Preparing for PA School as an Undergraduate

One of the hardest parts of college is figuring out what you want to do with your life and starting to prepare for it between the classes, late night study sessions and life lessons that will inevitably come with the college experience.  So congratulations to you on selecting a career path that interests you and starting to think about how to prepare for it while you’re still in college.  You’re ahead of the curve.  The physician assistant field is very rewarding and versatile.  I look forward to having you as a colleague.


My very first piece of advice for you is to shadow at least 3 different types of physician assistants.  There are two reasons why this is the best place to start.  # 1.  This will give you a better idea of what the career is actually like.  Reading about physician assistants and seeing what they do first hand are completely different things.  I recommend shadowing at least 3 different types of PAs, but the more the merrier.  I recommend so many because when you are a physician assistant you will have the opportunity to work in any a vast variety of specialties and environments.  Some specialties you will love and others you will not.  Some PAs are given a lot of autonomy, while others get hardly any.  PAs can work in the hospital, a doctor’s office or the operating room.  Some even work in all three places.  I think it’s important to get a taste of a few flavors.  If you don’t like shadowing at any of the places you try out, then at least you know you can move on to exploring other fields.  If you love one or more of your shadowing experiences, then you’re in luck.  This brings me to point number two.  # 2.  Shadowing experiences are necessary for your resume and will help get you into PA school. 

Course Prerequisites

My next advice is tailoring your course load to cover PA school prerequisites.  As you look through the requirements for different PA schools, you will realize that they are all a little different, but there are some core course requirements that are the same.  Almost every school will require Chemistry 1 and 2, Biology 1 and 2, Anatomy and Physiology, Psychology, Statistics, Microbiology and Organic Chemistry.   Make sure those classes are in your agenda.  There are often a few required classes that are specific to different schools for example you may need Genetics, Abnormal Psychology or Medical Terminology.  Peruse the prerequisites for schools that interest you to ensure that you are able to fit all the prerequisites you need into your schedule before it is time to apply for PA school.  Meet with your guidance counselor for assistance.  You may find that certain prerequisites for PA school also meet a requirement for you major or graduation.  It’s always good to kill two birds with one stone.  It may behoove you to take only two or three of those core classes at a time to ensure you keep up your GPA.  That said; regardless of if your school requires you to take a medical terminology class, take one.  You will be at an advantage at the beginning of PA school when you are fluent in the language of medicine.

Health Care Experience

Most schools require hundreds of hours of HCE, so let’s get started.  For you to get hands on experience, often you will have to undergo some type of training.  I tried to apply for hands on healthcare experience without and training or certificates at first and no one wanted to hire me.  You may have better luck than me though, it doesn’t hurt to try.  Just be prepared to do a training program if you need to.  Do some research on nursing assistant courses in your area.  This is one of the easiest ways to get experience.  Facilities are always looking for nursing aides or medical assistants.  You can complete the course over a month during your summer vacation.  My college offered an EMT and paramedic program for college credits.  This worked fantastically for me, but you will have to do a little research and see what training programs are available in your area.  If you are struggling, start by volunteering.  This will get your foot in the door at a facility and help boost your application down the road. 

Extracurricular Activities

So you’ve shadowed the field, you’ve made your course agenda and looked into hands-on health care opportunities, now let’s boost that resume to make you a competitive applicant.  The best place to do that is by getting involved.  Getting involved in extracurricular activities, projects, etc really sets you apart from the next guy applying to PA school.  Most people barely have time to complete the required course load and get the bare minimum number of clinical hours.  If you want to stand out, get involved.  That said, don’t just do it because you think you need it on your resume.  Do activities because you enjoy them and they matter to you.  The goal here is set yourself apart from your competitors by being yourself.  Schools love to ask you about these opportunities, so do things you’re passionate about.  Think of this as extra credit.  You don’t need extracurricular activities to get into PA school, but it does make you a more competitive applicant.  Your involvement in extracurricular activities shows time management, organizational skills, motivation and ability to work in groups.  These are all fantastic skills that you will need when you are working as a physician assistant. 

Final Words of Wisdom

College is only a few years of your life.  Enjoy it.  If you can’t juggle a job, a challenging course load, extracurricular activities and a life, then don’t.  You may need to get the majority of your health care experience hours in the year after you graduate or take an extra semester to finish up your courses.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Life is meant to be enjoyed and your college years precious and formative.  Make sure you live a little.  I loved college and I wouldn’t change anything about it. I hope you say the same.

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