Physician Assistant

The position of Physician Assistant was created in the 1960’s to address a shortage of primary care physicians. There are over 1,000 physician assistants practicing in the US today, and it is the fastest growing sector of the health professions. There are 191 accredited PA programs, but more programs are planned and will be up and running soon. 

A Physician Assistant (PA) practices medicine under the direction of a physician. However, it is possible for a PA to have his or her own practice. In rural areas, a PA is often the primary health care provider. While the physician is medically, legally, and administratively responsible for the patient, the PA can examine patients, analyze laboratory results, order treatment and direct follow-up care.  

According to the American Association of Physician Assistants, many PAs are in primary care (32%), but 26.6% are in surgical subspecialties, 11% in emergency medicine, 10% in internal medicine, and 18.8% in other specialties.

One of the major advantages of being a Physician Assistant is that the training is generally about 27 months, as compared to four years plus a residency for the MD, and there is no internship or residency. PA training has one year of classroom work followed by 2000 hours of clinical training. 

PA programs are often as competitive as medical school, and have the additional requirement of 1000 or more hours of hands-on clinical experience before admission. A recent report by the Physician Assistant Education Associations reports that the mean overall GPA for matriculating students was 3.58. The science GPA was 3.5. 

What major should I choose?

Fifty percent of students who matriculate to PA school major in natural sciences (biology, chemistry or physics), 20% in health sciences, and 14.5% in applied sciences such as nursing. 15% majored in other areas such as languages and humanities.

Required courses:   

Course requirements vary from program to program, but the following courses are required by most: 

1) Chemistry – CHM111 and 122, and possibly BIO-CHM 370. The chemistry requirement varies from program to program. Almost all require a minimum of two semesters of chemistry, which can be general chemistry I and II, or one semester of general chemistry and one semester of organic. Some schools have a requirement for a third course, either an organic or biochemistry course. The Wake Forest PA program is one of those that requires a course in biochemistry.    

2) Human anatomy with lab:  HES352. This course is generally restricted to HES majors. However, students who need this course as a prerequisite for a health professions graduate program can request the course. HES352 is only offered in the spring. Request that you be added to the waiting list for the course at the beginning of the fall semester. 

3) Human physiology with lab – Please note – at this time HES350 does not have a lab.

4) Microbiology with lab BIO326. As an upper level course, which requires BIO 150/L and 160/L as prerequisites.

5) Two additional upper level biology courses

Required by SOME programs

6) Medical terminology (not offered at WF but can be taken online). The WFU PA program will accept a medical terminology course through Winston Salem State.  The student may also check with a local community college for a medical terminology course.  The WFU PA program will accept a transcript or certificate.  The student may also consider taking medical terminology from an online institution such as Corexcel, Universal Class or University of New England Distance Learning.

7) Biochemistry CHM370 or BIO370. This course counts simultaneously in both departments. So you can take it in either department, and it counts towards the major or minor in both.

8) Statistics (required by most programs. Can be taken in math, psychology, HES, sociology or biology departments).

Also recommended: 

9) Psychology– developmental psychology PSY241 (prereq is PSY151) 

Additional requirement for all programs: 

Clinical experience: In addition to required coursework, applicants to PA programs must have relevant hands-on clinical experience. Volunteer activities generally do not count. The amount of clinical experience required varies, but generally is in the range of 1,000-2,000 hours. Some programs require as many as 3,000 hours of clinical work.

It is very difficult to acquire this experience while in college, so most candidates for PA programs have worked in the medical field for at least one year before being admitted to a program. 

Shadowing: Shadowing a physician or PA is not considered hands-on clinical experience, nor is administrative work.  Many students acquire the necessary experience by working either as an EMT (emergency medical technician), CNA (clinical nurse assistant), medical scribe, or medical assistant. One can train as a CNA in only 200 hours (5 weeks) at a community college, and through the Red Cross. Basic EMT training is only 110 hours, and also is offered by most community colleges.  An EMT course, HES 232, is offered through the Health and Exercise Science Department at Wake Forest. Take this course as soon as possible if you plan to acquire hours by working as an EMT. However, also note that hours working as a volunteer on the campus EMT service may not count as clinical hours.

Course planning:

It is generally recommended that health professions students take only one science lab course during the first semester. Lab courses are very time consuming. This allows time to adjust to the college workload. Spreading out the science courses also increases the likelihood of doing well in these courses. This is true for students who plan to major in biology and chemistry as well. However, if a student feels that he or she is very well prepared, and plans to major in a science, taking two science lab courses in the first semester is not unreasonable.

Graduate Record Exam (GRE): The General test is most often but not always required. Be sure to have your GRE scores sent directly to CASPA (as explained below). Each program has its own CASPA code. 

Completion of courses: Check with each school to see how many courses you can have in progress or not yet started by the application deadline. It varies by school. Some require that all prerequisite courses and patient care hours be completed before application.

Application Process:

For information on applying to physician assistant programs, visit

Many programs participate in CASPA, an online application service developed by the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA). CASPA allows a student to apply to a number of programs through a single application form. The CASPA application needs to be filed at least four weeks before the program application deadline to allow time for processing. Be sure to check the application deadline for each program to which you plan to apply, since application dates vary by program. Some programs may request an additional, supplemental, application. START HERE: Everything you need to know about filling in the CASPA application, step by step!

Apply early! Most schools have rolling admissions. Application open in late April or early May. The application is time consuming. Your letters will not be requested until you fill out the CASPA application. 

Be sure to keep track of all of your volunteer and patient care hours. The PA programs want specifics!

CASPA, has a Facebook page. This page is designed to answer CASPA-related questions and provide application cycle information, general and specific, for all CASPA applicants. You can find it at 

The Physician Assistant Education Association, PAEA, also has a Facebook page,, or you
can follow it on Twitter,, for the most up to date PAEA and PA news.

Years of post-graduate education required: 

The average duration of a PA program is 27 months. This includes up to 12 months of pre-clinical classwork, followed by up to 15 months of clinical training.