If I Am Coming From a Foreign Country, What Do I Need to Do to Be Eligible to Apply to a PA Program?

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Getting accepted into one of the top physician assistant degree programs isn’t easy. When you’re applying as an international student, the challenges are even greater. Only around half of the accredited graduate programs in physician assistant studies in the United States accept international students, according to U.S. News & World Report. Often, they place additional requirements on students who were educated in a foreign country, including transcript evaluations, U.S. credit requirements, additional testing requirements and citizenship or visa requirements.

The Routine Requirements for the Competitive PA School Admissions Process

International applicants to United States master’s degrees in physician assistant studies need to meet all of the same requirements as U.S.-based students and much more. They typically need a bachelor’s degree that includes coursework in biology, anatomy, physiology, chemistry and microbiology, according to the American Academy of PAs. They also need a great deal of clinical experience or direct patient care experience – on average, three years of full-time work, the American Academy of PAs reported. Finally, applicants to PA school need competitive results on graduate entrance exams, compelling letters of reference from at least three evaluators, a clean criminal background check and much more.

PA school is so competitive that, for the 2017 to 2018 academic year, only 32 percent of applicants matriculated into a program and the average matriculation rate for individual programs was in the single digits, the Physician Assistant Education Association reported.

Evaluations of Undergraduate Studies and U.S. Credit Requirements

Your first challenge as an international applicant is meeting the undergraduate degree requirements of a PA school. When you’re coming from a foreign country, you need to make sure that your undergraduate degree is considered the equivalent of a bachelor’s or baccalaureate degree in the United States.

One reason this may prove problematic is because different countries establish different requirements for a bachelor’s degree. What is traditionally considered a four-year degree in the United States may be only a three-year program in many European countries, according to U.S. News & World Report. This means you may be in for a surprise when you go to apply to an American PA school with your foreign bachelor’s degree and learn that you need to complete another year of school just to qualify to apply to a physician assistant program.

Even if you avoid that particular pitfall, you may still need to spend another year studying at the undergraduate level in the U.S. for a different reason. Some PA programs require that students complete a minimum of 30 credits at a regionally accredited school in the U.S. before they can enroll in the physician assistant program.

International applicants to American PA programs also need to prove that their bachelor’s degree coursework is equivalent to what they would have taken if enrolled in a U.S.-based program. This requires them to pay to have an accredited credential evaluation service review every course they completed as part of their undergraduate studies. A course-by-course evaluation from an independent and accredited credential evaluation service can cost hundreds of dollars and delay your application by weeks.

If you completed four years of college in your home country but did not earn a degree, this likely won’t count as an equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. You may, however, be able to transfer these courses and credits to a U.S. institution to finish your education in America.

Foreign Language Testing and Visa or Citizenship Requirements

Aspiring PAs already have to complete entrance exams such as the PA-CAT, the GRE or the MCAT. International applicants at many PA schools have to complete a second exam to be considered for admission. The four-part Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exam that evaluates your grasp of the English language and is often required for non-native speakers.

Over the course of the exam, you’ll spend three hours proving your capabilities in reading, listening, speaking and writing in the English language. If you have to take the TOEFL exam, you should know that this requirement can add hundreds of additional dollars to the total cost of applying for PA school.

To come to the United States to study, you need to secure legal immigration status. Some PA schools will sponsor a student visa in certain situations, but other programs do not sponsor student visas under any circumstances.

PA school lessons and assignments at U.S. institutions are typically presented in English, so students should be proficient in the English language to succeed in their studies.

Information for PAs and Doctors Educated in Foreign Countries

International immigrants who have already completed their training to become PAs or doctors in a foreign country face an exceptionally challenging situation. The only way to become qualified to work as a licensed physician assistant in the U.S. is to complete an accredited master’s degree program in physician assistant studies and earn a passing score on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) licensing exam, according to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

This means that PAs who were educated and credentialed in another country and have years of experience working in the field may still need to start at the bottom when they immigrate to the United States. Individual accredited programs may choose to offer advanced standing to credentialed international students, the ARC-PA reported, but many do not.

Doctors educated in foreign countries sometimes become PAs in the U.S. to get qualified to practice medicine in America more quickly. However, they, too, have to start at the bottom. Not all PA schools admit students with prior medical training in a foreign country.  

Additional Resources

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

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

Does a PA Have a Medical License?