exceeding the minimum and putting yourself on par with the average accepted applicants.
The average GRE score of accepted students on the 2019 PAEA report was 306 (combined verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning). The average analytical writing score was 4.1.
Not unless someone tells you to! The PA-CAT is in its experimental phase right now, and only a few programs have given the exam at interviews or shortly after students matriculate. Currently, you can’t even sign up for it individually.
If you end up needing to take the test, it’s not necessarily something you’ll be able to study for at this point, but your coursework should prepare you. Consider a quick refresher on the included categories, but don’t sweat the test for now.
When you submit through CASPA, you’ll be asked to add three to five recommenders under the Evaluations section. It’s best if these individuals have known you in a professional capacity and witnessed you interact with patients.
The ideal choices are professionals who actively practice medicine (although one recommendation can come from a science professor). Choosing a PA as a recommender will strengthen your application even further.
As you probably know, coursework, GPA, and standardized tests are only part of the game here. You’ll need to meet experiential requirements as well.
Many PA schools will designate a minimum number of healthcare hours required. Sometimes it’s 1,000, but some schools will require 2,000 hours or more.
The CASPA application categorizes professional experience in distinct ways:
This includes experiences where you have responsibility for a patient’s care, such as working as an EMT/paramedic, CNA, phlebotomist, physical therapy aide, or RN. NOTE: Some PA programs require it to be paid patient care experience.
Average hours for accepted students: 3,020.
This category includes both paid and unpaid work where you’re interacting with patients but not directly responsible for their care: cleaning patients, delivering food, taking vitals, administering medication, or scribing.
Average hours for accepted students: 1,024.
This includes any experiences where you officially shadow a healthcare professional, preferably a PA.
Average hours for accepted students: 143.
This covers volunteer work in a non-healthcare setting: tutoring, fundraising for charity, building homes with Habitat for Humanity, etc. Think carefully - if you’ve gone on a medical mission trip, you may be able to include those hours as healthcare or patient care experience.
Average hours for accepted students: 488.
While not a major PA school requirement, research can look good on your applications. Only include hours outside your regular coursework.
This includes any leadership roles you’ve held within an organization—not necessarily medical-related. Use this opportunity to show schools your potential to make an impact on others as a PA.
This refers to any instances when you’ve been in charge of instructing others, such as tutoring or serving as a TA.
This includes any non-paid experiences that don’t fit under a different option. Make sure these activities are relevant or sharing new information. You should list healthcare clubs or academic societies, but don’t add activities just for the sake of it.
You’ll list all your paid work not occurring in a healthcare or research setting here.
Average hours for accepted students: 2,096.
OK - now that we’ve covered all the academic and experiential requirements, let’s help you develop a 4-year plan to not only meet these requirements, but distinguish yourself from the pack of other viable candidates.
Start a spreadsheet now, divide it into categories, and input all your applicable past experience and coursework. Then keep it regularly updated. This practice will save you a major headache when you’re completing your PA school applications.
Many applicants have worked in a healthcare setting for a few years, which is why the average hours are so high (2,000 hours = 1 year of full-time work). If you’re applying directly from undergrad, you won’t have the chance to earn as many hours, so you’ll have to maximize your existing experience and strengthen the other aspects of your application.
OR you could plan to take a gap year, which would allow you to earn meaningful experience hours. You’d also have extra time to focus on making your PA school applications as strong as possible.
As said earlier, the average applicant to PA school is 25 years old, so taking some time after college to improve your candidacy will not put you behind the curve!
Here are some key tips (or warnings) for every pre-PA freshman, based on my conversations with countless past applicants:
As listed above, the tier-1 courses involve at least seven total semesters of General Chemistry, Biology, Microbiology, Anatomy, and Physiology.
Since I recommend not taking more than two science courses at a time, these should be spread out over your first two years of college. It might be tricky to secure a spot in highly coveted classes, but do whatever it takes (including 7am or 7pm class times), as long as it doesn’t hurt your performance.
Try to complement these courses with easier general education requirements from your college, or basic introductory courses in your major.
If some of these have to trickle over into junior year, don’t sweat it too much.
The tier-2 courses will entail at least four total semesters of English, Statistics, and Psychology. Compared to tier-1 and tier-3 courses, these are easier and less time-consuming.
If these can be satisfied in the first two years, that would be ideal, so that you can use junior and senior year to knock out as many tier-3 courses as possible, along with finishing the requirements for your major.
You might not be able to take them ALL, but try to take one semester of Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Medical Terminology, Genetics, Physics, and
Sociology, as well as two semesters of a Foreign Language.
You will typically need to complete 40-50 credits for your major. If you major in science, some of those will be satisfied by your PA prerequisites. You will probably take most of these courses in your junior and senior years, although there’s probably room for a few of them during sophomore year as well.
Starting in your second semester of freshman year (once you’ve settled into college on an academic level), you’ll want to secure the following opportunities:
Getting these started early will ensure that you accumulate the desired hours. Try to sustain these for multiple years, since schools look more positively on long-term commitments than a hodge-podge of shorter ones.
Beyond clinical experiences, these two categories are the most important for the strength of your application.
Ideally, you can find a way to knock out both within one activity while also showing “trackable progress” within the activity.
Freshman year - join a volunteer organization, help run events
Sophomore year - join planning committee, help establish new events
Junior year - become VP of executive board or recruitment coordinator
Senior year - become president, double membership, expand the org’s reach
The organization(s) would not be limited to medically related efforts, but it should center around service and humanitarianism. Find something you’re passionate about - whether that’s tutoring autistic children, performing outreach, or combating hunger and homelessness - and dive wholeheartedly into the experience.
I highly recommend trying to turn this experience into a “capstone project.” The goal of a capstone project is to find a sweet spot of overlap between your available resources, the needs of your community, and an innovative solution. Admissions committees love applicants who leave things better than they found them, and a capstone is a great way to stand out.
As a member of the first official board for Partners in Wellness, a student-led clinical organization, I worked closely with hospital administration on program development. After careful planning, I founded and integrated a clinical-based arts program, Art Heals, which eventually received official approval. The program aims to use art as a means of connecting patients and caregivers. Besides giving patients a chance to express themselves through art, it also provides a venue for pre-health students to gain more exposure to the humanities, and vice versa, for art students to gain more exposure to the healthcare field.
Plan to take the GRE well ahead of the PA school application deadlines, so you can fit in a few re-takes to try to get your score above the average. And of course, consider investing in GRE prep resources to maximize your highest score.
I would recommend taking it at least once as a junior, or perhaps more ideally in the summer before senior year, and then taking it again as necessary in the fall/spring of senior year.
In late fall or early spring of your senior year, ask your recommenders for permission to send them an evaluation request. Be considerate and give your recommenders plenty of time to prepare a thorough evaluation.
Follow up with them a month or two before you plan to submit your PA school application. If they agree to write a recommendation for you, confirm the best email address to use and inform them of the CASPA evaluation process.
Send recommenders information to prepare them. Prior to adding them to your CASPA application—which will trigger the evaluation request to be sent—email your recommenders an updated resume. Include a list of the programs you’re applying to, as well as any specific achievements you’d like to remind them of as they write your evaluation. Remember how busy these individuals are, so show them gratitude by making their job as easy as possible.
Network, network, network! You will need stellar letters of recommendation, and you will need to secure highly coveted internships, research positions, etc. What’s the best way to network?
It might not be fun, but it usually proves your commitment. One past student earned the respect and praise of clinical staff by volunteering to spearhead the clinic’s conversion from a paper to electronic system. As a result of his grunting and grinding, their paper consumption decreased by 90% and the staff were relieved of tasks like printing forms, scanning documents, and shredding paper. The physicians also saved money on supplies, and more importantly, had extra time with patients. This helped him secure a paying MA job with the clinic and helped him garner a fantastic letter of recommendation.
When the time comes to actually apply, here’s a quick month-to-month breakdown that you can try to follow:
Select and confirm your letter of recommendation writers.
Take (and re-take) the GRE.
Pre-write your PA Personal Statement, CASPA activity descriptions, and supplemental essays
CASPA application opens late April.
Complete the required application materials.
Submit applications (many deadlines are on or near September 1).
Wait for interview invitations.
Interview at PA schools.
Receive decisions (follow up with any schools that waitlisted you).
Commit to and enroll in a PA program.
Have any questions? Feel free to email me at email@example.com, and I’ll respond to you personally as soon as I can.
Want to see if we’re a good fit to work together on your PA applications? Book a FREE consultation with me.
Best of luck navigating this difficult yet rewarding journey into PA school!