Anna Ravenelle 4 min read Career Advice, Career Path Breakdowns

How to Become a Physician Assistant: Steps to Take From High School

Do you know how to improve your profile for college applications?

See how your profile ranks among thousands of other students using CollegeVine. Calculate your chances at your dream schools and learn what areas you need to improve right now — it only takes 3 minutes and it's 100% free.

During high school, there’s a lot of emphasis on choosing where to go to college. What school will be the best fit, what can you and your family afford, where will you have the most opportunities–these are all common questions. 

 

Unfortunately, there’s a lot less emphasis on career exploration than there is for college exploration, meaning that many students enter their undergraduate education without ideas for what they will do after they graduate. This could mean not taking the necessary prerequisites early on, not joining relevant extracurricular activities, or not taking advantage of internships or jobs that would benefit them down the line.

 

In this series, we’re exploring a variety of career paths and the steps you should take starting in high school to achieve them. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do after college, but learning about different careers can help you start to think about where your strengths and passions lie.

 

What does a physician assistant do?

 

While we hear a lot about doctors and nurses in the medical field, physician assistants are a lesser-known role–but no less important. According to the American Academy of PAs, physician assistants (PAs) are “professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and often serve as a patient’s principal healthcare provider.” Their roles are very similar to those of nurse practitioners (NPs), but the PA curriculum is based on medical school training whereas NPs are trained in advanced nursing. NPs are also required to choose a speciality, but PAs practice general medicine.

 

How much does a physician assistant make?

 

The median salary for a physician assistant in 2017 was $104,860, according to U.S. News and World Report. The 25% top-paid in the profession made $124,200 that year, while the lowest 25% made $87,980. 

 

Discover your chances at hundreds of schools

Our free chancing engine takes into account your history, background, test scores, and extracurricular activities to show you your real chances of admission—and how to improve them.

 

How to Become a Physician Assistant

 

High School

 

You can start preparing for a career as a physician assistant early in high school. Be strategic in where you spend your time, both academically and with extracurricular activities. Try to take as many advanced science and math courses as you can, especially anatomy or other biology specialized course that might not be required curriculum. 

 

For extracurriculars, aim for science and medicine-adjacent activities at your high school, like HOSA, blood drives, or Science Bowl. You can also look for opportunities in your community: volunteering in a hospital or nursing home, fundraisers and events for medical causes, or even a part-time job–LNA certification would allow you to work in a medical capacity, and some nursing homes and other locations may have part-time jobs in non-medical capacities. These types of activities will allow you to explore healthcare, and it would look great on your college applications if you do decide to pursue a degree in science. 

 

Another way to explore the career is through job shadowing or informational interviewing. Shadowing would mean following a physician assistant throughout their day to observe them at work. Informational interviewing would mean chatting with a PA about their career and asking them any questions you might have. Try contacting your doctor’s office to see if there is a PA who would be willing to chat. You could also ask your school counselor or parents if they have any resources or connections. 

 

College

 

To become a physician assistant, you will need to first get a bachelor’s degree and take certain prerequisites; this will make you eligible to apply for the advanced degree to become a PA. PA programs at different universities might have slightly different requirements, but the majority of them will require at least:

 

  • Anatomy with lab (1 course)
  • Chemistry with lab (1 year)
  • Microbiology with lab (1 course)
  • Physiology with lab (1 course)
  • Psychology (1 course)
  • Statistics (1 course)

 

Other required or recommended courses could include general biology, organic chemistry, genetics, biochemistry, language courses, and more. You can find a directory of accredited PA programs and the prerequisites for each online here. The application process is highly competitive, so you will want to work hard to maintain a high GPA, as well as start looking at the PA programs you want to apply to as early as freshman year of college. 

 

Another common requirement of PA programs is having health care experience. This would include experience as a medical assistant, an emergency medical technician (EMT), a paramedic, a Peace Corp volunteer, a medic in the military, etc. This experience can come from a range of jobs, so look at the specific PA programs you are interested in for their specific requirements. While some programs don’t require any experience, others require 1,000 hours or more. Even if a school does not have a minimum hours requirement, many prefer students who have them; in any case, working in healthcare before applying will only benefit your application and chances for admission.

 

You can also look into shadowing a PA to get insight into the profession. Some schools have specific PA shadowing requirements, some consider it a part of healthcare experience, and others have no requirements at all; like with healthcare experience, having a shadowing experience will only benefit your application, even if the school does not have a requirement. It will give you insight into the job and help you speak to your interest in the field during interviews.

 

Many PA program applications also require you to take the GRE, which is basically like the SAT for graduate school. A list of accredited PA programs and their requirements for entry can be found here

 

PA Program

 

Once you have found, applied, and been accepted to an accredited PA program, you can expect to spend 3 years in the classroom and on clinical rotations to receive your master’s degree. Expect to take classes in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, behavioral science, medical ethics, and more. You can also expect to spend over 2,000 hours in clinical rotations, which could include family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, general surgery, psychiatry, and more. 

 

Certification and licenses

 

After graduating from your PA program, you’ll take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). If you pass, you can use the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) title. The next step after that is to obtain a license from your state. Each state has different requirements, so consult the licensing board in your state for next steps.

 

Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

Want more college admissions tips?

We'll send you information to help you throughout the college admissions process.


Anna Ravenelle
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Anna Ravenelle is a graduate of Cornell University, where she studied English with a concentration in Creative Writing. After spending two application cycles in the CollegeVine applications division, she now uses her admissions experience to help a greater number of students. She resides in New York but her heart has never left New Hampshire, where she grew up.