pa program

Guest Post from The PA Life - Accreditation, Location, and PANCE Rate…Oh My: How to Pick a PA Program That is Right for You!

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Jourdyn from The PA Life graciously offered to share her advice with you all about how to choose what PA programs to apply to and attend.  This is such important information because you don't want to waste your money or time on programs that may not actually be a good fit for you. I love Jourdyn's enthusiasm and she has some amazingly informative posts on her site, so make sure you check it out.  And if you don't already follow her on Instagram, you can find Jourdyn at @thepa_life

I also did a post for Jourdyn's site on 5 Tips for Finding a Physician Assistant Job, so make sure you don't miss it! 


To start this post off I would like to say “congrats”! You may ask why I’m congratulating you? Well, it is because you have decided to embark down an amazing journey to becoming a Physician Assistant! Are you excited about your choice? You should be!! Not only is it a growing career field, but it is also a career that comes with a great deal of satisfaction…and to that, you deserve some recognition for your amazing choice!  Now that you have picked this field, you may question what the next step is in order to achieve your goal of becoming a PA. You will dive into the world of CASPA, interviews, and upon a simple Google search find a vast array of information on how to successfully matriculate into a PA program. After working your way up to a large amount of healthcare hours, spending many hours perfecting your personal essay, and reading what feels like a small library of books and articles on how to crush your interviews…you might find yourself wondering: how do I actually pick a school to go to? How do I know if this is going to be a good fit for me? What if I pick the wrong one?

This, my friends, is where I come in. I was in your shoes once, and I had the same exact questions. I stressed about what school would be the most conducive to a gratifying PA experience, as I knew my choice in program would pave the way for my career as a Physician Assistant. So, stress no more! I am here to give you my top 5 tips on how to pick a PA program that is right for you!

  1. Always check to see if they are accredited. PA schools go through a process where they need to be nationally reviewed to ensure their curriculum and faculty follow certain standards. This is super important because if your school happens to not get accredited, you won’t be able to attend that program until they do. A really good site to look at is http://www.arc-pa.org/accreditation/accredited-programs/, which has an extensive list of programs that are accredited, and when the next time they will be reviewed! This is a simple factor to check, but is really an important one to do!   
     
  2. Another important factor on choosing what school will be right for you is to look at PANCE pass rates. You will be working incredibly hard through your curriculum, no matter what program you go into, so it only makes sense to check on a potential school to make sure their curriculum will prepare you well for the PANCE. The closer they are to 100% the better!
     
  3. Location, location, location! Some PA programs are located on undergraduate campuses, some on their own campus, some in the heart of enormous cities, and others are located in small rural areas in the mountains. By the time people apply to PA school, you generally have a feel for which setting you feel most comfortable in. In PA school, really anything that is going to make the school year easier and more enjoyable for you is going to benefit you in the long run. If you get annoyed by traffic, you may find after a long day of listening to lectures and studying, even a 15 minute delay makes for an even more stressful day. So before you spend money on a program, make sure the location is factored into your choice. Although, it seems minor or that you could “fight through” an un-ideal location for a year or so…it really will make your life easier in the long run. 
     
  4. Research the school to see what their emphasis is. Some programs love volunteering, others have a stronger focus on research, and still others have a passion for public health and infuse it into their curriculum. In addition, some programs offer global educational trips, others have non-profit clinics you can work at, and the list goes on and on of many other curriculum-enriching experiences you can partake in. It is little characteristics like this that will help you connect to a program and make for a more worthwhile experience!
     
  5. Be passionate about your choice! Don’t apply to programs that aren’t going to be the right fit for you. Yes, it is amazing to get into a PA school, but when you are spending thousands of dollars on your education and 2-3 years of your life, you want to make sure that it is THE PA program for you. When you are at an interview, yes you are being interviewed, but also realize that the program is interviewing for a spot in your life too. Ask questions to the interviewing panel to ensure they are the right fit for you. Do you want an anatomy lab where you can dissect the whole cadaver? Ask that question! Do you want a program that has workout facilities because running is what you do to de-stress? Then ask that too! Are you curious what measures they have in place to ensure student success such a tutors, remediation examinations, or 24/7 access to a library or study area? Totally worth asking about! Allow yourself to be selective and don’t settle for anything less than a program that sparks an excitement in you as you embark on your journey to becoming a PA student. 

Yes, picking a PA program can be a hard, as getting into a PA school is a daunting enough task. But when you ask the right questions and do your research, you are one step closer to making a better choice on the PA program that is right for you. 

Out of all the tips I can give you, the most important one is to trust your gut and your heart. When you find the right program, you will know it. 


For a little more info on Jourdyn - I am currently a PA student at UW-Madison and will begin my clinical year in 1 short month! My favorite thing about being a PA student is the ability to learn and grow from all the valuable resources around me. I have so many knowledgeable, genuine, and compassionate people that have already guided me in my career as a PA student, and I will hopefully be able to surround myself with similar individuals once practicing. In addition, being a PA means that I can make a positive impact on a patient's life every single day. Not many careers can say that, and that leaves me awestruck and humbled every day.

Some things I have done up to this point include becoming a head student leader for a medical mission trip to Belize, being nominated as a student speaker for my undergraduate commencement ceremony, and am a member of one of the only rural based PA cohorts in the US. In my free time I enjoy traveling, spending time with my family, friends, and wonderful boyfriend, running, taking pictures, and drinking coffee in local coffee shops! 


 

 

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.

For more information on choosing a PA program, check out this guest post from one of our coaches, Jourdyn

  • 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?