Anyone who has contemplated PA school has considered what it might take to be accepted. Those planning for PA school are often looking for what combination of patient contact experience, GPA and undergrad major is most likely to result in an offer of a seat with a PA program.
Pre-PA internet forums are full of PA prospects looking for advice on what is most likely to get them into a program and wanting validation that their 3.88 GPA is good enough (hint: it is).
This week, we will examine the latest available details of the 2015 entering PA class and review what makes up the average PA student. This information is made available through the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) Matriculating Student Survey and included 5,244 respondents from 187 PA programs, an estimated 60% of all PA students in these programs.
The demographics of the average PA student have remained fairly stable in recent years — single women aged 24-26 (with an undergraduate degree and without children) make up the majority of the PA student population.
From our recent blog series last month, our three new PAs, Irene, Lisa and Jocelyn, fit this mold, but this probably has more to do with who is applying to PA school than anything else.
Let’s reexamine some of the topics that we covered with our three grads that can influence PA program acceptance and a future career: pre-PA education, prior work experience, applying & PA program choice, and cost.
Most PA students respondents were enrolled directly into the professional phase of a PA program (86.1%), which typically is master’s degree level, but some entered through preprofessional programs (12.7%) that included 3+2 or 4+2 programs.
The vast majority of PA students (66.3%) completed a bachelor of science degree as the highest level of education before entering PA school, most commonly in natural sciences. The second most common education level prior to PA school was a bachelor of arts (15%), followed by a health-related master’s degree (6.5%) and a non-science- or health-related master’s degree (2.4%).
This makes sense for a few reasons. First, most PA students are either going directly to PA school after undergrad (28.3%) or within 1-2 years of receiving a bachelor degree (39.3%). There is a lot of overlap with the required courses for a natural sciences or health-related sciences degree and the required prerequisites courses for PA school, so this would mean that students with these degrees could be eligible for PA school while completing or fairly quickly after completing a bachelor’s degree.
Secondly, most PA students (59.2%) decided to become a PA before or during college, so they had the opportunity to choose an undergraduate field of study in anticipation of applying to PA school. Again, a natural or health sciences undergraduate degree is an efficient way to complete most of the PA program prerequisites. Also, those working on these undergraduate degrees who decide on a PA path in college are likely already interested in a career in medicine.
Interestingly, after those going to PA school within 2 years of receiving their degree, the next most common group included those whose last degree was granted 5 or more years ago (20.3%). Turns out, you do not have to be a freshly graduated biology major to get into PA school, and it seems a lot of people who are not are also interested in being PAs.
The average PA student (all types of prior degrees included) completed an additional 12 credits to satisfy the prerequisite requirements for the programs where they applied.
The greatest amount of angst that I encounter among prospective PA students is regarding their GPAs. This is understandable. GPAs can be really difficult to improve after a few years of college are under your belt, but many people overestimate what is required or accepted by PA programs.
For the entering 2015 PA class, the average overall GPA was 3.58 (median 3.6) with a standard deviation of 0.27. So of the respondents, GPAs typically ranged from about 3.31 to 3.85, but certainly there were GPAs both higher and lower than this range that account for the averages.
Health Care Experience
As previously noted, nearly 40% of new PA students have 1-2 years between receiving an undergraduate degree and starting PA school, a significant increase from 18% of entering PA students in 2013.
This shift may be the result of an increase in minimum requirements for patient contact hours by PA programs, and well as an increase in the number of applicants causing increased competition.
In the year prior to starting PA school, 43.8% of students worked to fulfill pre-PA health care requirements in paid positions, while 35.7% worked in another career, 27.6% worked to complete prerequisite courses and 13.2% volunteered or shadowed to fulfill pre-PA heath care requirements. Respondents were able to choose more than one answer for this question.
The great majority of PA students (79.8%) previously worked in the health care field, most often as a nursing assistant (30.2%). Other popular positions included medical assistant (21.3%), EMT/paramedic (19.8%), scribe (14%), home health aide (8.8%), and emergency room tech (8.3%). Only about half of students (49%) ever participated in paid or voluntary community service work.
Applying & Program Choice
Nearly 65% of the entering 2015 PA class applied to 5 or more PA programs for the application cycle from which they were accepted. This did not account for those who may have applied in prior cycles or include those prior applications in the total.
The likelihood of obtaining an PA program interview leveled off after 8 applications, and the likelihood of being accepted to a program leveled off after 7 applications. Keep in mind that these numbers relate only to those who were accepted to PA school, and does not include the applications of those who were not accepted. The total money spent to apply to PA school including the cost of interviews was less than $500 for 29.1% of applicants, $500-$1000 for 34.6%, and greater than $1000 for 34.7%.
The greatest concentration of PA program locations represented in the survey were in the South (32.6%) and Northeast regions (31.6%), which resembles the overall geographic PA program distribution. These regions also have the highest concentration PA school applicants who are residents of these regions. This concentration increases by about 4% in both the Northeast and South regions when student location at the time of enrollment is evaluated, suggesting that PA students are moving to these regions to attend PA school. Distribution is based on U.S. Census Bureau regions.
New PA students were most positively influenced to choose their PA program by conversations with program faculty (84.7%), clinical curriculum (81.8%), campus atmosphere (81.2%), conversations with current students (80.7%), program location (79.9%), program reputation (77.6%), and interview experience (76.7%). The most significant negative influence on program choice was cost (28.1%).
There are so many areas where cost plays a role when it comes to PA school. We have already touched on the cost of applying to school, and that cost is the top negative influencer in school decision, meaning that students will choose to not attend a program due to cost.
Money can be an issue before PA school even begins with applications fees, interview costs, and prior student loan debt. Over half of new PA students (51.1%) are carrying debt from prior educational loans, on average $33,487 before entering PA school. Additionally, 31.6% of new PA students have a median non-educational consumer debt of $8000 when entering PA school.
New PA students plan to finance an average of 84% of their PA education with student loans. More than 65% of new PA students anticipate their total PA school debt (excluding personal debt) to be greater than $50,000, with the greatest number of students expecting between $125,000 to $149,999.
I found that perhaps the most interesting part of the entire survey was the number of respondents who felt they were likely to work in a medically underserved community upon graduation: 18.8% very likely, 37.3% likely, and 29.3% were neutral (a total of 85.4%).
Only 14.6% of responded that they were unlikely or very unlikely to work in a medically underserved area. Admittedly, this question does not ask if students plan to primarily seek a medically underserved job in order to get student loan forgiveness, but it certainly makes me feel like that possibility influences the question.
Most PA school student aid offices will tell you how to get loans and that medically underserved jobs can help you with those loans. I was told the same by a financial aid worker at my PA school, and I too thought I could just work in a rural community and all of my debt would go away in a couple of years.
These are great jobs to get for many new PAs, but the reality is that most people do not take these positions, certainly not 85%. PAEA is starting an End of Program Survey as of this year, so we should be able to get more accurate numbers of new PAs who enter into these underserved positions once survey results are available. As of now, only 37% of all PAs work in medically underserved counties, and those are just the ones working in a geographically underserved area, not the number of PAs working in jobs qualified as “underserved” positions for loan forgiveness.
This hurts my heart a bit. PA school is getting much more expensive. As the competition to get in increases, it seems so is the amount people are willing to go in debt to be a PA. A discussion on cost deserves its own post, and, one day soon, I will do one and also tell you about paying off my 120+k student loans in less than 2 years once I lost my mind over them. For now, just try to rein in what you are willing to borrow and strongly consider how cost will impact your future income and career. It will. No matter how much you think your income will be one day.
In summary, you by no means need to follow the averages to get into PA school, but some of the hype out there about GPAs of 3.5 not being good enough or programs not preferring a certain kind of patient care experience simply is not true, as the survey results show. Many different kinds of people become PAs. You do not have to be a superstar in all areas to get there, and experience that was not always average tends to make for better interview answers.
The 2015 PAEA Matriculating Student Survey will likely not be public for at least a few months, but they are very generous about wanting this information distributed for educational purposes. Send me any questions you have about the survey and if there is something in the data that can help you, I will let you know.
Next week, we will work through the anatomy of a personal statement and discuss how to sell yourself to PA programs in 5000 characters or less.
Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Matriculating Students 2015, Washington, D.C.: PAEA, 2016. doi: 10.17538/MSS2015.003
Physician Assistant Education Association, Matriculating Student Survey 2013, Education, Admissions, and Choice, Washington, D.C: PAEA, 2014.