How should you choose which Physician Assistant (PA) program(s) to apply to? There are so many good programs out there! How do you know which ones will be right for you? (And how can you tell which ones give you the greatest odds of getting in?) We’re here to help you narrow down your search by using five important criteria.
With the growth of the PA field, there are new programs starting nearly every year. According to the ARC-PA there are 229 right now The most important factor you need to confirm is that your program is accredited.
There are three stages of accreditation: probation, provisional, and accredited.
It’s most straightforward when your desired program is simply accredited. A quick search should let you know how long it has been so, and when it is due to have its accredidation reviewed.
A provisional status is still an active accreditation status, as is a probation status. According to the ARC-PA, here’s the definition of a provisional status:
Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA Standards or when a program holding accreditation-provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the Standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first class (cohort) of students.
The difference between this and a probationary accreditation status is that a probation status is given to a program that is already in operation. The status is temporary, and indicates that the program does not meet the standards required. A program operating under a probationary status has to meet the standards of accreditation by an established date or there are negative consequences. You can read a bit more here.
The bad news is that two programs have recently been given a probationary status. This makes things complicated for people as they consider these programs. The good news is that anyone currently enrolled in a program at the point it is put on probation is still going to graduate and be eligible to sit for the PANCE. This does speak to the importance of researching the status of the programs you want to pursue.
Location, Location, Location
This is a list of all the programs in the United States. When you click on a specific school, be sure to scroll down so you can get a summary of some noteworthy items about that program, whether that’s special emphasis such as a rural or urban training field, or international opportunities.
If you like a more visual representation, you might like this helpful website that shows each program on a map of the United States, although you’ll still have to go to each program’s website for full details.
Only you can decide if you’re willing to relocate to attend a program. When you consider most programs run about 27 months, it doesn’t have to be a permanent situation. However, what kind of contacts and connections will you establish in that location? If you do’t intend to live there permanently how will you network later in the location you plan to establish your career? Will you find it unsettling to be away from your support system and things that are more familiar to you? How might this impact your performance? These are all factors to consider as you scan the map of the United States and think about which programs are best for your goals.
One thing that gets people stressed out is calculating GPAs, and it’s no wonder. In the process of applying to PA school, the individual schools may have requirements, and CASPA (Central Application Service for Physician Assistants) does its own calculations as well.
There’s another detail to be mindful of: your cumulative science GPA can be different than your overall GPA. University of Colorado’s program, for example, requires a minimum GPA of 3.0 for both cumulative and science grades, but Wake Forest simply states that it requires a “C” or above for each of it’s required science courses.
Do your research and make sure you consider the correct information when you’re contrasting the different PA programs.
Most programs operate on a rolling admissions cycle, which means they don’t wait until their deadline to review and offer places in their programs. This means it’s to your advantage to do your research far in advance and apply early.
Although the CASPA application cycle runs from the end of April through the beginning of the following March, each program has its own deadline within that application cycle. The CASPA website offers a color coded summary of this information for those of us who like that sort of thing.
Patient Care Hours / Medical Experience
In keeping with the theme we’re discovering here, each program varies in the amount of health care experience and/or the amount of patient care experience they required.
The terms “patient care experience” and “medical experience” are sometimes used interchangeably but there is a distinction between them. According to CASPA, patient care experience is when the applicant has direct responsibility for the care of the patient, whereas with medical experience the applicant can have some patient contact but ultimately isn’t directly responsible for the patient’s care.
In addition to these terms being a little squirrelly, programs have different requirements for these hours. Not only that, programs can also choose to define for themselves what patient care experience is.
University of Iowa, for example, asks for 1000 hours of patient care experience, and they determine what counts as patient care experience. Emory University, on the other hand, requires a minimum of 2000 direct patient care hours, and on their website they are very clear up front with their expectations of direct patient care, defining it as: patient contact hours providing care, therapy, diagnostics, counseling, and education… (source: Emory University website)
Gaining this experience is an important step in your preparations for the field. We wrote an article about why we feel it’s important and you can read it here. It takes time to accumulate the hours, but it’s a vital step and one from which you’ll learn enormous amounts, not only about the medical world but about yourself as well.
The More Research you do, the Better
What we can say for sure about all these factors is that no matter what PA school program you decide to apply to, the more research you do in advance, the better off you’ll be. There are loads of programs, and many elements to compare and contrast between each of them — and we haven’t even done a financial comparison!
That said, each person is so different that we can’t offer you a formula to use as you sift through information. You must consider your priorities, your experiences, your GPA, and your passions in order to decide which programs to pursue.
Photo credits: Morguefile: @Prawny, @g3zar, @DodgertonSkillhause, @anitapeppers, and @iamnotpablo.
We’d love to hear about your experiences trying to narrow down the options, or your success stories about getting into PA school. Add your comments here or hop over to our Facebook page and share there!
We wish you all the best as you pursue your PA dreams! If you found this article helpful, please share it with all your PA hopeful friends! And remember PA Trek offers plenty of coaching options to fit your personal needs.