6 Steps to Become a PA

Tips and Advice for Future PAs

August 29, 2018

By Brian Palm, PA-C

The process to become a PA is long and arduous, but it will absolutely pay off once you finally obtain your white coat and become certified. But how do you go about pursuing this highly-paid, flexible, and in-demand career?

1. Obtain a bachelor’s degree and complete common prerequisite courses.
Generally, it takes about four years to get a bachelor’s degree, but some future PAs take an additional year to ensure that PA school prerequisites are completed. Consider majoring in a science-based field; your required coursework will count towards PA school prereqs. Keep in mind there are some common classes like statistics, ethics, and physics that may be required by your PA program, but not required for your undergraduate degree. You may need to take some additional classes to fulfill these requirements.

2. Accrue healthcare and patient care experience hours (HCE/PCE).
All future PAs need healthcare experience. PA programs look for two types: healthcare experience (HCE) and patient care experience (PCE). Healthcare experience is work in which you are not directly responsible for a patient’s care; patient care experience is when you are directly responsible for a patient’s care1.

It’d be best to obtain these types of experiences as early as possible, but some future PAs have to take a “gap year” to accumulate the necessary hours. Usually, PA programs require at least 1,000 HCE or PCE hours. Every program is different, however, but minimum requirements can be found on PA schools’ websites, the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA), or in the Applicant’s Manual of Physician Assistant Programs.

3. Apply.
Once you have your bachelor’s degree and have acquired a substantial amount of HCE/PCE, it’s time to start preparing your application. You’ll likely use CASPA to apply, and, among other things, you’ll need:
• Undergraduate/post-graduate transcripts. It’s important to obtain these early in the application process. Some undergraduate institutions charge for these and can take weeks to send to CASPA, so don’t let this delay your application.
• Letters of recommendation. Typically, these are from professors, supervisors, physicians, and, of course, PAs, acting as references. PA programs can gain insight into your character, work ethic, and overall intelligence and integrity.
• List of HCE/PCE. As noted above, you’ll have to differentiate between the different types of hours you have accumulated. CASPA will have you provide an accurate audit of all of your HCE/PCE. If you have questions regarding the type of experience you’ve had, be sure to check out the FAQ section on CASPA’s website.
• Personal statement. CASPA requires a 5,000-character essay highlighting why you have chosen to become a PA and why you should be considered for the PA program of your choice. This is your opportunity to tell your personal story and is one of the most important aspects of your application. Make sure to have friends, mentors, editors proofread your essay! Keep in mind that once you submit your essay you can no longer make any corrections, changes or adjustments!

4. Interview.
Once you submit your application to CASPA, the waiting begins. While you wait for your letter in the mail, email, or phone call from your top-choice PA program, it’s a good idea to start preparing for interviews. You can research interview tips online, reference guides, and ask your friends to help you with a mock interview.

Every PA school does candidate interviews differently, so your best bet is to contact the PA program and ask their typical interview style. If you’ve practiced, you should ace the interview and get accepted!

Now that you’re enrolled, it’s time to learn. Getting through PA school is no easy feat. Your time in PA school will be the toughest 23-27 months of your life. But it’s important to stay focused on your goal: becoming a PA. There will be times that you think about quitting and contemplate whether or not your sacrifices will be worth it, but don’t let stress get the best of you. Just keep studying, keep reading, and keep asking for help if you need it. Ultimately the faculty at your PA program will be as dedicated to your success as you are.

6. Pass the PANCE.
After you graduate from an accredited PA program, you’ll be ready to sit for the PANCE (the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam). The PANCE consists of 300 total questions. You are allotted five hours to complete five 60-question sections. (You are allowed 45 break minutes and 15 minutes to train on the software.)

It generally takes a few weeks to receive your PANCE results. You do have an opportunity to retake the exam if things don’t go your way the first time.

Passing the PANCE is the final step to becoming a PA. All that’s left to do is find a job and start practicing all that you learned in PA school. Being a PA is a rewarding profession that benefits many patients on a daily basis. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Brian Palm, PA-C, practices emergency medicine in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He manages www.myparesource.com.

1. Overview. Experiences. CASPA, PAEA website. https://help.liaisonedu.com/CASPA_Applicant_Help_Center/Filling_Out_Your_CASPA_Application/3._CASPA_Supporting_Information/2_Experiences. Accessed August 29, 2018.

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