Choosing the Right PA Program

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According to the PAEA Program Directory, there are 217 PA programs (including provisional and probation).  That's a lot of different programs!  While the outcome at the end of a program is the same (you're a PA!), the experience to get there can vary greatly.  This is my list of specific factors to look for and ask questions about when you are trying to decide where to apply.

  • Location - This is pretty obvious.  You have to decide how important it is for you to be where you want to be.  If it's not that important, you can apply more widely.  You also need to decide if setting is a factor, such as city vs rural.
  • Length of Program - These are all pretty comparable, but still something to consider.  Most programs I've seen are around 25-27 months (6-7 semesters), but there are some programs that are shorter or longer.  I don't think this should be the biggest factor in your decision.
  • Private vs Public/Cost - Cost is a huge factor in choosing a program.  A public program is usually going to be more affordable than a private program, but this is not the rule.  When estimating total cost, you need to take into account tuition, fees, books and supplies, testing, and living expenses.  Those numbers can add up quickly!  Most people have to take out loans, and that massive number at the end of two years can be a little daunting.
  • Cadaver lab vs models - This is where you have a say in your education.  Some schools have cadaver labs, and even these can vary.  The difference is that you actually dissect the cadaver versus studying from an already dissected cadaver.  And then there's learning from books and models.  This may not be a huge factor for your decision, but learning from a cadaver can be very valuable, and I would strongly recommend it if you are at all interested in a surgical field.  There's a great advantage to getting to feel the difference in nerves and veins and seeing how the tissues look in real life before you get into an OR.
  • GRE requirements - The majority of programs require the GRE.  The minimum requirements are typically just a baseline and this doesn't hold a ton of weight in the decision process, so I would recommend taking it regardless, but there are a few programs that do not have specific requirements.
  • GPA/Science GPA - GPA is a huge factor, and most programs also calculate a separate science GPA.  The alternative to GPA is a requirement for minimum grades in coursework, like a "C" minimum.  There are some programs that do not have minimum GPA requirements, but these programs still usually have a pretty high average GPA of the students they accept.  From the experience I have with admissions, I would say if the school has a specific minimum GPA and you don't have that number then it probably isn't worth it to apply.  This is used to weed out applicants quickly, and often if your GPA doesn't meet the minimum you won't make it to the department.  **The only exception to this is if it is a school you really want to go to and you have plans on taking classes to raise your GPA and reapply, then go ahead and submit because it will show improvement as a reapplicant.
  • Health Care Experience (HCE) - The amount of direct patient care required varies greatly between programs.   Like GPA, some schools have no specific requirement, but can have high averages of the accepted students.  Other programs have requirements ranging from hundreds to thousands of hours.  What counts as "direct patient care" experience can vary between the programs, so if you have any questions at all it would be worth calling your top programs to ask before investing your time and possibly money.  For example, my program accepts hospice volunteering as HCE, while at other programs it's strictly volunteering
  • Shadowing requirements - Pretty much the same as HCE, some schools have no requirements while others have certain hour requirements.  Some programs also require you to shadow multiple fields, so definitely worth checking on.
  • Bachelor's degree vs no degree requirement - At this point, the majority of programs do require a Bachelor's degree to be accepted. There are still a few out there that will accept you solely if you have the correct prerequisites.
  • Prerequisites - All programs will have specific classes they require for applying.  The can influence what major you decide on if in undergrad and also where you apply.  If you have a question about these requirements, definitely get clarification from specific programs.  This will prevent you from wasting your time or money on classes you don't need.  It can even be subtle things like statistics versus biostatistics.  The other big one is organic chemistry.  Look for if they specifically require this or just general chemistry courses.
  • Clinical flexibility -  Clinical rotations make up a whole year of your program, and it's important to know where you will be.  Do they send you wherever they need a student?  Can you decide where you want to be for the most part?  Are there international options for rotations?  The most information on this will come from the program itself or former students.  If you are able to do a tour or meet with the department, this would be ideal, but asking at the interview is fine as well.  This is especially important for students with spouses/children/family because you don't want to get separated if you don't have to be.
  • PANCE pass rates - This information should be readily available on the program's website or by calling the program.  It makes sense that you would want to go somewhere with a good pass rate because that means the students are well prepared for boards.
  • Small group opportunities - What is the teacher to student ratio? Is there any type of small group learning?  When learning clinical skills and physical exam, many people do better in a smaller setting, so at least worth asking about.
  • Job opportunities - Does the program help you to find a job when you graduate?  It's likely that the faculty may have some resources when it comes to job searching so it's a good thing to ask about.  My program sends out e-mails when someone contacts them with a job opportunity and has a job board as well.
  • Amenities - It's important to look into what resources will be available to you while you are in school (that you are paying for of course).  Is there a gym to use?  Is there food on campus?  Is there a good library?  Some programs even provide a computer for you to use while in school!
  • Extracurriculars - If it's a large program there may be more extracurricular opportunities available to you.  This could include intramurals, religious groups or meetings, clubs, or volunteer opportunities.  My program had an awesome student-run health clinic that our whole class participated in and student officers as well.
  • Employment during the program - Although it is strongly discouraged in most programs, there are some places that will allow you to work if you desire for a few hours during the didactic phase.  PA school is no joke, so I'm not sure how someone could actually do well working and going to school, but that may be something you want to look for.

Here is a blog post from a PA-S about how he chose what program to attend.  

What are some things you are looking for when you're deciding where to apply?  Or if you're already in a program, why did you choose the one you did?