Tips On Getting into PA School: Part 1

posted on: March 3, 2014

USC Keck white coat ceremony Physician Assistant PA{Me and the hubby at my White Coat Ceremony in 2007}

I’ve had a lot of inquiries by Pre-PA students on tips on getting into PA school. I’m no expert on PA program admissions but I applied and got in so I must have done something right. Since graduating I’ve mentored about 2 pre-pa students per year and have a 100% on their acceptance rate, so here are some tips that can be helpful in getting you into PA school.

Narrow down the programs you’re going to apply to. Every program has different requirements for their applicants including class prerequisites, minimal number of hands-on hours, volunteer hours, etc… One program may require Spanish while the next requires Genetics. Knowing what prerequisites you’re up against will help you better plan your class schedule. You would hate to either take an extra year to wait to apply because you have to take one more class or not applying to a program because you’re missing a class or two.

Line up those paid hands-on medical hours. Even if a program does not “require” hands-on hours it will make you a much more competitive candidate if you do have them. I think this is the hardest part of applying to PA school. Most states require some sort of license or certificate to work in an “hands-on” capability. This is can be frustrating because on-top of working on your bachelors degree you have to find time to squeeze in more schooling to get a license for a profession that you’re only planning on using for a short time. Common hands-on jobs PAs have prior to attending PA school include: EMT, Phlebotomist, Certified Nursing Assistant, Medical Assistant, Physical Therapy Assistant, etc… I recommend researching these professions and seeing if the classes will fit in your school schedule or your summers off. I worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant and a Cast Tech for an Orthopedic Surgeon prior to PA school. I’ll give some more information about how I got those jobs in a future post.

Don’t forget to Volunteer. In addition to having paid hand-on medical hours having medical volunteer hours will make you a more competitive candidate. Luckily these are easier to obtain than paid hands-on hours. Most hospitals have volunteer programs that easily satisfy this requirement. It is better to have a weekly, ongoing volunteer commitment vs just picking up a few hours here and there. I started volunteering HERE in high school as a junior volunteer and racked up over 300 hours with my weekly 3 hour shifts. I volunteered in pediatrics and loved every minute of it. I mostly played with the patients, brought them toys and video games, did paperwork and other odds and ends. When I went away to college I was able to get a volunteer position at St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. I really wanted to work in the ER and the only weekly shift they had open was Fridays from 4- 7pm. So every Friday afternoon I trekked my way through LA traffic to put in my time. I learned so much during these short 3 hours shifts. My favorite tip I learned from an RN there was that if you have a patient that was pretty stinky you can soak a washcloth in Listerine Mouth Wash and put it next to their bedside and the room smells minty fresh. Such a simple fix! In addition to these weekly commitments I found various health fairs, medical conferences and weekend medical missionary trips to Mexico to add some variety to volunteering experience.

Look for Pre-PA programs. There are a programs that are focused on giving pre-pa students the ability to work directly with Physician Assistants and witness first what exactly a PA does. The program I am most familiar with is the Physician Assistant Helper Program at LAC+USC. This amazing program allows you to work with PAs at LA County Hospital in the ER. While I applied and was accepted into this program I had finished my undergrad and got a job with an Orthopedic Surgeon near my parents house so I decided to move home and take the job there. The hour commute to LAC+USC did not work with the open shifts. I do know many people who volunteered with this program and have told me that it was such a wonderful experience. Do some research and see if any of your local hospitals or PA programs have something like this.

Are you a PA or currently in PA School? Comment below with your advice for Pre-PA students!

Next Week Look For: Tips on Getting into PA School Part 2- How to really get that paid hand-on medical experience

  • Chase Hungerford

    Your site is awesome. I have been thinking how I am going to continue my site once I get through PA school and your content has got me inspired. Thank you!

  • daniella


  • Tina

    Hi! I’m so glad I found your site via Instagram! Can you make a list of the schools you applied to? Can you explain how the application process works? What month should you apply to schools? If you are an undergrad and you want to go straight to PA school without a gap year, should you apply during your 3rd year? Thank you for making this site! I can’t wait till next week’s post!

    • Erin

      Hi Tina! I applied to Western University of Health Sciences, Loma Linda University and USC. I only applied to these schools because I wanted I stay in Southern California and I wanted a masters program. I’ll have to work on answering your other questions in an upcoming post because the answers are more involved and I would like to get you a detailed answers. Thanks for following!

  • Akeyia Britton

    Do you have any tips on what should you major in for undergrad? I;m in school to be a medical assistant at the moment. I’ll be finishing up at the end of april and starting my externship soon. I want to go back to school to be a PA, I’m looking forward to be in dermatology. I’m just stuck on trying to decide what I should major in. Thanks in advance.

    • Erin

      Most Pre-PA students choose to major in a science as it helps fulfill prerequisite for PA schools easier. I was a biology major but other choices for science majors include, chemistry, anatomy, microbiology, etc… Other people choose to look outside the traditional science major (like sociology, psychology, foreign language) and make sure they are taking science pre-reqs too. The most important thing is finding a major that interests you and keeping track of your classes and making sure you are completing all of your prerequisites as you go along. Good luck!

  • Leslie

    This site is amazing…I am currently a PA student at USC and I am loving school! Getting into PA school can be tough and confusing but it’s worth all the long hours of studying while volunteering and shadowing.

  • Adam Dudik

    Hi Erin,

    I just stumbled upon your website while I was looking for PA information. Looks really nice. Found some hopefully helpful info about the LAC+USC physician assistant helper program. Do you have any info about when it starts? I currently work at Cedar Sinai and am looking for a way to get experience with a PA. Do you know of any other programs?

    • Erin

      I believe LAC+USC is a rolling admission, contacting them directly would yield you the best information. I am not aware of any other programs like this in the LA area. If you find any more please let me know. Good luck on your PA journey!

  • Kate

    I’m so glad I have found your website. I have been looking for as many tips as I can for getting into PA school. I’m currently in my last year of respiratory therapy school and I have been wanting to go to PA school. I hear is harder to get into than medical school. So that scares me a little. I need to find somewhere to volunteer on a regular basis. I just have absolutely no idea where I’m going to apply.

    • Erin

      Stick with it! Your hard work will pay off. Make sure you are getting plenty of clinical hours and volunteer hours. Good Luck!

  • TaMika

    Hi I am in the process of applying what should I highlight in my personal statement?

    • Erin

      Make sure you are highlighting why you would be the best candidate and what makes you stand out from other applicants. Make the reader remember who you are! Also, make sure you know the programs you are applying to very well and tailor you application to their mission statements too.

  • Ashley

    I have a concern. I’m highly interested in the PA program. I have been teaching , and decided to take another route. My undergrad GPA is 3.5. I’m back in school taking prerequisites. My concern is my GPA. I’ve never been a straight A student more so a B/C average student. I know grades matter, but how big of an impact will it have on being accepted into programs ?

    • Erin

      Hey Ashley, GPA is definitely a component they look at during the application process. There are many things that go into a strong PA applicant including: hand-on medical experience, volunteer experience, PA shadowing, etc… If you’re grades are not the strongest make sure you are putting in a lot of effort into the other aspects of your application. Good luck!

  • Arika Achatz

    So glad I found your website! I am currently getting my undergrad in Pre-health and am already so anxious about applying to PA school! I am in that confusing moment of being super busy getting my undergrad and not having time to take some sort of certificate program to get my foot in the door. Most Medical Assistant programs are 2 years and I don’t think I would have the time for that right now! However, I really need my hours like everyone else does. I do not want to be a CNA but I think it may be one of the easier ones to get. I recently applied for a volunteer program at the hospital and am excited to start with that! Can you make a section where you talk about the GRE? Sorry, you may have it and I might have missed it. I am trying really hard not to let the anxiety build up but its hard!


    • Erin

      Hi Arika! Thanks for stopping by. In my opinion the most difficult thing about applying to PA school is getting medical experience. You are correct, most certificate programs can be 6 months-2yrs. There are some places that will hire you as a medical assistant with out a certificate. They are few and far between but you may be able to find something like this (that is how I obtained my hours). I will work on an GRE post for you soon. Have a great weekend!

  • Hannah Stevens

    Hi Erin, I was wondering how long you waited before you applied to PA school. I am having trouble deciding if I should start PA school right after I get my bachelor’s degree or if I should continue to work for a year, build up my hours, and then apply. Thanks, Hannah

    • Erin

      Hey Hannah,
      I took a year off between graduating to work before starting PA school. I needed to gain more hands-on paid hours prior to applying. Most people do not start PA school right after graduation. Good luck with everything!

  • Paige

    Is the Physician Assistant Helper Program only available to students who went to school there?

  • Kirsten

    Hi! I stumbled across your website through Pinterest and I am currently a freshman at UCLA. So glad to read the story of a fellow SoCal gal. I initially thought of pursuing pharmacy after undergrad but I became interested in the PA path after obtaining care from one during a visit to the ER. Now I’m kind of stuck in the middle. I guess I just want to pick your brain and see how life is like as a PA. I enjoyed watching how my PA actually interacted with patients (in contrast to a pharmacist) which is something I would really love to eventually do. I think the only thing that’s making me kinda iffy about it is dealing with blood and all that type of stuff. How important is being comfortable with blood and everything of that sort for a PA? Also, what would you recommend I do to really see if PA life is what I want to pursue? It would be awesome to hear back from you. Thanks!!

    • Erin

      Hi Kirsten,
      The great thing about PA school is you are able to experience various specialities to see what best suits you. You can choose more hands-on (“bloody”) specialities like surgery or orthopedics or stick to something like family medicine where there tends to be less procedures. I worked with a family practice physician who refused to do any procedures (he even sent out people who needed an ear lavage). While you’ll have to do a little bit of everything during school it doesn’t mean you’ll get stuck in a speciality you don’t like. I recommend shadowing more PAs in different specialities to see if you really like the profession. Good luck!

  • Diana

    Hi Erin! I am in my initial stages of gathering information abou the PA program. I just applied to University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) with the intention of going for my bachelors of science in Health. Sports Healthy and Wellness Promotion to be exact. (As a precursor to the PA program) I currently work at the VA as a Legal Administrative Specialist where I assist veterans. I help them complete applications for disability ratings. I also counsel and advise them on different disability contingencies that they are applying for. A lot of times, I find myself scrolling through their medical records to find other things that they could possibly apply for. Do you think my job would count as hours for hands-on experience? Thanks for your help!

    • Erin

      Hi Diana,
      It is best to contact the admission department at PA programs you are interested in attending and ask them directly. Each program has different requirements. Good luck on everything. It sounds like you are well on your way!

  • Josh

    Hello there,

    I am a pre-PA student currently working on my undergrad work. I live in a small town just west of Salt Lake City Utah, which of course is where the closest colleges are located. Due to the distance I currently only have the opportunity to take classes online, with that I am limited to which undergrad degrees I can choose from. The only degree that seems even remotely close to anything that would count towards PA school is sociology. Do you feel like sociology would be an acceptable degree if I were to get a minor in biology or chemistry down the road to cover my prereqs?

    Thank you in advance, I am not sure if you still respond on this site but I will look forward to your reply if so.


    • Erin

      As long as you are getting your pre-reqs done you should be fine. Make sure you are working to gain those paid hands-on hours too! It’s best to contact some PA programs that you are interested in applying to and make sure that online classes are ok. Good luck!

  • Allie

    Hi Erin,

    Thank you so much for such insightful information. I was wondering if you had any advice about how to make myself a more competitive applicant as far as patient care hours. I have been on a few mission trips, work at a doctor’s office in Santa Monica now (I called saint johns to hopefully volunteer – thank you for that) but still haven’t heard back from any of the schools I applied to. I am feeling like I’m in a bit of a rut. Looking for any help I can get and you seem to a great source of information. Thanks in Advance.

    • Erin

      You just need to clock more hours. It’s not necessarily about diversity in hours, just hours total. I would keep up working at the Doctor’s office. Make sure your shadowing hours are strong and looking into volunteering with PA organizations like CAPA or AAPA. Good luck!