More future PA students are taking time between undergrad and PA school. In fact, those who have 1-2 years between earning their latest degree and starting PA school now represent the largest group of PA students (39.3%).
Yet, the proportion of future PA students who decide to become a PA before graduating college (around 60%) remains steady.
This shift may, in part, be due to applicants wanting to (or needing to) gain more experience before applying to PA school. But there are other considerations that may play a role in your decision of whether or not to take a gap year.
In this post, you'll learn about the essential factors to weigh when deciding if a gap year is right for you.
Student loan repayment
If you currently have student loans and decide to take extra time between undergrad and PA school, you may need to start repaying your educational loans. The timing may vary based on the type of loan, your graduation date, and whether or not you consolidate.
Most future PA students who delay applying to PA school do so to gain more patient contact experience. If your income is primarily from working as a CNA or EMT, paying back student loans may put a squeeze on your budget. Even when loan payments are income-based, the added expense can make it difficult to save money for PA school.
If the timing is such that you won't need to make payments before PA school, remember that the clock is still ticking on the loan interest. Once you are no longer a full-time student, even your subsidized loans are accruing interest.
Before you decide on a gap year, you should fully understand your obligation to your student loans.
The prominent PA school scholarships (NHSC and VA scholarships) are contingent upon acceptance to a PA program. However, many smaller scholarships are available to those currently enrolled in a full-time undergraduate or graduate program. So, if you take a gap year, you may not be eligible to apply until after you are in PA school.
If applying for scholarships is part of your PA school financial plan, you can definitely work ahead. Some scholarships allow for either undergraduate or graduate students, so you can win scholarships as a college student and save the proceeds for PA school. (Many smaller awards are sent to you as a check rather than being directly applied to tuition.)
Taking a gap year may mean you are ineligible for certain scholarships. The key is understanding your PA school financial plan. You can work around this issue if you plan in advance to take a gap year.
Health care experience
The reason most pre-PA students delay applying to PA school is to gain additional patient care or health care experience. While there are minimum hours required by some programs, the requirements are by no means universal.
Direct patient care experience is highly valued by PA programs, but you can overdo it. Let's be clear. I'm not saying that patient care experience isn't important.
Learning to interact with patients and gaining exposure to the health care field helps you to understand if you are making the right career choice. It lays the groundwork for your future as a PA.
But, if you are choosing target programs that are a good fit and you are otherwise competitive, you may not need an extra 500, 1000, or 2000 contact hours. Some experience is needed, but more experience may not be necessary.
Consider whether you truly need an extra year, or if you are hesitating to apply because you assume everyone else has more experience than you. Remember, you can apply to PA school more than once. If you are otherwise ready and have enough experience (as outlined by a program requirement), consider that you may be able to apply earlier than you think.
The number and availability of prerequisite courses can affect when you might be ready to apply to PA school. Some PA programs have a limit to how many courses (usually 1-3) can be "planned" or "in-progress" when submitting your CASPA application.
Obviously, what programs allow will be the biggest factor in whether you need to delay your application. However, there's more to consider. Any planned/in-progress course will not show a grade on your transcript, and, therefore, will not be calculated into your GPA.
If you only have a course or two outstanding, they will not have much effect on your overall or science GPA. But, if you have several courses outstanding, particularly prerequisite science courses, this can impact your application and your competitiveness.
Yes, you can submit these grades to each program individually after the courses are complete. However, if you have more than a few courses outstanding, you may seem not yet prepared for PA school. Taking a gap year may give you more time to complete the courses under less pressure.
If you don't feel completely ready to apply to PA school, you may still consider diving into the application process early. I know a fair number of currently practicing PAs who were accepted to PA school after applying a second time.
They made mistakes in applying, requesting references, and going through interviews. The lessons they learned from these mistakes helped them to create a clear plan for round two, in which they were ultimately successful.
Even if you land an interview and it turns out to be kind of a disaster, you'll have a huge advantage over those going through the process the first time.
Getting comfortable with the application process may prevent an "unintended" gap year. Or, the gap year you thought you needed might be unnecessary because you got into PA school on your first application cycle.
It might be uncomfortable, but if you are 75% ready, you may benefit from a "trial run" application.
Even if you are sure you want to take a gap year, you can still create a CASPA application to gain experience with the process without submitting it. You can then roll over your information (excluding your personal essay and letters of recommendation) to the following application cycle.
When preparing for PA school, you might opt to delay your application to gain more experience or take additional prerequisite courses.
To make the best decision about whether you want (or need) to take an extra year before applying to PA school, you must first consider everything your choice will impact. Your decision may influence your finances, experience, and PA school competitiveness.
Whatever your choice, be sure to decide from a thoughtful, well-rounded perspective. Don't hold yourself back a year out of doubt, only do it with intention and to become a better PA school candidate.
Physician Assistant Education Association. 2017. By the Numbers: Student Report 1. Washington, DC: PAEA. doi: 10.17538/SR2017.0001 (All graphs adapted from data, tables, and graphs within report.)