Timeline for Pre-Physician Assistant Students
*This timeline was developed for those students planning to apply for admission to a physician assistant graduate program immediately after graduation. It is also very common, however, for students to take a year or more off after graduation and then apply. If you are considering taking a gap year (or more) after graduation, some of the suggested activities can be postponed until later in college.
- Let your advisor know that you are interested in becoming a physician assistant.
- Complete first year pre-PA coursework (usually English Composition, Math through Calculus, Introductory Biology, and General Chemistry courses).
- Visit the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) web-site. Here you will find a lot of information about being a physician assistant and how to best prepare yourself for applying to physician assistant graduate programs. Be sure to come back and visit this site regularly, as requirements within health care professions change over time, so you'll always want to make sure you have the most recent information.
- Begin to look over practice GRE exams. Many PA graduate programs require that you take this exam before applying. The sooner you start to get a feel for the types of questions that might be on the GRE, the better you will eventually do.
- IMPORTANT: many PA programs require that you have had actual paid "hands-on" experience in health care, such as by working as a certified nurse's aide or an EMT. One advantage to this requirement is that once you are certified, you can often work this job as your summer job, both to earn money to help fund your education and also to get the hours required by the PA programs you are applying to. Job shadowing will not substitute for this requirement, but it can be a good supplement to get a feel for exactly which type of health care you are most interested in such as primary care, OB-GYN, etc....
- Explore campus extracurricular activities. Remember that quality is more important than quantity - choose activities that you are passionate about and that you could possibly eventually take a leadership role in.
- Keep in mind that getting into a physician assistant program is very competitive. Even students that have very good grades may not necessarily get in. Thus, everyone should have a "Plan B" in mind that they can also work towards at the same time, in the event that acceptance to a physician assistant program does not occur immediately after graduation. Be sure to discuss your "Plan B" with your advisor so that he/she can recommend any additional coursework that might help you out with your backup plan.
- Complete second year pre-PA coursework (usually includes Genetics, Organic Chemistry, Human Anatomy and Physiology, and other major/GE courses).
- Continue to participate in extracurricular activities. If you notice that you are having trouble keeping your grades up though, you will want to pare back on this somewhat.
- Continue to look over GRE practice exams. Begin to develop a GRE study plan for your junior year.
- Sophomore year is a time period when students who had initially performed well in science courses may sometimes start to struggle, as the level of the material becomes more rigorous. Be sure to get help from your professors and the tutoring center early and often.
- Start exploring research and/or internship possibilities for your upcoming junior year.
- Start to explore which PA programs you want to apply to. A list of PA programs can be found here. Be sure to carefully look over their list of pre-requisite courses as this may vary somewhat from school to school. Try to take as many of the prerequisite courses as you can as early as you can, to avoid any last minute scheduling issues.
- Complete third year pre-PA coursework (often includes at least one semester of Physics, upper-level Biology electives (including Microbiology), Psychology, Sociology, and additional GE/major coursework). If you did not already take Statistics earlier, you should do so this year.
- Junior year is often a good time for directed research projects and study abroad experiences.
- You should also plan on shadowing a physician assistant this year (either during the school year or the summer before and/or after your junior year). This can be done for academic credit - if you want this credit, please see your advisor for information on how to register.
- This is the year that you will focus very intensely on preparing for the GRE exam. At a minimum, you will want to obtain several GRE prep books/software packages. While more expensive, you may also wish to consider taking a formal GRE prep course (offered in many larger metropolitan areas and/or online).
- Once you feel that you have prepared as much as you can - take the GRE exam! Usually this is done after the completion of your junior year classwork.
- Begin to work on your online application (via CASPA) during the summer between your junior and senior year. The homepage for CASPA is https://portal.caspaonline.org/#.
- Begin to work on your personal statement that is part of your CASPA application. Be sure to have several of your professors review this statement before you submit it. You want this statement to do a good job of promoting your candidacy based on your personal experiences and attributes and to also be very well written (i.e. free of grammar, style, and spelling issues).
- Find out how many reference letters you will need and who they must be from. In some cases, you may be asked to provide both academic (e.g. professors) and clinical (e.g. supervisors at a health care facility that you worked at) references. Be sure to give your reference providers plenty of advance notice in regards to whatever deadlines you need to meet.
- Finish and submit your online application if you haven't already done so.
- Complete any secondary applications that are required.
- Prepare for PA school interviews by researching the curriculum and other details of the schools that you will be interviewing at, as well as participating in a "mock interview" with either your advisor or the career center.
- Travel to PA school interviews. Be sure to save up your pennies in advance for travel expenses.
- Keep your fingers crossed! You may find yourself wait-listed at one or more PA schools. This is not necessarily bad. Sometimes students are selected from the wait list as late as mid-summer after graduation.
- If you are not accepted, first have a pint of ice cream or your other favorite comfort food, and then begin to work on your "Plan B". For some students, this may involve considering other career options. Your advisor and the Career Services center can help with this. For other students, it may involve doing some post-graduation activities that will improve your candidacy.
- One "Plan B" that you may want to consider is becoming a Nurse Practitioner, since it is a very similar career to that of the PA. To do this, you would first need to become a Registered Nurse (RN), which can be done via an accelerated program for those students that already have their bachelor's degree. After that you would need to apply to a Nurse Practitioner graduate program. While this is also a competitive program to get into, you would have your RN certification to fall back upon as a career option, should you not get into either PA school nor a Nurse Practitioner graduate program.
- If you are accepted, plan a party with friends and family to celebrate, and then be sure to start working on the financial aid paperwork as soon as possible. PA school is expensive!