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Pre-Physician Assistant Preparation at UH Mānoa

Text compiled from the American Academy of Physician Assistants website,
NAAHP’s Health Professions Admissions guide, and the UHM 2013-2014 Catalog.

Physician Assistant programs in Hawai'i: None

PA Programs
Prerequisites for Admission
What makes a strong candidate?
Entrance Exams
Researching Schools
The Application Process
Additional Information
Downloadable Brochure

Physician Assistants (PAs, also called RPAs for Registered, or PA-Cs for Certified, or even RPA-Cs) are licensed health professionals who practice medicine as members of a team under the supervision of a physician. PAs see many of the same types of patients as physicians and deliver a broad range of medical and surgical services. PAs conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel patients on preventive care, assist in surgery, and (in all states except Indiana) prescribe medication.

The scope of a PA’s practice is determined by training, experience, state law, and the supervising physician’s practice. Basically, PAs work wherever physicians work, whether in family practice, surgery, a specialty area, or research. A PA’s duties and autonomy depend upon the PA’s clinical experience and his/her relationship with the supervising physician.

Although PAs work under supervision, the supervision can be remote, which means the physician is not necessarily present. PAs may be the principal health care providers in rural or inner city clinics, where the physician is present for limited times or only for consultation via telephone or other media. PAs may also make house calls, check on patients at nursing care facilities, and conduct hospital rounds on their own.

The PA profession began in the 1960s and remains one of the fastest growing occupations. Like physicians, PAs serve in all types of communities, from rural to urban, and in a wide variety of settings, from private practice to clinics and hospitals. PAs also work in specialized settings such as nursing homes, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), and the armed forces.

Related careers include nurse practitioners, registered nurses, and physicians.

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Physician Assistant Programs

Becoming a Master of Science Physician Assistant (MSPA) requires 4 to 6 ¼ years of education:

            Undergraduate course work (~2 to 4 years);
            Physician Assistant program (~2 to 2 ¼  years).

Although some of the more than 130 accredited PA programs will accept students with only two years of college credits, completing a Bachelor degree is generally expected, strengthens an application, and is highly recommended.

The first year of PA programs usually consists of courses in basic medical sciences: anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, microbiology, medical diagnosis, and disease prevention. The second year usually consists of rotations through a variety of specialties geared toward primary care, including obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, orthopedics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and geriatrics, among others.

Graduation from a program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education of the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) qualifies PAs to sit for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) in cooperation with the National Board of Medical Examiners. All PAs must be licensed to practice!

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Prerequisites for Admission

Most importantly, remember that prerequisite requirements vary from school to school! You must research to create a list of all the prerequisites you will need to apply to the P.A. programs you are interested in attending.

The following UHM courses are commonly required for admission to P.A. programs:

BIOL 171/171Lab and 172/172Lab
Introductory Biology I and II
CHEM 161/161Lab and 162/162Lab
Chemistry (2 semesters)

MICR 130 and 140
*(or MICR 351/351L)

Microbiology (1 semester)

PHYL 141/141Lab and 142/142Lab
*(or PHYL 301/301L and 302/302L)

Human Anatomy and Physiology (2 semesters)
PSY or SOCS 225
Statistics (1 semester)
English 100 and 2XX
English (2 semesters)
MATH 140

Additional requirements may include upper division microbiology and physiology*, computer science (ICS 101); medical terminology (HLTH 110 and 125 at KCC); and physics (PHYS 151/151Lab and 152/152Lab).

Most programs also require substantial health care experience: 6-12 months of full-time, clinical, “hands on,” direct patient care (1000-2000 hours). Consequently, the majority of applicants to P.A. programs come from those already in health care (see examples below).

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What makes a strong candidate?

Schools need to be certain that the students they accept will be capable of completing the academic curriculum and are likely to become good physician assistants.

Are you capable of completing the academic curriculum?

Admissions committees look for students who have:

  • completed the prerequisites
  • a high overall GPA
  • a high science/math GPA
  • performed well on the GRE or MCAT
  • strong letters of recommendation
  • life experience and maturity
  • considerable health care experience

Experience can be divided into two categories:

  • Direct patient contact (as a phlebotomist, nurse aide, certified nursing assistant, physical therapy assistant, pharmacy assistant, medical assistant, emergency medical technician, x-ray technician, military corpsman, etc.)
  • Health care related experience (as a lifeguard, ski patrol personnel, first aid personnel, laboratory or research staff, etc.)
Successful applicants log their health care experience in terms of months or years, not hours.

Are you likely to become a good physician assistant?

Admissions committees look for students who have

  • the school’s designated observation/experience requirements
  • familiarity with and detailed knowledge of the field
  • demonstrated empathy, compassion, and a commitment to public service
  • high ethical and moral standards and a conscientious work ethic
  • demonstrated maturity (judgment, responsibility, dependability)
  • a broad liberal arts education that includes the humanities and social sciences
  • a well-rounded life that balances academics, community service, social activities, and personal interests (hobbies, skills, sports, etc.)
  • excellent oral and written communication skills
  • strong letters of recommendation

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Researching Schools

There are now over 130+ public and private PA programs in the U.S., each one unique in its mission, philosophy, criteria, and strengths. Applicants can research schools using the PA Programs Directory on the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) website,

Although there are resources that “rank” schools, the rankings are rarely pertinent for individual applicant or specific programs. More important is whether there is a good match between applicant and school.

To find schools that are good a fit for you (PAC peer advisors can help with this process):

  1. Assess your individual strengths and weaknesses, your professional interests, learning style, and personality;
  2. Start by considering all schools, which usually includes all 130+ schools;
  3. Create your “Long List” by omitting the schools that do not match your professional interests, learning style, and personality;
  4. Once you have your MCAT or GRE scores, create your “Short List” by categorizing the schools into ‘Reach’, ‘Match’, and ‘Safety’, ranking the schools by preference, and finally choosing how many schools to apply to.

If possible, visit the schools to see their facilities, talk to Admissions Directors, and chat with students.

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Entrance Exams

All accredited PA programs require applicants to take either the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).  The GRE and MCAT differ significantly; be sure to check which test you need!

Preparation: Your most important preparation for the GRE or MCAT is your undergraduate courses, many of which sharpen your writing and verbal reasoning skills.  Remember that the verbal sections are not only the most accurate predictor of how well you will do at the graduate level, but also the most difficult scores to improve.

GRE Summary: The GRE is administered year-round, appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis, and is available only in computer-based format. The test requires approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete and assesses your skills in Verbal Reasoning, Analytical Writing, and Quantitative Reasoning.

GRE Scoring: Scores for the Verbal and Quantitative sections each yield a scaled score of 130 to 170, in 1-point increments. The Analytical Writing section is scored on a scale of 0 to 6 in half-point increments, and you will receive a single score for your overall performance in this section.

Official Test Preparation Material:

  • The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test from ETS
  • Practice Questions on GRE website
  • Free diagnostic exam on GRE website

Click Here for the GRE Breakdown

MCAT Summary: The MCAT assesses your knowledge and skills in Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, Verbal Reasoning, and Writing. The test requires approximately 5 hours to complete and entails approximately 144 multiple choice questions plus two 30-minute essays. The MCAT is administered in a computer-based format and is offered over twenty times each year.

MCAT Scoring: Writing samples are scored by letter grades ranging from J to T, with T being the highest; the other three sections are each scored 1-15, for a possible total of 45. 

Official Test Preparation Material:

  • The Official Guide to the MCAT Exam, by AAMC
  • Practice Exams, on AAMC website

Click Here for the MCAT Breakdown

Click here for the MCAT2015 Breakdown

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The Application Process

There are three general steps in applying to physician assistant programs: the primary application, the secondary application, and the interview.

1.  Primary applications for most schools must be filed with the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).  Once your application is complete, CASPA forwards it to whichever schools you have designated.

2.  Secondary applications or supplementary forms are specific to individual physician assistant programs; schools send these to applicants after they have received the CASPA application. Both frequently request additional information, essays, and letters of recommendation.  Some schools may even screen applicants before the applications or forms are sent out.  However, secondary applications and supplementary forms differ in that the latter is not a formal application.
3.  Interviews: After reviewing the primary and secondary applications (or supplementary forms), physician assistant programs invite promising applicants to interview. Applicants are responsible for all costs of interviewing, including airfare, lodging, professional attire, and meals.

Note:  A majority of PA programs participate in CASPA, but to apply to those that don’t, contact the schools directly to request their individual applications.  For their schools, the application process consists of only steps 2 and 3.

CASPA’s Admissions Code of Cooperation: Although the application process varies from school to school, CASPA has established “traffic rules” to ensure fairness for all concerned. The rules, available at Action/i/3534, stipulate both schools’ and applicants’ rights and responsibilities in the application process.  Before applying, all applicants should be familiar with these.



  • The more you know about a school, the better your chances of being accepted.
  • Most application questions can be answered by reading the P.A. Programs Directory.
  • Contact individual schools’ Admissions Offices to find out how they handle:
      • Advanced Placement (AP) credits
      • International Baccalaureate (IB) credits
      • College-Level Examination Program (CLEP) credits
      • Military credits
      • courses taken at a community college
      • non-U.S. coursework
      • courses taken for credit/no credit instead of a grade
      • residency issues
      • time limits on prerequisite science courses


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Additional Information

UH Mānoa’s Pre-Health/Pre-Law Advising Center (PAC) has reference books, lists of volunteer opportunities, academic planning worksheets, and one-on-one advising by peers who can help you prepare for and apply to P.A. programs.

UHM's Pre-Medical Association (PMA)
Physician Assistant Education Association
(Linked to the P.A. Programs Directory)
available in PAC, or purchased online

American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA)
Association of Physician Assistant Programs (APAP)
Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA)
Graduate Record Examimation (GRE)
Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT)
MCAT2015 Information & Preview Guide
MCAT2015 for Admins: including links to the Course Mapping Tool, Webinars, Sociology and Psychology Textbook Resources, iCollaborate, and Q-UPP

Physician Assistants in American Medicine
by Hooker and Cawley

available in PAC
Preparing for Graduate School by the Honors Program

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