Step 1: Get prerequisites and healthcare experience

Application to PA school is highly competitive.

Look into PA programs you want to apply to as early as your freshman year in college.

You’ll typically need to complete at least two years of college coursework in basic and behavioral sciences before applying to a PA program, which is very similar to premedical studies.

The majority of PA programs have the following prerequisites:

  • Chemistry
  • Physiology
  • Anatomy
  • Microbiology
  • Biology

Many PA programs also require prior healthcare experience with hands-on patient care.

You can get healthcare experience by being a (not an exhaustive list):

  • Medical assistant
  • Emergency medical technician (EMT)
  • Paramedic
  • Medic or medical corpsman
  • Peace Corps volunteer
  • Lab assistant/phlebotomist
  • Registered nurse
  • Emergency room technician
  • Surgical tech
  • Certified nursing assistant (CNA)

Most students have a bachelor’s degree and about three years of healthcare experience before entering a program.

Learn more about getting into a PA program:

Full list of PA programs with requirements (healthcare experience hours, standardized exams, prerequisite coursework, GPA, etc.)

Step 2: Attend an accredited PA program

Most programs are approximately 26 months (3 academic years) and award master’s degrees. They include classroom instruction and clinical rotations.

As a PA student, you’ll receive classroom instruction in:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical diagnosis
  • Pathophysiology
  • Microbiology
  • Clinical laboratory science
  • Behavioral science
  • Medical ethics

You’ll also complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, with an emphasis on primary care in ambulatory clinics, physician offices and acute or long-term care facilities.

Your rotations could include:

  • Family medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • General surgery
  • Emergency medicine
  • Psychiatry

Learn more about accredited PA programs:

Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA)
Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA)

Step 3: Become certified

Once you’ve graduated from an accredited PA program, you’re eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA).

If you pass the PANCE and maintain your certification, may use the title Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C.

PANCE resources

AAPA 2016 Salary Report

National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)

Step 4: Obtain a state license

Before you can practice, you need to get licensed in your state.

All states require that PAs graduate from an accredited PA program and pass the PANCE.

Step 5: Maintain your certification

To maintain national certification, you need to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years and take a recertification exam (the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam, or PANRE) every 10 years.

Making the Conversion: From Clinical Rotation Site to Employer

There’s no better time than when you’re rotating through a particular specialty to make your mark, rather than wait after your graduation.


When Madeline Glasser started PA school at South University in Savannah, Georgia, her youngest daughter was a mere five weeks old. Her baby was nursing and waking up two or three times each night. But Glasser, who also has another daughter, age two at the time, still decided to pursue her lifelong goal of a career in medicine.

Lessons From My First Surgical PA Practice

I suppose we all find our own path in time. After PA clinical rotations, I found surgery.