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How difficult will it be to accumulate hours, without a gap year for PA school?

I am a high school senior planning to be a physician assistant. I have been reading that the majority of PAs take a gap year or two to work enough hours for a competitive to PA school. I have also read that some worked their hours in their four years of undergrad. Initially, I was planning to work my hours in undergrad because I just want to go straight to PA school. Now, I am thinking about the quality of my college experience. I want to be able to enjoy my social life, while participating in a handful of extracurriculars (orchestra, cultural clubs, games, etc...), and still maintaining a high GPA for PA school. I am thinking that this might be very difficult and bad for my mental health if I try to add on about 2,000 hours of PCE/HCE hours in four years. However, if it is possible to do all these activities while getting my hours I want to pursue the challenge. Can anyone speak speak on taking a gap year vs. going straight to PA/grad school and what their undergraduate experience was?

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Yasemin’s Answer

Hi Kurt! I liked your question because I'm going to be applying to medical school and actually took some gap years. Unfortunately during my undergraduate, my studies were pretty well but I didn't do too well in getting experience for medical school; during my gap years (previously and currently) I took my MCAT (more than once), volunteered (and hopefully continue to do so once the pandemic is more under control), and am now in a program to bolster my GPA further. I think gap years can be helpful if you need to study for grad. school exams, need more hours to get experience or want to strengthen your GPA or all of them! I would definitely keep up your grades first because this is a huge factor for PA school as well as medical school; I think if you can balance school and commitment to getting experience for PA school then you may be able to apply after college. However, if you personally feel you need more time and don't want to spread too thin that is also okay; many students, whether in PA school or medical school, take gap years. Sometimes life presents unexpected situations so if you do take a gap year don't worry! I think for now definitely begin to get some experience when you enter college because you don't want to leave everything to gap years as well as maintaining a good GPA but you can spread it out. If you can volunteer and shadow a PA more during breaks that could be more beneficial than during the school year. Definitely make a schedule and go in with a defined plan so you do not feel too rushed or uncertain and confused. I think when you have a plan in mind it will be easier than scrambling to get everything done. As a last note find an adviser in college that really knows information about PA school and be sure to keep in touch with them frequently, going over your GPA, your extracurriculars and your overall portfolio to apply in the upcoming years.

I wish you the best!
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Hwal’s Answer

Hey Kurt,

I'm a third-year PA student, so feel I can share some insights. You seem to have given this some serious thought, because what you currently know is true of many PA students, i.e., some take a gap year after undergrad, others move straight on to PA school after undergrad because they gained enough HCE/PCE hours before and/or during undergrad years, and some others decide to take a break in between regardless of whether they have gained enough HCE/PCE hours upon finishing undergrad studies. Personally, I took a gap year (actually, more than one), and have no second thoughts about it.

I would say it ultimately depends on how you feel as you get closer to the end of undergrad education. I heard time and time again before entering PA school that going through PA school is like "drinking from a fire hose" And as a third-year PA student, my firsthand experience tells me that the saying is no exaggeration! Make sure you progress at a pace that feels right for you.

Good luck with the next adventure, and let me know if I can help with any other specific questions.

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Rachel’s Answer

I'm a huge proponent of the gap year(s). I always wanted to go straight into grad school after undergrad and ended up needing a gap year, and I'm so glad I had the time off because grad school was so incredibly challenging. I'm not in the medical field so everything I know about this is through friends, but PA school is incredibly competitive and I think it's likely that you'll need a gap year because most people do not get in the first time they apply. I'd recommend doing well in your undergrad classes and maintaining a strong GPA so that you don't have to retake any classes later, and make sure you're taking all of the prerequisite courses you would need for the PA schools you are interested in. I think finding a job or volunteer opportunity that would help you get those hours in during your four years of college is totally manageable. Throughout school I worked up to 40 hrs/week over summers and about 15-20 hrs/week during school and still managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA and have a decent social life. It's all totally doable if you know how to manage your time well and stay focused. Having that goal of PA school in the back of your mind will help you prioritize your school work even as you balance other activities!
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Estelle’s Answer

Hi, Kurt. I am super impressed with your careful consideration of balancing school, shadowing hours, etc. PA school is very competitive, but the rewards are well worth the effort. My niece was just accepted to PA school. Initially, she tried to get hours during summer breaks in college. She was able to accumulate hours but was not accepted her first application round. This forced her to take a gap year. She worked as a scribe for a pulmonologist during her gap year and was accepted to PA school the next year. Given her experiences, I recommend the gap year because it gave her really valuable experience and a better application. If you have great grades and qualifications (which it sounds like you do), try to apply first round then take the gap year if you must. The summers are usually great times to get those hours in.