Successful PA Admissions Part 1: Finding and Enrolling Your Ideal Applicant

Mar 31, 2023 | PA Admissions Corner

By Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey

Welcome back to PA Admissions Corner. This Issue begins a five-part series we’ve really been looking forward to: Successful PA Admissions.

Of course, all issues of PA Admissions Corner have been about this subject in one way or another. What’s different? Now we’re breaking it all down for you. We’re going to tell you who your ideal applicants are and, more importantly, how you can distinguish them from your applicant pool. When you find them early, you can focus your time and efforts on these sometimes-hidden gems.

In today’s Issue, we’ll look at the “who” and in the next four Issues, we’ll talk about “how.”


A hard truth in admissions is that you can always lose potential matriculants, even during the last few days before classes begin. Why is this? Applicants who decide not to attend your PA program at the last minute usually found enrollment with a program that met more of their individual needs or wants.

When this happens, rest assured that these losses were not your ideal applicants.

Well, that’s easy to say in hindsight, isn’t it? And it sounds a little bit like a coping mechanism. “Oh, if they didn’t attend our program, they must not have been right for us.”

What we have found and what we want to convey to you, however, is that there are ways to identify those ideal applicants well ahead of time so that last-minute changes are minimized. Your staff can spend their time focused on the applicants that matter: the ones who want to attend your program and who are motivated to succeed when they do.


What are the Applicants Looking For?

Every PA program has a unique set of characteristics and offerings that inform an applicant’s decision. We have spoken with PA students who chose one program over others, and we learned the factors that have the greatest weight in their decision:

  • Reputation of the PA program
  • Strong associations with large healthcare centers
  • Affiliation with the applicant’s undergraduate institution
  • Location closer to the applicant’s home
  • Location in a destination city (Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Boston)
  • Significantly lower cost
  • Scholarship offer
  • Resonance of the program’s mission and vision
  • Earlier matriculation date
  • Acceptance letter given early in the admissions cycle
  • Demonstration of care and interest in the applicant as a person

It’s clear that some of these individual factors are not contestable by many PA programs. There is nothing your program can do about the location or the cost of tuition, for example. Don’t waste too much effort trying to entice highly qualified but less-interested applicants if those factors are “deal-breakers.” When they get a more desirable offer, they will take it.


The Ideal Applicant Revealed.

The ideal applicant is not necessarily the one who has the highest GPA or the one who gives a stellar interview. If only it were that easy! This challenge is why Exam Master (our company), developed the PA Applicant Pre-Enrollment Risk Scoring Model–to provide a data-driven diagnostic tool that identifies applicants with the highest probability of attending your institution and succeeding. It allows your admissions team to identify and work with the applicants who have the strongest interests in attending your institution AND who have the personal and academic characteristics to thrive in a rigorous course of study.

Your ideal applicant is unique to your PA program. They have the greatest probability of accepting your offer of enrollment and, most importantly, showing up for the first day of class. We have found that program-specific information in the following categories is particularly useful in making this determination:

  • Key Personal History Traits
  • Undergraduate Educational Standards
  • Educational Risks
  • Healthcare Service
  • Non-Traditional Characteristics
  • Key Attitude Traits

Every program has a different set of ideal applicants. Applicants ideal to yours may not be ideal to your competitor. Focusing on identifying your ideal applicants will conserve resources when contesting applicants who may be ideal to programs besides your own. Your PA program might not be located in a destination city, your tuition might higher than average, or maybe your program is not associated with nationally known healthcare providers; you still will be able reach out, select, screen, interview, and matriculate these ideal applicants because they have chosen your PA program as ideal for them over your competitors.

One of the main reasons PA programs dig deep into their waitlist— besides being misaligned with their admissions cycle—is because they are prioritizing interview applicants, however qualified, who are not prioritizing them in return. If you consider that over 70% of US PA programs’ ideal applicants will not be the top-tier applicant with a 3.6 or higher GPA, you might think this imbalanced sense of priority could use some calibration.

Most PA programs’ ideal applicants will have many of the following important traits:

  • Non-top-tier undergraduate university
  • 3.3-3.5 GPA
  • 3.3-3.5 Science GPA
  • Worked through undergraduate education
  • Lives within 150 miles of your program’s location
  • 23-30 years old
  • Specific healthcare experience
  • Previous applicant to your program
  • Early application in your Application Cycle
  • Demonstration of overcoming adversity
  • Could be classified as a “non-traditional” student

These traits are strong indicators in predicting the success of prospective students, both in their willingness to attend the PA program and their success rate.


The Applicants are There.

Application problems are rarely about sheer quantity. Every PA program in the country turns away applicants that could enroll, succeed, and become PAs. The real problem in most PA programs revolves around screening and selection. They chase applicants with little to no affinity for the PA program and overlook motivated applicants due to lack of communication, punctuality, creativity, or open-mindedness.

To conceptualize your ideal applicant—

  1. Think about some of your ideal students who succeeded in your PA program in the past. How many of them were top-tier applicants? How many of them had unique traits that set them apart?
  2. Brainstorm about your program’s mission statement. What kind of student is the best fit? Are there special characteristics that stand out as representations of your program’s vision?

With this “ideal applicant” in mind, you can distinguish them from the rest of the applicant pool and give them the effort they deserve.


In Issue 18 of PA Admissions Corner, we continue our series on Successful PA Admissions, looking at Behavioral Interviewing: the questions to ask, how to score them, and what those responses tell you about prospective students.


To your admissions and program success,

Jim Pearson, CEO
Exam Master

Dr. Scott Massey Ph.D., PA-C
Scott Massey LLC

If you are in need of admissions support and services for your PA program, we can help.

Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey have helped hundreds of educational institutions and programs improve their admissions outcomes.

Exam Master supports Physician Assistant Educational Institutions with the following services:

  • Admissions Support Services
  • Student Progression Services
  • Data Services
  • Accreditation Services
  • Board Services

Learn more about Exam Master’s products and services and how we support PA education by reaching out to [email protected]

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