If you’re hoping to get into one of the top physician assistant degree programs, you’re probably wondering just how competitive the admissions process is. How competitive PA programs are compared to medical school is an ongoing debate, but one thing everyone agrees on is that gaining acceptance into either of these types of programs is a challenge. To be a compelling candidate, you need strong performance in your academic record, your graduate entry exams, your extracurricular and volunteer activities and more.

The Level of Competition Isn’t a Competition

Medical school is notoriously competitive, and it has been for some time. For PA school, the competition has become fiercer in recent years. Wider recognition within and outside the healthcare sector, a promising job outlook and favorable earning potential have all generated more interest in becoming physician assistants among students and, as a result, more competition than was previously found in the field.

It’s difficult to accurately compare the level of competition for spots in a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) program and those in a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies program. Even though the career fields are related, admissions departments aren’t necessarily looking for all the same selling points in these two types of programs. PA students don’t necessarily take the same graduate entry tests as M.D. and D.O. students do – or, for that matter, any test at all.

The bar is set somewhat higher for medical students than PA students in terms of things like academic performance and level of familiarity with scientific research. This, combined with the grueling nature of the graduate entry exams needed for aspiring doctors – the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) – are among the primary arguments for medical school being more competitive than PA school.

Although some anecdotal and even statistical evidence suggests that the acceptance rate may be even lower for PA programs than medical school, that’s difficult to put into context. The challenges and expense of applying for medical school – between $5,000 and $10,000, according to CNBC – already weed out a lot of would-be M.D. and D.O. candidates who decide against applying in the first place. Rightly or wrongly, more casual candidates – ones who are less fully committed to the career path and less qualified for application – are less likely to be intimidated by the PA program admissions process compared to their peers who once aspired to medical school.

Neither medical school nor PA programs are easy to get into or to complete. Instead of waffling over which program is harder, students would do better to decide which career path they really want and commit to doing what it takes to become a competitive candidate.

The Need for Direct Patient Care Experience

Is getting into a PA program more or less competitive than a med school 1

IMAGE SOURCE: Pixabay, public domain

There’s one thing you may need for PA school that you don’t need for medical school: experience. Many programs look for applicants to have experience working in roles like nursing assistant, registered nurse, EMT or paramedic, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Some programs refer to this as direct patient care experience, and it may be required or merely preferred.

Patient care experience can take many different forms, and some types of experiences are more highly valued than others. A school may consider both the quality and quantity of your experience in reviewing your application. An applicant who has experience in a healthcare provider role like nurse, paramedic or phlebotomist will usually be seen as a more competitive candidate than one who has only spent time shadowing, or following and observing, the work of a doctor or physician assistant.

On average, first-year students of PA programs are two to three years older than first-year medical students, so they’re more likely to have more considerable experience working in the healthcare field than their counterparts entering medical school.

Don’t Think of Physician Assistant School as a Backup

If you have been under the impression that you can always apply to medical school first and then apply to physician assistant programs if you don’t get accepted into an M.D. or D.O. program, learning that PA school is also competitive might be a setback. Although most applicants do consider both career options at some point, PA programs aren’t filled with students who “settled” after they didn’t make it into medical school. Ask around, and you’ll find that the majority of PA students – and established PAs — really want to be a physician assistant, not a doctor.

It’s best if you can make your decision whether to pursue a career as a PA or a physician sooner rather than later, for one of the same reasons why comparing the competitiveness of these programs is difficult. Doctors and PAs may work in the same field, but they’re distinct professions that involve separate processes for career preparation. For example, you definitely want to take the MCAT if you’re planning to go to medical school, but this test may not be the best choice when applying for a PA program. If you go into planning your graduate healthcare studies with the idea that what it takes to succeed in these disparate degree programs is the same, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

There are many reasons a student would willingly choose being a PA over being a doctor, including having more career flexibility, devoting almost all of their work time to direct patient care instead of administration and being able to start their full career faster.

Additional Resources

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

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?

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

Why Would Someone Become a PA Instead of an MD?