How can I give myself the best shot at getting into PA school?
November 15, 2013 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I am 28, and will soon be setting out on the long journey of becoming a PA. I already have a bachelor's in another field, but I now need two years of science prereqs before I apply to PA schools. Should I go to my local community college for the prereqs (it'll be cheaper, and I'll have a better shot at getting top grades), or should I go to the more respectable, more expensive local university where straight A's will be harder to come by? In other words, what do you think admissions officers are more likely to value: excellent grades from a community college or the occasional B from a state university known for its medical school?

I've worked in politics for the U.S. House for 5.5 years after leaving college, and now I'm ready to completely change things up and go into the medical field. I'm a good student and a fast reader but I've never taken upper-division science courses, and it's been a while since I've been in school, so I'm not entirely sure how I'll fare in the PA prereqs. I also have limited funds and will likely need student loans, which when all is said and done, will leave me with a bigger chunk of change to pay back if I go the university route. What do you think? Community college or university? Does it matter?

Also, I would be incredibly grateful for any other tips you can offer on improving my application. I will be getting my CNA certification next month and will hopefully start racking up HCE hours soon. I was also thinking it wouldn't hurt to also become an EMT along the way and do some volunteering with that maybe in a local ER since EMT jobs are hard to come by in my market. What do you think of this plan?

I have shadowed a PA and asked a recent PA grad this as well but am trying to get as much input as I can. Aside from these two specific questions, my larger question is simply: What tips do you have for a person with no medical background on getting into PA school?
posted by timpanogos to Education (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
In other words, what do you think admissions officers are more likely to value: excellent grades from a community college or the occasional B from a state university known for its medical school?

Why don't you call the admissions department and ask? They have no reason not to be honest with you about this.
posted by toomuchpete at 8:03 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hi there! I'm in your EXACT boat and have done a metric crap-ton of research into this. Here's the rub:

- You've REALLY gotta take the science prereqs at a four-year school. While some schools SAY they'll accept community college prereqs, they're never viewed in a super-duper positive light. I don't think they're as picky about the NON-science prereqs, however. I hate this, because I love community colleges, but them's the breaks.

- Always, always, ALWAYS call the admissions depts. at the various schools to clarify any questions you may have - I was hesitant about this but they were absurdly friendly and helpful.

- The CNA is a GREAT step in the right direction... don't bother with the EMT, however. The only thing you care about is hours of experience directly caring for patients, and with the CNA, you'll rack those suckers up more quickly than with almost any other entry-level allied health position. Training for the EMT when you already HAVE a CNA (and do not want a long-term EMT career) is kind of a waste of your time/effort.

- If you happen to be interested in schools in the Philly area (there are a bunch of 'em), I can send you my spreadsheet of their various admissions requirements.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:04 AM on November 15, 2013 [4 favorites]

clarification for those who might not know: PA = physician assistant
posted by intermod at 8:06 AM on November 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

One possibility to consider is one of the (many) postbac premed programs out there. They will allow you to complete your science prerequisites in a structured program with other students who are looking at careers in medicine. There are many varieties out there (1 year vs. 2 year, small vs. big, linked to a particular med school vs. not, etc), so that's something else to look at. Many of these programs are tailored to students in your exact position: students who have done well in areas other than science and have now decided they want to be doctors/PAs/vets/etc.

I have postbac students in some of my classes and have some sense of the program, so feel free to MeMail me if you have questions.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:16 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My employer is starting up a PA program this fall (the first in our little state!). Last year I heard the Admissions person explain that, crudely put, they want Bio majors with a B+ average (or better) from a good school. (Yes, yes, other majors are welcome to apply, but this was a very simple reduction of their applicant profile.

They will also require applicants to have shadowed a working PA for some number of hours, which I think is a cool idea.

But this is why we pay Admissions people -- give yours a call!
posted by wenestvedt at 8:17 AM on November 15, 2013

I don't know about PAs specifically, but I've run into a recent thing with someone taking accounting courses at a community college. The books they're using are basically the same ones I used at my state university, which is certainly a mark in favor. But honestly, the expectations are so, so low, and I don't think they're coming out knowing the material as well as they need to. This is basically why these schools don't get the same level of respect. If you're taking classes where you're going to want not just the credits but a solid understanding of the material afterwards, do the university, especially if it's a decent one.
posted by Sequence at 8:21 AM on November 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would check if the institution that you attended for your bachelors has a pre-professional advising office. They often advise alumni about how to apply to post-graduate professional programs. As other people have suggested, it also wouldn't hurt if you talked to someone in the admissions office at one of your schools to get more info on the application process.
posted by scalespace at 8:26 AM on November 15, 2013

Personally, I learned better in the science classes at a community college than in science classes at a 4-year university. At least in the pre-req courses. I had an A+ in physics at a community college with an excellent professor and our labs were directly relevant to the lectures we had that week. At the 4-year, I struggled to get a B in the second semester physics class. It was a huge class, the professor was just quickly getting through each chapter as fast as she could, and the labs were WEEKS later than the lectures (and TESTS) that covered the same topics. I needed to see the formulas we were using getting applied, but that class was taught as a "memorize this fast, and any stragglers will be left behind".

This doesn't have anything to do with Admissions preferences, though. Just with my style of learning.
posted by jillithd at 8:32 AM on November 15, 2013

I'm a PA. The importance of community college vs university courses depends on what type of program you are looking at. You usually can get information about acceptance rates, average GPAs, and basic demographics. PA schools are divided by what kind of degree they confer; AS/certificate, BS, MS. The more prestigious the school the higher the standard for admission. Clearly if you aim for the top schools and meeting their criteria you'll stand a better chance of getting into any school.

The school I went to is very competitive to the point that the PA program had a lower rate of acceptance than the sister MD program. They expected university level education but more importantly they expected there to be something unique about the applicant, to have a serious amount of volunteer experience, and an equal amount of time working with patients. Regarding the unique part- Good news! You worked in politics and can use that to your advantage! You really want to become a PA to work with patients but equally as much to help further the profession by political action! Get it? Sell what you have to offer and you really have something quite unique and useful to not just the school but the entire profession. They will eat that up.

Become a member of AAPA, your states PA organization and become familiar with the political and legal issues going on. Volunteer for them and offer you political expertise.

If you decide to go the community college route then you better get fantastic grades. As in, Bs aren't good enough. Form a pre-PA club at the community college. And most definitely spend time with a PA shadowing him or her for a length of time.

I know that doesn't totally answer your question but I hope it helps a bit. Good luck.

Also, thank you for reminding me how very, very glad I am that all that is behind me. Phew.
posted by teamnap at 9:49 AM on November 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had an A+ in physics at a community college with an excellent professor and our labs were directly relevant to the lectures we had that week. At the 4-year, I struggled to get a B in the second semester physics class.

The problem with this is that, from an outside perspective, this looks like the community college was a cakewalk and you didn't actually learn anything in the class. Then, you took the "real" physics at a 4-year college and couldn't hack it. I trust you when you say that it was because of the quality of the teaching, but that's a subtlety that cannot be conveyed in a transcript.

OP: This perception (deserved or not) of community colleges as "easy A" places is one of the reasons that you should think twice about going to a community college to get the relevant background coursework. PA admissions committees are likely to be skeptical of work completed at community colleges.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:19 AM on November 15, 2013

I don't know where you live, or if you're willing to move, so I don't know if this is possible for you, but some major state universities have small-town branches that carry similar reputations to their parent institutions but offer smaller classes which can be better for learning challenging material. I'm thinking of, e.g., Indiana University at South Bend, or the University of Michigan at Dearborn, or the University of Colorado at Denver. These community campuses give you the best of both a community college and a four-year university.
posted by Capri at 11:55 AM on November 15, 2013

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