When to Apply to PA School

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When should you apply to physician assistant school? This is a very personal question that comes up very often. The first step to deciding if you’re ready to apply is understanding the application cycle for PA school.

When you decide to apply, you essentially will need to submit your application approximately a year before you start school. A few programs with January starts are the exceptions to this rule because you would apply in April and potentially begin the program less than six months after receiving your acceptance. For most schools with a May or August start, submitting in April would give you a full year to interview and plenty of time before starting your program. You have to take this into account when choosing which year to submit your application.

I’ll use my application as an example. I started working on my application in April 2011 and submitted in June of 2011. I was scheduled to graduate in December 2011 (I took an extra online class to finish in 3.5 years), and I knew that I would prefer to NOT have to take a gap year, so that meant applying at the end of my junior year.

If you want to avoid a gap year, you’ll need to apply at the end of your junior year or beginning/during your senior year.

I had my first interview at the beginning of September with 2 weeks notice. Soon after, I received a second interview invite for the beginning of October. I actually got my acceptance call from the first interview there! And 2 weeks later, my 2nd acceptance came in. That sounds confusing, but basically I received my acceptances in the fall of 2011. One program started in May 2012 and one started in January 2012, and I chose the one that started in May. To put it in terms of cycles, I applied in the 2011-2012 cycle for a 2012 start.

You won’t apply in April for an August start of the same year. It will be the NEXT year that you are applying for. This confuses a lot of applicants.

Taking a gap year isn’t a bad thing, it just wasn’t my preference. Once you’ve figured out when you would ideally like to start, the next step in deciding when to apply is making sure you meet the requirements of the program. As confirmed in Episode 55 of The Pre-PA Club Podcast with PA Professor, Wes Johnson, if you don’t meet all of the school’s requirements, your application will never be evaluated. They probably won’t even see it!

As a general rule of thumb, if you meet the minimum requirements of a program and can check all of the boxes, go for it.

When it comes down to it, you could always take more time to improve your application, and you shouldn’t stop doing that, but you also shouldn’t delay applying for too long. Eventually, you just have to go for it!

Once you’ve decided this is your cycle, you’ll increase your chances if you apply earlier to programs with rolling admissions. In the past, July-August was considered early, but with the competitiveness of PA school, May-June is now more ideal. Does that mean if you submit later than that you won’t get any interviews? No way! But it can help you out more just by submitting earlier. Rolling admissions means as soon as an application is marked as “complete” it is evaluated, and if they like what they see, you’ll get an interview, which hopefully results in an acceptance.

Comment below with any questions about the application timeline!

Guest Post from Brittany at PA Fanatic - My Top 5 CASPA Tips

I'm so excited to bring you a guest post today from Brittany at PA Fanatic.  I first got into contact with Brittany on Instagram, and she did an amazing job with sharing some tips.  If you want more advice from Brittany, and to follow along as she starts PA school shortly, check out her website or follow on Instagram @PAfanatic.  I did a post on Brittany's site with 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting PA School, so make sure you read that one too! 

Every pre-pa needs to know these CASPA hacks. 

If you’re applying to CASPA right now, you already know how time consuming this process can be, but I promise it’s worth it! All the effort you’ve put into your application will be worth it once you get your first interview invite! I had my fair share of struggles with CASPA so I came up with 5 tips to help when applying to CASPA!

  1. Since I know you’re all busy little bees and have been volunteering, working, trying to have a social life, all while tying to get good grades, life can get hectic pretty quick and it’s easy to get disorganized. That’s why one of the most important things you can do for yourself when applying is to create an excel spreadsheet to help you organize all your activities! I found myself frequently changing my experience description up until I submitted my application. I found it way easier to work in excel than to keep changing things in CASPA until I submitted. I recommend finalizing everything in excel before plugging and chugging it all into CASPA.  
Example of Excel Sheet to Record CASPA Information
  • I made a tab for each category in CASPA
  • I made a table with columns for each piece of information needed to add an experience in CASPA

2. Keep track of all of your school deadlines! This is harder than it seems since so many schoolshave varying deadlines ranging from August all the way to December or even January! I found it helpful to write down each school’s deadline in my planner as well as having a post it note with each school’s deadline kept on my desk. It’s really important to pay attention to the deadline because some schools require you to be “completed” by the deadline, meaning your application (and supplemental if required) has been submitted and considered complete, while other schools require you to be “verified” by the deadline, meaning that you application not only has to be considered complete, but also reviewed by CASPA. The verification process can take anywhere from a day to a few weeks depending on when you submit so keep this in mind when deciding on when to submit your application!

3. Don’t underestimate the power of your supplementals! It’s easy to get burnt out completing your CASPA application and personal statement, but it’s still important to put a lot of effort into your supplementals. With the thousands of applications that each school receives, it’s hard to stand out on paper. Supplementals allow you to personalize your application a little more and if done right, could be the difference in you getting an interview spot over someone else. When I filled out my supplementals, I tried to treat each one like my personal statement. I periodically tweaked it and had 3+ people read them all over to ensure I had no grammatical mistakes. 

4. Always remember to update your application! As someone who applied my junior year of college (I was personally aiming to not take a gap year), it was important for me to continually send colleges my updated transcripts so that they could see what upper level science courses I was taking (schools love this btw). It’s also important to do this if you’ve accrued volunteering hours, or have continued to rack up PCE hours at your job! It shows that not only are you gaining more experience, but you also care to specifically update the program. If it were to come down to deciding between two similar applicants for who should get an interview spot, I think admissions would go with the applicant still gaining patient experience. I took the opportunity to reiterate why I was excited about a certain program when emailing them updates on my application. 

5. Set a deadline for yourself on when you want to submit your application! For me, I set the deadline as my birthday because I didn’t want to have to worry about CASPA on my birthday or the days following. Personally, I think this was extremely helpful because it was a solid date that I had to hold myself accountable for to finish my application by. If you’re anything like me, you’re a little type A and either 1) want to finish your app as fast as possible and rush through it or 2) will keep tweaking it forever. Setting a deadline helps you decide how many hours a week to devote to CASPA without getting overwhelmed and gives you a cutoff for when you just need to stop critiquing your app and have to just trust yourself! 

Lastly, but most importantly, have faith in yourself. If you’re not confident in yourself, how can you expect someone else to be? If you’ve gotten to this point, you’ve worked extremely hard so hats off to you! During this arduous process it’s important to remain positive, you’ve got this!

Brittany recently graduated from Drexel University and will be attending Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine for PA school this June! She originally thought she wanted to be a PT, but after more exposure in healthcare, she knew PA was for her and is excited to see where this journey takes her!  For more of Brittany's posts, check out PA Fanatic. 

My Thoughts on CASPA's Changes to Healthcare and Patient Care Definitions


First of all, take a deep breath.  It will all be alright.  

This past week right before CASPA reopened for the 2017 cycle, there was a lot of buzz around some recent changes to the recommendations on how to classify experience on applications, and whether it should be categorized as healthcare experience (HCE) or patient care experience (PCE).  In the past, HCE was defined as working in a medical setting, but without directly interacting with patients in a way that involved their care (receptionist, billing, transport, etc.).  PCE was defined as any job in which there is direct patient interaction and care, such as nursing, EMT, paramedic, CNA, MA, etc.  These were more of roles where you were performing skills and had more responsibility.  Scribe has always fallen somewhere in between.  

Moving on to the new definitions. Here is a screenshot from the site, but you can see more here. 

CASPA's Healthcare and Patient Care Experience Definitions  

CASPA's Healthcare and Patient Care Experience Definitions  

This made a lot of people angry.  CASPA basically changed it so that CNA and MA are categorized as HCE instead of PCE, according to their guidelines.  The idea is proposed that a role is only PCE if you are more responsible for a patient's care and contributing to decisions about a patient's care.  CASPA also stated that these changes were made based on feedback from PA programs.  Obviously, this has many people who have worked hard for their hours feeling like they've wasted their time.  

I get it.  I worked as a CNA, and it's no joke.  I work with MAs all day long, and there is no denying that they are very involved in patient care.  But this may not be the case for all positions deemed CNA or MA, and I think that has been part of the problem.  If you work as an MA, but you're usually in the front office answering phones or working on prior authorizations and paperwork, that is more accurately HCE.  If you're taking vitals, performing venipuncture, and counseling patients, that's more PCE.  

Let's talk about why this will all be ok.  The final decision is up to each program, and unless they decide to change requirements last minute, all of the experience you've accrued should be fine.  CASPA gives you some discretion with statements like these: 

  • "Please review the definitions below, consider the duties which you performed during your experience, and use your best judgment to determine which category your experience falls into."
  • "CASPA advises applicants who have prerequisite requirements to confer with their individual programs if they are unsure how these programs will consider their experience."
  • "If you have any questions in regards to your experiences fulfilling an individual school’s requirements, you should inquire with that school directly."

Ultimately, you can decide where you feel like the experience should.  If it were me, I would list the experience where it was recommended based on CASPA's preferences.  But I would be very thorough in describing what my experience entailed and what my responsibilities included.  Make it clear to the programs how involved you are in patient care, but as always, be honest.  

If you're unsure about how a program will categorize your experience, the first step is to check the website and see if it's listed.  If you are unable to find an answer, consider contacting your top few programs to clarify.  Just keep in mind that they are probably getting a lot of these calls right now, so be patient.  

I hope this gives you some clarity, and if you have any questions, I'll do my best to answer or find an answer. CASPA is complicated (and confusing) at times, and I do my best to keep up, but I am not the final say!  It's also convenient that I planned for the May webinar to cover HCE and PCE (before CASPA even changed anything!).  Make sure to mark May 24th at 8 PM on your calendar so you don't miss out.  Comment below with your questions! 

April Webinar: All About CASPA- How to Apply to Physician Assistant School

Welcome!  This webinar will be live at 8 PM Eastern on April 19, 2017.  If you're tuning in live, you can comment with questions here or jump over to Youtube to live chat.  If you're watching this as a replay, feel free to comment with any questions!   

If you would like reminders about upcoming webinars, enter your email to the left! 

What is my CASPA GPA?


There's no way to get around the fact that your GPA is extremely important for gaining acceptance to PA school.  When it comes to calculating your overall or science GPA, it is much more involved than taking a simple average of all of your grades.  In this post, I'm going to explain how your GPA is calculated for CASPA since that is what the schools will be looking at.  Nothing stinks more than to do the wrong calculations, think you have a 3.2, and then CASPA calculates at a 2.9.  That completely alters the plan of where you'll be able to apply!  The reason CASPA does these extensive calculations is to standardize GPAs across all colleges and universities is so PA programs can compare students as fairly as possible. 

CASPA takes into account how many hours each course was, as well as the grade.  This is called "Quality Points."  These points are calculated by multiplying the amount of credit hours by the grade you received.  For example, if you took a 4 hr course, and made a B, this would count as 12 quality points (4 x 3.0 = 12).  To calculate your overall GPA, you divide the total amount of quality points by the total amount of credits.  If you have 50 quality points, and 20 credits, that would result in a 2.5 GPA.  All calculations are done based on the semester system.  If you have quarter hours these will convert at 1 quarter hour = 0.667 semester hours.  

There are multiple categories that are calculated separately.  Each year is separated (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, post-baccalaureate, and graduate) and then there is science and non-science.  The subjects in the science GPA include Biology/Zoology, Inorganic Chemistry, Biochemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics, and Other Sciences.  You will choose what category courses fit into when you enter your courses, but these may be changed during the verification process if it appears that a course was entered incorrectly. 

Pre-PA Assessment
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What's included: 

  • A pre-assessment of your current GPA and experience by a practicing PA

  • CASPA GPA Prediction and calculator

  • A written summary and plan

  • 20 minute Video session with a Pre-PA Coach

  • Unlimited e-mail follow up for questions

Once information is received, turnaround time is 7 business days for the pre-PA assessment.

**For CASPA GPA estimation ONLY - use code GPAONLY at checkout ($30) and receive an Excel spreadsheet with your Overall and Science estimations based on transcripts provided**

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CASPA includes all grades in it's calculations, including courses that have been repeated.  When some undergraduate programs calculate GPAs on transcripts, they will sometimes only include the grade from after the course has been repeated, which will result in an inaccurate number.  Withdrawals are not included in the CASPA calculations unless they are "WF," which will count as an F.  Pass/fail and AP credits are counted similarly to the W, and just as credits without associated grades.  On the website with information pertaining to GPAs, CASPA has some great charts pertaining to how they count different letter grades and how grades are converted in both the US and Canada.  

PA programs use these calculated GPAs differently.  Some will take exactly what is calculated by CASPA with no modifications.  Other programs will recalculate the GPA based on the highest grade after retaking courses or based solely on the last 45 or 60 hours of coursework.  They may still look at the overall CASPA numbers, but they will place different weight on these calculations if they do their own.  

If you want to try your hand at calculating your own GPA, this link to this GPA calculator is the best I've found, and calculates the same way CASPA does.  

For any questions I haven't answered, check out the CASPA FAQ page on GPAs.  

What is CASPA?


The word "CASPA" gets thrown around a lot when the topic of applying to PA school comes up, so today we'll look at what it is exactly, and what that application entails.

CASPA stands for the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants.  So basically, it is an online application service that schools use to have students complete their applications.  The majority of programs use CASPA, but here is a list of who is currently participating.  It also shows all of the deadlines for particular programs.  In addition to the CASPA application, some programs will require a supplemental application as well, so it's important to check with the programs you're applying to.  The supplemental application is sometimes required with the CASPA application, or it can be done after submitting CASPA.  Occasionally, you will not have to do a supplemental until you are given an interview. The application opens during April, and stays open until the following March, but each program has a different deadline for submission that you need to pay attention to.

CASPA is solely a place to input information, so it does not provide the various requirements for each program, like prerequisites or healthcare experience requirements.  These are things you'll have to look at yourself for each program because you don't want to waste your money applying somewhere that you don't have the qualifications.   Most programs use "rolling admissions," which means that as soon as your application is complete it will be reviewed by the program, which means the sooner you get your application in the better!  It can take a few weeks for "processing," so don't wait until the last minute and communicate with your references the importance of getting their part in as soon as possible.

Information you will need for CASPA:

  • References - Programs have different requirements as far as the number of references and who they need to be from.  The choices typically include a supervisor from a healthcare setting, a PA you have shadowed, or a professor.  Sometimes they don't really care, but make sure to check each separate program to see if they are particular about this.  The references are done electronically, so you will need the e-mail address of your reference.  It's a good idea to let them know to expect the e-mail so they can check their junk mail and it won't get lost in their inbox.  You are able to have 3-5 references.
  • Transcripts - You will need to have a transcript sent from anywhere that you have done undergraduate coursework.  It's also helpful to have a copy of these for yourself to fill in that information on CASPA.  If you are still working on prerequisites, you will have to send another copy when you have completed them to the actual program.
  • Personal Statement- 5,000 character limit (about 650 words).  This is your chance to tell the programs about yourself, so they can find out if they want to know more about you or put a face to those words.  It needs to tell a story and paint a good picture of who you are and why you want to be a PA. If you need help with writing your personal statement or editing, please let me know!
  • Experience - And the categories are Patient Care Experience, Health Care Experience, Shadowing, Employment, Research, Volunteer.  This is why it's a good idea to keep very detailed records of where and when you did any of these, along with how many hours and any supervisors you may have had, as well as a description of what you actually did.

Although it was not working for the current 2015-2016 cycle, for the next cycle, if you were to have to reapply, CASPA will save all of your information so it will be a lot easier.  But we'll just stay positive about not having to reapply!

The fee for CASPA is $175 for the first program you apply to, and then $50 for each additional program during that cycle.  That can add up quickly, so make sure you have the qualifications for a program before you apply.  (**My only caveat for that is if there is a program you are extremely interested in, but don't quite have the requirements yet, it may be worth it to apply and then when you reapply the next year, you'll be a much more competitive candidate and a reapplicant.  Just my personal opinion though.)  There are some fee waivers available that are based on income, but they typically run out quickly.  This gives you a $175 credit for the first application.  If you are given a waiver, your application must be completed within 14 days of receiving it.

There's an extremely thorough site that goes through basically everything you need to know to set up a CASPA account and then all of the information you will need to fill out your application, so I would definitely recommend checking this site out at some point.  The earlier the better, because then you'll know a little better what to expect.

A blog post with some tips on completing CASPA.  

There's even a Twitter account and Facebook page you can follow if you want updates on CASPA.  I would love to hear about your experiences with CASPA and any tips you have for making it a smooth process!