How to Select the Best PA School For You

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So you’ve been accepted to more than one PA school?  Congratulations!  Now how do you pick the one you will actually attend?   I have been asked this question many times by future PAs.  There are a few important things to keep in mind when making your selection.

PANCE Pass Rate

For all of the time, energy and resources you will put into your PA school education, you deserved to be assured that you’re going to pass the boards and actually become a certified physician assistant at the end of the long tunnel.  The national average for PANCE pass rate is 92%.  If a school you are looking into attending has a pass rate below the national average, you should probably consider a different school.  Most school’s PANCE pass rates a pretty comparable.  Don’t feel like you need to pick the school with the highest pass rate, because there are many other important factors to consider.  However, you should probably avoid the school with the lowest pass rate.

Rotations

Find out how rotations are organized.   Most PA schools will have 1 year of didactic learning and 1 year of rotations.  Some schools organize all of your rotations for you.  Others will require you to organize your own rotations.  Some schools will organize your rotations near the city you are going to school.  Others will encourage you to travel for your rotations across the US or even internationally.  What is ideal for you depends on where you are in your life and what your goals are.  If you know you want to continue living in a particular area, it may be ideal for you to stay close to home.  If you’re excited about the possibility to travel the world, you may want the opportunity to do so with your rotations.  If you have no clue where you want to live at the end of PA school, you may want to save yourself the hassle and let the school select your rotations.  It is a lot of work to set up your own rotations, but it may be awesome for those who want to get their foot in the door at a specific facility.  One size does not fit all in regards to rotations, so figure out how the rotations are organized so you can ensure a good fit.

Education Style

Problem based learning (PBL) is a learning style in which rather than having information given to you in a classical lecture style, you are expected to do your own research to learn new concepts.  For more information about PBL refer to this article, My Review of Problem Based Learning in PA School.  This education style is becoming common in PA and medical schools.  Many programs incorporate some degree of PBL, others are exclusively PBL based.  If you are someone who likes hands on learning, this may be for you.  If you prefer to have information handed to you on a silver platter and then go home and review it, this style may not be for you.  You may thrive in a predominately lecture style PA school.  It is important to go to a school where the learning style matches your own. 

Program Length

Most PA programs are 24 months.  There are some programs that are 36 months long, and many in-between.   Of course, most people want to complete their education as quickly as possible, especially physician assistants.  After all, if we did not care how long we spent in school or how much our education cost, we’d become physicians.  I would choose the shorter program every time.  That extra year you spend in school is more student debt and more wages lost in my opinion.  However, everyone has their own opinions.  If you want to spend more time in school to feel more comfortable as a provider, perhaps the longer program is for you.

School Reputation

Some schools notoriously put out fantastic physician assistants and of course you want to be one of those.  The reputation of the school is important, but it is certainly not everything.  No matter where you graduate from, you can expect to get a job upon graduation.  That’s the beauty of being a physician assistant.  There is plenty demand.  Keep the reputation in mind, but don’t let it be the only factor you consider.

Location

Location is important to consider for multiple reasons.

If you know for sure what city or state you’d like to end up in, it might ideal for you to go to PA school in that area to set up connections.  

It is a plus If you have family or friends near your PA school.  It is important to have a good support network when you’re slaving away with those long study hours.

Not all cities are created equal in regards to medical resources.  Some cities have many hospitals, teaching facilities, doctor’s offices and clinics, which provides a lot of diverse learning opportunities. 

Let’s be honest, if you’re going to spend 2 or more years in a city, you want it to be a fun and interesting city.  Yes, you will be allowed out of the library or study cave while you’re in PA school, so go with a city you’d enjoy spending time in. 

Lastly, you have to think of the cost of living of the city, which brings us to our next point.

Cost

When you’re taking out student loans, the idea of actually paying them back seems too far away to actually conceptualize.  “Eh, what’s the difference between a $100,000 school and a $120,000 school?”  Well after interest that $20,000 might be more like $40,000.  If you are on a 25 year repayment plan, that may be 5 years of paying on your student loans.  So think very hard about your costs.  Keep in mind, it is not just the cost of the tuition; also consider the cost of living as a whole.  That being said, there are more important things in life than money, like your sanity for example.

Support Network

This section kind of goes a long with location, but it is import to emphasize on its own. In order to not just survive, but rather thrive in PA school, you will need some type of support network.  If you are someone who makes close friends very easily, traveled far for undergrad and thrived, then you may be fine no matter where you are.  Also if you have a significant other willing to travel with you wherever you go, then you’re golden too.  For everyone else, I’d recommend selecting a school where you have friends and family nearby.  Ideally you would have friends or family in the same city.  If that’s not possible, it is best to have someone who can support you within driving distance.  If you have to fly to someone or call a significantly different time zone every time you need support, you may be adding an extra hurdle in PA school. 

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