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Physician Assistant 

Overview

Students interested in becoming physician’s assistants (PA) have numerous obligations, including the development of a strong science foundation and involvement in diverse extracurricular activities. These activities include things such as shadowing, patient exposure, service, and leadership. It can be a bit daunting, however, it is possible to do everything you need to do by starting now and working consistently throughout your undergraduate years. Please read the basic information we have provided while recognizing that the majority of the support the Pre-health Advising Office provides students is through face-to-face appointments. (/exploratory/health-professions/index.php) We would be happy to meet with you to discuss any questions you may have about your journey to becoming a PA.

Academic Planning

PA programs do not require or favor ANY specific major. We encourage you to consider a major that interests you and one that will provide you an alternative pathway if you change your mind about becoming a PA. No matter what you choose to major in, you will be most prepared if you counsel with both your major academic advisor and your pre-health advisor on a regular basis.

Find a Degree    Major Exploration

The most common question we get asked is “what classes do I need to take to prepare for PA school?” This question is complicated to answer for all pre-health students, but is especially complex for pre-PA students. PA programs have a greater diversity in their individual requirements than any other health professions graduate program. The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is create a spreadsheet (like http://advising.usu.edu/exploratory/health-professions/docs/PASampleSpreadsheet.pdf) of all the schools you are interested in and determine which courses they require. As a quick snapshot to help you get an idea of what classes may be required, we created the following tables:

Table 1. Approximately half of all PA schools require these courses.

Courses

Table 2. Less than half of PA schools require these courses, but approximately one quarter of the programs do.

Courses

Extracurricular Activities

A common misconception students have about PA school is that good grades and a high GRE score are all that schools are looking for. While these metrics are certainly an important aspect of your application, they are not enough on their own to earn you a place in PA school. Your extracurricular preparation is a vitally important aspect of your application, and we strongly encourage you not to overlook it. To help you best prepare, we have broken down extracurricular activities into the areas listed below.

How do you know if you want to work with patients in a medical setting as a career? What does working with patients entail? What kind of problems do you feel comfortable addressing? What makes you uncomfortable about working with patients? It is important that you are able to answer these questions for yourself.

A unique aspect of most PA schools is their requirement of hands-on patient exposure in which you are directly responsible for a patient’s care. The average minimum required amount of patient exposure is 650 hours, though programs range from no required patient hours to 2,000 minimum required hours. On average, successful PA applicants have 3,090 hours of direct patient exposure, which amounts to a year and a half of full time work.

There are many ways to obtain these important hours (CNA, EMT, Medical Assistant, Nurse, etc.). We encourage you to think about your interests and choose to gain this exposure in a way that is valuable to you. Remember, what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you learn from what you choose to do.

What is involved in a typical day as a PA? Can you handle the sights/sounds/smells associated with the PA profession? How important is the PA-doctor relationship in the daily work of a PA? How much freedom do PA’s have in the practice? If you’ve wondered about these questions, shadowing is a great way for you to get some answers. Plus, it is required for admission to PA school.

Many students ask, “How do I get started with shadowing?” Here are some of our tips.

  1. Start with people you know. Do you have any family members or friends that are PAs? Use your connections.
  2. Start by calling offices. If you don’t know anyone who is a PA, don’t worry! Many students successfully call offices where PAs practice to find shadowing opportunities.
  3. Start Early! Shadowing exposure early on in your preparation will help you make informed decisions about pursuing PA school. Most PA schools prefer you to have shadowing experience with a variety of PAs who work in different specialties or areas of healthcare. Starting early will allow you time to set up more experiences and gain important insights into the profession.

Oh no- the “R” word! Typically, PA schools don’t require research experience for admission. However, we feel that research is a great way to distinguish yourself because it demonstrates that you have an intimate understanding of the scientific method. Being involved in research will help you develop critical thinking skills and will allow you to be an informed consumer of new research studies that will be presented to you as a PA. Plus, there’s no better way to solidify concepts you learn in class than actively applying them in the lab. (And it’s fun, too!)

Becoming a successful PA includes developing a service-oriented outlook. Because of this, PA schools are looking for how you have developed this character trait through various activities. Many physician assistants will tell you that service plays a key role in their influence on the community and their ability to help their patients.

Your service and volunteer repertoire need not be limited to medically relevant exposure; rather, find things that you are passionate about and be mindful of volunteer and service opportunities that arise.

All health professionals are leaders to some degree and PA schools appreciate students with these skills. There is no one way to gain leadership experience, but some common ways are getting involved in a club and participating in club administration, student government, working as a tutor, TA, SI, etc. Remember, demonstrating leadership doesn’t always come with a “title”! You can demonstrate leadership many different ways and through many different activities.