Interested in attending Physician Assistant school?
Here is some useful information!
The PA profession is a very exciting field with lots of career options. While PAs have been practicing for 50 years, it is still a relatively new field and the role of the PA is constantly changing. The American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) can provide all kinds of information about the field, but the best thing to do is shadow a PA. To find PAs to shadow, go through your personal contacts to find connections. Ask your healthcare providers and their staff. Cold call family med offices/surgery centers. Send messages on LinkedIn in your area (PAs will show up in your “recommended” section in your area. You can just request to connect and message.) Also check to see if there’s a Pre-PA dept at your college or university.
Many schools require a set number of hours working with a PA or some form of medical experience. The latter can include volunteering at a hospital or health center, working a hotline, being trained as an EMT or medical assistant, and many other things. (Once you have decided on which programs you are going to apply to, make sure you find out what requirements they have.) However, do not let a lack of health care experience stop you from pursuing a PA career.
Many classes strive for diversity and accept students from all walks of life. In order to learn about what types of students are accepted, attend an open house at a PA program close to you. Even if you’re not interested in that program specifically, it is a good opportunity to learn about the generalities of the program, get an idea about what types of questions to ask, and meet some current students. If you do this early in your collegiate career, you’ll have plenty of time to start tackling the prerequisite classes, getting health care experience and learning more about the various programs.
During your junior year or the summer before your senior year, plan on visiting schools you are interested in. While the basic course load is similar between all schools, there are some differences that you will have decide on. Some programs are lecture based while others are a problem-based learning format. Also, classes may be pass/fail or traditional grading scales. You should also find out the number of rotations you will be required to complete during your clinical year, if you have the option to travel, and so forth. One of the most important things to find out is what type of degree the program offers. There are certificate only programs, bachelor’s and master’s degree. The field itself is moving towards master’s degrees, but don’t let this stop you from going to a certificate only program– other programs offer a master’s degree that can complement the PA profession.
MAKING YOURSELF A BETTER CANDIDATE
While there is no proven recipe for success, here are some things that can help you out:
- Join the PSPA! You’ll get discounts on fantastic tools to help you through your classes and help you land that dream job!
- Check out the PA Forum to keep on top of the latest in the field.
- Join the AAPA– you’ll get a monthly mailing that will keep you up to date on current PA issues
- Find a PA to shadow
- Regularly read the health section of the newspaper, subscribe to medical/health internet based publications
- Watch health shows such as those on the Discovery Channel and TLC. Even drama and comedy shows such as “ER”, “Scrubs” and “Grey’s Anatomy” can be helpful. Keep a pen and paper handy and jot down words and conditions that you don’t understand, then look them up in a medical dictionary. You can also check out these medical movies in your spare time.
- You can use the National Library of Medicine website to help you find out what things mean.
- You may want to take a medical terminology course or get a review book.
TIME TO APPLY
So you’ve decided this is the field for you. Now what? The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA, formerly known as APAP) has an online directory of programs that lists all the information needed (degree given, tuition, financial aid, etc) and provides links to each program. This is one of the easiest ways to access all the necessary information needed at once, however there is a fee. As an alternative, you can search for programs in each state; the PSPA also lists all the programs in the state.
When applying to programs, most are part of the Centralized Application Service for PAs (CASPA). Don’t wait until the last minute as it takes several weeks for the applications to get forwarded to the programs. Make sure that you keep copies of all letters of recommendation and the other materials required. Submit your application at least 6 weeks before the earliest due date, and call the programs a few weeks before the submission date to make sure your paperwork was received.
THINGS TO KNOW
- Classes are all day long, 5, sometimes 6 days a week.
- Expect your free time to take a nose dive, and to dedicate most of your evenings and weekends to studying.
- Make sure that you always block some time for yourself and start developing healthy forms of stress relief now (i.e. exercising, hobbies)
- Realize that this is an investment in your future but well worth it. It’s a lot of hard work, but you’ll make it through, and end up in a fantastic field!
ONCE YOU GET IN
Celebrate! And once you’ve finished with that…
- Check with the program to make sure the classes you’ve taken fulfill their prerequisites. Many programs require a B– or better, so don’t slack off!
- Contact the program and ask to talk to a current student. Talk about what they recommend you study, books to buy that aren’t required, where to live if you have to move closer to the program, and all the other little tidbits that you may not learn at orientation.
- Join SAAAPA (through the AAPA) and the PSPA or state society where your program is located. This will help keep you up to date on the regulations regarding PAs in the state. And it looks great on your resume!