Path to PA: Non-traditional Students


The average age of first-year physician assistant (PA) students is 25-28 years old.  

Does that mean that as an applicant in your 30s or older, you have somehow “aged out” of your path to being a PA? 

Of course not!  

While there are fewer folks who fall into the “non-traditional student” category (that’s why they’re non-traditional!), age is certainly not a criterion for admission or for success as a PA. 

As a non-traditional applicant, you may have unique concerns and struggles, but you also bring unique assets and experiences.  

Second-year student, Adriana While there may be some additional challenges, she said, “due to your lived experiences those are things that you can overcome and work around.” 


What is a non-traditional student? 

The National Center for Education Statistics states that while the term “non-traditional student” can have varying definitions, age is the most common defining characteristic of this population. Students who are embarking on second careers and students with children or who are married/in long-term relationships may also fall into this category.  

All this advice and info is very generalized, of course. Non-traditional students come in as many varieties as any other student. Take what is useful for you and your situation and leave the rest. 


Before PA School 

First, let’s talk about some of the considerations on your way to PA school. 

Prerequisites: Many schools have expiration dates on their prerequisite courses. This doesn’t mean that an A+ in Organic Chemistry in 2005 won’t look great on your application; it just means you will need some more current courses to fulfill the prerequisites. Double check on each school, but for Duke, you can take these at any regionally accredited college or university; yes, this does include community college or online courses. 

Even if the schools that interest you do not have an expiration on prerequisites, you might consider taking a few courses anyhow, just to ease your way back into classroom learning. 

DaCosta, who earned her first master’s degree a decade ago said, “While it seems like I’ve been in school and academics my whole life, no one prepared me for just how hard learning would be in your 30s, especially when you have not taken a full course load in many years.” 

GRE: If it’s been a while since you graduated college, the GRE may feel daunting. Our students suggest taking a GRE prep course to ease back into standardized testing. Take the test early so you have time to retake it if you don’t do as well as you would like. 

Support system: All students need a support system. But for students with long-term partners or children, there is extra responsibility. Make sure your partner is on the same page as you. PA school is difficult and will take a lot of your time for two years, so communication is critically important. If you have young children, make sure you and your partner have the backup you need for those away rotations. 


During PA School 

Imposter syndrome: When you fall outside of the means and averages of the class demographics in some way, it can bring up feelings of imposter syndrome. It is normal to worry about belonging or to question your abilities. Rest assured; your program chose you intentionally. You belong where you are. 

Integration into the student community: Don’t let things like age differences hold you back from your classmates. Don’t be scared to attend social events such tailgates and nights out. Besides, as Second-year student Chris Marshall pointed out, getting to know the Gen Z lingo will help you be a better provider.  

Balancing family obligations: Our students in long-term relationships say that date nights and protected time for your partner are paramount.  

Second-year student Megan Mitchell explained how she makes her long-distance relationship work while her husband is in another state finishing his residency. She said that while it is difficult, it is possible. They made a commitment to see each other at least once a month, to be intentional with Facetime dates and phone conversations. She said it also means “racking up the frequent flyer miles and short weekend trips where we try to maintain as much normalcy as possible.” 

If you have kids but do not have a partner, don’t underestimate the need for “you time.”  

Changes in the learning environment: If it seems like undergrad was a lifetime ago, be prepared to learn new study skills and test-taking strategies. Keep an open mind regarding new teaching methods and technology in the classroom.  This is another reason why you might consider taking a few courses before applying to PA school. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help: The fact that you have more experience than some of your classmates does not mean you should feel pressured to have all the answers; this goes for life skills as well as medical knowledge.  


What Non-Traditional Students Bring to the Class 

Life and professional experience: One reason that it is sometimes difficult for applicants to get into PA programs straight from undergrad is that they frequently do not have as deep of a well of life experiences to shape their applications fully. All those extra years you have lived count for something! If this is a second career for you, your years spent working in other industries will give you knowledge and resiliency that cannot be learned in school.  

DaCosta said, that while it is challenging to have to train your brain again to get back into school mode, "doing this program as a non-traditional student for me has been beneficial. What I lack in the ability to retain information as effectively as I used to, I make up in life experiences that I bring to patient care and how I relate to my patients.” 

Mentorship: Other students may come to you for practical help or advice on everything from changing tires to parenting. 

Marshall suggested embracing that role if it is something you enjoy. While he thinks it is important to be fully part of your cohort, he said it is possible to lean into your non-traditional student role at the same time. 

Leadership skills: Whether it was time spent climbing the corporate ladder or the dedication it takes to run a household, you likely have leadership experience that many of your classmates have not yet had.  

Non-traditional students have a lot to offer and can lead successful second careers as a PA!  

DaCosta said that while it can be difficult, “It is never too late to pursue your dreams.” 


The Duke Physician Assistant Program Admissions Blog presents information based on the experiences of Duke PA Program staff, faculty, and students. While the information provided is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication, requirements can change. Please visit the Duke PA Program website for the most up-to-date information.

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