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Pre-PA Resources

Considering a Career as a Physician Assistant

Physician Assistant can be a rewarding and challenging career, with many of the same duties as a doctor, but with less schooling and less pay. Much of your time will be spent doing procedural work (exams, consultations, prescribing medications, etc.) in direct contact with patients.  And, your training will be diverse enough that you will be able to work in a variety of specialty areas and settings throughout your career, should you choose. Following completion of PA school, keep in mind that you will need to pass an examination every 6-10 years and complete 100 hours of medical continuing education every two years.  This is one job that requires you to be a lifelong learner.  

See also:
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook:  Physician Assistant Learn About Being a Physician Assistant

CWU does not have a major in Pre-Physician Assistant. However, we do offer a set of prerequisite courses that prepare you for success on the GRE and entry into physician assistant school. Physician Assistant schools are looking for well-rounded applicants. While many students choose a field in the natural sciences for a major, many applicants from humanities or social sciences are accepted into PA school. Choose a major that is the best fit for you.


How to Become a Physician Assistant

Most likely, you will need a bachelor’s degree prior to admission.  The PA is a master’s degree – the average program is around two years of school.  Most physician assistant schools in the United States use a centralized application service, the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants [CASPA].The CASPA does not make admission decisions. It is a service that processes all applications.

Visit the CAPSA Applicant Help Center for a list of participating PA schools and application deadlines (some schools accepting CAPSA applications have different deadlines than the one for CAPSA).

All applicants must meet the GRE requirement by submitting scores from the GRE General Test (verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing sections). Information on testing sites and times is available on the GRE website and CWU also proctors GRE testing. On test day, use the specific Institution Code for each school you are applying (you may choose four schools at the time of testing). You will be instructed how to add additional schools at the time of testing. Some schools will also accept the MCAT. It is important to check each school's specific testing requirement.  Please note that the Medical College Admission Test [MCAT] may not be a requirement for specific physician assistant programs. Check the PAEA database for website links (as well as standardized test and GPA requirements) of accredited PA schools.

To practice as a PA, you must graduate from an accredited PA program and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam [PANCE]. The PANCE is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

Clinical Care Experience Required Prior to Admission
A minimum of 1-2 years (approximately 2,000-4,000 hours accumulated as of the October deadline) of health care experience in a position of responsibility is expected of all applicants. Always check the amount of experience required by your top choice of schools, as schools do vary by requirement.

Some examples of acceptable health care experiences are:

  • Military (medic, corpsman, pararescueman, etc.)
  • Emergency Medicine 
  • Nursing 
  • Clinical Research 
  • Medical Scribe

NOTE: Medex Northwest (University of Washington) requires 4,000 hours of paid direct patient care experience. Here is a link to a helpful FAQ to better understand their specific requirements: MEDEX Northwest FAQ: Clinical Prerequisite Information

Although most PA schools require clinical hours to be paid, hands-on clinical work, volunteer work is always encouraged and are great resume building experiences. Some schools may accept volunteer work for clinical hours, so it is important to check with the schools you plan to apply to for specific patient care experience requirements. Exposure to health related settings is becoming increasingly important as an admission factor. It is assumed that a qualified applicant will have not only a general understanding of the profession, but also a demonstrated interest and knowledge of what it means to be a physician assistant. Good candidates will also demonstrate commitment to community through volunteer experience.

Patient Care Experience
Patient care experience is experience in which you are directly responsible for a patient’s care. Performing procedures, directing a course of treatment, working on patients as an active EMT are all examples of patient care experience.

Other Health Care Experience
Other health care experience includes working in a health-related field but not being directly responsible for a patient’s care: for example, filling prescriptions, performing clerical work, delivering patient food, cleaning patient rooms, etc.

Health Care Shadowing
Health care shadowing is time spent officially following and observing a health care professional at work.

Community Service
Community Service is volunteer work done outside of the health care field. This includes volunteer work for such things as working for Habitat for Humanity, tutoring children, participating in or working for a fundraiser walk or blood drive, etc. There are many ways to volunteer. Volunteer for something you are passionate about.

Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are an important part of the selection process and should be written by faculty (preferably mentors or committee members), physicians and other persons who know you and your work. Letters should explain and critically evaluate your academic ability, strengths and weaknesses, motivation, maturity, difficulty of coursework attempted, and special attributes and assets. Recommendations are usually written between your third and fourth year of college. It is extremely important for you to develop working relationships with faculty members, physicians, and clinical supervisors in order to earn good letters of recommendation.

See also: “Getting Great Letters of Recommendation for PA School”

As the final step of evaluation, the interview is very important.  Most physician assistant schools require an interview.  In fact, although you are first screened according to academic performance, the final choice is made after you have been interviewed by the physician assistant school. During the interview, your motivation, maturity, poise, humanitarianism, and ability in expression are examined. If you wish to practice your interview skills you can make an appointment with CWU Career Services.


Prerequisite Courses Offered at CWU

The following courses are commonly required by physician assistant schools as prerequisites. Students should always check their prerequisite classes against their top choices of schools, as schools do vary by requirement.  See PA School Finder: Physician Assistant Program Directory for accredited schools.

There is some flexibility in the science requirements for Washington schools, so please work with an advisor and/or faculty mentor to determine coursework and major course of study. Go beyond the minimum requirements to be a competitive applicant.

Core Prerequisites (Required C, or better, for most schools & within last 5 years):

  • MATH 153 (Pre-Calculus)
  • CHEM 111, 112, 113 with labs OR CHEM 181, 182, 183 with labs - See Advisor
  • CHEM 361, 362 with lab (Organic Chemistry)
  • CHEM 431 (Biochemistry)
  • BIO 181, 182, 183 with labs (General Biology, pre/corequisite CHEM 181 series) 
  • BIO 305, 306 with labs OR BIO 355, 356 with labs (Human Anatomy and Physiology)
  • BIO 322 (Microbiology) OR BIO 323
  • PSY 101, 313 (General or Developmental Psychology)
  • PSY 362, BIOL 213, OR Math 311 (Statistics)

Additional coursework in the following is recommended for many programs:

  • 300-400 level biology or chemistry courses
  • BIOL 201 (Human Physiology)
  • BIOL 422 (Immunology)
  • PHIL 104 (Current Ethical Issues) and/or PHIL 308 (Medical Ethics)
  • PHYS 111, 112, 113 with labs OR PHYS 121, 122, 123 with Labs (General Physics)
  • PSY 449 (Abnormal Psychology)
  • SOC 101 or 107
  • Spanish courses


Pre-Physician Assistant Advisor and Faculty Contacts

As soon as you think you may want to become a PA, go see one of the pre-health advisors and faculty contacts.  While they can advise you on strong coursework preparation that will generally support your admission, they cannot be familiar with the specific requirements of all the individual schools. Please check requirements for individual schools as you prepare your applications.

College of the Sciences Advising Office
Advising for students with interest in pre-physician assistant study paired with Biology or Chemistry majors.

Patrick (Pat) Coffey
Advising for students with interest in pre-physician assistant study paired with a Clinical Physiology Major.

Faculty Contacts:
Dr. Levente Fabry-Asztalos
Department of Chemistry
Office: Science Building, Room 302F
Phone: (509) 963-2887

Dr. Jim Johnson
Department of Biological Sciences
Office: Science Building, Room 338J
Phone: (509) 963-2876


Other Resources

PAEA’s General Information on PAs and PA Education

Take the Next Step to Becoming a Wildcat.