Understanding the Participants in the Admissions Process

Feb 27, 2023 | PA Admissions Corner

By Jim Pearson and Dr. Scott Massey

The admission process for graduate medical education is a challenging and ongoing effort. We find that traditional graduate medical educational programs like medicine, dentistry, and pharmacy have had decades of structured development, allowing them to hone their admissions practices and procedures over time. Extensive support staff can also help manage their admissions departments.

Within the PA educational space, the opposite is usually true. PA education is a newer medical discipline. Until the early 2000s, there were less than 100 PA programs nationally (there are about 260 active programs now). Most physician assistant programs have a smaller staff managing admissions responsibilities, usually while balancing other assigned duties.

In Issue 2 of PA Admissions Corner, we’ll take a closer look at the various participants in the admissions process and the roles that they play. A thorough understanding of these roles is essential to improving the overall admissions process; the roles of these participants will be discussed often and in greater detail in upcoming issues.


The Five Key Participants

These are the most important people in the PA admissions process.

The applicant is your prospective student, the person who is considering enrolling in your PA school’s educational program. Many of these applicants come from highly-ranked undergraduate institutions with distinguished educational credentials, but an equal proportion may come from lesser-ranked undergraduate institutions. If screened properly and given the chance, less-obvious choices can also fit your PA program’s mission and become just as distinguished practicing physician assistants.

Consider what an applicant wants from your admissions Department. Ideally, they want to know their status as soon as possible, including:

  • Is their application accepted?
  • Can they have an interview?
  • Can they interview sooner rather than later?
  • How quickly after that interview will they know the results?
  • How interested is your PA program in them as a prospective student?

The applicant will go out of their way if they think they are likely to get an interview or acceptance letter early in their application cycle. But that same applicant will not bend over backward to accommodate a program that seems disinterested, disorganized, or nonresponsive.

Here’s a reminder of something often undervalued: most applicants have an affinity group of one or more people–like parents or partners–whose opinions will matter in the applicant’s admissions choice. There is much to be gained from incorporating these influential people into the process, at least peripherally. More to come on that subject later.


Admissions Director 
This may very well be you! An Admissions Director is the person in charge of managing the ongoing duties of the PA program’s admissions department: selecting admissions committee members, recruiting qualified interviewers, ensuring that proper goals are met for each year’s incoming cohort, and ensuring compliance in reporting/accreditation standards internally (parent university) and externally (ARC-PA). Like the CEO of a company, the Admissions Director steers the course of the entire process. A successful Director knows how to tell the difference between an excellent prospect and a poor one.

The Admissions Director carries a heavy load. In researching ways to improve PA program admissions processes, we have spoken with scores of PA educators across the country. We heard many common concerns. Directors worry that they are not screening, processing, interviewing, and selecting the best candidates that fit their PA program’s core vision and mission. They are concerned about selecting candidates who are unprepared for the rigors of PA education or are not emotionally equipped to become a physician assistant upon graduation. These concerns are almost universal, but each Director is also faced with unique problems, since no two programs are alike. We believe that our work and research have resulted in some innovative ways to reduce that load significantly while filling cohorts with ideal applicants.


Admissions Committee
This group mostly consists of the leadership and staff of each PA program, often pulling committee members from other graduate medical education programs. This Committee works together to set the admissions requirements for their PA program. As a group, they review, and screen applicants for their interview pool, select applicants for their waitlist, and select who will receive admittance offer letters.

We encourage programs to streamline their Admissions Committee process, beginning with appropriately adjusting the entire Admissions Cycle and reaching out quickly to the most qualified applicants. Outstanding applicants will likely receive multiple offers to matriculate; your program will lose a significant advantage if the Committee’s response time is slow. (Note: In the next Volume of PA Admissions Corner, we’ll discuss at length how to adjust the Admissions Cycle to your best advantage!)


Admissions Representative
The Admissions Representative is the front-line who initially communicates with applicants early in the admissions process. Your Admissions Department and its personnel must manage and succeed at:

  • Initial communications with applicants
  • Screening applicant application data
  • Processing applications
  • Scheduling interviews

Some PA programs’ initial screening and ranking of applicants are handled by the parent institution’s graduate education department or another graduate medical education program (a medical or pharmacy school admissions department, for example). If at all possible, however, we recommend having someone in your department who can serve as a contact representative by telephone, email, or both.

Unfortunately, many PA programs are short-staffed, especially when it comes to admissions—always behind the eight ball for focus and time commitments of Admission Department duties and responsibilities. Many PA programs tell us that they do not have sufficient time to handle admissions responsibilities on top of expected faculty duties. In future editions of PA Admissions Corner, we’ll discuss ways to evaluate and maximize your staff.

For simple applicant contact, we often recommend that understaffed programs deploy their secret weapon: current students who are enthusiastic about their program. Students are often eager to volunteer their time for a school they believe in. It looks good on their resume, and it’s an especially appealing prospect if their help means a shout-out in the campus newsletter or a helpful networking connection like a LinkedIn recommendation or a letter of reference.

We cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of this role. Once a candidate’s application has been confirmed on CASPA, you should ensure that the communication process begins. Let the applicant know they are under strong consideration, and interviews will be scheduled soon. Remember that high-touch communication strategies help potential candidates perceive your program in a positive light. The benefits of making an applicant feel welcome and cared about are significant.


Experience has taught us that having at least two interviewers for each student is best so their two assessment scores can be averaged. Interviewers can be faculty members of the PA school. The Admissions Director, PA Program Director and other medical educational professionals from other disciplines (medical, dental, physical therapy school, etc.) often help in the interview process, too.

Admission Directors must evaluate their interviewers and interviewing methods to ensure that the methodology eliminates interviewer bias as much as possible while providing accurate and actionable information about the applicants. Will we cover these issues in detail in future Volumes of PA Admissions Corner? You bet we will!



Understanding the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in the admissions process is only the beginning, and without this understanding, the process that follows becomes much more complicated. Clearly establishing and adequately filling these roles will streamline your process and encourage your applicants while also revealing where extra help or organization might be needed.


Above all, remember that you, the PA Admissions Director, must retain control of the process. In the next Volume of PA Admissions Corner, we’ll talk about controlling the Admissions Cycle: the time when applications are accepted and applicants are selected. We’ll share proven best ideas for getting the most value and the best applicants out of your cycle time.


Best regards.
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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