Does a Potential PA Take the MCAT or a Similar Entry Exam?

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Like other master’s degree programs, the top physician assistant degree programs often include entry exam scores in their admissions process. The question many students have is which graduate entry exam, in particular, they should take. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is the standard test used by medical schools for admission of aspiring doctors. While the MCAT is one option for physician assistants, it’s not as widely required for PA school as it is for medical school. Instead, prospective physician assistant students may choose to take a new test, the Physician Assistant College Admissions Test (PA-CAT), or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

The MCAT for Physician Assistant School

The multiple-choice MCAT test is specific to the skills and knowledge needed for success in medical school. Due to the overlap between the occupations of physician assistant and medical doctor, aspiring PA students sometimes take this test – but they usually do so because they are still considering going to a medical school program.

Four sections make up the MCAT content. In the section on Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems, students answer questions about foundational concepts pertaining to the properties of biomolecules, how assemblies of molecules interact to perform functions of basic living and how complex biological systems develop a stable internal environment. A test section on Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems focuses on foundational concepts of the physical principles used to describe the functions of complex living organisms and the concepts and principles of chemical reactions in the systems of living things.

The portion of the MCAT that focuses on Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior assesses test takers’ understanding of how these factors affect thoughts and perceptions about the world, how they impact behavior, how they influence views of self and others, how they contribute to wellbeing and what part social stratification plays in a person’s wellbeing. Lastly, the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills section of the MCAT evaluates your skills in knowing and applying scientific principles, using the concepts and models of science for reasoning and analyzing solutions to problems, analyzing the design of scientific research endeavors and using statistical analysis of data in reasoning tasks.

One concern with PA students submitting MCAT scores as part of their applications to physician assistant programs is appearing to be more interested in a career as a physician than a PA. Think carefully about whether the MCAT is the right choice for you.

Applying to PA Programs With the New PA-CAT Test

Until recently, there was no type of graduate entry exam specific to physician assistant studies in the way that the MCAT is specific to medical school. That began to change in 2017, when Exam Master Corporation took its first steps toward creating the PA-CAT by conducting initial needs assessment research. By the spring 2018 semester, field-testing was taking place at three physician assistant schools. In January 2020, registration became officially available to candidates, and test takers received the first-ever round of PA-CAT test scores in June 2020. Although new, the PA-CAT has become required by an increasing number of physician assistant schools over the course of 2020.

Because the PA-CAT was developed for physician assistant programs, it tests your knowledge of a more specific set of topics. You’ll complete 240 questions spread across nine subjects: statistics, anatomy, physiology, genetics, biology, microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry and behavioral sciences. As you can see, the PA-CAT exam is heavily science-based. However, it’s not all about the memorization of scientific facts. The content of the PA-CAT tests your abilities in six different cognitive domains, including knowledge, application, evaluation, comprehension, analysis and synthesis.

Scores on the PA-CAT range from a low of 200 to a high of 800. It’s not possible to “fail,” the PA-CAT, for which scores are scaled, but the better you perform and the higher your score is, the more appealing a candidate you are to admissions departments. 

PAs Taking the GRE

Educational Testing Service’s GRE General Test is widely used in graduate programs across all fields of study. In the absence of the PA-CAT, the GRE has historically been a common testing requirement for entrance to physician assistant programs. The GRE General Test encompasses three parts: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing.

The verbal reasoning component looks at how well you are able to understand and use text. These questions evaluate your complex abilities in reading comprehension and using reason to reach a conclusion based on test excerpts, including incomplete data. The quantitative reasoning questions assess your capability to analyze numerical data and apply knowledge of mathematical models and concepts. The analytical writing requires you to demonstrate, through completion of two written tasks, your ability to think critically about ideas and thoughtfully express those ideas in writing, using examples and other details to make clear points in the text.

Master’s-level physician assistant programs often expect candidates to earn at least 50 percent on each section of the GRE test and give preference to applicants who score 55 percent or higher on each section.

Choosing Which Entry Exam to Take

If you have a particular school or PA program in mind, then you should start looking at that program’s application requirements early on to figure out which of these exams you need to take. However, many master’s degree programs in physician assistant studies now accept scores from two, or even all three, of these exams. This flexibility allows you to think about your strengths and your personal career aspirations and make the decision based on what best suits you as an individual.

For example, if you haven’t yet ruled out going for your Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or your Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) by the time you’re getting ready to take graduate-level entry exams, you should take the MCAT. This test is generally required for admission to medical schools. If you know for sure that PA is the right path for you and you want to choose a test that will highlight your knowledge of the subjects most relevant to physician assistant studies, the PA-CAT is an option to consider. You might choose the GRE if you have strong verbal reasoning and analytical writing skills that you want to highlight, or if you want to keep your career options open to choose a master’s degree program in another field, like one of the sciences.

Your graduate entry exam scores are only one part of your application. Admissions departments for PA programs look at the big picture, including academic performance, patient care experience, letters of recommendation, interview performance and more.

Additional Resources

I’ve Read Something About Direct Patient Care Experience to Get Into PA School. What Are Some Examples That Fall Into This Area?

Is Getting Into a PA Program More or Less Competitive Than a Med School?

I Understand I Need to Provide Multiple Letters of Reference for a PA Program. What Am I Looking for Them to Say to the Schools?