Why Would a School Want Me to Have a Criminal Background Check for a PA Program?

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Even once you’re accepted into one of the top physician assistant degree programs, your admission into the program may hinge on the outcome of a criminal background check. Among the reasons for subjecting PA students to criminal background checks are the requirements of clinical rotation sites and licensing regulations and requirements across different states. Having a criminal background can make getting into PA school a lot harder, but students may still be able to manage it, depending on the timing and nature of the crime and how they handle disclosing their records in the applications process.

Clinical Rotation Sites May Require You to Have a Clean Record

One reason why students in a physician assistant master’s degree program undergo a background check is because of the clinical rotation component of every accredited PA program. During your clinical rotations, you will be assigned to go out into clinical environments that include doctors’ offices, hospitals, clinics, ambulatory care centers, nursing homes and more.

These facilities are rightfully protective of their patients, staff and safe work environments. Clinical sites may require PA students to submit proof of a background check that shows that they have a clean criminal record prior to being permitted to start a rotation at the site.

You may need to complete a criminal background check each year during your PA education.

A Criminal Record Could Get in the Way of Becoming a Licensed PA

In some states, you can only get your physician assistant license after you have passed a criminal background check. If that’s the case in your state (where you intend to live and work or where you attend school), part of including a background check in the school’s admissions requirements is to prevent a spot in the program from going to an applicant who will never be eligible for licensure due to an existing criminal record. Without a license, you can’t legally work in this field.

Unlike an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree in physician assistant studies has one clearly defined goal: to prepare students for the PA career. These programs are expensive and competitive. Schools don’t want to give away one of their coveted slots to a student who won’t go on to practice medicine as a PA, and someone who is ineligible for licensure fits the bill.

Just 32.3 percent of the 27,283 candidates who applied to a PA program for the 2017 to 2018 cycle matriculated into a program, the Physician Assistant Education Association reported. The average matriculation rate for individual programs was only 7 percent. 

What to Do If You’re Worried You Can’t Pass a Criminal Background Check

If you are worried that a criminal history will prevent you from getting into PA school, you need to do a good deal of research and careful consideration of your options. First of all, if you haven’t already done so, you need to make a commitment to turn your life around and follow through with that commitment for some time. A PA school is much less likely to overlook a red flag on your criminal record if it occurred recently than if it represented a long-ago indiscretion that you have learned from since that time.

If you have recently had a brush with the law, you may need to put your dreams of becoming a PA on hold for a little while. In the meantime, you could perhaps take part in an activity that can help you show your commitment to avoiding criminal activities, like specific efforts toward rehabilitation, community volunteer work or mentoring at-risk kids. Although these activities aren’t guaranteed to change the minds of admissions departments, they speak to you taking real actions to show that you have changed, and those actions can speak a lot louder than verbal assurances that your criminal past is, in fact, in the past.

The severity and nature of the crime also matter. If your prior offenses suggest that you could pose a risk to patients, such as violent or sexual crimes or crimes involving drugs, those violations are far more likely to keep you from getting into a PA program than a less serious crime in which no one got hurt. Additionally, it matters whether you were actually convicted of or pled guilty to a crime, as opposed to being charged but acquitted or having the charges dropped.

Whatever you do, don’t try to hide a criminal record from your PA school, because failure to disclose past criminal activity could get you in big trouble if you get caught. Instead, being forthright about your past, any mitigating or extenuating circumstances and how you have changed is a better option for dealing with your record, according to U.S. News & World Report.

Not all PA programs handle background checks the same way or at the same point in the applications process. If you believe the background check may be a problem, you should pay special attention to the background check requirement section of a school’s profile when you fill out the Central Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA) to apply to schools. Some background checks are stricter than others or apply later in the process – after you have already had the chance to win over the admissions team based on your grades, experience, letters of reference, interview and other factors.

Different schools use different criteria to make admissions decisions. In some schools, a misdemeanor committed years ago may not keep you out of the program, while other PA schools will rescind acceptance if any criminal activity appears on your record.

Additional Resources

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

Will I Get to Do Actual Clinical Rotations in a PA Program?

Does a PA Have a Medical License?