Today’s article, Choosing the Best Physician Assistant School for You, is by our active IPAT reader and Forum contributor, “Buffchic.”  Her article tackles an important topic, and she’s done a great job with it.  So enjoy, and show her some comment love!      -P

Choosing the Best Physician Assistant School for You

When you decide you want to become a physician assistant, each school may seem as good as the next, but choosing the best physician assistant school for you is key.   After all, when you finish you are a PA!  Your excitement and eagerness about getting in may cloud your vision of how to focus on selecting the right school for your needs.  The best physician assistant school for you will match your learning style, your personality, and will lead to a professional education that better suits you and prevents frustration.

Establishing some criteria that you define for your individual needs is an essential first step in finding the best physician assistant school for you.  Focus on criteria that meet your specific needs and situation.   Look at each factor critically and examine its importance to you in finding the right program.

Here are some criteria to help you focus your search:

Geographic location

  • This is a big one for many, especially if family obligations anchor you to a particular area.   But commuting or relocating to the best physician assistant school for you can sometimes be worth the sacrifice.
  • Keep in mind that some regions or states have fewer schools than others and thus are swamped with a higher volume of applications than others.
  • Would you have to relocate, and are you willing and ready to do so if necessary?


  • All physician assistant programs are costly, but your professional education will be invaluable.  Choosing the best physician assistant program for you will pay off in the end.  But some programs are more costly than others.
  • State schools are frequently less expensive than their private counterparts.
  • Consider how much money you will have to borrow and your debt comfort level.

How established is the program?

  • A PA program that has been in operation for 10+ years will likely have many of the logistical hiccups worked out.  Their administration should be soundly in place.  Their clinical sites and preceptors will be vetted and solid.
  • A fledgling program may still be working out some of the bumps in the road.  If you choose a new program, you will be along for the ride as the school finds its path.  So consider: is this the best physician assistant school  for you, and is it a ride you are ready for?


  •  The length of a program may vary from 24 to 36 months.  Though you may not choose a program by this criterion alone, it could be a deciding factor if you are torn between two similar schools.

Fit of the prerequisites

  • If you have already completed your degree and the PA school prerequisites, it may be helpful to choose the program with a curriculum that is similar to the work you have done.  If not, you should look at the schools that you think would be the best fit for you and tailor your coursework to the program you desire to attend.

Curriculum “style”

  • Do they use Problem-Based Learning, or a more “traditional” lecture format?
  • Is it a pass/fail format that encourages team work among students, or is it a competitive “medical school” model where students are pitted against one another and ranked by grades?

First-time PANCE passage rate

  • While this information is frequently available on a school’s web site, keep in mind that there may be a “back story.”  For example, what is the school’s retention rate?  If they have a 99% PANCE pass rate for the last five years, that may be terrific — particularly if they retained all or nearly all of the original class.  That same pass rate means less if they had a large cohort of students who were cut from the program for lackluster performance.
  • This is good to ask about when you interview.  Most program directors are eager to discuss their PANCE passage rates and welcome intelligent questions that give them the chance to explain what is behind the numbers.

Is there a thesis requirement?

  • A thesis is a paper that is tied to a major research project.  If you like doing research and writing, this could be a boon for you.  If not, it could be a nightmare.

When you look at the CASPA application and the list of programs, it seems like a long list of schools all around the country.   One program may appear just like another, but they are not—all are different and unique.  Finding the best physician assistant school for you will be easier once you start interacting with other applicants and interviewing.  Reading and participating in forums to connect with other PA-wannabes around the country offers you a look into some of the issues and choices.  So define your list of criteria, and gather information for your best physician assistant school choice.

Buffchic currently resides in Buffalo, NY with her husband, where she teaches clinical lab science at Canisius College.  She will be attending Daemen College’s physician assistant program this fall.  To read her Pre-PA Blog,
Diary of a PA Wannabe, visit her at


  • Amerae April 9, 2012, 1:41 am

    Hi Buffchic,
    I was just wondering if you knew off the top of your head any programs on the west coast that have a pass/no pass curiculum as you stated above. I have no idea there was any such thing, not that I’m certain that I think this is a good thing or not. Would the pass rate be something like 80% or something since it is important to know the material and not just kind of know it? Thanks!

  • buffchic April 9, 2012, 8:50 am

    That’s a good question. I am not personally familiar with any West Coast schools that use the pass/fail policy. But I bet you could do a search of websites and send some emails to individual programs to inquire.
    On the east coast, Yale uses this system.

    Thanks for asking! And good luck!

  • Bertha May 19, 2012, 7:28 am

    I was a physician In Mexico for 7 years.
    I have been in Houston for almost 2 years.
    I would like to become a PA but would like To know if my Carrear as a physician may help me in order to do less training
    For PA. I have my papers translated but not transcribed
    Than you already

    • Paul May 19, 2012, 8:59 am

      Unfortunately, no, being a physician anywhere (even in America) won’t help you through your PA training any quicker. Obviously, being a physician will be great experience to have on your application, and it should make your studies while in a PA program much easier. But the National Commission on the Credentialing of Physician Assistants has always been clear that to become a PA, you much going through an approved program and pass the PANCE, no matter what your previous training. They do this so that the PA profession doesn’t become filled with physicians, which would change the profession dramatically.

  • Kendra January 3, 2013, 9:07 pm

    Hi. I have been doing research and I am trying to find a PA program that I can get my masters in, not just certified and that is less costly; on the west coast preferentially. Do you know any off the top of your head?

    • Paul January 5, 2013, 4:15 pm

      Generally, you should be looking for state-funded schools. State Universities tend to be much cheaper than private schools. I went to UC Davis, and it was very reasonable.

  • Josh February 26, 2013, 9:34 pm

    I am finishing up my BS in a health-related field, and I am beginning to look into PA schools for my Master’s. In looking at the prerequisite science classes, I can tell that I’ve already taken most of them. However, one potentially problematic thing I’ve noticed is that many of the schools require the science prerequisites to have been completed fairly recently (7-10 years ago, at the most). I understand that the thinking here is that people forget what they have learned and would be coming into a program unprepared. However, I completed my AAS degree about 12 years ago and have been employed full-time in the medical field since then. I work with orthopedic surgeons, neurosurgeons, and a slew of PAs on a daily basis. I have about 30,000 hours of direct patient care under my belt, and I have even taught x-ray anatomy/bone and muscle anatomy at a trade school (while I was also working full-time at a hospital). Bottom line: I haven’t forgotten all the stuff I learned in A&P, chem, etc., and as a working parent who has just finally been able to finish up my 4-year degree, I’m not keen on the thought of paying to go back to a junior college and do these classes all over again, thus further delaying my entry into PA school. Do you know of any PA programs in the US where there is no “expiration date” on those science credits, or where there is an exemption for someone who has a ton of clinical experience? Thanks in advance.

    • Paul February 26, 2013, 10:40 pm

      Some schools don’t strictly require your coursework to be within a time period, they RECOMMEND it. Every school is different – I suggest you speak with the schools that interest you. Also, every school has the power to make exceptions to its own rules. If you are highly qualified, they may be comfortable forgoing the requirement in your case. But to get such an exemption, you will need to contact each school directly – a true hassle. But, I guess it’s less of a hassle than retaking the courses.

  • spencer May 30, 2013, 8:06 pm

    I came across a website that claimed to have all these tools to help find the right PA school. Has anyone used this? Is it any good? There’s a fee and I was considering paying it to get access, but I wanted to check if it would be worth it. Here’s the site:

  • Katie September 9, 2014, 1:24 pm

    Hi, I am not sure if I would like to be a PA or a physician yet. I do not know much about the PA program. I saw on one website that you have to have health care experience is that true? And does that mean as a nurse, CNA, etc. or could you just be a receptionist in a health care environment? I am working to getting my BS of biology right now.

    • Paul September 9, 2014, 6:58 pm

      Hi Katie!

      Yes, it is generally true that to get into PA school you need to have healthcare experience. It has to do with the fact that you’re only in PA school for two years, and yet you end up having some major medical responsibility. They just don’t have time to Teach you anything, so PA is for those who already know something about medicine, and preferably a lot. There are many ways to get healthcare experience and I encourage you to check out our forum at On the forum you will find a section about getting into PA school, and a topic at the top of that section that shows steps to getting in. This would be a nice jumping off point for you to learn about the profession. We also have many articles on healthcare experience and getting into PA school in general on the main page of the blog. To find out more about those topics, scroll down the main page of the blog on the right on the toolbar and look for “Topics.”


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