How to Compare What PA Programs Expect: Results of the PAEA Prerequisite Survey


When you're mapping out your plan to prepare for PA school, it can seem like programs have wildly divergent requirements. While this can be true, there are also plenty of similarities in what schools expect from applicants. 


A mistake made by many people in the lead-up to PA school is trying to prepare for PA school in a general sense: "What classes do PA schools like?" "What types of patient care experience are best?"  "Do PA schools prefer candidates with X?"


Instead of preparing for any and all PA schools, I believe that it's essential to target specific PA programs, even if it's just a few to get started. Without them, creating a plan to prepare for PA school that you can execute efficiently is near impossible. 


But, there are a couple instances where it's helpful to look at PA prep as a general concept. The first is when you are just getting started. If you know what the majority of programs require, you can spend your time concentrating on the most commonly required courses or developing for patient care experience targets. 


What PA Programs Expect from ApplicantslBe a Physician Assistant

Another instance when knowing what's required by the "typical" PA school comes in handy is when setting expectations for your target program search. If you're hesitant to take microbiology but find out that over three quarters of PA schools require it, adjusting your plan may be wiser than weeding out programs that require microbiology.


In June of 2015, the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) conducted a survey of the 194 accredited PA programs (193 responded) that gathered information on prerequisite coursework, academics, and health care experience.


(Keep in mind, publications that include data always lag a bit so that information can be gathered, compiled, and interpreted. So, the report included fewer PA programs compared to the current count, but these were all of them at the time of the survey.)


Here's what they found.



GPAs that are required by programs are typically different (and lower) than the average GPA scores of future PA students. The averages of accepted students are published separately in PAEA student surveys


In the prerequisite survey, 92.8% of programs reported having a minimum overall GPA requirement, 59.22% had a minimum science GPA requirement, and 21.2% had a minimum GPA requirement for program-specific prerequisite courses. 


The median minimum GPAs required in each category, including overall, science, program-specific and BCP (biology, chemistry, physics), were all 3.0.


However, there was a fair amount of variability in the ranges of minimums: overall GPA 2.50-3.60, science GPA 2.60-3.40, program-specific prereq GPA 2.33-3.20, and BCP GPA 2.75-3.40.


The prevalence of GPA minimums are not a big surprise, most programs are at or near the average GPA requirements.


However, the fascinating part of the survey was when PA programs were asked to give their reason for requiring a minimum GPAs for their programs.


For overall GPA, 64.8% of programs felt that it predicted an applicant's ability to complete the program, 42.5% of programs used the minimum GPA to narrow down the pool of applicants, and for 25.9% of programs, the minimum GPA was a university or graduate school requirement.


Though the percentages were somewhat lower, a similar trend was seen when schools were asked their reason for requiring a minimum science GPA (44.6%, 26.4%, 10.9%, respectively). 


This is crucial information if you are someone with a GPA on the low side. PA schools appear to be most often concerned about how your GPA reflects your academic ability. But, they also might be using it only to narrow down the pool of candidates due to the high number of very qualified applicants. 


With a low GPA, rounding out your application and becoming stellar in others areas may help. However, this information tells us that it's possibly even more important to find other ways to prove your academic fitness. If the main purpose of GPA is to demonstrate your academic ability, consider what else in your academic work can help to make the case that you are ready to study medicine.  


If there is no academic proof in your application to counteract the negative effects of your GPA, schools may be wondering if you have what it takes to succeed or simply weeding you out from consideration to decrease the applicant pool. 



Understanding which courses are most often required for PA school can help you to build an efficient pre-PA plan, even if you don't have your target schools in mind just yet.


However, target programs will quickly become important in creating your academic strategy as whether schools allow for online courses, require labs, or have course expiration dates is strictly program-specific.



The courses most commonly required by PA programs included physiology (91.7%), anatomy (90.7%), microbiology (81.9%), and general chemistry (80.3%).


Usually, a fair number of prerequisite courses of any program are considered upper-level (think microbiology, genetics, organic chemistry), which may require that you take entry-level courses to be eligible for them.

While some PA schools may not require the entry-level courses, you may have to take qualify for the ones that programs do expect. 


So, keep this in mind when looking at the big picture of each program's prerequisite course requirements. At first glance, a program may appear to require less, but that's not always the case. 



PA programs often have lab requirements that complement the required courses. Lab courses are most commonly needed with anatomy (59.6%), followed by general chemistry (56.9%), physiology (49.2%), and general biology (40.9%). 



Most programs allow for online courses to fulfill prerequisite requirements. However, online courses are most frequently not allowed for anatomy and physiology (19.2%), general chemistry (14.5%), microbiology (13%), and general biology (10.4%), though the number of programs restricting these is relatively small. 



PA programs often set a time limit on when prerequisite courses "expire." This is determined by the program and is frequently set at 5, 7, or 10 years and, occasionally, a program has no expiration on courses. Other schools may have a mix, where some classes do not expire, but other more fundamental courses, like anatomy and physiology, do. 


In the survey, the courses that most frequently had a time limit associated with them were physiology (53.4%), anatomy (50.3%), microbiology (42%),  general chemistry (36.8%), and general biology (27.5%). 


If your pre-PA course may be a long one or the window on prior classes is closing, you can structure your pre-PA plan to take potential course expirations into account. 



Along with academic requirements, the PAEA survey also looked at PA program expectations with different kinds of experience. 


Some programs do not require any experience, so only the 111 programs that do provided information for this part of the survey.


Programs categorized experiences as "required," "preferred," or "not required."


Of the programs that required some kind of experience, shadowing a PA was required by 21.9% and preferred by 60.4%. The average minimum number of expected shadowing hours was 77.4 (median=24).


What PA Programs Expect from ApplicantslBe a Physician Assistant

Non-health care community service was required by only 5.3% of programs but was preferred by another 45.7%. The other 48.9% of schools did not have a requirement. 


Health care volunteering, however, was both required (9.2%) and preferred (62.2%) by more programs. 


The most often required experience was direct patient care, with 78.2% of programs requiring it and 21.8% noting it was "preferred." The minimum direct patient care hours for these programs averaged 733.8 hours (median=500). 


The information in this survey is interesting and can be helpful if used in the right way. Instead of using the information to make generalizations about what "all PA schools" like or what classes "no PA schools" need, the knowledge contained in this survey can help you make informed choices about your pre-PA plan. 


Minimums are not the same as averages, and they often will not make you competitive. But, if you understand the typical PA school requirements and use that information to inform your search for target programs, you can begin to understand what programs are likely to expect of you. 



Physician Assistant Education Association, By the Numbers: Curriculum Report 1: Data from the 2015 Prerequisite
Survey. Washington, DC: PAEA; 2017. doi: 10.17538/CR1.2017