Physician Assistant

There are many pieces to the PA school application, including your GPA, GRE score, personal statement, list of experiences, letters of recommendation, and biographical information. Use the navigation below to explore each aspect of preparing for physician assistant programs.

What is a PA?

Becoming a PA


Graduate Records Examination (GRE)

Pre-PA Experiences

Applying to PA Programs

Personal Statement
Letters of Recommendation
Supplemental Applications
Choosing Schools

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Physician Assistant?

  • Physician assistants (commonly known as PAs) provide health care under the supervision of a physician.
  • The scope of practice for PAs varies state to state, but in general a PA can take medical histories, examine patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and x-rays, and make diagnoses. They also treat minor injuries by suturing, splinting, and casting. PAs may also prescribe medications under the supervision of a physician. PAs specializing in surgery can provide pre- and post-operative care and may work as first or second assistants during major surgery.
  • PA’s obtain a master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies.
  • See the AAPA's "What is a PA?" to learn more about this profession.

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Becoming a PA

  1. Obtain undergraduate degree and complete all pre-PA requirements, including prerequisites, the GRE, and experiences (4 years)
  2. Attend an accredited PA program (2-3 years)
  3. Pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) to become certified
    1. Optional: Complete a fellowship (length varies)
  4. Become licensed by the state in which you want to practice
  5. Maintain certification 
  • PAs can work in any specialty in medicine, including surgery, emergency medicine, oncology, and more. Many PAs will switch from one specialty to another over the course of their careers. 

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Prerequisites for PA Programs

Myth: If I'm going to get a C- in a class, I should intentionally get a D or F in that class in order to retake it for a better grade.

Fact: Do not fail a class on purpose in order to retake it for a better grade. Even though the lower grade will not be included in your UC Davis GPA, it will remain on your transcript and most centralized applications will count that first grade into your application GPA.

Additionally, the health profession schools will still see it. It is better to have a C- in the course and improve through other courses in the same discipline than to take a D or F.

Most health professional schools require all prerequisites to be completed with a C or higher. Although you cannot repeat the C- at UC Davis, you will need to repeat it somewhere else either over a summer or after graduation.

If you need to discuss this or any other academic difficulty futher, please make an appointment with a staff advisor. 

PA Prerequisites at UC Davis

Most schools require:
General Biology (BIS 2ABC)
General Chemistry (CHE 2ABC)
Human Physiology (NPB 101 or NPB 110ABC, NPB 101L)*
Human Anatomy (EXB 106 & 106L)
Microbiology (MIC 102 & MIC 103L)*
Statistics (STA 13 or STA 100)*
Psychology (PSC 1)

Some schools may also require:
Organic Chemistry (CHE 8AB)
Genetics (BIS 101)
Biochemistry (BIS 102 & BIS 103 or BIS 105)
Math (College-level math course)
Sociology (SOC 1, SOC 3, or SOC 154)
Medical Terminology**
English Composition (3 quarters of ENL, COM, and/or UWP)
Spanish (1 year)

See the Physician Assistant Program Prerequisite Chart for a sample list of PA programs and their requirements.

*Check your major requirements before choosing classes.

**Not offered at UC Davis. See PA program websites for more information about this requirement. 

Note: The above courses are only suggested, not absolute. 

  • You can choose any major and apply to PA programs. If you choose a non-science major, you still have to take the science prerequisites required by PA programs. 
  • HPA recommends that pre-PA students maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0, although many PA programs will have GPA averages above this minimum. Many programs have a 3.0 cutoff, meaning that they might "screen out" your application if you apply with lower than a 3.0.
  • Complete all of your prerequisite courses for a letter grade - DO NOT take any of them P/NP.
  • Each PA program has different prerequisites. Check each school's prerequisites before applying. 
  • Some PA programs require you to have your prerequisites done before you apply, while other programs want them done before you start the program. See HPA's Calfornia PA Program chart for more information. 

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The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is...

  • not required by all PA schools. As of November 2016, only 3 PA programs in California required the GRE (Stanford University, Chapman University, and University of Southern California)
  • available on a continuous basis throughout the year. Register for the GRE here.
  • includes three sections:
    • Verbal Reasoning
    • Quantitative Reasoning
    • Analytical Writing
  • $160 each time you take it.

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Pre-PA Experiences

Myth: I can do a lot of meaningful experiences to make up for a weaker GPA.

Fact:  Having many meaningful activities will NOT make up for a low GPA.

You must focus on your grades during your undergraduate years, earn at least a 3.0, and then begin adding experiences. You can always take a year or two off after graduation to gain more experience. It is better to graduate from UC Davis with a higher GPA and less experiences than lots of experiences but a low GPA. 

Pre-PA Club at UC Davis

Student organizations are a great way to obtain health experience and network with peers and professionals. 

Pre-PA Club Facebook Group

Pre-PA Club Website

  • What you do with your time helps define who you are in your application. Whatever you choose to do, be sure you are dedicated, passionate about it, and motivated to pursue it for the right reason!
  • Many PA programs require 1,000 - 3,000 hours of Patient Care Experience (sometimes called “direct” or "hands-on" patient care). Most schools will have a sample list of experiences that will satisfy this requirement (See the UC Davis PA Program's experience requirements), but here is a list of Patient Care Experiences students commonly participate in during their undergraduate years or in their gap year:

* may not be accepted at all programs for the hands-on patient care requirement

  • In addition to Patient Care Experience, you can also include the following types of experiences on your application:
    • Health Care Experience (paid and unpaid experience in a health care setting that does not meet the criteria for Patient Care Experience)
    • Employment
    • Shadowing
    • Research
    • Volunteer
  • For more information on experiences, see CASPA Instructions & FAQ.

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Applying to PA Programs

CASPA Application Timeline

Application Processing Timeline from CASPA Instructions & FAQ.

Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA)
  • The 2017-2018 CASPA application cycle will open in April 2017 and will close in May 2018.
  • It is very important that you read the CASPA Instructions & FAQ before starting your application. You are responsible for knowing this information before you apply.
  • The initial cost for CASPA is $175 for the first program you apply to. Any additional programs you choose to apply to will cost $50 per school.

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Personal Statement
  • You will have 5,000 characters to write a “brief statement expressing your motivation or desire to become a physician assistant.” - CASPA Instructions & FAQ
  • All programs you apply to will see the same personal statement. Once you submit your CASPA application, you cannot update or edit your personal statement.
  • The personal statement is your first chance to provide admissions committees with subjective information about your qualifications and your reasons for choosing this particular career. In other words, the personal statement is your initial opportunity to present yourself as an interesting and unique applicant who deserves a closer look.

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Letters of Recommendation
  • CASPA allows you to submit 3 - 5 letters of recommendation, also called evaluations.
  • Letters must be completed within CASPA at the time of your application. CASPA will not accept letters from Interfolio or other letter services.
  • Your letter writers will also complete a questionnaire in which he or she evaluates you on a scale of 1–5 in regards to several different criteria.
  • See CASPA’s How to Submit a Letter of Reference for more information.

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Supplemental Applications
  • Supplemental applications are additional, school-specific applications that some PA programs might send you after you complete CASPA.
  • Each school has a different supplemental application - some schools might ask you to complete additional short essays or a questionnaire, or they could ask for a resume or a headshot.
  • Usually supplemental applications include a fee that can range from $50 - $100.

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  • Some PA schools include interviews in their admissions process, while others do not. 
  • Interview styles vary by school and may include one-on-one conversations, panel interviews, and/or multiple mini interviews. 

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Choosing Schools

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Frequently Asked Questions

What major should I choose?

Choose a major you are passionate about. You can pursue any major, from biochemistry to music, and apply to PA school as long as you complete the school prerequisites. PA programs review applications holistically, and your major is just one small piece of your story. 

What courses satisfy the English requirement for PA schools?

Lower and upper division English (ENL), UWP, and Comparative Literature (COM) courses will satisfy the English requirement for PA schools, unless a school website says otherwise. You may also take similar classes at a community college. 

Note: Testing out of the upper division UWP course requirement via the Upper Division Composition Exam (UDCE) for graduation does not count towards the PA school requirement. 

Which classes count towards my science GPA?

You can see which courses count towards the science GPA calculated by CASPA here

To calculate your science GPA, pull up your Academic Record in OASIS. Along the left side of the course list, you will see boxes. Check off the boxes for the courses you wish to be included in the GPA calculation on the right side of the page.

Do PA programs accept AP credit?

PA programs are not consistent in how they handle AP credit. Some programs may allow you to use AP credit to fulfill certain prerequisites, while other programs might not accept it at all. HPA recommends that you take college-level coursework for all prerequisites. 

Do I have to complete all of the prerequisites before applying?

Some PA programs, such as UOP, require that all of your prerequisites be completed at the time you submit your CASPA application. Check each school's website that you plan on applying to see their policy.

UC Davis does not offer a Medical Terminology course. How do I complete this prerequisite?

Many community colleges offer medical terminology courses as part of their Allied Health coursework. For example, American River College and other Los Rios District Community Colleges offer AH 110: Medical Language for Health-Care Providers (3 semester units). See the Los Rios course catalogs here. 

Can I study abroad?

Studying abroad is a wonderful experience that we encourage you to pursue. It is a valuable experience that provides the opportunity for growth in both maturity and cultural awareness.

You should not study abroad because you are pre-health in an effort to make your application stand out. You should study abroad because you want to gain the experience.

If your study abroad program was through UC Davis Study Abroad or UC Education Abroad (UCEAP), then your coursework will be on your official UC Davis transcript and fullfil prerequisites. If you studied abroad directly through a foreign institution, then your coursework will be on a "foreign transcript," which most health professional schools do not accept. 

Do HRI internships count as Patient Care Experience?

It depends on what responsibilities and duties you have during the HRI. If you are mostly involved with administrative duties or have no patient contact, then most PA programs probably won't accept that for the Patient Care Experience. You can still include these HRI's on your CASPA application as Health Care Experience

Can I include experiences from high school?

"You may include any experience you believe is relevant to your PA application. However, it is preferable to focus on experiences from the last 10 years and which began at least at a collegiate level."

-CASPA Instructions & FAQ

When should I start writing my personal statement?

The personal statement should be a reflective, well-polished document. You can create your first draft as soon as you want. The more time you give yourself to get feedback and revise the better. Health Professions Advising advisors are happy to read your essay and give you feedback, but please make the appointment at least a month before your deadline.

Please bring a printed draft of your personal statement to appointments and drop-in advising.

When should I submit CASPA?

"Apply early! To ensure your application is verified on time, ALL MATERIALS should arrive at CASPA to complete your application at least four weeks prior to your earliest deadline. Once your application is considered complete, it can take up to FOUR WEEKS for it to be processed."

- CASPA Instructions & FAQ

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