How to Decode the Purpose of Prerequisites for PA School

Once deciding to become a PA, it takes most people about 1.5-2 years of dedicated effort to complete the admission requirements of their target programs. And, perhaps a bit longer than that to be competitive.

For most future PA students, fulfilling the admission requirements of PA programs can start to feel tedious pretty quickly. Checking off lists of courses, gathering enough patient care experience, and navigating the difference in prerequisites between schools can seem like you're being made to jump through hoops.

You know you'd make a stellar PA and are committed to doing the hard work of training to become one, so why all of the obstacles to get there?

In the simplest of terms, you're being readied to study medicine. PA school is relatively short, and it's intense.

Starting PA school feels like jumping onto a moving train. If you're already running alongside the tracks when it approaches, you're way more likely to be able to hurl yourself onto it successfully. To be ready for what's coming, you cannot be standing still.

The work required to fulfill admission requirements creates the momentum you need to transition from pre-PA to PA student.

But, you can also use these same requirements to build a deeper strategy — if you know what to look for.

Academic requirements

Generally, PA programs determine their academic and clinical admission requirements based on what experiences they feel help students excel in their particular program. And, as each PA school is free to decide what they believe these essential factors to be, programs don't have uniform demands.

Minimum overall and science GPAs exist because they act as rough measures of which applicants are most likely to succeed in studying medicine.

GPAs are not the be all end all of who gets into PA school, but they act as a decent measure for PA school faculty members to ascertain who might be ready to start. And, as with course requirements, they vary program to program.

While this variety can be a source of frustration for prospective applicants, you can leverage serious advantages from it.

Admission requirements are a list of "what." But, behind each is a "why." Every PA school prerequisite serves a purpose.

By tapping into the "why" of them, you can find insights that will help you to structure a better pre-PA plan.

For instance, let's say one of your target programs includes organic chemistry and genetics among their prerequisite courses. And that most of your other prospects don't.

How to Decode the Purpose of Prereqs for PA SchoollBe a Physician Assistant

At first glance, it may feel like the program asking for more courses is creating unnecessary hurdles. But, more likely, they're communicating through their requirements that these courses help students be better prepared to jump on their moving PA school train.

PA schools are similar in format, but they're not identical. Consequently, there will be slight variations in how far along you should be before starting each.

Programs that require fewer courses for entry may incorporate the essentials of these classes into your PA school training, which sounds appealing.

But what if rolling those topics into your PA-school curriculum extended the length of the program? Or it meant that you'd be paying PA school prices for undergrad knowledge?

[I'm not suggesting that all programs with fewer applicant obligations will last longer or cost more, but making the wisest choice makes examining the big picture necessary.]

Other PA schools may calculate a separate prerequisite-course GPA as part of their overall evaluation of candidates, thereby changing the course requirements from a checklist to a quality measure.

When a greater number of upper-level courses are needed or more weight is placed on specific classes, take the hint. Taking on additional upper-level courses or retaking those where you earned mediocre grades, even if not required, could help you to be a stronger candidate for these kinds of programs.

If a PA school has outlier requirements, like asking for six credits of psych, when no other program seems to ask the same, consider what this might represent.

Perhaps a program that requires this would be particularly interested in experiences — both in an out of the classroom — that have allowed you to learn more about the motivations and needs of others.

With this in mind, you might seek out patient care roles or volunteer opportunities that would allow for this exposure, and then highlight those aspects of the experiences on your CASPA application.

Speaking of clinical experiences...

Clinical requirements

Like academic requirements, the clinical experience expected of prospective PA students is highly program-dependent. Some PA schools are okay with no prior clinical experience or only "prefer" it for their applicants, while others set a patient care experience (PCE) minimum in the thousands of hours.

And, as before, you can use a requirement as a guide for creating your plan beyond seeing it as an item on a checklist.

Let's say that a particular program asks for 1,000 hours of direct patient care experience as a minimum. Within those thousand hours, it's safe to assume that you'd have a good grasp on the world of medicine.

In that time, you'd probably learn how different roles in healthcare function, get relatively comfortable interacting with patients, and manage at least a few tricky situations.

By breaking down what skills you're likely to acquire within those expected hours, it's easier to recognize why a program might make them mandatory.

And, once you can see the point of a requirement, you can start to gain additional experience targeted at those same outcomes.

If you work as a CNA on an inpatient unit, volunteering in an outpatient setting could expand your knowledge about how the world of medicine works. If you encounter mostly healthy patients in your PCE role, volunteering at a hospice may give you a broader perspective and a deeper appreciation of a patient's experience.

And you may already have gathered experiences that would be valuable to a program. You could bring out the elements from a prior professional role that align with the purpose of a prerequisite in the "experience details" section of your application.

While it wouldn't be used in place of a requirement, your prior work (even that outside of healthcare) may help to highlight skills that a program is hoping you'd learn through patient care. Gaining those same abilities through another avenue will help to bolster your application.

Likewise, you can work to accomplish the same when a program expects (or prefers) shadowing experience. While I believe that shadowing is a must for any prospective PA, schools that require it are looking to ensure that applicants fully understand the PA role.

Observing PAs work is the best way to absorb this information. But, you can also learn about the day-to-day practice of a PA by working alongside them in a patient care role or by volunteering where they work.

When programs set a PA shadowing minimum or require a reference from a PA as part of your application, they're acting to ensure that you "get" what PAs do.

So, think through how you can prove to a program that you, indeed, do. You might accomplish this by shadowing PAs in different specialties, describing your interaction with PAs in your personal statement, or recruiting a PA or two to write your letters of recommendation.

Shared values

One of the easiest prerequisites to decode is when a program builds their values into their admission requirements.

Programs with a focus on community service may expect applicants to have 100 hours of volunteer work at the time of their application. Or a program with a heavy primary care focus may require or "prefer" that you shadow a PA in primary care.

When a program is this transparent with their values, consider it a gift. They are signaling to you want kind of applicant they're looking for, which allows you to mold yourself into an ideal candidate.

When a program has a minimum community service requirement, they aren't looking for those who meet the minimum. They want to recruit future PAs who have a shared value of service.

So, volunteering for 4 hours every other week for a year at a food pantry will mean more to them than knocking out 100 hours over a 4-week period. One approach seems sincere; the other feels like you're checking off a box.

If a program builds values into their prerequisites, take a pause. Before rushing to knock it out, think through what the school is communicating to you by making it a requirement.

One thing to note here is that volunteer efforts that do less to add to your PA school application can be perceived as more genuine.

Volunteering at a hospital feels like the activity of a prospective PA student, but volunteering at a women's shelter is more likely to come across as a personal interest of yours.

While you may believe you have what it takes to do well in PA school and practice as a PA, you have to prove it to PA programs.

Instead of viewing prerequisites as simple hurdles to overcome, think through how they might shape your pre-PA plan for the better.

Consider if a program is telegraphing what they care about as part of their admission requirements. And, if so, what actions you can take to show that you're well prepared or that you share similar values.

Moving beyond the "what" and considering the "why" of PA school prerequisites will help you to decipher what a program may be signaling to you.

And taking the time and effort to tap into the "why" of program requirements can help you to create a more comprehensive plan that will elevate your PA school application.