Physician Assistant

Please note: Pomona College does not offer a Physician Assistant program. This information is merely for the purpose of providing an overview of a career as a Physician Assistant and its requirements to our undergraduate students.

Physician Assistants (PAs) are medical professionals who work with healthcare providers or as a primary health practitioner. PA responsibilities include conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses, ordering and interpreting tests, counseling on preventive healthcare, assisting in surgery, and writing prescriptions.

PAs practice in every state and medical specialty, improving healthcare access and quality. PAs are not required to specialize in an area of medicine, meaning they can begin working in their chosen field immediately upon successful completion of:  1) 1000-2000 hours of direct patient care prior to matriculation, 2) a certified PA school and 3) passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). Additionally, a PA can switch specialties without further training, allowing for employment flexibility and mobility. PAs cite work-life balance as a benefit of their career.  Typical PA jobs in 2019 occurred in the areas of family medicine, orthopedic surgery, emergency medicine, urgent care, dermatology, and hospital medicine.

US News and World Report ranks the PA profession at #2 in Best Healthcare jobs. Growth of the industry is projected as 31% through 2029. The median annual salary of a PA is $115,000. Admission to PA programs is highly competitive (even more than medical school) with approximately 3 applicants for each seat in 2017-2018.

What's the difference between a PA and a Nurse Practitioner? Find out at's career guide.

How are PAs different from MD’s?: PA vs MD The Key Differences (And What’s Right for You)

Training to become a PA

Most Physician Assistant schools require 500-2000 hours of healthcare experience prior to applying. PA school is typically 27-36 months, after which PAs must pass the PANCE national certifying exam, followed by individual state licensing. Schooling begins with didactics in a classroom followed by clinical training in internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and geriatrics.

The cost of a PA degree is high, though less than medical school. For a 27-month program, the average public school tuition for an in-state resident is $50,289 and non-resident is $88,6777. The average private school tuition is $91,639.

Undergraduate Preparation

Academic Preparation

Check out our pre-PA planning guide.

Personal Preparation

Shadowing: PA programs typically require between 1000-2000 hours of direct patient care clinical hours prior to matriculation. Most schools require 500-2000 hours of healthcare experience prior to the application itself.

How to Gain Experience:

  • Patient care experience: EMT, nursing, physical therapy assisting, caregiving, phlebotomy, certified nursing assistant, patient care technician
  • Healthcare experience: scribe, medical assistant, record keepers
  • Keep track of all the hours in whatever way makes sense to you, document the hours and what you did, include them in the Experiences section of the application. You may need verification of hours
  • PA programs typically do not require research experience

Application Process

Admissions Testing

Many PA programs no longer require an entrance exam. Students may need to take the GRE or PA-CAT (the newly-developed Physician Assistant College Admission Test). As of 2021, the PA-CAT is being used by 30 schools, of which 15 accept either GRE or PA-CAT.

The GRE is a standardized test designed to test your capacity to master graduate level information in three main areas: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.  The 2021 cost of the GRE Exam is $205. There is a GRE Fee Reduction Program for individuals who can demonstrate financial need, for those who are unemployed and receiving unemployment compensation, and for national programs that work with underrepresented groups. A GRE Fee Reduction Voucher may be used for one GRE® General Test and/or one GRE® Subject Test. Voucher users pay 50% of the regular test fee.


Physician Assistant school applications are submitted through a centralized service called the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants CASPA. The CASPA application cycle runs annually from mid-April to March. Applicants apply to an average of seven schools.

CASPA provides a help center for applicants.

The initial application fee is $179 with an additional $55 for each added program. CASPA offers a fee assistance program. Register early for the fee assistance program if you qualify; it is first-come first-serve.

Other application tips:

  • Be complete when entering your transcript. Students must include every course taken at any accredited school attended in the past.
  • The personal statement asks you to explain why you want to be a PA in 5000 characters.
  • If copying into the application, make sure to paste using plain text (and close and re-open the application to check for formatting errors).
  • While a student may apply before completing all required courses and healthcare experiences, you should check with EACH program because they have different requirements and time-frames.

When you apply, please check (yes) for the Advisor Release at the beginning of the VMCAS application.

Letters of Recommendation: Physician Assistant schools typically request a minimum of 2 letters of recommendation, one of which must be from a healthcare supervisor.

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