Monday, December 8, 2014

Am I A Competitive Physician Assistant (PA) Applicant?

What Makes a Competitive PA Applicant
Last Updated: 08/03/2015

Am I a competitive PA applicant?” is a question thousands upon thousands of applicants ask themselves each year while applying. It is a question every admissions committee will be asked during a prospective session, and a question all PA coaches can be expected to be asked by their students. There is a lot to learn from our peers, including organizations like Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), who has recently re-instated the Matriculating Student Survey (MSS) data collected from first year PA students to gauge their academic background, application and admission experiences, including a multitude of other characteristics I will cover shortly. The surveys were conducted in September of 2013. If we do the math, this was PA students who matriculated (entered) PA school in 2013, so these are students that are one year above my current PA class.

In this class, 92% of students were direct admission students, while 7.6% were pre-PA students. “Pre-PA” is a term used to describe students that were high school graduates or students with college credit without a degree who entered a pre-professional program that allowed them an undergraduate curriculum (including pre-requisites) tailored to their PA program of choice. Since most students fall into the “directly admitted” students category, I will specifically address this population. Feel free to read the rest of the article in the sources section below.

86% of directly admitted students had a bachelor’s degree, with 67.8% having a B.S. and 18.1% having a B.A. Only 10% of students had a master’s degree or higher. Remember, it does not matter whether you have a B.S., a B.A., or a M.S. Schools want to see that you are well prepared for PA school all-around, not that you have a piece of paper that says you are “smart.” Your level of degree does not matter when applying to PA school.

I often get the question - what should I major in if I want to become a PA? There really is not a good answer to that question. Some majors may prepare you more for PA school, but in the long run, I believe that PA schools seek variability. For instance, my major was in biomedical engineering, whereas most of our program had natural science degrees of all sorts. According to those 86% of students that held a bachelor’s degree, most degrees were in the following categories: 56.2% natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics), 34.1% health care sciences (health sciences, kinesiology, radiology, nursing), 12.2% social sciences (sociology, political science, psychology), 5.4% humanities (literature, philosophy, religion), 4.6% business, 2.2% math/engineering/tech, 1.7% public health, and 1% general studies. The most common major overall was biology (41.6%), followed by “other”, psychology, chemistry, health science, exercise science, and business. Remember, as long as you finish your pre-requisites for the program you are applying to, it doesn’t matter what your degree is in.

So does it matter how long ago your degree was obtained? 69% of students said they completed their most recent degree (could be B.S., B.A., M.S., etc.) within the last 2 years. 18% of students said 5+ years had passed since they last completed their degree. Have no fear if you have been out of school for some time. There is still hope for you and spots in PA school are not all reserved for new graduates of college, although some might stipulate so. In fact, 48.8% of those students who were out of school reported that they were continuing coursework to fulfill prerequisite requirements, 47.1% reported working to meet HCE requirements, 45.2% reported working to improve their finances, 32.3% reported working at another career prior to PA school, 31.9% reported volunteering, 22.9% reported fulfilling family obligations. Only 15.2% of students went straight from undergrad to PA school, which is less than I would have expected. Only 4.3% pursued graduate studies during their time before PA school admission.

Undergraduate grade point averages (GPAs) - a conversation no one ever wants to have. According to PAEA, matriculants had an average of 3.46 science GPA, 3.59 non-science GPA, and 3.52 GPA overall, while the average of all applicants tended to be lower in all 3 categories. For UT Southwestern’s PA program, the average science GPA was 3.64 and the overall GPA was 3.65 for this class, slightly higher than the national averages.
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How much health care experience do I need to have?” Truthfully, it all depends on the program (or number of programs) you plan to apply to. The more health care experience you have, the better prepared for PA school you will be, and the more options for PA programs you will have. The average matriculant had 4,055 hours of direct patient care, 1,510 hours of health care related experience, and 5,565 hours overall. This doesn’t mean you all need this amount of health care experience. This just represents an average. There are lots of programs that require 2,000+ hours for admission. Conversely, there are also lots of programs that do not have this requirement.

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What do I need on my GRE for admission?” 71% of PA programs required the GRE last year and I’m sure that number has changed again, as it does every year. The average applicant GRE score combined was 303 (old test: 1067). The average matriculant GRE score combined was 305 (old test:1106). What does that tell you? It tells you that most students get scores around 300 and that it doesn’t matter too much if your score is way above or slightly under that number. The GRE does not (I should say, should not) play a large role in your admission. For UT Southwestern’s PA program, the average GRE test score was 308 (old test: 1230), slightly higher than the national average.

Still Feel Lost? Need Help?
If you are a pre-PA student and want to know what your chances of admission are, are curious if you are on the right path to becoming a PA, or just need some general advice about your stats, utilize resources such as The PA Platform, which provides pre-PA assessments, supplemental application reviewing, letter of recommendation reviewing, and mock interviews.

Savanna Perry, PA-C, is the founder of The PA Platform and started PA school at the Medical College of Georgia in May of 2012, now known as Georgia Regents University, graduating in August of 2014.  She has assisted with multiple interviews and knows what it is like to be on both sides of the interview process. She works at a Dermatology office outside of Augusta, GA and has come to love the PA profession even more while learning all of the advantages of becoming a PA. She has always enjoyed helping other people to achieve their dreams, and that is her primary goal with her site!

Please use referral code: DoseOfPA for a special discount on The PA Platform for any service(s).

When did you decide you wanted to become a PA?” is a question I guarantee you’ll be asked at some point throughout your career. 6.2% of students decided during high school or before college, which I find very surprising because our high school never even taught us what a PA was. 20.8% decided during their first two years of college. 19% while working in healthcare, which is sort of how I found my way as well. 19.8% after receiving their bachelor’s degree. 17.4% during their junior year of college. 8.5% decided during senior year of college. 2.2% decided while serving in the military. 4.6% decided after receiving an advanced degree. What this tells us is that, it does not matter when you decide to become a PA. What matters is that you have a strong desire to become a PA and that your reasoning for becoming a PA is meaningful and matches your PA programs mission statement or goals.

So, how many programs should I apply to? How many interviews does the average PA student get? How many programs does the average PA student get accepted to? All great questions. I’m not sure if these numbers answer them fully, but they might give you an insight. In 2013, the admitted students applied to an average of 6 programs with a standard deviation of 4.46 and a median of 5. The average number of interviews granted was 2.9 with a standard deviation of 2.27 and a median of 2. The average number of interviews accepted was 2.2 with a standard deviation of 2.48 and a median of 2. Students were accepted to 1.5 schools on average with a standard deviation of 0.92 and a median of 1. What does all of this math mean? It means that most students who were accepted applied to 5-6 PA programs, were granted an interview at 2-3 of them, accepted the interview at 2 of them, and were admitted to about 1.

What influenced you to become a PA? A great question with current data from current students. The 3 top influences were: a family member (78.7%), friend (70.2%), and college admissions department (66%). Other factors included: conversations with faculty or staff of a PA program (81.5%), program location (78.3%), the clinical curriculum of the program (75.4%).

Other information from the Cycle 12 CASPA Data Report presented in October of 2013 includes the number of applicants and applications, the number of applicants and matriculants, the number of applicants per seat, age and gender of applicants, ethnicity and race of applicants, most common majors (we already covered), GPA (broken down into science, non-science, overall), average health care experience (direct, health care related, overall), GRE scores, the number of e-submitted applications (between september 1-30 and overall through september 30), and the average CASPA processing time. Extremely important and helpful information to any PA applicant applying to PA school. Data was collected for the 2012-2013 applicants, or the 2013 matriculants (May-September start programs), which is the same class we discussed above.

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As you can see, the number of applicants to PA school has increased steadily each year, with more than 124,000 total applications in last years cycle. The “unique” applicants represents individuals who have completed and submitted a CASPA application. Of the 19,968 unique applicants, there were 6,042 matriculants. Although there has been an increase in the number of PA applicants per seat from previous years (3.4 applicants/seat), the percent increase in applications has declined since (from 11% to 8%). The average number of applications per PA program was 797. UT Southwestern received 1,448 applications for the class of 2015. 150 were interviewed and 40 were selected.

Applicants (26.2 years old) were, on average, slightly older than matriculants (25.3 years old). For UT Southwestern’s PA program, ages ranged from 22-33 (average: 24).

Most applicants (71.3%) and matriculants (72.1%) are female. Guys, this doesn’t mean they have a better chance! Just means more women are applying. Keep your heads up! For UT Southwestern’s PA program, 90.5% were female for this class, representing 38 students of the 42 selected.

How long will CASPA take to process my application after submission?” It appears that last year they took between 5-6 days. From the previous year before that, they took 7-8 days. It seems as though they are improving their processing times each year.

Read the article on Indebtedness below to find out more about the average amount of loans PA students began PA school with.

Read the article on Demographics to learn more about when students begin PA school, and the average PA student characteristics (gender, relationship status, children/dependents, race, etc.)

Read the article on Health and Well-Being to learn more about aspects of PA student well-being, social support, financial concerns, level of fatigue, and how students spent their time before PA school.

More information on the average PA student characteristics and matriculant data can be found in PAEA’s 28th Annual Report. The 29th Report is now available, but you might need to be a member of PAEA in order to view it.

2013 Matriculating Student Survey, Education, Admissions, and Choice, Physician Assistant Education Association, 2013.
2013 Matriculating Student Survey, Health and Well-Being, Physician Assistant Education Association, 2013.
2013 Matriculating Student Survey, Demographics, Physician Assistant Education Association, 2013.
2013 Matriculating Student Survey, Indebtedness, Physician Assistant Education Association, 2013.
CASPA Data Report Cycle 12, 2012-2013 Applicants, 2013 Matriculants to Date, Physician Assistant Education Association, 2013.
Ruback, T, Central Application Service for Physician Assistants: Five-Year Report, PAEA, 2013.


  1. How does the CASPA calculate science GPA? Do they use the same format as the AMCAS- Physics, Biology, Math and Chemistry, or a different one?

    1. Hello,
      This has been described several places, including on the CASPA site. Please see their website for more information.

  2. I'm a junior in high school right now and I can't decide between majoring in engineering or nursing (aiming to become a PA). Does anyone have any ideas on what I could do or has any comments on either career path or can compare the two? Any help is appreciated :)

    1. Personally, I think both routes can get you where you want to be as long as you fulfill the prerequisites and flesh out your application with HCE, volunteering, shadowing, etc. As long as you can prove to a committee that PA is the way you want to go and that you've considered all of your other options. If you're undecided, go into undergraduate with an open mind and get your foot in the door by gaining healthcare experience (there are many ways). Then, as you start taking more classes and get farther along, start shadowing each profession and try to make a list of pros and cons of each.

  3. Is it beneficial when applying to schools to have a second language and/or leadership background?

    1. DEFINITELY. Bilingual is a plus. Leadership is also a plus (not a requirement).

  4. I will be applying to PA programs this upcoming cycle after graduating this December. I've worked as a ophthalmic assistant the past 2 summers (1150 hours), will have about 40 hours of shadowing and 200 hours of volunteering. I plan to work again as an ophthalmic assistant starting in February, so I should have at least 900-1000 more hours by the time applications open. It looks like my hours are definitely on the lower end of these averages, which makes me worried. However, I have a 3.94 GPA (and similar science GPA). Will this help much to make up for being on the lower end of hours? Thanks!!

    1. I think you should focus less on averages and more about how well rounded of an applicant you are. You will be fine! Good luck applying!

  5. I recently graduated with a BA in biology and am very motivated to go on to PA school in a couple of years after I have acquired sufficient direct medical experience as a phlebotomist or EMT. I have very good communication skills and am fluently bilingual. My biggest concern is that my science GPA is only 2.99, while my overall GPA is 3.38 (helped by my language double-major). I struggled with chemistry and calculus, and did not take any physics. I am planning to take some additional science courses at my local community college before I apply to PA school, and I hope to eventually raise my science GPA to a 3.1-3.2. I am about to get training and certification in either phlebotomy or EMT in the coming months. My question is whether I will have a reasonable chance of admission to PA school given my much lower than average science GPA, or will my science GPA be a virtual application killer, regardless of the rest of my résumé and experience. Thanks, Paul!

    1. Hi anonymous,

      Due to the amount of requests I get on peoples stats, its not reasonable for me to respond to each one. I recommend reaching out to a PA coach - I recommend Savannah Perry at

      You can use code DoseOfPA for a discount on her services.

  6. Hey Paul!

    I was researching schools in various states, as I'm a native of SC, and was wondering if it was worth applying to a state that had only one PA program even though they have a higher acceptance for students that are from their own state? I am not that strong of a candidate as I have an average gpa of 3.486, GRE score of 296, and HCE of about 2,000. I was wondering what your opinion was along with what I should work on to become a competitive applicant! Thanks for your time and patience!

    Best regards,


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