The Physician Assistant Life

Pre-Physician Assistant Resources


Hi, and welcome to this special section of the PA life website designed specifically for future physician assistants. 

I’m happy to help you as you get started on this journey!

Be assured that you are certainly not alone and that I too once walked in your shoes. I assume you already know what a physician assistant is, so I am not going to cover that here.

What I am going to cover are time-tested steps that will help you get from point A to Z on your PA school journey. 

Let's Get Started:

yesDo you Want to be a Physician Assistant? Why do You Want to be a Physician Assistant?

You will be asked many different times: Why? “Why do you want to become a Physician Assistant?” “Why don’t you just go to medical school?  You will make more money as a physician.” “You will command more “respect” as a physician.”

Your response to those questions and your final decision to apply to a physician assistant (PA) program will depend on how well you research answers to these same questions. This blog, can provide you with the information you need to answer such important questions. 

Related Posts:  

Related Videos:

Dave, the self-proclaimed “PA coach” helps you answer that all important question of why do you want to become a PA?

Why not just become a doctor? The Great PA vs. MD Debate

This is one of the most commonly searched terms on the blog. Can you put your life on hold for 8 to 12 years or does 2 or 2.5 years sound better?

Physician Assistant

  • As a PA you can change specialties with an ease that physicians cannot
  • You also (unless you want to) will not have to manage the challenges that are associated with running a medical practice
  • Your training will cost less than half that of a physician
  • You can complete your training in a little more than two years

Medical Doctor

  • 4-years of medical school education
  • 3 or more years of postgraduate residency and fellowship
  • The cost of medical school is nearly double that of a PA school education

In this video Sundance, a former medical student, describes her choice to become a physician assistant student (PA vs MD). 

Posts to read:

PA VS MD: The Life and Salary of a Military Trained Physician

As part of the ongoing MD vs. PA discussion, I like to feature comments on the blog from both PAs and MDs. It’s a chance to learn more about what life is really like working in the trenches. Today’s post comes from doctor B. an active duty military internist. Dr. B. explains how he went […]


A Surgeon Speaks: 7 Reasons Why You Should Choose PA Over MD

I am a fellowship-trained surgeon. Besides the financial aspect, the following 7 points will make your decision of PA vs. MD easy: 1.  It takes on an average at least 15 years (after high school) of head in the sand (books) to complete fellowship and reach the $200,000 debt figure that you are quoting. 2. […]


MD Versus PA Showdown Round 1 – Show Me The Money!

Before you read this post I want you to take a quick survey. What do you think? Which profession pays the highest hourly salary? Physician Assistant vs. MD – Show Me The Money Often the decision between PA and MD is considered a difficult one, but should it be? Today I am posting the first […]


I Want to Know if I am Making the Right Choice to be a Physician Assistant?

Let me guess. You are asking yourself:  “Am I am making the right choice of becoming a physician assistant vs. doctor?” I know how important this question is because it is the same one I asked myself 11 years ago. As you may have read on the blog, my wife is very happy about my […]


Competition for PA school is more intense than the competition to get  into medical school

Most PA programs require students to have a year or more of direct patient contact experience. Often applicants have worked as emergency room volunteers, patient care technicians, phlebotomists, CNAs, medical assistants or medics on ambulances. Although a good grade point average is important, life experiences, maturity, and determination also make a good impression on the admissions committees. Your personal statement should reflect all the influences that have brought you to the application process.



  1. Female and 27 years old (74% are female)
  2. Has 1.88 years of hands on patient care experience
  3. Has a 3.49 overall GPA
  4. Lives in the suburbs
  5. Has an SAT score of 1000
  6. Has a 25% chance of getting into PA school if she applies to only one school and a 49% chance is she applies to 12 or more
yesDo you Know the History of the PA Profession?

In the World War II era, Dr. Eugene Stead Jr. developed a curriculum model to fast-track the training of physicians in a 3-year time frame. During the years from 1961 to 1972, the PA concept came more into focus when Dr. Stead established the first PA program at Duke University, in 1967. He used much the same model that he had used to train World War II physicians.

He saw the need for midlevel health practitioners to complement the services and skills of physicians. This need was even more apparent in remote areas of the United States, where the medical profession had historically underserved populations. The opening of more PA programs during the ensuing period prompted the development of the PA professional organization, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), in 1968.

  • In 1970, Kaiser Permanente was the first health maintenance organization (HMO) to employ PAs.
  • In 1971, Montifiore Medical Center established the first PA postgrad surgical residency program.

In an effort to maintain consistency throughout PA programs, the American Medical Association’s Committee on Allied Health Education and Accreditation developed training program guidelines in 1971 and implemented the program accreditation process.

In 1973, the AAPA held its first conference. The first certifying exam was given in 1973, even before the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) had been incorporated, in 1975. The NCCPA was established to ensure the public that certified physician assistants meet established criteria and continue to meet those criteria every six years by taking a recertifying examination. The first recertification exam was given in 1981. Also, much state legislation has been implemented concerning the practice of PAs and their prescriptive privileges. National legislation also has been implemented to address PA reimbursement. By 1985, the ranks of PA had grown to more than 10,000 nationally, prompting the development of National PA Day in 1987.

By 1988, the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants was first published, complementing the field’s first official journal publication in 1977, Health Practitioner (later called Physician Assistant). In the 10 years after 1990, misconception and prejudices about PA privileges continued to fall away, allowing for an expanded role for PAs. The number of PA programs doubled. Discussion and implementation of master’s-level programs began to take place. In 1993, there were 26,400 PAs in existence, but that number grew to 45,000 by 2002.



yesDo you Have What it Takes to Get into PA School?

What do PA Programs Look for in Applicants?

  1. Passion: Your desire to become a physician assistant. Not a medical provider in general, but specifically a physician assistant.
  2. Academic ability and test scores: You don’t need to be a straight A student. You do need to show that you have completed the necessary prerequisite coursework, that you have shown a general aptitude for the sciences, that you can handle difficult coursework.  If you have some bad grades in the past you must demonstrate an upward momentum. If you are applying to schools that require the GRE then you are going to have to take this exam and do “well-enough.” Standardized test scores come into play only if you’ve scored exceptionally high or extremely low, and they serve to validate the rest of your application. 
  3. Medical experience: While not all school require it, most school request a minimum of 1,000 hours (1 year) of direct, hands-on, patient care experience. Paid experience is the most desirable and will provide you the greatest opportunity to get your hands “dirty.”
  4. Understanding of the PA profession: You need to have experience shadowing PAs or working directly with a PA so that you understand the profession to the best of your abilities. What do PAs do, how is this different from an MD, NP, RN etc. You must demonstrate a thorough understanding of the profession and its history. 
  5. Maturity: The mean age of a matriculating PA school students is 27 while the mean age for practicing PAs is 41. I have worked with all types of providers and the truth, as probably already know, is that age doesn’t indicate a person’s maturity. The common trait that most mature applicants share is the ability to exhibit a youthful energy coupled with practical life experience. 

PA school applicants come from diverse backgrounds and possess a variety of life experiences.  Some of the most interesting candidates have careers that are totally unrelated to healthcare at the time of application.  

A typical applicant pool may include an attorney, a schoolteacher and a dance instructor. Students range from 21 to 61 years of age.

Ask Yourself: 

  • Can you be empathetic, yet assertive?
  • Can you handle stress under fire?
  • Will you know when to call for help?
  • Can you make quick decisions?
  • Will you require constant supervision?
yesI have began researching programs and understanding their requirements

***To learn all about every PA program in the United States using a visual map visit

One of the most important points to consider is this:

If you apply to one PA program – you have a 25% chance of getting in. If you apply to 12 programs (or more) – you have a 49% chance of getting acceptance.  It is important to note that if you apply to more than 12 schools your chances of getting an acceptance letter do not increase. 

So what does this mean? It means you should definitely apply to more than one PA school, and if you can, make it 12 PA schools! Yes, it is expensive and yes, this may mean that you need to increase your range of geographical prospects but let me tell you this:  When I applied to PA school, as a native Californian, the last place I thought I would end up was in New Jersey, but that is where I found myself… and I am so glad I didn’t limit my options to my home state. 

“I have been going back and forth between PA and MD, and as I enter my senior year at UCLA I have decided that being a PA is the best choice for me. I checked various PA schools, their pre-reqs, rankings, etc. Many PA schools have different pre-reqs, granted some classes are the same such as Anatomy, Physio, Microbio. There are major distinctions between the PA schools though, whether that be some don’t require Chem/O Chem, Biology, etc. “Victoria, Pre-PA

Posts to Read

How Much Does it Cost to go to Physician Assistant (PA) School?

So you are considering PA school great, now what? With the average undergraduate education debt prior to PA school at $36,300 and the average anticipated debt load from PA school at $75,000-$124,000 it’s probably time to ask the next logical question: How much does PA school cost? Like most college and advanced degree programs in the United […]


Physician Assistant Program Tuition and Costs – Comparison Table

Below is a cost comparison table of most Physician Assistant programs in the United States. *This table has been updated, please visit the new 2015 pa school cost comparison table. PA Program Tuition and Cost Data Tuition and cost data of resident and non resident tuition including length/duration of the PA program. Keep in mind that these […]


PA Schoolfinder – The Ultimate Physician Assistant School and Program Directory

Watch this introductory video to see the website in action     Are You Trying to Find The Perfect PA School to Fit Your Needs? Are you interested in attending PA school, but you have limited resources and no idea where to begin? Do you worry about the program requirements and waste countless hours going from […]


Physician Assistant School and Program Directory eBook

Are you Looking for a good end of the summer read? I am so happy to offer my newly compiled PA Programs eBook to you for FREE. The Physician Assistant School and Program Directory is a complete list of every accredited Physician Assistant Programs in the United States. And best of all: It’s been fully […]

yesI understand the life of a PA student, the prerequisite requirements and have completed (or am in the process of completing) them

Posts to Read

80 PA Schools That Don’t Require the GRE

Does the thought of studying for the GRE exam make your palms sweat and your heart flutter? Wouldn’t it be great if you could find PA schools that don’t require the GRE and simply avoid the GRE exam altogether? Well, you are in luck! Here is a list of the 80 US Physician Assistant Programs that do […]

The 5 Steps to PA School Step 1 - Prerequisite Coursework

Prerequisite Coursework: How to Design the Perfect Pre-PA School Curriculum

* To compare top ranking PA schools and download your FREE  PA School Prerequisite Worksheet click here There are 5 steps you must take to go from zero to PA school hero: Complete the necessary prerequisite coursework Obtain the required medical and hands-on patient care experience Successfully prepare for and take the GRE Obtain at least 3 High Quality […]

yesI have the necessary direct hands on patient care experience

How much healthcare experience you will need depends entirely upon the program(s) to which you will be applying.

A good rule of thumb is at least 1,000 hours (one full 40-hour per week year) of paid employment with direct hands on patient care experience. People ask me all the time what kind of non certificate or volunteer programs are available to complete the necessary health care experience hours? The hard truth is that there really aren’t many good options. You are going to have to take the steps necessary and make the time commitment to get the kind of high quality healthcare experience that will get you an interview. 

What counts as Patient Contact?

Posts to Read

No Experience Required! 84 PA Schools That Don’t Require Healthcare Experience

The following is a list of 84 PA programs in the United States that do not require patient care experience for PA school admissions. I use “require” lightly because many of these schools which claim no healthcare experience requirement do “strongly recommend” or “prefer” PA school candidates with a certain amount of experience prior to application. In other […]


Healthcare Experience Required for PA School: The Ultimate Guide

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”  – Anne Frank Today we are going to tackle step 2 of my 5 steps to PA school series by taking a very detailed look at healthcare experience requirements for PA school. Included, in this discussion is a side-by-side comparison of healthcare experience requirements of all […]


How to Find The Direct Patient Care Experience You Need to Become a Physician Assistant

Read on: You may also be interested in my newest post Healthcare Experience Required for PA School: The Ultimate Guide I could probably summarize this entire blog post in one sentence: “THE MORE HANDS-ON PATIENT CARE EXPERIENCE YOU HAVE, THE STRONGER YOU WILL BE AS A CANDIDATE.” How many healthcare experience hours do you need to make yourself a […]

yesI have Taken the GRE

I placed a checkmark here, because 57% of PA programs require you to submit a GRE score. This is simply a formality of course and carries very little weight on your application. The GRE is a tool used by PA schools to clarify any possible discrepancies – such as an applicant with below average grades – in this case a wonderful GRE score may reassure the admissions committee.

A very low score could hurt you if you have a substandard GPA to begin with.  Otherwise, an average GRE score (or even a little below average) is not going to hurt you as long as your application looks good. A very high GRE score probably won’t carry that much weight either, it will just reaffirm what the admissions committee already suspects – you are a good candidate. If you had a poor freshman and sophomore year of undergrad (like many applicants) a stellar GRE score may help. 

Magoosh GRE Test Prep - My Favorite!

My personal favorite is the GRE test prep at They offer an intuitive interface and a 7 day Free trial.

Pre Physician Assistant GRE Advice

yesI have shadowed a PA (or a few)

This is the elephant in the room.

Everybody says “just find a PA to shadow”. I have even caught myself saying it, but the truth is, it is getting increasingly hard to find willing participants.  Here is a wonderful video by Kelly at pre-physician assistant student HELP that outlines the process she used. It is the same one I used, and it proves an important point: The squeaky pre-PA gets a turn. 

Posts to Read

Finding a Physician Assistant Mentor

Find a physician assistant to shadow or sign up to precept at Physician Assistant Shadow Online. When I first contemplated a career as a physician assistant I was hard pressed to find a PA to shadow. I was dying to find a PA and pick their brain. Learn about what they do, possibly shadow for a […]

yesI have at least three solid letters of recommendation

As part of the application process, you are required to provide at least three letters of recommendation in support of your application. Be sure to pay strict attention to detail about each school’s specific requirements for references. For instance, some schools may allow you to choose your own personal references. Other programs specify that you should have letters from a PA, a physician, and a former supervisor.

When you are considering potential candidates to provide you with a great letter of reference, be sure to include at least one PA. After all, you are applying to a PA program, and the committee would like to know that you’ve impressed another PA significantly enough to support your application. The PA profession is relatively small, and most of us (PAs) would not cosign a potential student’s application if they didn’t think that he or she would make a great PA. To some, this rule is quite obvious; however, plenty of applicants fail to grasp this simple concept. Applicants write about shadowing or working with PAs in their essay but then fail to obtain a reference from such a valuable resource.

Many applicants are under the false impression that the bigger the name or position of a person, the more weight his or her letter of reference will carry. Nothing could be further from the truth. The admissions committee includes some pretty sharp people, most of whom are PAs. The committee will favor a letter from a fellow PA over some big shot on any given day. If you don’t know any PAs, don’t fret. Get busy locating some local PAs and ask to shadow them for a day or two. Most PAs will jump at the chance to help you.

Keep in mind that a good letter of recommendation has four important features:

  1. It shows that the writer truly knows the individual and can comment about the applicant’s qualifications.
  2. It shows that the writer knows enough about the applicant and can make comparative judgments about the applicant’s intellectual, academic, and professional abilities in relation to others in a similar role.
  3. It provides supporting details to make the statement believable.
  4. It is short, yet concise and sincere.

Posts to Read

Physician Assistant Application Letter of Recommendation Samples: Applying to PA School

Here are two letters of recommendation I received when applying for PA school. I am not posting them here as a way to fluff my feathers but merely to serve as an example of what I included as part of my actual PA school application. A great letter of recommendation weighs heavily in your favor, I believe […]

yesI have written an amazing personal statement

Without a doubt, this is the most time intensive and important part of your entire CASPA application.

For many the PA school essay is the barrier that separates them from a PA school acceptance letter. Writing an effective personal statement isn’t all that hard. You simply need to be honest and organize your thoughts in an intelligent and cohesive manner. 

A great essay is seamless, it’s smooth, it’s fluid it’s like a country road that rolls over the hills and bends through the turns like the landscape has known nothing else.  It feels effortless yet, it is anything but.  An effective essay requires revision, it takes time and it can’t be hurried. 

We interviewed PA school administrators from across the country.

Posts to Read

How to Write the Perfect Physician Assistant School Application Essay

Over at Inside PA Training Paul wrote a wonderful blog post about the common pitfalls that many PA school applicants fall victim to while composing their PA school essay’s. Common Physician Assistant Essay Pitfall’s Clichés Lack of Specificity Weak Conclusion No Theme Boring Introduction This is an excellent list because 8 years ago while I was applying […]


The Physician Assistant Essay and Personal Statement Collaborative

We are the original PA school essay review service and have helped over 900 applicants (see testimonials and comments below). Our current PA school essay review service status: Accepting New Submissions  (Wait-list 24-48 hours for non-priority service) (Photo: Me circa 1987 just thinking about my future PA School Essay) Are you struggling to write your […]


Do You Recognize These 7 Common Mistakes in Your Personal Statement?

You’ve written your essay. You know what you want to say. But will the admissions committee get your message? You’ve read through countless PA school essay samples. You’ve chopped and changed the order of the paragraphs. You’ve polished each sentence. After all that hard work, you’re still not sure whether your essay flows along nicely. Will readers […]


7 Essays in 7 Days: PA Personal Statement Workshop: Essay 1, “A PA Changed My Life”

In this special week-long introductory session of the personal statement workshop, we are pulling essays submitted from the comments section through our free essay submission process and providing you, and our users, with a more thorough analysis of their essays. Since examples often make better teachers than words, pay close attention.  You may find just the advice […]

yesI have joined my State and local PA chapter
As part of the PA School application process, I urge all applicants to join both the AAPA and their local state constituent chapter of the AAPA. To make the research process a bit easier, I have created a clickable map of all 56 AAPA State Constituent Chapters including direct links to their websites. You can view a full-size version of this map and the associated links by clicking here.

Further Research and Inspiration

PAFLIX (Physician Assistant Video on Demand)

Learn all about PAs doing fascinating things, such as this video of PA David Carnes who shares his international experiences and his time working as a physician assistant in the white house

Learn about physician assistants working in all different types of specialties

Check out videos that are specific to pre-physician assistants like yourself:

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