PA School Requirements – How to Become a Physician’s Assistant

March 16, 2024

PA School Requirements – How to Become a Physician’s Assistant

Have you always wanted to study medicine but are hesitant to take on a career that potentially has a poor work-life balance? Do you feel called to the bustling medical field but believe that time for one-on-one patient treatment is essential for quality care? Do you love the idea of independently treating patients and making decisions in their diagnoses but also value working with a team and hope to do so in your career? If so, then becoming a physician’s assistant may be just the path for you!  In general, medical school admissions and applying to programs across all healthcare fields can be challenging and complex. In this article, we’ll describe the differences between how to become a physician’s assistant and how to become a doctor, and also detail specific PA school requirements so you can be better equipped to apply within this exciting and burgeoning field!

What Exactly is a Physician’s Assistant?

Physicians’ assistants are licensed clinicians who practice in nearly every medical specialty and who – under the guidance of physicians – examine, diagnose, and treat patients in hospitals, outpatient centers, and doctor’s offices. This is a rapidly expanding field that is expected to see up to 27% growth in the next ten years (which is much higher than the average profession!). It’s also an incredibly lucrative profession: physician’s assistants can expect to make around $126,010 a year by mid-career.[i] One reason you may choose to be a physician’s assistant is that PA school requirements are quite different from physician schooling requirements.

While an M.D. or D.O. can expect to spend four years in medical school and an additional three to five years in their residency, graduate school for a PA takes just a little over two years. On the other hand, doctors can expect to make more money than PAs (about twice as much per year, on average).[ii] Another big difference between the two professions is that physician’s assistants cannot open their own private practices; they must work within a hospital or healthcare system or a doctor’s office. However, their work-life balance tends to be much more stable, with more standardized hours and less overall stress.[iii]

PA Tuition, Admissions, and Program Lengths

As you consider PA school requirements, it’s helpful to think about the financial costs of PA schooling, the overall amount of time you’ll actually spend in school, and your chances of actually being admitted. On average, physician’s assistant schooling costs about $95,000 for a 27-month program (nonresidents can expect to pay about $8,000 more).[iv] Coursework is full-time and takes approximately two years to complete, plus about a year of clinical practice before you can receive your license. Finally, admissions for PA school can be competitive, with an approximate 20% acceptance rate overall (though many schools are even more competitive, with acceptance rates as low as 2.3% for schools like Duke); for this reason, it’s essential to know the best strategies for how to become a physician’s assistant so you can better your odds of admission![v]

Applying to PA school is a long process. If you plan on entering PA school directly after you receive your bachelor’s degree, this process often begins in the fall of your junior year of your undergraduate coursework. But if you’re starting the application process later in your college career (or if you’ve been out of college for a while), don’t despair – many folks become physician’s assistants after joining the workforce in other capacities. Below, we’ve highlighted steps you’ll need to take before and during the PA school application process to be the most successful candidate for admission.

PA School Requirements: Before the Application Process


If you’re wondering how to become a physician assistant, one of the first steps you can take is to have a robust GPA. According to the PA Education Association’s annual program survey from 2021, the average GPA of all accepted physician assistants was 3.6, with a science GPA average of 3.6 as well.[vi]

Degree and Courses

If you’re seeking a career as a physician’s assistant, you will most likely have a bachelor’s degree in the sciences (biology, pre-med, etc.); however, for many schools, this is not strictly a PA school requirement. Rather, PA school requirements often include prerequisite courses that you’ll need to take before admission. These will be specific to the program to which you apply, but are usually courses in biology, human anatomy, chemistry, statistics, and physiology.

Practical Experience

While your grades and test score numbers are important, an essential PA school requirement is also practical experience. Many physician’s assistant programs require a minimum of practical healthcare hours that students should have completed upon application (hour amounts vary by school but can tally between 1,000 to 2,000 on average). The Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA – more on this below) divides “experience” into several categories: healthcare experience, leadership experience, patient care experience, research, shadowing, teaching experience, volunteering, non-healthcare employment, and extracurricular activities.[vii] Below, we’ve detailed ideas on how you can attain hours in some of these PA school requirements:

  • Patient Care Experience: This is probably the most significant type of experience you’ll need for your PA school application. It includes any experience in which you are directly responsible for a patient’s care. CASPA specifically describes patient care as: “prescribing medication, performing procedures, directing a course of treatment, designing a treatment regimen, actively working on patients as a nurse, paramedic, EMT, CNA, phlebotomist, physical therapist, dental hygienist, etc.” Finding employment opportunities as an athletic trainer, home health aide, medical scribe, mental health worker, military medic, occupational therapy assistant, healthcare practitioner on a mission trip, sonographer, substance abuse counselor, or public health responder is an excellent way to meet required hours for patient care experience.
  • Healthcare Experience: After direct patient care, healthcare experience is probably the next most valuable attribute in terms of PA school requirements. Healthcare experience is work that includes patient interaction but not direct responsibility for a patient’s care. If you’ve worked in a healthcare setting (such as a doctor’s office, hospital, nursing home or outpatient facility) and delivered meals, cleaned patient rooms, filled prescriptions, or performed record-keeping duties, any of these actions count as healthcare experience.

PA School Requirements – How to Become a Physician’s Assistant (Continued)

  • Research: This includes scientific and medical research done outside your normal courses. Many university professors and departments offer research experience opportunities for their students. Responsibilities at this level usually include editing and data collection and compilation. Check with your major advisor to see if there are any openings for research positions at your school.
  • Shadowing: This invaluable experience includes following and/or training with a working professional in the medical field. Not only does shadowing provide experience, it will let you know if being a PA is truly the right career path for you. If you know the specialty (for instance, cardiology, pediatrics, obstetrics, dermatology) you’d like to work in as a PA, it’s an excellent idea to shadow a PA already working in that particular field. In general, shadowing opportunities are available in primary care offices, outpatient clinics, emergency departments, urgent care facilities, and local hospitals.
  • Teaching Experience: Many undergraduate programs offer course- and major-specific tutoring opportunities for more advanced students. Check with your university’s tutoring centers to see if this kind of job is available for you. Teaching opportunities may also occur if your professors accept undergraduate teaching assistants or if you work in a volunteer capacity where you have the chance to train incoming volunteers.

 How to Become a Physician’s Assistant (Continued)

  • Volunteering: This includes work that you’ve done in a volunteer capacity outside of healthcare or direct patient care and it helps demonstrate your compassion and commitment to your community. Have you ever worked at a soup kitchen? A blood drive? Have you ever tutored, mentored or offered your time at a local community center or church? If you are seeking volunteer opportunities, check out how you can participate in local fundraisers or organizations like Habitat for Humanity and the American Red Cross.
  • Leadership Experience: While this type of PA school requirement isn’t directly related to healthcare, if you’ve held a leadership position it can demonstrate to your application readers that you are organized, responsible, and able to guide others. Leadership experience can include any instances where you have been a president, founder, or other leader of a club, fraternity, sorority, or volunteer group. It may also include organizing efforts: if you’ve ever spearheaded a community organization or initiative, be sure to include this leadership example in your application!
  • Non-Healthcare Employment: This includes any kind of paid labor you have performed outside of the healthcare field. In particular, if you’ve worked in any capacity that required teamwork, organization, or interpersonal skills, it can be beneficial to showcase those jobs in your application materials. If you’ve had several paid non-healthcare jobs, it can be useful to list those you’ve worked at longest: doing so will demonstrate your commitment and staying power.

PA School Requirements – How to Become a Physician’s Assistant (Continued)

  • Extracurricular Activities: This includes any kind of unpaid participation you’ve had in clubs, teams, or affinity groups. While this experience will not give admissions committees a specific glimpse of your medical or professional experience, extracurriculars demonstrate that you are willing to join and partake in community activities.

PA School Requirements: During the Application Process


Nearly all physician’s assistant programs utilize the CASPA application portal for their admissions process and it is a crucial step in how to become a physician assistant. If a school does not use CASPA, be sure to check their specific application requirements before applying. Additionally, some schools will require specific application essays for admissions. The CASPA application portal opens in late April, and deadlines for PA school applications can vary widely. As such, it is essential to be aware of deadlines for each of the specific schools to which you will apply.


Another essential PA school requirement is a strong score on your Graduate Record Examination, or GRE. According to the 2021 PAEA program report, students admitted to physician’s assistant programs scored, on average, 153 on the verbal, 152.4 on the quantitative, and 4.1 on the analytical sections of the GRE.[viii] All of these are average or above-average GRE scores. You can take the GRE up to five times in a year, and with at least a 21-day gap between each testing session. For PA school, it is advised that you take your GRE by February of your application year so that you have time to retake it if necessary and so your prospective schools receive your GRE scores in time.

Letters of Recommendation

CASPA requires at least three letters of recommendation for each applicant, though you are allowed to submit up to five during each admissions cycle. You should choose letter writers who can speak to your specific skills and viability as a candidate for PA school. These will usually be writers who can address your professional, scholastic, organizational, and personal qualities. Excellent candidates for this PA school requirement are PAs you have shadowed, professors, employers, or supervisors. Be sure to ask for recommendations by February of your application year. This allows your recommenders plenty of time to draft and send their letters.

Additional Resources

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PA School Requirements – How to Become a Physician’s Assistant – Sources

[i] Smith-Barrow, Delece and Ilana Kowarski. “Should You Become a Physician Assistant or Doctor?” U.S. News & World Report. 13 May 2019.

[ii] Pasquini, Stephen. “How Much Does it Cost to go to Physician Assistant School?” The Physician Assistant Life.

[iii] “The PA Pipeline to Practice: Applicant and Matriculant Data from CASPA.”

[iv] PAEA Research Program Report 36. Data from the 2021 Program Survey.

[v] PAEA Research Program Report 36. Data from the 2021 Program survey, pg. 55.