Skip to main content

Pre-Physician Assistant Track

Group study session; Various anatomical models displayed on counterWe offer advising, programs, and networking opportunities that help you reach your goal of becoming competent and compassionate leader in health care. We contribute to your success with guidance throughout your college years and at the time of your application to physician assistant programs. We work with you to help you identify your best strategy for becoming a physician assistant leader – a trendsetter in the field of rapidly changing twenty-first-century physician assistant practice.

What a Physician Assistant Does

Physician assistants (PAs) examine, diagnose, and treat patients. They are licensed to diagnose disease and prescribe medications in all 50 states and the District of Colombia. Physician assistants counsel and treat patients on a wide range of medical issues across health care settings, including prevention, patient education, and simple and complex surgeries. They practice in collaboration with a designated licensed physician in a physician’s office (about 60 percent of PAs), hospitals (about 20 percent of PAs), and outpatient settings. While physician assistants form a fairly small professional group of about 125,000 practitioners, the projected growth rate and demand for physician assistants is one of the highest among the master’s degree level occupations in the United States. The profession’s projected growth rate through 2029 is 31 percent.

What a Pre-Physician Assistant Student Studies

Loyola’s model prepares you to excel in physician assistant programs through a mastery of natural and behavioral science skills, writing and analytical reasoning, opportunities to grow through service, health care internships, and research. You will enjoy the freedom to reflect on your career choice while you also build a foundation for your professional success. Loyola students’ self-reported success rate with applications to physician assistant programs is close to 100 percent.

Your undergraduate studies should include the courses that are standard pre-requisite courses for physician assistant programs:

  • 2 semesters of biology with laboratory
  • 2 semesters of general chemistry with laboratory
  • 2 semesters of organic chemistry with laboratory (or biochemistry)
  • 2 semesters of anatomy and physiology with laboratory (200 level)
  • 1 semester of microbiology with laboratory
  • 1 semester of statistics
  • 2 semesters of behavioral and social sciences

The purpose of pre-requisite and recommended courses is to build competency to process advanced scientific knowledge and to successfully respond to culturally complex health care situations. Use physician assistant programs’ applicant data to understand your target GPA, which often is quite a bit higher than the common minimum GPA requirement of 3.2. Physician assistant schools do not accept deficiency grades (C-, D+, D) in pre-requisite courses, but a passing deficiency grade will not hold you back from progressing into successive courses. Usually, retaking a course with a passing deficiency grade can wait; it is more important to first secure your timely graduation and solid overall academic success.

How to Get the Required Health Care Experience

Physician assistants are clinical specialists in direct, one-on-one patient care. In a physician–physician assistant team, it is commonly the physician assistant who will clock in more hours directly caring for a patient. For this reason, direct health care experience is an important part of your preparation for a career as a physician assistant. The required health care experience may be as few as 80 hours but a more common range is 250 to 1000, even up to 2000 hours. It is not uncommon for a pre-physician assistant student to work for a year or two prior to application to a physician assistant program. That said, it is also important not to delay your application too long because many programs set a limit of five to ten years on prerequisite courses.

Since physician assistants are the experts in direct patient care, your pre-physician assistant preparation should specifically include direct patient care and health care experiences:

  • Direct patient care experience: Volunteering or work that involves direct, hands-on, patient contact through such roles as medical assistant, certified nurse’s aide, physical therapy assistant, rehabilitation assistant, EMT, paramedic, community health care worker, or volunteer patient assistant
  • Other health care related experience: Volunteering or work at a hospital, clinic, or health care non-profit through such roles as medical secretary, laboratory technician, program coordinator, patient greeter, research intern, or medical scribe.

Paid work in the health care field usually involves more responsibilities than volunteering. Hence, physician assistant programs commonly require that some of your experience comes through work. Community service, internships, and leadership experience also help you to prepare for your future responsibilities as a physician assistant.

What Are Physician Assistant Degree Options

Physician assistants are trained at a master’s degree level. The degree titles vary greatly and include masters in health science (MHS), physician assistant studies (MPAS), health studies (MSHS), and medical studies (MMS). A master’s degree is the highest possible degree level in physician assistant studies; the American Association for Physician Assistants (AAPA), the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), and representatives of several other organizations set a master’s degree as an entry level and a terminal degree for physician assistant studies by way of a consensus agreement in 2009.

How to Prepare for the GRE and the New PA-CAT Exam 

Most physician assistant programs require a competitive Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test score in the 50–60th percentile range or higher. The GRE is a standardized test designed to test your capacity to master graduate level information in three main areas: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. The GRE tests are managed through Prometric testing centers – they are easily available throughout the year. Loyola’s liberal arts curriculum will prepare you to succeed across the testing areas but it is important to refresh your foundational mathematical skills, just as you did with your SAT, and give focused attention to your English vocabulary and writing strategies. Take an additional writing class, read a book with care! It is important to familiarize yourself with the test and take some practice tests to understand what you will encounter in this just over three-and-half-hour-long test. You are not alone – each year over 600,000 Americans take the GRE general test.

A new standardized exam for physician assistant students, Physician Assistant College Admissions Test (PA-CAT), is being rolled out gradually beginning in spring 2020 and will be used by about a third of schools by 2022.  It is anticipated that the 240-item science-based assessment will replace the GRE as the standard admissions exam for most PA programs at that time.

How to Apply to Physician Assistant Schools

The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) is used by 90 percent of physician assistant programs. Check your eligibility to receive CASPA fee assistance to cover the application process after you open your application. CASPA’s fee assistance funds, which commonly run out in June, cover the cost of opening of your application and your first school designation ($179 in 2020–2021).

The CASPA typically opens in April and is open for applications through early March of the following year. This facilitates different program start dates, which include May, August, and January, and permits rolling admissions. It is important to check your program’s application deadline – most deadlines are in October through December – as well as to apply early so that you are not disadvantaged by a later submission time. After you have designated your choice of schools and submitted your CASPA application, the programs may send you additional school-specific questions through their secondary application.

You will need the following documents and information to complete your application:

  • All official transcripts:
    • Tip: Make transcript request the first thing you do after the opening of your application. Requesting transcripts can be more a complicated process than you expect. The transcripts are sent directly to the CASPA.
  • Experiences and hours:
    • Tip: Update and print your resume before you begin to upload your work and volunteer experiences. This helps you to remember all your experiences and also prepares you to write your personal statement.
  • Personal statement/essay:
    • Tip: You have 5000 characters to write a personal statement that demonstrates your commitment to the profession – as seen through your past actions and concrete understanding of the field.
  • Letters of recommendation: 2–3:
    • Tip: Learn to ask and get a strong recommendation letter. The more information you provide for your letter writer, the stronger the letters.
  • The GRE scores:
    • Tip: Import your GRE score from the ETS site using your designated program’s GRE code.

You may find this manual of physician assistant programs helpful as you look into the country’s nearly 200 programs by region: The Applicant’s Manual of Physician Assistant Programs 2018 by Mark Volpe, PA-C, and Brittany Hogan (Lexington 2018).

What to Expect at Physician Assistant School

The length of physician assistant programs ranges from 24 to 36 months. The average program length is 27 months. The physician assistant studies consist of two phases: didactic and clinical.

  • Didactic phase:
    • First phase of physician assistant studies
    • About 12–16 months
    • Course work in areas such as anatomy and physiology, behavioral and public health, pharmacology, physical evaluation and diagnosis, foundations of medical sciences, and psychiatry
  • Clinical phase:
    • Second phase of physician assistant studies
    • About 12–18 months in total
    • About 4–8 weeks per rotation
    • Clinical rotations in areas such as pediatrics, emergency medicine, surgery, and internal medicine
  • Graduate or capstone project:
    • A research thesis or community-based capstone project is required in most schools

Physician assistants take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) after their studies to be certified to practice. The acronym PA-C shows that a physician assistant is nationally certified to practice his or her trade within his or her home state of licensure.