Physician assistant (PA) programs in the United States are located at medical schools and centers, hospitals, two- and four-year colleges and universities, and within the military. The programs consist of intensive classroom and laboratory study, as well as clinical practice.
To practice as a physician assistant, you must first graduate from an accredited PA program. PA programs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), which maintains a list of all accredited PA programs.
Most programs require health care experience prior to admission. Programs offering bachelor’s degrees typically require a minimum of two years’ college credit. Master’s-level programs typically require either a bachelor’s degree or appropriate undergraduate credit, with a minimum GPA.
While a specific degree is not always mandatory, required college-level courses typically include:
- basic sciences
- English composition
- medical terminology
- specialized science courses such as anatomy, physiology, microbiology, physics, or computer sciences
PA education is similar to that of medical students, although shorter in duration — medical school education averages 155 weeks, and PA education averages 115 weeks.
27 Months Long
Most accredited programs are, on average, 27 months long. A few programs offer part-time education so that students who are changing careers can attend classes and continue to work.
Classes and Clinical Rotations
PA programs require students to complete 9-12 months of classroom studies, followed by 9-15 months of supervised clinical rotations.
Completing the application process
You should consider applying to several programs. Each program has a limited number of seats available, and selection criteria and patterns may vary from year to year according to the individual program’s philosophy. Plan carefully to ensure that your education and employment experiences enhance your chances for admission.
Application policies, procedures, and deadlines vary significantly from program to program. The application process depends upon whether the program participates in the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). You have to apply through CASPA for those programs that do participate. Programs that do not participate in CASPA post applications on their individual websites. In both cases, pay attention to the published application deadlines and complete the application process early, as a large number of programs consider applications on a rolling basis.
Be prepared to furnish information about your academic background, employment, and volunteer experiences, plans to finance your education and reasons for choosing the PA profession. Additionally, some admissions committees may be interested in knowing why you’ve chosen their particular program.
Programs with a pre-professional phase
Some PA programs offer a pre-professional phase — also called an undergraduate or pre-PA program — prior to the professional phase of their PA programs. Programs with a pre-professional phase are intended for:
- Recent high school graduates, or
- Students who have some college credit, but not a degree.
The Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA)
In 2001, the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) launched the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). There are currently 268 accredited PA programs in the United States and most of them participate in CASPA.
Applying to programs through CASPA allows applicants to complete a single online application and designate multiple programs to receive it. Before the application is sent to the programs, the CASPA staff verify all submitted materials for completeness and authenticity.
Most programs have an admissions committee, composed of faculty, staff, and often program graduates, who review the applications in depth following the preliminary screening by CASPA. References, personal remarks, understanding of the PA role, patient care experience, and college entrance exam test scores receive major consideration from most admissions committees.
For more information about CASPA, see our CASPA page.
PA Program Directory
The PA Program Directory is the best guide to PA programs for prospective PA students. It provides detailed information about tuition, curriculum, degrees awarded, entrance requirements, and much more for each of the accredited and developing PA programs in the country.
Frequently Asked Questions
All programs must award some type of credential to their graduates. It is up to the college or university associated with the program to determine the credentials it will award, and this will vary for a number of reasons — for instance, programs awarding master’s degrees generally require a research component.
Regardless of the type of degree awarded by the PA program, all graduates are eligible to sit for the national certification exam and obtain a license to practice as a PA.
It is up to the individual program’s administration to determine admission requirements for applicants. The required standards for admission to the program are made in accordance with clearly defined and published practice and mission of the institution.
The curriculum of a program must be at least one year in length, but beyond that the length is determined by the program. There must be at least four months of classroom instruction.
Some programs require previous health care experience while others either strongly recommend it or do not require it. Those that require experience are specific in the length of time and the types of experience they expect of their applicants.
It is best to know the kind of previous health care experience a program will consider before you apply. You can obtain this information by referring to the PA Program Directory or the website of each program.
Because of the demanding schedule of PA programs and the amount of instruction students receive in a short period of time, most programs recommend that students not be employed. However, a few programs offer part-time options or expanded time frames in which to complete the training. These programs can be located in the PA Program Directory.
There is no official ranking system for PA programs.
All accredited programs meet the same standards established by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).
You can request a list of recent alumni from programs and contact those alumni for their impressions and recommendations.
Your experience, academic standing, and character are all important to a program. Attention is paid to selecting students who have met the necessary admissions requirements established by the program — especially those who understand the role of physician assistants, and the responsibilities and limitations of PA practice.
The CASPA service does not keep applicants’ material from year to year unless the applicant’s application status is “Mailed”. (Read more about CASPA application statuses). Regardless of status, you will have to pay for every application you submit each year.
You’ll need to raise this question directly with the admissions office at programs that do not participate in CASPA.
Programs may ask you to retake courses that you completed earlier than a defined amount of time, but this is something you should discuss with the individual programs to which you apply.
PA educational courses are taught with the physician assistant profession in mind, and the program must provide all students with consistent learning opportunities appropriate for the profession.
A limited number of programs have begun to offer portions of their curriculum online. However, the majority of programs require physical attendance for the majority of course work.
Budget, space, and facility limitations are some of the reasons for the limited number of students accepted each year. Also, in order to ensure proper instruction and give the student the best education necessary to practice, programs need to maintain an high instructor-to-student ratio.
Programs establish preceptors for clinical rotations. It is the responsibility of the program to secure and evaluate the appropriateness of clinical practice settings.
Some programs may allow students to have some input into clinical rotations. You can discuss the possibility of establishing your own preceptor with the program staff. PAEA does not place students in clinical rotation sites.
CASPA is the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants, a web-based application service in which applicants are able to submit one application to multiple programs. The majority of accredited PA programs and multiple developing PA programs currently participate in the service.
For more information, read our CASPA page.