If you plan to become a PA, wouldn’t it be nice to have a physician assistant school application checklist?  Well, you’re in luck.  Below you will find the most inclusive list of steps to get into PA school that you will find anywhere.  Rather than focusing on the details, this post is directed at A) giving you a sense of the process, and B) making sure you don’t forget a critical step.  First off, you should know that some of these steps will vary depending on your situation.  For example, when you choose to complete your coursework and to do your health care experience (HCE) is totally up to you.  Here we list what seems to us to be the most sensible order of steps from “Hey, I think I want to go to PA school” to making that a reality.  There are two steps in bold text: the ordering of transcripts and confirming of receipt of your letters of recommendation.  We’ve emboldened them for a very good reason – according to CASPA, these two steps are by far the most common reasons for application delays and problems.  This should also remind you that this checklist is designed for CASPA PARTICIPATING SCHOOLS, which is most, but not all of the PA programs out there.  Non-CASPA schools will likely have a very different process.  Finally, we’ve written much on the steps below, so clicking a link for an item you find on the list will take you to an article that relates to that item.  So without further ado…


  1. Shadow a PA for at a minimum of 8 hours, and more if possible.  Send them a thank you card when it’s over.
  2. Open a CASPA account and read about the process (Do this even if you won’t be applying for the current cycle!)  KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.
  3. Research PA programs – send away for an info packet or bookmark the websites of the programs that interest you the most.  Use our PA Programs Directory to research!
  4. Decide which schools you will apply to.
  5. Sign up for the IPAT Physician Assistant Forum and talk with other applicants.  It’s free!
  6. Create a file for each program you will apply to to hold info and correspondence, and to track to-do’s.  Write the following on each school’s file:
    • Requirements (prerequisite courses, tests, etc.)
    • CASPA participating program?  Yes/No
    • Deadline date for that school
    • Supplemental deadline date, if any
    • Interview date
    • Status (here you will write where things are in the process, like “waiting for interview invitation,” etc.  When the status changes, line through the old and write in the new status)
    • Notes: (here you can write critical info, such as the program’s area of focus, tuition, etc)
  7. Complete your prerequisite coursework
  8. Order transcripts from all colleges attended in time to be delivered at least 4 weeks prior to the earliest program deadline you are applying to.  Be sure to use CASPA’s transcript request form.  Get an unofficial copy for your own reference.  Assume things will get lost, delayed, and mixed up – use the most reliable method of communication and trackable mail whenever possible). 
  9. Do your health care experience hours (HCE)
  10. Register for the GRE/MCAT/TOEFL as necessary.
  11. Study for the GRE (and TOEFL, if necessary)  GRE: 2-3 months, MCAT: 6 months, TOEFL: varies depending on fluency
  12. Take the GRE (and MCAT and/or TOEFL, if necessary).  Score reports should be sent directly to schools, not CASPA.  TOEFL score reports must be sent in hard copy form to CASPA.
  13. Decide who you will ask for letters of reference.  Choose 4 – ideally two HCE supervisors and one professor from a prerequisite course you have completed + one backup
  14. Notify letter writers that you will be applying and secure their commitment.  Do this in person if at all possible.
  15. Inform letter writers in writing about of the process (when you plan to submit their application and when that means you will need their letter at the latest).  encourage them to prepare their letters for you.  Do this in email format if at all possible. 
  16. Write you PA school Narrative (application essay), proofread it, and have it critiqued. 
  17. Submit your CASPA application (submit it early enough that letters and transcripts will all be received at least one month before the earliest school’s deadline.  This allows CASPA adequate time to be verified, which can take about a month.  Generally, the earlier you submit, the better.
  18. Order transcripts from all colleges attended in time to be delivered at least 4 weeks prior to the earliest program deadline you are applying to.  Be sure to use CASPA’s transcript request form!  Get an unofficial copy for your own reference.
  19. Check your application to confirm that your letters or reference have been received.
  20. Once your application is complete (all letters, transcripts, payments are complete and you have been notified so), print a copy of your application for your own records.
  21. Wait for invitations to submit supplemental applications
  22. Complete and submit any supplemental applications to PA schools with payments as necessary.
  23. Continue accumulating HCE while you wait to hear from programs about interviews – never too much HCE!
  24. Once notified of invitation to interview, accept or decline immediately.  WHEN IN DOUBT, ACCEPT.  It’s always better to keep your options open.
  25. Prepare for interviews
  26. Interview. 
  27. Send a thank you note to schools where you interviewed.  Write them by hand to each committee member present, there were 3 or fewer.  Otherwise, write one to the whole committee care of the senior interviewer who was present.
  28. Receive acceptance offer.  BOO-YA!
  29. Go to www.fastweb.com and sign up for a free account so you can search for scholarships and grant money (we don’t get any support from them whatsoever – we just think they’re the best).  Also inquire about scholarships wherever you went to school, and with any organizations to which you belong (Kiwanis, Professional Organization for Women, NAACP, etc.)
  30. Notify schools that you have not yet been accepted to that you have received an admission from another school (if you would rather go to their school).
  31. Accept a seat in your desired program.
  32. Call that school’s financial aid office to get an overview of the PA school financial aid process.
  33. Write a thank you note to your letter writers with a token gift for their time and effort.  $10 Starbucks card or similar is appropriate.  No, it’s not a bribe; it’s called gratitude.
  34. Email us of your success and bask in the glory –  you’re about to start a new career!   Seriously, though, contact us and share your PA school success story – we love hearing them![subscribe2]
  • sadrina October 23, 2012, 5:37 am

    Great checklist !

    How often should i shadow a Pa, you mentioned 8 hours is that per week or per month ?

  • Ana October 23, 2012, 7:45 am

    Thanks for putting this together. Very helpful.

  • Louie October 23, 2012, 10:34 am


    I have extensive health care experience for my application but My school only offers online labs for chem& biology. Im worried they wont accept my prerequisites? I work in Nyu medical center for 5 years working as a surgical technologist in robotic cardiac surgery, and open heart surgeries. I work first hand assist in surgeries with pa & md.

    • Paul October 24, 2012, 10:27 pm

      Your medical experience can’t (in their minds at least) substitute for lab experience. You may need to take a lab class elsewhere to satisfy this requirement.

  • sadrina October 24, 2012, 3:08 pm

    Great check list !

    You mentioned that we needed a minimum of 8hours to shadow a PA . Is that per week , per month or all together ?

  • chet November 11, 2012, 6:41 am

    sadrina – – i believe in his post he is saying that any applicant should have a minimum of 8 shadowing hours. that could be done in one shot. however, any rational person can agree that the more shadowing hours you accumulate can will only serve to make you a more competitive applicant! check specific programs, some will lay out a specific number of hours. i will be starting PA school in a couple weeks, and i made it my business to shadow PAs in 5 different fields of medicine. i can only assume that this played a part in my acceptance. again, check the websites of programs that you are interested in, because the school that i am going to had a form that i needed to print out and have signed by the PA i was shadowing, which is much easier to do on the spot than after the fact… hope this helps.

    • Paul November 13, 2012, 12:41 am

      Yes, you are correct, Chet. I did about 100 hours of shadowing. More is better. But at the very least, don’t walk into an interview without having spent a minimum of one day shadowing, or they’ll wonder how you can gamble two years of your life on something you haven’t seen for real yet at all!

  • Erica C December 27, 2012, 8:07 pm

    Well, just when you think you’re going above and beyond, you may not be. I have acquired about 4.5-5 years of HCE and am currently in the procesz of signing up for a shadowing experience. What should you expect to do while shadowing a PA and what type of questions should a student ask? Has anybody asked you for a shadowing opportunity?
    Also, what is a supplemental application?
    Thanks for the tips, keep them coming

    • Paul December 27, 2012, 9:46 pm

      Hi, Erica! Expect only to observe while shadowing. In some circumstances the PA you shadow may ask for your help, but often not, as this an unlicensed person’s help can be a liability.

      Ask questions about the field – what you don’t understand about it or what makes you curious about it. Shadowing is a good place to get a feel for the PA/MD relationship. It’s also a good time and place to learn about the PA role and to ask about different specialties of PA medicine. Just remember that the one you shadow may only be able to tell you about his/her own specialty.

      Yes, I’ve been asked to be shadowed. Right now I’m new in the field and my job gets pretty hectic, so I’m holding off, but at some point I will take on “shadowees.” Just for perspective, even though I’m fresh out of school, I’m supervising a PA student from time to time, since he can’t prescribe or sign his own notes officially on our computer system. This means that not only do I have my own patients, I have his patients too.

      A supplemental is an application specific to a particular school. If a school wants to know more about you after reading your CASPA application (it’s the same for every school), they can send you a supplemental. It usually consists of questions that relate a little more directly to what they’re looking for. Some send them automatically (because it’s an opportunity to make money through a fee – unethical, I know), and some only send them to candidates whom they intend to interview.

  • Farnaz March 24, 2013, 11:56 pm

    I like #28 the best. Can I just skip ahead?

    Just kidding right now I’m at @25 – which is nerve wracking!

    • Paul March 25, 2013, 1:37 pm

      If only! Just do your best!


  • Shena June 29, 2013, 8:53 pm

    Thanks for this list! I have been kinda confused about it, which I am sure sounds weird but I am also sure many, many students feel the same way. For instance, Most PA schools seem to have an application deadline of roughly around October 1st. And many accept early applications as soon as April ( as soon as CASPA opens). I graduate in the Fall of 2014, so I am planning to apply early to PA school in April of 2014 to hopefully matriculate in 2015. So if I can not send my transcripts through CASPA, do you suggest I request and have them sent to the schools I apply to in say, March to ensure that everything get to the schools I apply to in time? And my LOR’s should be mailed directly to the schools I apply to? In March?
    For whatever the reason, the timeline confuses me and I want to make certain I am doing everything in time so nothing will be forgotten or late.
    Thanks for your help!

  • Ghery July 3, 2013, 9:30 am

    Great web site! I will be finishing up my PhD in Human Services next year then I start my dissertation for one year. I am taking the pre-reqs one class at a time and should be done by spring 2015. The PA schools that i’m interested in require a GRE. Would my PhD make a difference in terms of getting an acceptance? When i’m done with the PA program, would there be a benefit in pay with having a PhD as oppose to a non-PhD PA?

    Thank you in advance,

    • Paul July 8, 2013, 9:50 am

      No, I don’t think it would benefit you as a PA. Also, your PhD grades will be a separate GPA from your undergrad grades – they just don’t see them as the same type of classes. That you have a PhD does demonstrate your passion for higher education.

  • Allen March 4, 2014, 9:58 pm

    Hey Paul, awesome checklist! But here is my question, what do you think is the typical order that they look at when choosing future PA students? For instance, do they first look at student’s GPA and major, then GRE scores, then Health care experience, then essay, then the interview? Also, I’m thinking about majoring in Sociology for my Bachelor. How relevant and good is Sociology to a PA program and how would it relate to Physician Assistant? What case can I make of it?

    • Paul March 10, 2014, 11:32 pm

      I think they decide whom to interview based first on GPA and essay (must grab their attention), and then HCE. For most schools, GRE is not so important and may only be considered if extremely low or if the other factors have them on the fence.

    • chet March 11, 2014, 6:40 pm

      Allen, I’d recommend majoring in something that you are passionate about, if that is sociology, then go for it. Just be aware that irrespective of your major, there is a fair amount of science pre-reqs that will be required of you. statistics courses for PA schools usually have to be for math majors, not social sciences. Just be aware. However, I majored in sociology, and I am currently a second year PA student, so it can be done.

      • Allen March 13, 2014, 8:56 am

        Thank you so much for your input. Yes, I really do like sociology. I find it very interesting and I believe with me being interested in it, it will get me a higher GPA than if I was going to major in Biology. And yes, I understand that I would have to take “extra” classes that doesn’t relate or require for Sociology major, but for Pre-reqs for PA programs, like Bio, Microbio, Chem, Stats, etc. Congrats to you and thanks for giving me hope since you got in PA program with Sociology major (what I want to major in).

        • chet March 13, 2014, 9:56 am

          i think you are exactly right. i graduated college with high marks because i was so interested in my major, which made it not like work at all. the PA profession is very community-service oriented, and i believe that selecting an undergrad major like sociology can distinguish you from the glut of individuals who are bio or chem majoring science whiz kids. showing that you are interested in society, not to mention the problems that various populations face, suggests that you are interested in helping people. of course it’ll also help if you actually feel that way, i am kind of assuming things about you here, but if you are indeed interested in serving underserved individuals, especially in the realm of primary care, than your choice of major will reinforce that in the eyes of those who stand to accept you into their program. Good luck!

  • Jessie April 16, 2014, 9:56 am

    Would a surplus of PA shadowing be able to take the place of HCE hours?
    Would that count against be as a competitive applicant?

    • Paul April 19, 2014, 2:28 pm


      Shadowing is good and necessary, but it will not take the place of health care experience working directly with patients.
      So yes, if I understand your question correctly, it would work against a competitive if that applicant had only shadowing and little or no HCE with patients.

  • Daisy August 17, 2014, 1:10 pm

    Hi Paul, I was wondering what your insight is on writing the supplemental applications for PA programs. What can we write about and how detailed or personal can it get. For example, through the process of applying I really got in contact with certain faculty and saw how each and every one of them was dedicated in teaching. Could I name those faculty and say that this faculty will be the ones to will help me succeed in becoming a PA along with the campus and facilities.

    • Paul August 29, 2014, 5:06 pm

      1) Answer the questions they ask you. You get to decide how.
      2) I’m torn on mentioning faculty of theirs by name – it could easily be taken for sucking up, and there are few things less attractive on an application.
      3) Your supplemental application(s) should be geared toward their particular school. The CASPA app tells them about why you want to become a PA in general. Your supplemental tells them why you want to be a PA student at their school. So you better have an answer that is specific to them. What is their school like? What have you heard about it? What ethic or philosophy shines through their recruiting materials? Make some guesses about their values and describe why those values matter to you. Just avoid making up things that don’t really matter to you, or using reasons that you could use about any school.

  • Jessi September 21, 2014, 10:25 pm

    Great check list! I think people should really make note though, like number 1 on the list, who your references will be and how well they actually know and like you. The first time I applied my references, looking back, were mediocre in how well they really knew me and I got 0 interviews. This year the only thing that really changed was of course more hours in HCE (but I’d already had some the previous cycle, just another years worth of course) and my 3 references. As of now I’ve already gotten accepted into 2 programs, one of which actually told me in my interview that I had amazing references. It’s a Very Very important part of CASPA that people often scramble to get done, and I feel like I can’t stress it enough. Even if the rest of your application is great, a bad or mediocre reference can really knock you out of the running

  • Mark November 11, 2014, 11:45 am

    Hi Paul! thanks for this great checklist! I still have a long path to travel, but I was filling in the CASPA, and it occurred to me that there was no place for my extra curricular activities. I have quite a few, and would like them to be seen, so schools see that I am an active member of schools and not just a student. Some of these are mainly executive board member positions of clubs/organizations, but I feel some things like being a Biomechanical teaching assistant, would be highly regarded. Is there anywhere I can put this information? is it even worth it to put it out there? Thank you very much in advance.

    • Paul November 11, 2014, 10:43 pm

      It’s a good question, Mark. I think you need to cherry pick the very best and most relevant extracurricular activities and share them in your essay.

  • Reema December 16, 2015, 7:46 pm

    thanks for such incredible checklist ! I am international dental graduate and want to apply to PA school. Do I have to go through bachelors again or I can apply for Masters ? and is it essential the college you apply to should be participating in CASPA?

    • Paul January 18, 2016, 11:03 am

      1) No, you shouldn’t need another bachelors, as long as you have all the required undergraduate (college) coursework. The schools all use different services to determine which of your courses satisfies their course requirements, so you’ll need to contact them directly to ask how to go about it.

      2) No, applying to non-CASPA schools is fine; just be aware that there are fewer of them and their requirements differ from school to school.

  • Chow December 25, 2015, 1:46 pm

    First and foremost, thank you so much for putting all of this together for everyone to see. It is very helpful. But I was wondering if you can reuse all of your “Letters of Reference” when you apply for the second time.

    • Paul January 18, 2016, 9:52 am

      Your letter writers can copy and paste the same letter, but it needs to be digitally resubmitted by your writers each year that you apply. Nothing from your old application is saved and carried over to your new one. Be sure that none of those letters could be why you didn’t get in, or you’ve compounded the problem by reusing them!


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