Pre-Physician Assistant at UH Mānoa
Text compiled from the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) website, Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) website, Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, Inc. (ARC-PA) website, NAAHP’s Health Professions Admissions guide, and the UHM 2013-2014 Catalog.
Physician Assistant Programs in Hawai`i: None
Physician Assistants (PAs, also called RPAs for Registered, or PA-Cs for Certified, or 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. Essentially, 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: nursing (RN or APRN) and medicine (MD or DO).
Physician Assistant Programs
Becoming a physician assistant requires about 6-7 years of education:
Undergraduate Preparation (~4 years);
Physician Assistant Program (~2 years);
Residency (~1 year, optional).
Although not all schools list a bachelor’s degree as a requirement for admission, few students are admitted without one. Completing a bachelor’s degree is highly recommended. Admission to physician assistant programs is highly competitive, and a bachelor’s degree significantly strengthens a student’s application and provides students with greater options for advancement and career opportunities. For help choosing a major, please see the “Choosing a Major for Professional Schools in Health” webpage.
Upon graduation from a physician assistant program, students are awarded a master’s degree such as the Master of Science (MS), Master of Physical Assistant Studies (MPAS), or Master of Medical Science (MMS), among others. Some PA programs offer bachelor’s degrees and certificates, although the master’s is the most common degree awarded. All master’s-level physician assistant degrees are equivalent with respect to licensure and professional practice.
Many physician assistant programs offer combined degree programs: MS/MBA to combine medicine with business administration; MS/MPH to combine medicine with public health; and so on. Combined degrees can be offered concurrently, sequentially, or in combination, and often extend the number of years in PA school.
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, including obstetrics and gynecology, surgery, orthopedics, emergency medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and geriatrics, among others. Upon graduation, PAs who desire advanced training or specialization can choose to complete a residency.
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!
Prerequisites for Admission
Most importantly, remember that requirements vary from school to school! You must research to create a list of all the prerequisites you will need to apply to the programs you are interested in attending.
The following UHM courses are commonly required for admission to PA programs:
|BIOL 171/171L and 172/172L||Introduction to Biology I and II||8 cr.|
|CHEM 161/161L and 162/162L||General Chemistry I and II||8 cr.|
(or MICR 351/L)
|General Microbiology |
(or Biology of Microorganisms)
|PHYL 141/141L and 142/142L |
(or PHYL 301/301L and 302/302L)
|Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II||8 or 10 cr.|
|PSY/SOCS 225 or ECON 321||Statistics||3 cr.|
|ENG 100 and higher||Composition I and higher||6 cr.|
|MATH 140 or higher||Precalculus or higher||3 cr.|
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/L and 152/L). It is also recommended that non-science majors take additional upper-division or advanced science electives beyond the prerequisites listed above.
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 PA programs come from those already in health care.
What makes a strong candidate?
Schools need to be certain that the students they accept are capable of completing the PA curriculum and are likely to become good physician assistants.
Are you capable of completing the PA curriculum?
Admissions committees seek students who have:
- completed the prerequisites
- a high overall GPA
- a high science/math GPA
- performed well on the GRE or MCAT
- balanced their course load so it is challenging yet realistic
Are you likely to become a good physician assistant?
Admissions committees seek students who have:
- the school’s designated observation/experience requirements
- 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
- experience in the field and with what physician assistant entails
- a well-rounded life that balances academics, community service, social activities, and personal interests (hobbies, skills, sports, etc.)
- excellent oral and written communication skills
- a high degree of professionalism in all aspects of life
- strong letters of recommendation
Experience can be divided into two categories:
- Direct patient contact (as a nurse aide, certified nursing assistant, medical assistant, emergency medical technician, medic, 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.
There are currently about 181 accredited PA programs in the US, each 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 applicants. 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):
- Assess your individual strengths and weaknesses, your professional interests, learning style, and personality;
- Start by considering all schools, which usually includes all 181 schools;
- Create your “Long List” by omitting the schools that do not match your professional interests, learning style, and personality;
- 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.
Most PA programs require applicants to take a standardized test called the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). However, some schools also accept the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) in place of the GRE.
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 in PA school, but also the most difficult scores to improve.
GRE Summary: The GRE assesses your knowledge and skills in Verbal Reasoning, Analytical Writing, and Quantitative Reasoning. The test requires approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete. The GRE is offered in computer-based and paper-based formats, and is offered year-round for computer-based administrations and up to three times per year for paper-based administrations.
GRE Scoring: The Verbal and Quantitative sections each receive a score between 130 and 170, in 1-point increments. The Analytical Writing section is scored on a scale of 0 to 6, in half-point increments. GRE scores are often reported as percentiles, with the median score (50th percentile) among examinees being 150 for the Verbal and Quantitative sections and 3.5 for the Analytical Writing section. Scores at around the 50th percentile or higher are considered competitive for physician assistant programs.
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
MCAT Summary: The MCAT assesses your knowledge and skills in Biological Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Verbal Reasoning. There is also an optional trial section, which examinees can complete to receive a $30 Amazon gift card. The test requires ~5 hours to complete, and entails ~144 multiple choice questions. The MCAT is administered in a computer-based format, and is offered over twenty times each year.
MCAT Scoring: Each of the three scored sections receives a score between 1 and 15, for a possible total of 45. The trial section is unscored. The mean score among examinees is 24.
Official Test Preparation Material:
- The Official Guide to the MCAT Exam, by AAMC
- Practice Exams, on AAMC website
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 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.
Note: Most PA schools participate in CASPA. Students interested in applying to other schools must complete each of their prospective schools’ individual applications. For these schools, the application process consist only of steps 2 and 3.
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.
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 are available online and stipulate both schools’ and applicants’ rights and responsibilities in the application process. All applicants should be familiar with these rules before applying.
- The more you know about a school, the better your chances of being accepted.
- Most application questions can be answered by reading the PA 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
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 PA programs.