Health Professions - Physician Assistant

About PA Programs

Physician assistants are health professionals licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. PAs perform a comprehensive range of medical duties, from basic primary care to high-technology specialty procedures. PAs often act as first or second assistants in major surgery and provide pre- and postoperative care. In some rural areas where physicians are in short supply, PAs serve as the primary providers of health care, conferring with their supervising physicians and other medical professionals as needed and as required by law. PAs can be found in virtually every medical and surgical specialty. PAs are educated in a generalist model of medicine, which gives them the flexibility to be employed in all areas of medicine. They practice in family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, as well as in many specialty fields such as cardiovascular surgery, orthopedics, and emergency medicine.

The PA’s responsibilities depend on the type of practice, his or her experience, the working relationship with physicians and other health care providers, and state laws. There are more than 90,000 practicing PAs in the United States. The typical PA program is 24-32 months long and requires at least four years of college and some health care experience prior to admission. The majority of students have a BA/BS degree and prior health care experience before admission to a PA program. While all programs recognize the professional component of PA education with a document of completion for the professional credential (PA), 80 percent of the programs also award a master’s degree. [113 award master’s degrees, 21 award bachelor’s degree, 3 award associate degrees, and 5 award certificates.] The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that PAs will be the second-fastest-growing profession in the next decade, increasing from 74,800 in 2008 to 103,900 in 2018. The Physician Assistant Education Association, maintains a directory of PA programs.

Some students interested in becoming physician asssistants have questions about the difference between PAs and nurse practioners.  Click here for a comparision of the two fields.

Helpful Information
If you hope to apply to a PA program, direct patient care experience is essential. Schools often want at least one letter of recommendation from a health care provider with whom you have worked closely.

Some PA programs ask for the completion of prerequisites that are not offered at UCSB. Many students in this position have enrolled at community colleges in order to complete these requirements.

Required Courses

The courses listed below are those that undergraduates are required to complete prior to entering a physician assistant program.

As you plan your course of study, please note these important considerations:

  • You are encouraged to make a list of the PA programs in which you are most interested and consult each school’s admissions requirements for more specific information about prerequisite coursework, which can vary greatly.
  • All of your required courses must be taken for a letter grade, not on a Pass/No Pass (P/NP) basis.
  • Please note that some schools will not accept AP credit.

Required Courses

One year of general chemistry with lab
-Chem 1A/1AL, Chem 1B/1BL, Chem 1C/1CL (or Chem 2 equivalent)

One year of organic chemistry with lab
-Chem 109A, 109B, 109C and 6AL, 6BL


Physiology and Anatomy:

Most PA Programs require a Physiology course with a lab and an Anatomy course with a lab, but these labs are not offered at UCSB.  One option for UCSB students is to enroll in these courses at a city college--check PA programs for acceptable courses. Please note that these courses, while they may be transferable to UCSB, do not meet pre-major or major requirements.  Please ask an advisor about the "concurrent enrollment" process prior to the start of the SBCC courses.

-Physiology with a laboratory (BMS 108 at SBCC)
-Anatomy with a laboratory  (BMS 107 at SBCC)

Microbiology and Genetics:

Students pursuing a UCSB major that requires the first year Biology sequence (MCDB 1A, 1AL, 1 B; EEMB 2,3,3L, and either MCDB 1BL or EEMB 2L) can choose to take Microbiology with a lab and Genetics

-Microbiology--MCDB 131/131L (MCDB 101A is a prerequisite)
-Genetics--MCDB 101A
-Alternatively, students could take Microbiology (BMS 157 at SBCC) and Genetics (no approved SBCC course) at a city college.

One year of English
-Three quarters titled "Writing" or "English"
-Writing 2, 50 (or equivalent)
-Writing 109HP is a useful course for writing personal statements and should be taken closer to when you apply.
-Some schools may require a full year of English

-PSTAT 5A or 5LS or PSY 10B

Social Science
-Psychology 1 or Sociology 1
-Humanities (12 quarter units)

Possible additional coursework
-Some schools require additional coursework. The following are some courses that may be required:
-Spanish 1-3
-Math 3A-B or 34A-B

Required Tests

Not all schools require an admissions test for entrance into a PA program. Please refer to the website for each of your schools of interest to determine whether or not an examination is required.

Extracurricular Activities

Some physician assistant programs require that applicants possess prior and substantial experience in direct patient care. Furthermore, many of these schools only recognize experience that is paid. For the schools that do not require experience, it is important to note that competitive applicants often will have at least 1000 hours of related direct patient contact. To gain the experience needed for a PA program, many students work as EMTs, medical assistants, or nurse’s aides before they apply.

In addition to demonstrating a high level of patient care, participating in community service can enhance your application.

For more information about internships and volunteer opportunities, please visit the Clinical Experience page.


Students applying to physician assistant programs generally use the online web-based application service, CASPA (Central Application Service for Physician Assistants). This service allows you to apply to multiple PA programs using one application. However, it is very important to check with each of your schools of interest to verify application procedures (these may vary) and determine whether or not any supplemental application materials are required. For example, one school may require both the CASPA application and a secondary application, while another school will ask that you apply through CASPA and apply to their graduate school at the same time. The CASPA site links to all schools who participate in their service, so finding this information should be easy.

You should send your letters of reference to CASPA (who will forward them to your schools of choice), but your test scores should be sent directly to each school. Be sure to check the application deadlines for each program.

When can I apply to the Physician Assistant Programs?

There are more than 140 accredited PA programs located throughout the United States. They are generally affiliated with two- and four-year colleges and university schools of medicine or allied health. Most program application deadlines fall between November and March and most programs begin between May and September. An On-line PA Programs Directory, published on the Web site of the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) , lists contact information, admission deadlines, entrance requirements, tuition fees, financial aid, clinical affiliations, and other information for every member program. Early submissions are preferred.

What are the Selection Procedures for Admission?

Applicants should be prepared to furnish information on their academic backgrounds, employment experience, plans to finance their education, and reasons for choosing the PA profession. Additionally, some admissions committees may be interested in knowing why applicants have chosen their particular programs. Most programs have an admissions committee, composed of faculty, staff, and often program graduates, who review the applications in depth following a preliminary screening or transmission from CASPA. Applicants’ references, personal remarks, understanding of the PA role, patient care experience, and college entrance examination test scores receive major consideration from most admissions committees.

What are Some of the Characteristics of Entering Students?

Eighty percent of applicants have a baccalaureate degree, most commonly in biology. Applicants average 3.2 years of health care experience. Average overall undergraduate GPA is 3.28; average science GPA is 3.18. About one third of applicants are non-white (34%). Mean age of applicants is 27.1 years old. About three quarters (71%) of applicants are female.