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General Overview

Working with supervising physicians, physician assistants (PAs) provide medical services traditionally performed by physicians. These services include taking medical histories, performing physical examinations, ordering and interpreting tests, diagnosing and treating medical conditions, educating and counseling patients, performing minor medical/surgical procedures, and in most states prescribing medications. PAs practice in the same settings as physicians, i.e., outpatient facilities, private and public clinics, managed care and other systems in rural and urban areas. PAs are needed from a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and serve a widely diverse population.

The focus of the PA education is primary care medicine. This broad education provides a base from which graduates practice in primary care and other medical specialties. The Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) provides an online PA Programs Directory. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is the national professional society for PAs, representing a profession of more than 100,000 certified PAs across all medical and surgical specialties. My PA Network is another great resource to learn about the profession; it is an online community for PAs to communicate, learn, share their experiences, and discuss changes in the profession.

Choosing a Major

All master-level programs in physician assistant studies (MPAS) have pre-requisite courses, a few of which are uniform across programs. Programs do not generally require a specific major. With ample preparation, you can become a competitive applicant to MPAS programs regardless of your baccalaureate degree program, including starting with an Undeclared status.

Declaration and Progression Standards

Once you complete 12 or more credit hours in biology or chemistry (BC) course work at James Madison University, you will be subject to performance standard reviews twice a year. You must achieve and maintain an overall G.P.A. of 3.00 or above and BC G.P.A. of 2.70 or above to retain the Pre-Physician Assistant Program declaration. Since physician assistant programs consider all course attempts during the admissions process, the G.P.A. calculations for the Pre-Physician Assistant Program will include all course attempts. If your academic performance standards fall below a 3.00 overall G.P.A. or a 2.70 BC G.P.A., you are at very high risk for not being admitted to a physician assistant program. Therefore if you are unable to attain or maintain an a 3.00 overall G.P.A. or above or a 2.70 BC G.P.A. or above, then your Pre-Physician Assistant Program will be administratively dropped.


Pre-Professional Health Advising has developed requirements for the Pre-Physician Assistant Program based on pre-requisite courses of 76 PA schools in the District of Columbia and 8 states (CT, MA, MD, NC, NJ, NY, PA, and VA). The review of pre-requisite courses to develop the requirements for the Pre-PA Program below was completed in spring semester 2017. You should look at individual PA school lists of pre-requisites to assure completion of all pre-requisite coursework. Because these courses are pre-requisites to PA programs, PA school admissions committees will use your academic success in these courses as a metric of your ability to achieve success in PAschool.

If you have credit for any of the following courses by earning Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), Cambridge International Exam (CIE), community college credit, or departmental test credit, please read the Non-JMU Coursework for Pre-Requisite Coursework below.

Biology Coursework

Students are required to complete 8 credit hours of General Biology with labs. 72% of PA schools listed General Biology I as a pre-requisite; 53% listed General Biology II as a pre-requisite.

  • BIO 140: Foundations of Biology I (4 credits)
  • BIO 150: Foundations of Biology II (4 credits)

Pre-PA students are also required to complete Microbiology, because 80% of PA schools listed Microbiology as a pre-requisite. Three other schools listed it as strongly recommended or a requirement option.

  • BIO 245: Microbiology (4 credits)

Student are also required to complete Human Anatomy and Human Physiology. 96% of PA schools required Human Anatomy and Human Physiology; one of the remaining three schools listed these courses as highly recommended.

  • BIO 270: Human Physiology (4 credits)
  • BIO 290: Human Anatomy (4 credits)

Finally, Pre-PA students are required to complete 4 additional credit hours of intermediate or advanced Biology coursework. 26% of PA schools listed Genetics as a requirement, and an additional 18% listed it as strongly recommended, recommended, or a requirement option. In total, 45% of programs are somehow identifying Genetics. Other recommendations or requirement options by PA programs included Immunology (9% of programs), Histology (8%), and Cell Biology (13%). Therefore, when choosing these 4 credit hours:

Pre-Professional Health Advising strongly recommends:

  • BIO 240: Genetics (4 credits)

Pre-Professional Health Advising subsequently recommends:

  • BIO 304: Cell & Molecular Biology (3 credits)
  • BIO 343 and 343L: Immunology and Immunology Laboratory (3 credits; 1 credit)
  • BIO 482: Histology (4 credits)

Chemistry Coursework

Pre-PA students are required to complete 8 credit hours of General Chemistry with labs. 89% of PA schools listed General Chemistry I as a pre-requisite, and 74% of PA schools listed General Chemistry II as a pre-requisite.

  • CHEM 131: General Chemistry I (3 credits)
  • CHEM 131L: General Chemistry Laboratory (1 credit) or CHEM 135L: Special General Chemistry Laboratory (1 credit; Chemistry majors only)
  • CHEM 132: General Chemistry II (3 credits)
  • CHEM 132L: General Chemistry Laboratory (1 credit) or CHEM 136L: Special General Chemistry
         Laboratory (1 credit; Chemistry majors only)

Students are also required to complete 4-5 credit hours of Organic Chemistry with lab. 57% of PA schools listed Organic Chemistry I as a pre-requisite; an additional 8% listed it as recommended. 5% of PA schools listed Organic Chemistry II as a pre-requisite. In total, 67% of schools required, recommended, or listed Organic Chemistry as a requirement option.

Regarding Organic Lab, 21% of schools require the Organic I lab, and an additional 4% recommend it. 4% of PA schools require the Organic II lab. Please note, at JMU if you are interested in taking CHEM 242L (2 credit hours), do not take CHEM 241L (1 credit hour). Students cannot earn credit for both 241L and 242L. Chem 242L is 2 credits and will fulfill an Organic I lab requirement. 29% of schools listed Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry as a requirement. Please note that Organic I is a prerequisite to Biochemistry at JMU (CHEM 260 and BIO/CHEM 361), and Organic lab is a pre-requisite to CHEM 260.

  • CHEM 241: Organic Chemistry I (3 credits)
  • CHEM 241L: Organic Chemistry II (1 credits) or CHEM 242L: Organic Chemistry Laboratory (2 credits) or CHEM 287L and 288L: Integrated Inorganic/Organic Laboratories (4 credits; Chemistry majors only)

Students are required to complete 3-4 credits of Biochemistry. In total, 68% of PA schools required, recommended, or listed Biochemistry as a requirement option. Specifically, 24% of PA schools listed Biochemistry as a pre-requisite, and an additional 13% listed it as recommended or strongly recommended. 29% of schools listed Organic Chemistry or Biochemistry as a requirement - two of which preferred Biochemistry. Some schools specifically stated a Biochemistry at 300-400 level or for science majors is preferred, meaning CHEM/BIO 361 at JMU. Some schools also state that a Biochemistry lab is reuqired, meaning you need to take CHEM 260L or CHEM 366L. Again, please pay careful attention to pre-requisite requirements listed for PA programs to which you intend to apply.

  • CHEM 260 and 260L: Concepts of Biochemistry and Laboratory (4 credits total) or 
  • CHEM 361: Biochemistry I (3 credits)

Mathematics Coursework

Pre-Physician Assistant students are required to complete 3 credits of a 3 credits of a 200- or 300-level Statistics. While not a requirement for Pre-PA students, please know that 3% of schools specifically listed 3 credits of calculus as a prerequisite, so you may want to take calculus as well.

There are two considerations when choosing appropriate calculus and statistics courses.

  1. Double-Counting with Other RequirementsRefer to major and minor requirements in the Undergraduate Catalog to determine if there are specific calculus or statistics courses required for your major or minor requirements. Most of these classes will fulfill General Education: Cluster 3: Quantitative Reasoning, but this may also be a consideration.
  2. Your Math Placement Exam (MPE) ScoresUtilize the MPE Matrix to determine the appropriate calculus and statistics courses to take. You can find your MPE for calculus and statistics within the Student Center of MyMadison. You can watch a video to learn how to find your MPE scores.

Statistics: There are two statistics courses that Pre-Physician Assistant students are encouraged to take for the Pre-PA statistics requirement at James Madison University. Your MPE - Statistics score may require that you take MATH 105: Quantitative Literacy and Reasoning beforehand to be successful in these courses.

  • MATH 220: Elementary Statistics (3 credits)
  • MATH 318: Introduction to Probability and Statistics (4 credits)

Calculus: If you choose to take calculus, there are four 200-level Calculus options at James Madison University that should fulfill this prerequisite for PA schools. There are two calculus "pathways"; the 231-232 sequence, 233-234 sequence, and 235 prepare you for more advanced calculus courses. MATH 205 does not prepare you for more advanced calculus courses. Your MPE - Calculus score may require that you take MATH 155 or 156: College Algebra beforehand, or that you take MATH 199: Algebra/Precalculus Gateway in conjunction with one of the following courses to be successful.

  • MATH 205: Introductory Calculus I (3 credits)
  • MATH 231: Calculus with Functions I (3 credits)
  • MATH 233E: A Modeling Approach to Calculus, Part A (3 credits; Biology majors only)
  • MATH 235: Calculus I (4 credits)

Psychology Coursework

Pre-PA students must complete 6 credits of Psychology coursework from the options listed below. 38% of PA schools listed 3 credits of psychology as a pre-requisite, and 4% broadly listed 6 credits of psychology as a pre-requisite. An additional 16% of PA schools specifically listed general psychology as a pre-requisite; 3% listed lifespan human development as a pre-requisite; and one school specifically listed abnormal psychology as a pre-requisite. Broadly, 24% of schools listed general psychology as a requirement, recommendation, or requirement option; 20% listed lifespan human development as a requirement, recommendation, or requirement option; and 16% listed abnormal psychology as a requirement, recommendation, or requirement option. You should look at individual PA schools' list of pre-requisites to guide selection of psychology coursework to assure completion of all pre-requisites.

  • PSYC 101: General Psychology (3 credits)
  • PSYC 160: Life Span Human Development (3 credits)
  • PSYC 250: Introduction to Abnormal Psychology (3 credits) or PSYC 335: Abnormal Psychology (3 credits; Psychology majors only)

Students are encouraged to utilize General Education as an opportunity to take Pre-PA Psychology coursework that will also count for General Education's Cluster 5: Sociocultural Domain.

  • PSYC 101: General Psychology (3 credits)
  • PSYC 160: Life Span Human Development (3 credits)

Medical Terminology Coursework

Pre-PA students are required to complete medical terminology, because 32% of PA schools listed medical terminology as a pre-requisite; an additional 7% of schools recommended or strongly recommended medical terminology.

  • HTH 210: Medical Terminology (3 credits)

Admissions Criteria and Academic Record

Academic performance is a critical factor in the evaluation of applicants. Typically programs review the overall Grade Point Average (GPA) and the GPA of science courses. Many programs have a minimum GPA requirement of a 3.0. In general, programs also examine the transcript for evidence of academic consistentcy, course load, and improvement in grade performance.

Standardized Test

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is the most commonly required standardized test, however some programs require the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). You are encouraged to consult with PAEA's Program Directory for comparative information on required standardized tests for participating PA programs.

GRE Preparation Resources

The best study plan is one that is tailored to your personal learning style and schedule. The GRE offers a variety of free and low-cost tools to help you prepare for the GRE so you can feel more confident on test day.

MCAT Preparation Resources

The best study plan is one that is tailored to your personal learning style and schedule. To that end, AAMC provides a five-step guide, developed by the MCAT team at the AAMC, to help you create your own study plan.

AAMC also encourages you to prepare fore the MCAT exam with official test prep resources written by the test developers at the AAMC. These resources are centrally organized on the AAMC Prepare for the MCAT Exam website. Two of these resources are free:

  • What's on the MCAT Exam? Learn about the exam with this free online tool. Explore the four exam sections to learn more about what is tested by reading content lists, watching videos, seeing how questions test skills, and more.
  • Khan Academy MCAT Collection. The collection of over 1,100 free videos and 3,000 review questions was created by Khan Academy with support from the AAMC and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Preparation Timeline

Programs generally admit one group of students per year. Most programs' annual start date for a new cohort is in the fall; others start in the summer or in January. The due date for applications is typicaly 6 - 9 months prior to the start of classes. Some programs require that all prerequisites be met at the time of application; others require prerequisites be completed by the time of enrollment.


Many PA programs require or prefer health care experience prior to entry. Each program defines the type and amount of experience it requires. The average amount is about 1,000 hours of direct-contact, patient-care hours. Advanced planning is extremely important since it generally requires certification and will take time to acquire the clinical experience.

Letters of Recommendation or Evaluation

PA programs require letters of recommendation as part of the application. We recommend that students establish relationships with faculty within the university as well as with employers in clinical work place settings. Letters of evaluation from people who are able to comment on your academic preparation and health care experience are typically preferred.

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