Everything You Need to Know About the PA-CAT

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There’s been some chatter recently about a new proposed standardized test for PA school entry called the “PA-CAT” (Physician Assistant College Admissions Test). Think of it as the MCAT of PA school. Let’s jump into the details that are available currently.

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What is the PA-CAT?

Number one, it’s a test. Think of the PA-CAT as the MCAT of PA school. While medical schools require the MCAT, it seems the PA-CAT was created as a complementary test for PA school. If you actually say it out loud, it makes sense. The goal of the MCAT is to test the actual knowledge that medical students will need to have a grasp on to succeed in their programs. There hasn’t been anything like that for PA school until now. 

This 3 hour test was created by Exam Master, and it includes 180 multiple choice questions based on 12 different subjects pulled from typical PA school prerequisites - anatomy (13%), physiology (13%), general biology (13%), microbiology (9%), general chemistry (11%), organic chemistry (9%), biochemistry (12%), statistics (3%), medical terminology (1%), sociology (4%), psychology (8%), and genetics (4%). These knowledge areas are then divided into determining different aspects based on cognitive level - knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. There is also the inclusion of the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, which is of interest to programs wanting to evaluate a student’s ability to empathize with patients. 

Exam Master states that they hope to provide a test that demonstrates a student’s readiness in the basic sciences that are necessary for a solid foundation in PA school. There are two main PAs involved in the research around this exam - Johnna Yealy from the University of Tampa and Scott Massey from Central Michigan University. Having involvement from PAs in the education sector is a good sign that the PA-CAT is something that will continue moving forward. You can read about the whole research protocol here. The overarching goal is to provide a test that will reliably predict success on the PANCE for programs.

What is the test really like? 

I’ve personally never taken the PA-CAT, so I went to Instagram to get some feedback. Here are the results.:

“I personally felt that the A&P questions were very advanced. Other than that I thought the questions were reasonable.”

“It had anatomy questions, even as specific as to “if they rolled their ankle in this direction, what tendon in the ankle would be affected.” 

“However, I was surprised at how chemistry heavy the PA-CAT was. I’m not sure if it was just because mine was a pilot test at the interview, but we didn’t have any access to the periodic table which made organic chemistry questions on the exam nearly impossible.”

“The only challenging part about the content is that because all PA schools do not require the same pre-reqs, people may or may not have taken courses covering all the material.” 

“I felt that it was heavily focused in biology and physiology. The questions were about information that would have been memorized and learned in those classes. Specific gas points, routes of activation, etc.”

“I think it will be a great indicator as to what kind of knowledge the applicant has currently, which is a huge advantage for students who have a few lower grades on their transcript.” 

“ I hope applicants will at least have a layout of what will be on the exam, similar to the MCAT. But overall, I think it’s a great addition in the future. However, I think it’s going to take a few years before they can officially implement it into the admissions process.”

Overall, everyone I spoke with felt the PA-CAT was a better assessment than the GRE for PA school. Another comment that came up multiple times was in regards to non-traditional applicants or anyone who has been out of school for a while and that it may be very difficult for those students. In interview settings, it seems that the test was optional, but the applicants were informed that the results wouldn’t have any bearing on their acceptance. Some of the students who took the test at orientation did tell me that they didn’t take it very seriously or kind of skipped through thinking it was just an experiment, so I’m not sure how that could affect results of this research. 

“It did not mimic the GRE in any way. It wasn’t about logic or analytical reasoning. And there was no math.” 

“I was right out of undergrad with an exercise science degree. Took a ton of upper level science courses (biochem, 3 physiology courses, 2 anatomy courses, clinical obesity course, etc.) and I found the test to be VERY challenging, especially after a 3 hour interview process.” 

Do I need to take the PA-CAT?

Not unless someone tells you to! The PA-CAT is in experimental phase right now and there are a few programs who have given the exam at interviews or shortly after students begin their program. (You actually can’t even sign up individually currently). The actual study is looking at a sample size of at least 500 comprised of students in the incoming 2018-2019 PA class at ten or more program sites. These students have been given the test at interview sessions (like at the University of Tampa and AT Still) or during orientation after they are already accepted to PA school. 

If you do end up needing to take the test, it’s not necessarily something you’ll be able to study for at this point, but your coursework should prepare you. I say that, but you know there are tons of MCAT resources out there. Those aren’t going to help you right now because the subjects are different. Consider a quick refresher on the included categories, but don’t sweat the test for now. 

What is the difference in the PA-CAT and the GRE?

The PA-CAT is a more specific test than the GRE. The GRE is a general test required for many Master’s level programs (not just healthcare based ones), but it isn’t really a knowledge test. The breakdown of quantitative and qualitative sections show basic skills and test-taking strategy more than your ability to learn what’s necessary to complete PA school. For more information on why the GRE is relevant to PA school, check out this post

Because the PA-CAT is aiming to be more topical and actually test the knowledge that your prerequisites require. Since PA school is so fast, you are expected to have a good understanding on the material before you start the program. The usefulness of the GRE is questioned by admissions committees (listen to this podcast episode to hear the admissions direction Allan Platt from Emory’s opinion)

As of right now, the GRE isn’t required by all programs, and it will take time and a pretty strong movement to make any test a mandatory requirement. Even Exam Master states that this is something that will continue needing to be evaluated and tested. Currently, the PA-CAT has only been given to students who have already been accepted, not just all applicants in general. 

What is the difference in the PA-CAT and the CASPER test?

The PA-CAT and CASPER tests are completely different in that the PA-CAT is focused on scientific knowledge and the CASPER test gauges empathy. The creators and researchers of the PA-CAT didn’t want to completely disregard the importance of empathy though, so they included the Jefferson Scale of Empathy. This is interesting because if the PA-CAT is all inclusive, it could potentially do away with the need for the CASPER test in addition at some point (strictly my speculation). 

Should I be worried about the PA-CAT?

Not right now. Don’t waste your time, stress, or emotions at this time. This test isn’t currently being used to gauge anything significant in regards to PA school admissions. It’s in the testing phase and there still needs to be a good amount of vetting to determine how this test will best be used, how scores should be interpreted, and what the results indicate in regards to a student’s performance. With anything new, schools tend to be slow to adopt, so it will take some time before you need to add the PA-CAT to your checklist. And honestly, without an official breakdown of topics, it would be extremely hard to actually study efficiently for the PA-CAT exam. 

What schools are using the PA-CAT?

Very few so far, and they seem to be using it differently. As of right now, there is no consensus between programs about what tests they should be requiring. 

Will the PA-CAT replace the GRE?

Based on the research outline, it may be the goal that the PA-CAT replaces the GRE or MCAT for PA school. Again, this would take a very long time to implement and the research outcomes will need to be very strong for program’s to gain confidence in making the switch. Since this is the first year of testing, the results will not be complete until after completion of the 1st year of PA school and after completion of a PA program in its entirety. You’ve got a couple of years before any of this could really take effect. 

What does this really mean?

Personally, I don’t put much weight in the GRE. Its strategy, which doesn’t translate to a student’s ability to learn material for the PANCE, which is a knowledge test. To me, it’s a checkbox that some schools require to differentiate candidates. The PA-CAT has potential to change these requirements, but it will take time.

I see the benefits of the test for programs - a way to standardize expectations of prerequisites, rank students in a quantitative way, and determine preparedness for PA school and potential for passing boards. The PAEA’s research currently indicates that GPA is the best factor in predicting how a student will perform in PA school, but there are so many factors that go into that calculation (different levels of course rigor, prior GPA issues that have been resolved), making it not the most fair way to judge applicants. Right now, the GRE doesn’t actually test those things. The PA-CAT would be much more specific, but I also see some barriers to implementation at all programs. 

Since schools don’t currently have the exact same prerequisite requirements, some of the subjects on the test may not be required (namely genetics and organic chemistry). Since it’s developed by a third party separate from any of the PA accrediting bodies, I’m not sure if the goal is collaboration and becoming a standard or just another option. Only time will tell whether the PA-CAT becomes the MCAT of PA school.

For more details, check out this post on the PA-CAT exam from our Pre-PA coach Erin