“What makes a competitive PA School applicant?”
I was asked this question by one of my readers and it’s taken me more time than I would have thought to come up with what I believe are concrete components as to what makes a PA School applicant competitive.
One thing I personally love about this health profession is that there is no “right” way to get to PA school. I have met PA students in well-known programs that had extremely untraditional routes in their undergraduate major choice; one girl I met was a theater major, and some had lower GPAs. On the other hand I have also heard unique stories from those making this a mid-life career-switch, one woman was a Respiratory Therapist previously. One thing I think sets any applicant apart is a strong-willed and common desire to be a PA for certain reason(s) that deeply motivates you through the challenging parts of the preliminary coursework and typically required healthcare experience hours. By channeling and acting on my core reasons for wanting to be a PA I found myself accomplishing more than I thought I was capable of and creating a compelling topic of discussion during my interviews.
Though that being said there are some common core requirements that are recommended to enhance your chances of being a competitive applicant. Below you will see that I’ve chosen a couple of schools that supply their class profiles to get my references from.
Some schools require your cumulative and science GPA to be above a 3.0 though this is not the case for all. However, some programs list their Class Profile from previous years and the trend in GPA is usually increasing or holding relatively high. It’s a competitive profession and the numbers show it! Here’s a brief look at some scores from institutions around the country.
The University of Florida Physician Assistant program has a rough average of 3.5-3.6 for their cumulative GPA and a 3.5 for their science GPA for the classes of 2014 to 2018. Duke’s Physician Assistant Program for the entering class of Fall 2016 had an overall GPA average of 3.5-3.8. Yale’s class of 2018 had an overall GPA average of 3.72 and an overall science GPA average of 3.73, though the range of those varied from 3.15 – 4.00. It’s important to note that the average does not reflect the range; if you have a GPA in those lower ends and are stressing I would take comfort knowing some people were accepted with a 3.15 for that particular year.
In addition to GPA, look into some extracurricular activities! Does your school have a pre-PA club? Join it and try and be elected to the executive board! If they don’t have a pre-PA club could you create one? Are there volunteer events or volunteer groups in the community? Signing up to help participate or run those events will also help individualize your application.
From what I’ve heard, the rule of thumb is to ideally have your scores be at or above the 50th percentile. You can see how a score equates to a percentile on the GRE ETS website listed here.
The University of Florida Physician Assistant program had an average for a 155 Verbal, 154 Quantitative and 4.1 Analytical writing score for the Class of 2018. These scores are the 59th, 64th, and roughly the 59th percentile, respectively. Though the range for these scores varied from 147-169 for the Verbal section, 144-165 for the Quantitative section, and 3.0-5.0 for the Analytical Writing portion. Yale’s PA Program had a mean Verbal score in the 80th percentile, or of 158. A Quantitative score in the 67th percentile, or 157, and an Analytical score in the 75th percentile, or between a 4.0-4.5.
So, as seen these scores have lots of room for variation but there is one thing in common, they are all roughly at or above the 50th percentile (and a few lucky applicants who were accepted to these programs had scores below the 50th percentile). In my opinion the higher the score, the better it is for your application, though nothing guarantees an interview or an acceptance as the application has many facets to it.
Though I do want to just think out loud for a moment here… if you have a lower GPA, but your GRE scores are high, this many strengthen your application and balance these values out so to speak. But, if you have a high GPA but do poorly on your GRE this may end up hurting your application.
Patient Contact Hours
The more patient care experience you have, the stronger and more competitive your application will be. The aspect as to how many hours are “best” is up for debate but an average accepted applicant will have somewhere between one year to two years of full time work, or 1,000 – 2,000 hours. Some students get in with less, and some students have up to a decades worth of experience. The key is to make these hours count and create connections! Whether you spent your time as a Registered Nurse, a phlebotomist, or going on medical mission trips, any committee will be interested in it if you show passion for what you are doing and what you strive to do.
The more shadowing you have the better. Having lots of shadowing hours and thoroughly understanding how a PA operates in different specialties is going to do the opposite of hurt your application. Plus, the longer you are able to shadow at a facility the better; this extended timeframe lets you and the PA you’re shadowing create a stronger relationship and can greatly be of benefit when you ask them to write you a strong letter of recommendation. They’ll likely be able to write a more personal letter the longer you actively shadow and letters of recommendation can make or break any application.
As seen, the ways to get into Physician Assistant schools vary. There is no “right” path to take, which I personally think is a wonderful thing. If you want to be an EMT, then apply to PA school, that’s great! If you’ve been a nurse or exercise physiologist for ten years and want to switch careers, that’s phenomenal too! If you like volunteering at the animal shelter “just because” that too can make you stand out from the crowd and attract attention to your application. Take whatever your weak areas are and focus on making them stronger! That all being said, the common core components will always reside within your application and having a strong academic background, GRE scores, and exposure to the health profession will aide you in achieving the dream: PA School.