PA-CAT vs. GRE: What You Need to Know for PA School

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October 12, 2021
Standardized tests have always been a part of the application process for becoming a physician assistant, and the GRE was the only test around when I was going through applications. While the MCAT is sometimes accepted, it often isn’t a preferred requirement by programs, but the PA-CAT is a similar knowledge-based test focusing on the main prerequisite subjects required for PA school. Here are some similarities and differences between the GRE and PA-CAT and how and when to prepare.

Since the PA-CAT launched, I’ve been getting more and more questions about the exam as a pre-PA coach, with the main one being, “What is it?” With the ever-changing application process for PA school, it’s important to stay up to date on changes to requirements with each of the programs you plan to apply to. 

I applied to PA school 10 years ago, and if you asked me to predict how the process would change, my guess would be more standardization between prerequisites, testing, and deadlines. That hasn’t been the case, as programs have even more variety in requirements now. 

With schools receiving thousands of applications, they use various standards when going through the applicant pool, and programs determine their particular requirements based on what they think will result in the most successful students. These prerequisite requirements can change even between cycles as schools try to fine-tune the process. 

What Is the GRE?

Traditionally, the GRE has been used as an application factor for PA programs. Since PA school is a master’s level program, it is common for a standardized test to be a requirement. The GRE is a strategy-based test focused on basic math in the quantitative section and vocabulary skills in the verbal section. A writing section is also included but not typically important for PA programs. There are also specific subject GRE tests, but for the purposes of applying to PA school, only the general test is required.  

While the GRE has been a common requirement for many years, there is still a lack of significant data to show a direct correlation between GRE scores and success in PA school or passing the PANCE (the standardized test required at the end of PA school). 

What Is the PA-CAT?

More recently, the PA-CAT was developed specifically based on the typical prerequisite requirements of most PA schools. The topics covered include anatomy, physiology, general biology, general and organic chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, behavioral sciences, genetics, and statistics.

While that may seem more intimidating than a strategy test, there are some benefits as well. The PA-CAT can help identify areas you may struggle with before starting PA school. It’s also scored in the same way as the PANCE, so PA schools are using this exam to see if there is a correlation in performance on the PA-CAT and more success in PA schools. 

While PA schools want you to do well in their programs and graduate, the average attrition rate (amount of students dropping out of PA programs) is 6.7% in 2019 according to PAEA Report 35. A knowledge-based test like the PA-CAT may be a way for programs to distinguish which students will complete PA school since the rigor of undergraduate courses can vary.

Another benefit to the exam is an opportunity to show another strength on your application if you have a below-average GPA or a rough semester freshman year. The PA-CAT could prove to be a strong marker that schools look at when holistically assessing applicants. 

GRE vs PA-CAT

How do these two assessments compare in terms of subject, length, cost, scoring, and other categories? Let’s compare!

CategoryGREPA-CAT
SubjectsAnalytical writing
Verbal reasoning
Quantitative reasoning
9 science subject areas:

Anatomy
General biology
General and organic chemistry
Physiology
Statistics
Biochemistry
Microbiology
Behavioral sciences
Genetics
Length6 sections over 3 hours and 45 minutes
1 writing section
2 verbal reasoning sections of 20 questions
2 quantitative reasoning sections of 20 questions
1 unidentified, unscored section
240 questions over 4.5 hours
Subjects tested randomly
Test LocationPrometric testing sites or at homePrometric testing sites or at home
Cost$205 with 5 school recipients
Additional schools $27/each 
$228 (2021)
Fee Reduction ProgramYesIn development
Rescheduling Options$50 fee when more than 4 days before Between 5–29 days before exam for $50 fee
More than 29 days before exam with no fee
ScoringQuantitative and verbal sections scaled between 130 and 170 with scaled percentile provided
Writing on scale of 0–6
Scaled scoring between 200 and 800
Score LongevityScores valid for 5 yearsScores valid for 2 years
Results TimingUnofficial score given on test day
Official results sent in 10–14 days
Up to 8 weeks
Testing LimitsUp to a max of 5 times in 12 months, every 21 daysUp to a max of 3 times in 12 months, every 6 weeks
Savanna’s Recommended Study Time1–3 months before exam3–6 months before exam
Study ResourcesMultiple books and flashcards available
Online resources like Magoosh and GregMat
Registration includes video review and practice exams
Partnered with Rosh Review to create practice Qbank
So where do you go from here?

Check program websites before signing up for any exams. Once you identify the testing requirements that need to be fulfilled, make a study plan using trusted resources. Find an accountability partner and try to spread your test prep out to keep the knowledge fresh until test day. Good luck!


About the Guest Author

Savanna Perry, PA-C is a dermatology physician assistant in Georgia. After receiving a bachelor’s in biology at the University of Georgia, Savanna attended Augusta University for PA school and graduated in 2014. Recognizing the need for more awareness of the PA profession, Savanna started The PA Platform as a resource for aspiring PAs, offering podcasts, videos, and blog posts along with pre-PA coaching.


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