Applying for PA school is a multistep process, so it’s important to have an understanding of exactly what you need to do and when it needs to be done in order to be successful. This article provides an overview of the application process to get you oriented. Look out for future articles that will focus in depth on each of these elements and much more!
Major Elements of the Application Process
CASPA is a universal application similar to the Common App that many applicants are familiar with from applying to college. In it applicants will provide their academic history (colleges attended, coursework, grades) as well as background information and descriptions of experiences and achievements. There is also a required personal statement to describe why you’re interested in becoming a P.A.
In addition, CASPA handles transcripts and letters of recommendation. When you obtain letters of recommendation, you will instruct your letter writers upload the letters to CASPA not to the individual schools. Transcripts must be requested by the applicant to be sent to CASPA. This saves work on everyone’s part as there is just one place to send the material to rather than to many schools. Remember, however, that a small number of schools do not use CASPA, so transcripts and letters of recommendations must be sent directly to them per their instructions.
Many PA schools have supplemental questions that ask more about an applicant’s experiences or about the applicant’s specific interest in their program. Some PA schools put those questions on CASPA. They can be found within the “program materials” section” under the “questions” tab for a particular school. Other schools don’t include their supplemental questions on CASPA, and instead send them to applicants later on after they have received CASPA. These questions can range from one or two brief questions to four or five lengthier ones.
Some programs require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). A small number of programs allow the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) to be substituted for the GRE, so if you started out as premed and took the MCAT, you may be able to substitute that test. A new, content based exam, the Physician Assistant College Admissions Test (PA-CAT) (https://www.pa-cat.com/) has been developed, and several schools require it, with a handful more recommending it. If standardized testing isn’t your forte; don’t worry, there’s been a move away from requiring these scores, so there are plenty of options for schools that focus on other aspect of the application.
Posts Related to Standardized Tests
The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is a standardized test that tests on three key skills for graduate schools, namely analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. There are six sections, with a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes of testing time including a ten-minute break after section three. Almost half of all PA schools require or recommend the GRE for applicants.
PA schools have slowly transitioned to requiring the Casper test in the last few years. The Casper test is a situational judgement and awareness exam that tests your judgement in challenging situations. The test looks for skills not evaluated in coursework or on the GRE/PA-CAT including professionalism, empathy, and ethics to name a few. The test has both written and recorded verbal responses.
Letters of Recommendation
Three letters of recommendation are required; up to five may be submitted. Obtain at least one academic letter and at least one letters from a healthcare provider. The academic letter should be from a science professor. For additional letters, consider asking another professor, healthcare provider (especially a PA, if possible), or advisor. As discussed earlier, the letters of recommendation are uploaded directly to CASPA by the letter writers for schools that use that application service. Although the letters can’t be uploaded to the application until it opens in April, approach your letter writers at least a couple of months prior to that to make sure you they are willing to write you a letter and you’ll be ready when April comes arrives.
After your application file is complete it will be reviewed by the admissions committee your application is competitive for their program and they believe you may be a good fit for their program, you may be invited for an interview. Whether remote or in-person, the interview is an opportunity for the school to get to know you beyond a list of numbers and series of accomplishments. They want to see what you’re like as a person, determine how well you communicate and would interact with patients, peers, and other professionals. Interview day usually includes a tour of the school, Q&As with the students and various presentations as it’s also your opportunity to determine if they are a fit for you!
A Word about Casper
Some PA schools have an additional aspect to the application process: Casper. Casper is an online open-response situational judgement test. Test takers are presented with written or video scenarios and asked questions regarding those scenarios. There are two sections to the test: a typed response section and a video response section. You can find out more about this test with our article and at the Altus Suite site: https://takealtus.com/casper/
Read our Article on Casper and Altus Suite
Now that you’ve got an idea of what to do, when exactly do you need to apply to PA school? An aspiring PA needs to apply PA school over a year before they plan to start school if they are aiming for a fall start date. This understandably leads to significant confusion. In fact, the most frequently asked questions I receive are about when to apply. So here’s an explanation to keep you on track:
CASPA opens in April late April. If you plan to start PA school in the fall of a particular year, you need to apply to PA school in April of one full year previous. For example, for these starting semesters, here is when you apply:
Fall 2023: apply with the cycle that opens in April 2022
Fall 2024: apply with the cycle that opens in April 2023
For programs with a Spring semester (January) start dates the cycle you apply varies by school. Some accept applications from the cycle that opens the April less than a year before the start date, while others require applicants to apply the cycle prior to that, so check with induvial programs for details. In other words, if you want to start PA school in January 2024, some programs with that start date will require you to apply during the cycle that opens in April 2023, but others will require you to apply during the cycle that opens in April 2022.
Most schools have rolling admissions, so applying early is important. As the cycle proceeds and spots in the class are filled, admission for the remaining spots can become more competitive. However, “early” doesn’t mean you have to apply right on the first day the cycle opens. If you’re still in school, you may still be in school and waiting for Spring semester grades to be released before you apply. If that is the case, or if you need one more month to hit the number of patient care hours for a school that wants the hours completed by the time you submit your application, then it’s typically fine to apply by late May or early June. Note, however, that there are exceptions, such as if you’re applying to a school is starting in the upcoming January because the cycle is shorter than for fall entry schools, so they may begin interviewing relatively soon. And always keep a close eye on deadlines!