Why Physician Assistant School May be Right for You

It's one of the fastest growing careers in the country. Learn about how to get into a top program.

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After graduating from Manhattan College in 2004, Jason Lightbody had aspirations to pursue a career in the medical field, but didn't want to sacrifice his personal life to the rigors of medical school, a residency, and life as a physician. He remembered being treated by a physician assistant for injuries he sustained as a soccer player at Methodist University during his first two years of school, and soon realized that pursuing a career as a PA would be rewarding while allowing him a full life outside of the one he lived in his scrubs. Lightbody graduated from the Yale School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program in 2007. "I never want to regret not living life to the fullest and I thought that if I were to go to med school then I wouldn't be able to do a lot of things in my life that I wanted to do," he says. "I'm still certain I made the right decision."

The decision between PA school and medical school is one that an increasing number of college graduates and young medical professionals are facing. With the economy tight in recent years, demand for physician assistants has increased, as they are capable of practicing medicine at roughly the same level as a full-fledged physician, but at a much lower cost, which makes them an appealing asset to medical providers looking to trim budgets. And, given that many programs are roughly two years, PA students amass far less debt than their counterparts in medical school. The American Academy of PAs estimates that there will be nearly 150,000 practicing PAs in the U.S. in 2020, up from 70,000 last year. Like Lightbody, more people are taking note of the profession. "Ten years ago when I introduced myself patients would ask, 'What's a PA?'" says Mary Jo Wiemiller, chair of physician assistant studies at Marquette University College of Health Sciences. "Now, when treating patients, they respond with something like, 'Oh, my niece or nephew is in PA school.'"

[See more about a career as a physician assistant.] 

But the appeal that is spurring job growth may make it tougher for aspiring PAs to get into school. According to Wiemiller, the number of applications to Marquette's PA program has quadrupled over the past year. Due to the increased interest, the school can only accept 10 percent of applicants. "With heightened awareness of the PA profession in the last decade, it has become increasingly more competitive to gain acceptance to a PA training program," says Wiemiller. 

Given the heightened competition, it's important for applicants to understand what matters most to PA admissions committees. These three top the list, according to officials at PA schools: 

1. Medical experience: Your life working in the medical field will not begin once you've graduated from a PA program; it should start well before that. For students hoping to jump directly from their undergraduate studies to a physician assistant program, it is imperative that they spend as many college summers as possible, or use their free time during school, working or volunteering at a hospital or doctor's office. For those students who wish to wait to attend PA school—the average age of people entering PA programs nationwide is 27—find a full-time job working in the medical field after earning your undergraduate degree. "We really are looking for—and I think a lot of other programs are, too—students who've had some previous healthcare experience where they've had some direct interactions with patients," says David P. Asprey, director of the Physician Assistant Program at the University of Iowa Caver College of Medicine, which is U.S. News's top-ranked PA program. "[It] adds a level of maturity." 

[See the top ranked physician assistant programs.] 

2. Science classes count most: Take as many core science classes—anatomy, biological sciences, and organic chemistry, to name a few—as you can and focus intensely on this coursework. PA programs not only look at your overall GPA—many schools require at least a 3.0 for admission—but give extra weight to your performance in science courses. "Obviously it would be a tragedy if we invited a student to join our program and we could anticipate that they would have difficulty with the academic rigors that are associated with it," says Asprey. "It's not for the faint of heart."