When I applied to PA school, I found myself doing some guessing about how the CASPA process works from the inside.   I thought it might be helpful to others if I were to call and speak to them to clarify a few of my questions.  Their customer service representative was helpful, and got me in touch with Timi Agar Barwick, the Executive Director of the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), which runs CASPA.  Here’s a transcript of our talk.

Paul: Could you give me some background information on CASPA?

Ms. Barwick: CASPA is a service of the PAEA that started in 2001 to help physician assistant schools and PA school applicants.  The idea was for CASPA to use technology to help PA schools spend more time on recruiting applicants, and less time pushing paper.   All accredited PA programs in the U.S. (154 as of June 2011) belong to the PAEA, and of these, about 130 participate in CASPA.  The service also benefits students by eliminating the need for them to send out different applications to each of the schools that interest them.

caspa statisticsPaul: Are there any recent changes in the application process?

Ms. Barwick: Every year there are at least minor enhancements to the application process.  This year there was a technology overhaul, creating “Web Admit,” as system that, once fully implemented, will allow programs to schedule interviews electronically through CASPA and provide several other useful administrative features.  There has also been some discussion of secondary applications being handled by CASPA, but so far there is no plan or timeline for that.

Paul: Are there any content changes to the application?

Ms. Barwick: There was a change this year to how student economic and educational status was determined.   We at the PAEA believe that some categories of students are under-represented in the applicant pool.  This year, we were more specific about the criteria for those statuses, with individual questions like, “Are you the first member of your family to go to college?” etc.  We hope these changes will improve the accuracy of the numbers.

Paul: How are CASPA applications processed once they are submitted?

Ms. Barwick: We contract with a private company to process the applications.  Because they do similar work with other health professions, they are very good at it. They review transcripts, references, and the application itself.  Their most important role is validating the applicant’s GPA and coursework by comparing these to student transcripts.

Paul: Is there any other fact checking?

Ms. Barwick: The critical pieces are the GPA, references, colleges attended, and coursework documentation.  Decisions rest with the individual programs.  It’s also important to understand that CASPA doesn’t pass any judgment on applications we only review and verify.

Paul: What are the most common and easily avoidable causes for delay in CASPA application processing?

Ms. Barwick: Usually it’s incomplete or missing items.  Students should keep track by reviewing the “status” section of their application regularly. This shows which parts of the application have been received and processed, so that if something is missing (e.g. a reference letter), the student will know and they can resolve this before the application is delayed.  Also, if the applicant has had any felonies or a criminal record, they should be very honest about those things.  A criminal record, depending on the severity of the charge, could prevent them from becoming licensed, so there’s no point in hiding this information.

Paul: Do you have any general advice for applicants?

Ms. Barwick: Sure.  Be thorough and knowledgeable about the institutions you apply to.  Programs tend to look at the applicant and their experiences as a whole, so make sure your application is a good reflection of who you are.  Also, consider each school’s mission.  It’s tempting to look just at the school’s admission data, GPA requirements, etc.  You should also consider a school’s mission and how it aligns with who you are and your personal goals.