Understanding PA School Acceptance Rates & Admissions in 2023
For many pre-PA students, the first step of the application process is deciding your top programs. As you start to explore PA schools, you feel your chest tighten and pulse quicken as you examine the statistics. How do you know if your application is competitive for your top programs? Should you factor in acceptance rates and rankings when deciding where to apply?
Here is everything you need to know about PA school acceptance rates, what to consider when applying to different schools, and how to tell if your application has a good chance of acceptance into your program of choice.
Are PA school acceptance rates a good indication of a program’s quality?
According to the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), the average PA school acceptance rate is approximately 20%, meaning that about 20% of all applicants across the nation gain acceptance to a PA program in any admissions cycle. This number is based on thousands of PA applicants applying to several schools in the hopes of being selected for an interview and eventually receiving an offer of admission.
Programs such as Duke University, long held as one of the top-ranked PA programs**, have acceptance rates as low as 2.3%. Likewise, Baylor College of Medicine and Emory University have acceptance rates of around 3%. There are great PA schools with much higher acceptance rates as well. Marquette University—which is #26 on the U.S. News ranking of top PA programs—has an acceptance rate of about 8%, while George Washington University—#5 on the same list—has an acceptance rate of about 6%.
What does a program’s acceptance rate actually mean?
These acceptance rates may not seem like large percentages, but it’s important to remember that acceptance rates are based on the number of total applicants versus the number that is eventually admitted into the program. When you have a large number of applicants competing for a fixed number of spots, then the percentage of accepted students is bound to be lower.
It is also important to remember that the number of students that each program is allowed to admit is inflexible and set by the program’s application to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). To increase class size, a program must submit an application to ARC-PA with proof that they are able to accommodate and support a greater number of students. It makes sense then that the “top-ranked” programs would have more applicants and therefore, have lower acceptance rates because the ratio of applicants to the number of seats available would be greater.
**A note about the U.S. News rankings
It is worth noting the U.S. News methodology for ranking PA programs. This list is based upon a survey sent to 170 out of 300 programs asking PA program administrators and deans to rank accredited programs on a scale of 1-5. They also have the option of selecting “don’t know” if they are not knowledgeable about the program.
Generally, this ranking is then based on subjective peer assessment rather than objective data. While peer assessment is important and noteworthy, it doesn’t give applicants a holistic evaluation of a program’s quality. For example, the University of Findlay boasts a 99% first-time PANCE pass rate since 2010 and is still #158 on the list.
Overall, when considering which PA program(s) to apply to, there may be qualities that are more important to you than a program’s ranking. These may include PANCE pass rates, affordability, location, clinical affiliations, student support and attrition rates, and job placement rates.
How do you know if your application is competitive?
If there is one piece of advice you take away from this article, it is to apply early! Most PA schools have a rolling admission process, so the earlier you apply in the cycle, the fewer applicants you have to compete with.
Make sure you pay attention to the minimum requirements and, if possible, start planning to exceed those requirements early on to set yourself up for pre-PA success. If you wait until you’re about to apply to PA school to start looking at the requirements, you’re going to find yourself in the tricky position of figuring out if what you’ve taken meets the standards for your top choices. It’s best to figure out your pathway early in your career so that you don’t apply to programs based on which requirements you can meet, instead of picking schools that are a good fit for you.
What are PA schools looking for?
According to the 2020 PAEA Program Report, the overall average GPA of PA matriculants is 3.6 (with a 3.5 average science GPA). GRE scores for the most competitive programs are around 153 and 157 for average quantitative and verbal scores. The average PA student has a baccalaureate degree in one of the natural sciences and typically, has had at least three years of hands-on clinical experience usually as a certified nursing assistant or medical assistant.
Meeting these averages will, of course, place you in a good position for acceptance. But that’s not all PA schools are looking for.
PA schools are interested in a well-rounded student that has a commitment to serving others, demonstrated through volunteer work, reaching out of their comfort zone, and retaining a passion for helping communities. The abilities to multi-task, handle stress, and overcome adversity are all important factors in gaining acceptance. Even if you don’t have the average GRE or GPA scores, going above and beyond in your personal life to demonstrate these soft skills and characteristics will help you gain acceptance. Make sure this is a genuine effort—most admissions committees can tell if you’re checking off the boxes or if you’re actions reflect your drive to enter a field of service.
Should you apply to a program even if your application doesn’t match the average criteria?
Short answer: YES! If you worry about a lower-than-average GRE score but have a great application otherwise, please apply! According to the 2020 PAEA Student Report, the average PA school applicant applies to eight PA programs. Applying to one PA program gives you about a 25% chance of acceptance, while applying to 12 PA programs increases those chances to 49%. (I don’t recommend applying to more than 12 programs, as there is no data that proves this will increase your chances of acceptance.)
Remember that PA programs expect applicants to have done reasonably well in their undergraduate education and on standardized testing, but there are thousands of applicants that meet those criteria.
What makes your application stand out is the amount of time you’ve spent outside of the classroom gaining experience and maturity. PA programs know that they can teach you medicine, but it’s much harder to teach someone compassion. Working with diverse and underserved populations, volunteering your time, and demonstrating empathy and compassion are desirable skills that every PA program is looking for in a candidate.
How important are acceptance rates and rankings when deciding which programs to apply to?
Overall, program rankings do not include all of the existing PA programs and rely on peer evaluations rather than objective data. This isn’t to say that the rankings aren’t one of the valuable tools in deciding what program to apply to—however, the top-ranked, highly desirable programs will have lower acceptance rates just based on the ratio of the number of applicants to the number of seats available.
Use a holistic approach in deciding which programs to apply to and focus more on the programs that fit your personal priorities. Make sure your plan is to identify several programs where you’ll feel you’ll succeed, exceed the minimum requirements, apply early, and back up your words with actions that demonstrate your passion for the profession. If you use that strategy, acceptance rates won’t be a worry at all.