If you want to go to PA school, you will more than likely need to navigate the application process with the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).
CASPA is an online application service of the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) and allows for students to apply to multiple programs using one application.
Currently, 213 of the 228 accredited PA programs use CASPA to process applications. So, odds are, if you apply to PA school, you will get acquainted with CASPA.
CASPA has loads of information on their website about starting the application, instructions for each section, and FAQs for each subsection that help applicants complete and submit their applications.
Despite this, applicants make some common mistakes that can delay or derail their application. I recently spoke with a helpful CASPA rep, who filled me in on the most common application mistakes and shared some insider advice for those negotiating their way through the process.
This post will break down the most frequent sticking points of the PA school application process. If you want your experience to go as smoothly as possible, this one is for you.
Reapplying to CASPA
For those applying to CASPA for a second cycle, you have the option to pull information from your prior cycle’s application forward. My contact at CASPA said that while many are aware of this option, often it is not executed correctly.
If you are reapplying, first sign into your account and choose “start reapplication.” From there, you can scroll down and opt to bring forward much of the information that you previously input (this is the step that most miss, which can cause you to lose your prior work).
Portions that you cannot bring forward include the personal statement, references (including letters of recommendation), and uploaded documents.
An applicant must request transcripts from all colleges attended, even for a single course. You can, and should, do this immediately upon creating a CASPA account after listing your schools in the “Colleges Attended” section. Transcripts may take days or weeks to be received by CASPA after you make your request to a school.
Transcripts must be sent directly from the college registrar’s office to CASPA, and cannot be forwarded by you. For courses listed as "planned/in-progress," transcripts are not required. However, if you want your CASPA-calculated GPA to include courses that you have not yet completed, you should wait to submit your application until transcripts are available for those courses.
CASPA Insider Tip: The belief that CASPA obtains transcripts on the applicant's behalf is a frequent error. CASPA does not request transcripts, even for those who opt for the professional transcription entry service. All applicants must request their transcripts through the normal channels, or their applications will not move forward.
References & Letters of Recommendation
References, including letters of recommendation, are often the culprits of application delays. Applicants may be unaware that a reference has not been received, which may result in missing a program deadline. [Not knowing about a missing reference ruined the first application cycle for a friend of mine, Irene, when she applied.]
To e-submit an application, an applicant must request three references. However, an application can go through verification with only two references completed. Additional references, once completed, will be immediately available to your schools once received by CASPA.
If a reference remains incomplete after submission of an application, you can delete your request to the individual providing the reference and add a new one.
CASPA Insider Tip: Ask LOR writers to create a profile with their work information. Some references are hesitant to create a profile that contains their personal information, and typically complete references faster when they are told directly to use their work contact details.
You can have your reference contact CASPA directly with any difficulty using the portal; there is a help line available for references through customer service.
Understanding CASPA application status
The CASPA application goes through several phases - submitted, received, completed, and verified. Because these terms can all sound conclusive, often students believe their application has been finalized when, in fact, it has not.
So, let’s get clear on what each phase means.
An application is In progress from the very start until it is e-submitted by the applicant. A CASPA application can only be submitted once all sections are complete. You can submit your application before CASPA receives your transcripts or references (though you will have to add contact information for your references before submission).
You will be unable to edit most of the application after submission. However, you can ADD new data, like additional courses, certifications, test scores, and references as well as apply to new programs. You can also delete references that are incomplete if, say, you are having trouble getting someone to complete a reference and need to add someone new.
If CASPA is awaiting references/letters of recommendation or transcripts, your application will move into a Received > Awaiting Materials status after it is submitted. Once CASPA obtains your transcripts and at least two references, the status will change to Received Materials > Verifying (which is when an application is “complete") and placed in the verifying queue.
CASPA Application Turnaround Times
Three phases of the application - submitted, completed, and verified - are important to program deadlines. Knowing the turnaround times in advance can save you some last-minute panic.
CASPA applications are immediately categorized as Received after the application is e-submitted with payment.
CASPA Insider Tip: If you are unable to proceed with payment, the most common problem is that an area under the “Program Materials” section is incomplete. Use the tabs at the bottom to go through each section and ensure everything is complete.
Applications are completed within 48 hours once all materials (transcripts and at least two references) are received. The applicant will be emailed to review and approve the application once complete.
Verification does not begin until CASPA receives all required documents. Applications are verified chronologically based on their “complete” date. CASPA averages a turnaround time of two weeks for verification of an application. However, during the busiest periods, this can take up to four weeks.
CASPA Insider Tip: Due to variations in receiving transcripts and references, there is often a difference in turnaround time between yours and other applications, even when submitted at the same time. Applications submitted just hours apart may have processing times that are days apart. Follow the guidelines for submission windows to ensure you meet the PA program deadlines.
PA Program Deadlines
A major stumbling block to the CASPA application is understanding the program-specific deadlines. The first step to understanding the requirements is to grasp the different application statuses and turnaround times, as reviewed above.
Program deadlines for CASPA involve two parts: a particular application status and a date. The deadline date is pretty straightforward, but PA programs vary in their requirement for the application status.
Some programs only require that you hit “submit” by the deadline date, and your application can be completed and verified through the normal CASPA process. Others require that all transcripts and references are received and the application verified to meet the deadline.
CASPA maintains a list of what is required by a deadline of each participating program, which includes the following color code:
Blue - Application must be submitted.
Orange - Application must be completed.
Green - Application must be verified.
White - PA program has not specified to CASPA. Assume it must be verified to be safe if you cannot confirm with the program.
Understanding your target program deadlines will help you to plan when you must submit your application.
CASPA Insider Tip: Some programs have an application opening date that is later than the CASPA cycle opening. If a program is not available as an option when you are submitting your application, then it is likely not open yet for the current cycle. Check with the program for the application opening date.
Applying to PA school takes time, and it is a multistep process. Much of the process is within your control if you lay out a plan and give yourself plenty of time to understand and meet the PA program deadlines.
Some aspects of the process, like references, transcripts, and verification times, are not entirely in your control, but there are ways for you to make the application go smoothly with advanced planning and understanding the different application statuses.
You can help to minimize your stress by creating a CASPA account and opening the application long before you are ready to apply. Familiarizing yourself with the CASPA format and requirements in advance will help you to complete the application with confidence when the time comes to push the submit button.
Have a CASPA question that is not covered in the CASPA FAQ? Run it by your fellow pre-PA students in the Be a PA private Facebook group, or join us there if you haven't yet.