I know I would have greatly appreciated a sample college course layout of a student in my shoes when I was pre-PA. Here are some commonly asked questions I get from pre-PA students who are trying to be proactive and plan out their 4-year college schedule in preparation of applying to PA school:
What college courses should I be taking to apply to PA school?
Most physician assistant programs provide you with a list of their course requirements on their website and each program's pre-reqs are different, so keep that in mind when scheduling your courses! I was a Biology major in the School of Arts & Sciences at Rutgers. Here is a layout of my college courses for those of you who like to plan ahead or see if you are on the right track:
(#)= number of credits
AP Credits from High School
AP credits can be very helpful especially at a large university where it's often difficult to get a seat in major science courses like General Biology or General Chemistry as a freshman. One thing I will say about AP credits is, if you are coming in with a lot of science credits, try not to take easier courses in their place, just because you can with all those extra credits under your belt. Use AP credits to your advantage and take higher level science courses that you might otherwise not have had the opportunity or the time to take. Now I'm sure the type of student coming in with multiple science AP class credits is not the same type of student that needs to be told to challenge themselves, but just in case, it's been said.
Biology 1 & Lab & Extra Study Group Recitation (5)
Chemistry 1 (4)
Calculus 1 (4)
Expository Writing (3)
First Year Seminar for Health & Medicine (FIGS course) (1)
Total Credits: 20 (including 3 AP credits)
Biology 2 & Lab (4)
Chemistry 2 & Lab (5)
Scientific and Technical Writing (3)
Intro to Communications (gotta add some "fluff" for your sanity) (3)
Byrne Seminar (1 credit Research Course) (1)
Total Credits: 16
Organic Chemistry 1 (4)
Basic Statistics for Research (3)
Ethics of Eating Right (Philosophy Course) (4)
Info Tech (Communications Course) (3)
Psychology Research with a Faculty Member for Credit (1)
Total Credits: 15
Organic Chemistry 2 (4)
Extended General Physics 1 & Lab (5)
Principles of Ecology (3)
Art History (3)
Psychology Research with a Faculty Member for Credit (1)
Total Credits: 16
Extended General Physics 2 & Lab (5)
Organic Chemistry Lab (2)
Medical Terminology (3)
Total Credits: 14
EKG Use and Interpretation (3)
Intro to Cancer (3)
Intro to Biochemistry (3)
Genetics Lab (1)
Infant and Child Development (3)
Total Credits: 13
Since I was accepted into a 3+3 Program, I started PA school my senior year of undergrad, but here are some courses I would have considered taking as a senior, if I applied the normal route, to better prepare myself for the first year of PA school:
Functional Human Anatomy
Essentials of Cell Biology and Neuroscience
Sociology of Health and Medicine
Which course was most helpful for PA school?
EKG was actually taught by a faculty member of the Rutgers PA program who teaches the PA students how to interpret EKGs, so I would have to say taking this course was most helpful. Learning something once is good, but learning it twice is even better. It really helps solidifies the material, and by the end I felt confident enough to help teach some of my classmates. And as the expression goes in PA school, "See one, Do one, Teach one". Teaching is proven to be an excellent way to test your knowledge and gain a better understanding on a particular subject matter.
The other course I would highly recommend was Intro to Cancer. I never really understood as a college student how PA school could be any harder than undergrad, given that I was already killing myself trying to keep up with my school work. This is how it's harder. In our Pathology course in PA school, we had one 4-hour lecture on cancer. I kid you not, we went over my entire undergrad Intro to Cancer syllabus front to back in 4 hours. The amount of material and the pace you are learning at is 10-fold. This course gave me a really nice background foundation to fall back on, and I felt a little less lost throughout the lecture. Any advantage in PA school is a good one when you have four lectures of material to go over that night.
Which course was the hardest?
I tell a lot of people that Organic Chemistry 1 and 2 is more of a "lifestyle" than a college course. It completely consumes all hours of your day. It takes hours and hours of practice, just like learning a new language. You have to attend extra review courses every Friday and 5-7 hour long review sessions before exams just to stay on top of the class curve and not fall behind. The exams were long, fast-paced, open ended, and high intensity stress wise. Just as a reference, a Columbia orgo professor took a look at my final exam and said it was comparable if not harder, given the time frame I was allotted to complete the exam in, to the orgo exams given at their Ivy League institution. And from what I've seen, orgo at Rutgers is not anywhere near comparable difficulty wise to other universities either, so it is a lot of extra effort for the same level of recognition. Not ideal. Especially if you are applying to PA school out of state where they may not recognize the rigor of the course. I honestly believe you have to go to Rutgers and experience this course first hand to truly understand what it takes to get through it in one piece. That being said, if you can get through Rutgers orgo 1 & 2 with B's or better while additionally taking one or two other major science courses, I strongly believe this is a good indicator that you can get through the rigor of PA school.
Which course was a good "Rutgers" selection?
Extended General Physics was an "off-season" course starting in the Spring with a phenomenal teacher. It is considered extended because you meet more times a week to go over the material and a better pace and the lab is included in the course grade itself. The slower pace was way more conducive to learning. And those A+ lab report grades really give you that extra boost on your exam scores you crave. The professor, Dr. Brahmia, also holds Friday review sessions, which really helped me master the material. Again, learning something twice is almost always better.
Which courses would you recommend against?
I took Art History as one of my liberal arts requirements and it was way more of a headache than initially anticipated. I figured hey, I like going to museums and looking at art and taking art classes, how hard can it be. I mean I did survive Organic Chemistry 1, so it can't be THAT bad. It was bad. Really bad. There I was staying up late trying to memorize my Organic Chemistry 2 equations while trying to squeeze in specific dates and mediums of HUNDREDS of paintings. "The guy in the middle of this painting looks about 78 years old, so it must have been painted in 1678, oil on canvas obviously"… Not one of my finer course selections.
Can I take science classes at a community college to get better grades?
Try to limit the number of science courses you take at a community college. It is no secret that sciences at well-known universities are much more challenging than they are at a community college. It is important to show your ability to handle difficult science courses at a university level. A lot of times students who are taking science courses at a community college are taking only one tough class, like organic chemistry, to ease the burden of their course load for the following year. Other students know that taking a certain course at their university could tank their high GPA given the rigor. This is sort of the "easy way out" and programs will recognize this on your application. It's important to take risks and test your strengths. PA school is not the "easy way out" of medical school. They still want to see you challenge yourself, given that you will have to do so numerous times in PA school. Programs may try to convince you that they will not look at your application any differently, but let's be honest, they definitely have to take things like this into consideration when sorting through an increasingly competitive applicant pool of shining stars.
Can I take science classes over the summer to ease my course load?
The same thing goes for summer classes. Try to limit the number of solo science courses you take over the summer. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, anyone can take one science class by itself and get an A. It's undoubtedly easier to succeed when all of your focus is on one thing. But multitasking is a skill you need not only in PA school, but also as a future health care provider. To excel while taking three university level science courses at a time takes a special kind of student. The kind of student programs strive to accept. It demonstrates your organization skills. It demonstrates your time management skills. It demonstrates your drive well past simply just being smart or "gifted". Your ability to handle more than one science course at a time is a true testament of your academic success past, present, and future.