When heading back to school for an advanced degree, it’s important to choose courses that will help maximize productivity and reduce stress. A careful strategy can help make goals more achievable and make the process of getting a degree less harried.

“The first step students should take to manage their course load is to choose the right program,” Henry Sondheimer, MD, senior director of student affairs and student programs for the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C., told Clinical Advisor. “Different clinical programs have different prerequisites, so it’s important to look at what is required.”

Physicians assistant (PA) educational programs vary by geographic location, institutional affiliation, mission and culture, according to Rosann Ippolito, PhD, PA-C, the program director of the physician assistant program at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences in Boston.

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Examine programs carefully to find the best fit. When looking at schools, develop a matrix that shows the various programs and their prerequisites, Ippolito advised. “Having this matrix gives students a clear view of what classes they will need to take.”

She suggested the following questions for students to keep in mind when considering a program:

  • Is there a time limitation for the coursework? (within 7 years of application)
  • How many science courses are required?
  • Are labs required with the science courses?
  • What is the minimum grade in the courses that will be accepted (e.g., B, B-, C, etc.)?
  • Are online or hybrid courses accepted?
  • Can courses be taken at community colleges?
  • Are advanced-placement credits from high school accepted for prerequisite coursework?

Although different programs vary considerably, students should understand that all PA courses generally have one thing in common—a heavy science concentration. National survey results indicate that more than 70% of programs require students to complete chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology and biology courses.

Sondheimer offered some helpful advice for students who have not already completed science courses as part of their undergraduate work. “Start with chemistry and biology. Whether [a student is] going to become a PA, a pharmacist or a dental student, they will need those no matter what,” he said.

Also remember to space science classes out whenever possible, and do not double up on science coursework in the same semester. This is particularly true for students who haven’t taken a science class since high school —having two tough classes at the same time could be too much to handle.

Don’t forget to seek out school advisors for information. They can help you sort through requirements and make sure you have the courses needed for your planned specialty. They can also give you inside information on classes at a particular school. For example, advisors will know if a specific course is likely to fill up quickly, so they recommend taking a specific class in the spring rather than the fall semester, Ippolito said.