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How To Qualify for a Physician Assistant Master’s Program

March 17, 2022

If you’re interested in launching a health care career that involves direct patient care, consider becoming a physician assistant, or PA. As a PA you might conduct physical exams, counsel patients, create treatment plans, diagnose illnesses and injuries, interpret diagnostic tests and prescribe medication. PAs work in various settings including private practices, hospitals, surgical centers, urgent care clinics and mental health facilities.

Becoming a physician assistant requires a master’s degree and additional hours of direct patient care experience. Admission to these programs can be very competitive because the PA career path is highly desirable to many people. If you’re interested in working as a physician assistant, it’s critical to pinpoint what specific qualifications and prerequisites are necessary to improve your likelihood of admission.

Why Become a Physician Assistant?

The employment outlook for PAs is very promising. Physician assistant is one of the top 10 fastest-growing jobs in the United States. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that job opportunities for PAs will increase by 27% between 2022 and 2032. The average PA earns about $126,010 a year, and the highest-paid 10% earn more than $168,120.

The path to becoming a PA requires rigorous studies and extensive clinical experience, but it does not take as long, nor is it as expensive, as the journey to becoming a doctor of medicine (MD). That’s why a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies offers a relatively fast, flexible and affordable pathway into the medical profession. 

How Long Is PA School?

Program lengths vary by the institution that offers them, but the University of Pittsburgh Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program (PAS-Hybrid) can prepare you to launch a PA career in about two years. You will need more than just a bachelor’s degree on your resume to begin this hybrid program, however. You can get started right now on your PA studies journey by identifying what academic and practical requirements you’ll have to meet to ensure your physician assistant program application stands out.

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How To Qualify for a PA Master’s Program

You do not need to be a pre-med student to apply to PA studies programs, though the curricula in most pre-med programs will satisfy the main academic prerequisites. A few universities offer pre-PA programs designed around PA program admission requirements. However, most students who enroll in physician assistant studies programs don’t have these pre-PA bachelor’s degrees.

If you don’t carry all of the necessary prerequisites from your bachelor’s degree, then you may have to complete courses independently before you can qualify. In addition, you should ideally have some hands-on patient care experience before applying.

PA School Prerequisites

All accredited PA schools require a similar set of academic prerequisites for applicants. To qualify for a Physician Assistant Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, you must hold a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution with an overall GPA of 3.0 in all college-level coursework. You don’t need to submit GRE scores, but you do need to submit transcripts that show a minimum GPA of 3.0 in the following specific prerequisite coursework:

  • Anatomy with a lab and Physiology (two semesters),
  • Biology with a lab designed for science majors (two semesters),
  • Chemistry with a lab designed for science majors (two semesters),
  • English Composition/writing (two semesters),
  • Intro to Psychology,
  • Medical Terminology,
  • Microbiology with a lab,
  • Statistics,
  • Upper-level Chemistry with a lab, and
  • Upper-level Psychology.

If your academic record or performance doesn’t align perfectly with these prerequisites, you don’t need to assume that you won’t be a good fit for the PAS-Hybrid Program. You can still complete prerequisite courses any time before you begin the application process, or later, as long as you pass with a 3.0 before acceptance into the program. If you aren’t sure that you meet the requirements, you can reach out to an academic advisor to discuss your qualifications ahead of time.

Practical Prerequisites for PA School

PA master’s program applicants must have the required hours of direct patient care experience. Each university sets its own minimum for these prerequisite hours. At Pitt, you’ll need to have amassed at least 500 hours of health care experience before matriculation.

This work can be paid or on a  volunteer basis, but must involve direct contact with patients in a professional medical setting. Relevant experiences include but are not limited to working as an RN, EMT, paramedic, medical assistant, physical therapy assistant or occupational therapy assistant.

Requirements of the PA Master’s Program

Once you know you’re qualified to apply to PA programs, it’s time to find the program that best suits your interests and needs. If relocating to attend an in-person program isn’t the right option for you at this time, you can consider a hybrid PA master’s program for greater flexibility and accessibility. This model allows you to complete the majority of the coursework remotely, then relocate short-term for immersion experiences and clinical rotations.

There are very few hybrid physician assistant programs in the United States, but Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid master’s degree is one of the few. This 24-month program consists of interactive virtual lectures taught by top-tier University of Pittsburgh faculty with three hands-on immersion opportunities on campus in the first year. The second year involves eight in-person clinical placements in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences network of care settings throughout the United States.


The rigorous didactic core emphasizes four key competencies that set Pitt graduates apart in the field: health literacy, communication skills, collaborative practice and patient-centered care. The first three terms of remote classroom instruction will include:

  • Anatomy,
  • Physiology,
  • Biochemistry,
  • Pharmacology,
  • Physical diagnosis,
  • Pathophysiology,
  • Microbiology,
  • Clinical laboratory science,
  • Behavioral science, and
  • Medical ethics.

As a physician assistant student at Pitt, you will also receive extensive training in society and population health, the professional and legal aspects of health care, and financial and system management in health care.

Clinical Rotations

In the Hybrid-PAS curriculum at Pitt, your second year will focus on in-person, supervised clinical practice experience. This is completed in eight rotations and among more than 850 options for placement sites across the United States. These rotations will give you hands-on experience in the following areas of patient care:

  • Behavioral health,
  • emergency medicine,
  • inpatient medicine,
  • obstetrical and gynecological medicine,
  • pediatrics,
  • primary care outpatient medicine, and
  • surgery.

After a year of coursework and a year of clinical rotations, your 24-month program will culminate with the 300-question, multiple-choice Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) and the chance to prove your qualifications. Certification through this exam is the crucial step in fulfilling your goal to become a PA.

How To Apply for PA School

Most accredited physician assistant degree programs, including Pitt’s, accept applications through the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). Creating an account with CASPA allows you to see the specific academic requirements and practical prerequisites for PA Studies, and enables you to apply for multiple schools by submitting just one application.

For more information about applying to the PA Studies Hybrid Program at Pitt, you can connect with our enrollment team and ask any questions you may have. Enrollment advisors can tell you more about admissions requirements, the CASPA application process and what to expect for learning and career outcomes.

How To Strengthen Your PAS-Hybrid Application

Despite the substantial prerequisites needed to apply for PA school, these programs remain highly popular and competitive. In the United States, the average PA Studies program takes just 7% of applicants, according to the most recent data from CASPA. Don’t let the competitive nature of PA master’s programs deter you from applying, though. There are numerous strategies you can use to strengthen your PAS-Hybrid application:

  • Meet with an enrollment advisor: An admissions expert can review your application, qualifications and experience and give you insight into how best to highlight your strengths and temper your weaknesses.
  • Consider taking a gap year: After earning a bachelor’s degree, you may have to complete additional bachelor’s-level coursework or satisfy the experiential prerequisites to submit a competitive application.
  • Rework your personal essay: Feedback from multiple people can help you ace this key application requirement. Pitt asks PAS-Hybrid applicants to submit two essays. The first should highlight why you want to become a PA. The second one should reflect the mission of the PA Studies Hybrid program and its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • Identify the best recommendation writers: Your three letters of recommendation should come from a university instructor, a supervisor and a character reference who can accurately describe your commitment to leadership and service.
  • Complete the Basic Life Support (BLS) Certification: You must have BLS from the American Heart Association at the time of matriculation to apply to the Physician Assistant Studies Hybrid Program, so it’s a smart move to earn it as soon as possible.

It’s also a good idea to apply early for planning purposes. With adequate time before the deadline, advisors can assist you in navigating the application and the rolling admission process, helping to position you as a strong candidate. The sooner you get started learning about PA programs and working toward the prerequisites, the sooner you can be on your way to a rewarding career as a physician assistant.

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