Physician Assistant


Job description:

Physician assistants are mid-level practitioners under the supervision of a physician. Physician assistants take patient histories, perform physical examinations, and give immunizations and medications to patients. They perform simple medical procedures, order and interpret medical tests, and diagnose as well as treat medical illnesses. Physician assistants provide patient education and preventive health care counseling. Physician assistants are employed in clinics, hospitals, schools, and long-term care facilities in primary care medicine or in a specialty such as orthopedics.

– Ted Johnson, Finding Your Way to a Career in the Health Professions

Difference from Nurse Practitioners:

Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners have very similar job descriptions. Both professions practice in hospitals and clinics in rural and urban areas, and are typically primary care providers. The main difference lies in their training. PA programs follow the medical model and are taught by physician assistants with doctoral degrees, whereas nurse practitioners have their registered nursing degree and are taught by advanced practice nurses with doctoral degrees. Additionally, in 19 states and Washington, D.C., nurse practitioners are allowed to practice without the supervision of a physician. PAs always work in collaboration with a physician, although the physician does not need to be on site when a PA is practicing.


Undergraduate requirements (varies by program):

 Biology (2 courses)  BIO 150, BIO 233
 Microbiology (1 course)  BIO 231
 Human anatomy and physiology (2 courses)  BIO 143, BIO 243
 General chemistry (2 courses)  CHEM 125, CHEM 126 *
 Organic chemistry (2 courses)  CHEM 247/253, CHEM 248/254
 Biochemistry (1 course)  CHEM 379
 Calculus (1 course)  MATH 120
 Statistics (1 course)  STATS 110 or STATS 212
 Social and behavioral sciences (2 courses)  Variety of course options; consider PSYCH 125, ECON 121
 English (1 course)  Variety of course options; some programs may accept WRIT 111
 Public speaking (1 course)  THEAT 120
*St. Olaf General Chemistry options:
  1. CHEM 125 (Fall), CHEM 126 (Spring)
  2. CHEM 121 (Fall), CHEM 123 (Interim), CHEM 126 (Spring)
  3. CH/BI 125 (Fall), CH/BI 126 (Interim), CH/BI 127 (Spring, also counts as a semester of General Biology)

Be sure to check the admission requirements for the specific programs you will be applying to!


Direct patient care hours:

Almost all physician assistant programs now require 1,000-plus hours of direct patient care experience, and some schools require over 4,000 hours. Working as a CNA, EMT, or phlebotomist counts toward these “hands on” hours. This exposure is important because it ensures that you are aware of what the PA profession entails. As a full-time college student, earning these hours before entering a PA program can be challenging, and many pre-PA students take a gap year to complete this requirement. Included below are ways to complete these hours while still an undergraduate:

  • Work as a CNA in an assisted living facility
  • Become a St. Olaf EMT
  • Become a Sports Medicine Assistant in the athletic training room (not all schools consider these to be patient care hours)

*Keep a journal of memorable moments during your direct patient care hours to draw upon when writing your personal statement or in interviews for physician assistant schools.

Shadowing and volunteering:

Shadowing and volunteering hours do not count as direct patient care hours, but provide insight into the healthcare system and the physician assistant profession. For exposure to many specialties, apply for the January Allina Health Clinic academic internship in the fall. PA programs also look for persons dedicated to volunteerism and improving conditions of the underserved. Consider volunteering with the Northfield Hospital, organizations like Growing Up Healthy or other health-related opportunities through the Volunteer Network.


Most PA schools value direct patient care experience over research experience. However, any experience that enriches your understanding of healthcare systems will help your PA school candidacy.

Entrance exam

Many, but not all, physician assistant programs require applicants to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is computer-based and has three main sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The test costs $195, and test takers are allowed to send their scores to four schools for no additional charge immediately following the exam. Students should start studying vocabulary words and reviewing mathematics at least 6-8 weeks prior to their testing date, and there are many do-it-yourself books to help the studying process. Here is a review of the best study books and how to study for the GRE.

The Application Process

All application materials are compiled on the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA). Each new cycle begins on April 1. The fee for the first school application is $175 and $45 for each additional school. CASPA provides a list of application deadlines for every accredited PA school, but they encourage students to submit all materials at least four weeks before their earliest deadline to allow time to process the application. Applicants enter health-related experience, coursework, extracurricular activities and their personal statement directly into their profile and send transcripts to CASPA instead of to each individual school. Additionally, applicants request letters of reference through CASPA’s online system.

Competitive applicants typically have their application verified before August 1 to enter PA school the following summer or fall. Applying even earlier than this date is ideal, however, because many schools accept students on a rolling basis. Therefore, while a program may have 80 spots open for the first round of interviews in October, they may only have 20 left by January. Applying early enhances your chance of receiving an early interview.

Letters of reference:

Pre-physician assistant students do not need to complete a Health Professions Committee interview as CASPA requires three separate letters of reference for a complete application. Check the individual requirements of PA schools to determine who to ask for letters of recommendation. Most schools suggest requesting letters from physicians or physicians assistants who have witnessed your work in a clinical setting. Follow the CASPA guidelines for submitting letters, and give your references a minimum of two weeks to complete their letters.


Request transcripts through the Registrar’s Office.

Personal statement

Your personal statement is your opportunity to share your motivation to become a physician assistant. CASPA only allows a 5,000 character (roughly 800 word) essay, so clarity and brevity are of upmost importance. Draw on your personal experiences to enrich your narrative, but avoid overly dramatic storytelling.


If you receive an interview with a physicians assistant program, congratulations! To prepare for your interview, make a practice interview appointment with a career counselor in the Piper Center. Spend time researching the school you will interview with to determine why you are a good fit for the program. Popular PA-specific interview questions often involve the history of the PA profession and its role in current healthcare systems. When you visit the school, take advantage of the current PA students’ time to ask what they like and dislike about the school, something they wish they would have known prior to attending, and what they think of the faculty.


Campus contacts:

  • Kevin Crisp, Biology Department
    • Extension: 3981
    • Office: Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences 220

Professional organizations:

Student organization:

List of programs:

Additional resources:

  • Inside PA Training – For help with writing personal statements and answering general questions.
  • National Health Service Corps – PA school can be expensive! Consider applying for the National Health Service Corps to help repay loan.