Is Passing the PANCE Enough?

There’s an unspoken understanding in exam prep forums that PA students just want to pass the PANCE. That we don’t care about our score… well, as long as we hit the minimum passing standard, of course. Now, maybe that’s a hasty generalization about PA students but let’s focus on the philosophical debate this notion brings up. When it comes to high-stakes exams like the PANCE, is passing enough? Let’s discuss this burning question.

Fact or Fiction: Standardized Exam Scores Don’t Test for Concept Mastery

Many people believe that most of what we learn from K-12 through undergrad, we may never end up using in the “real world”. So then, why is our schooling from the time we are kindergarteners to the time we are college grads set up the way it is? What does mastery of English Literature have to do with proficiency in practicing internal, family, or emergency medicine? What does knowing World History have to do with your ability to treat patients in the city you live in? The answer is obvious: nothing at all. OK, the merits of our K-12 public school curriculum are a topic for another day so for now, let’s refocus on the subject at hand. 

When it comes to licensure exams in highly specialized fields such as PA, what you learn in school will, in fact, translate to what you experience in clinical practice. So then, is preparing for your certification exam with a mindset to just pass not the same thing as going through PA school to just graduate? Is passing the PANCE enough? It stands to reason that no practicing PA could’ve achieved even the most basic levels of competency if she simply went through the motions while in PA school to earn all the required credits to complete the program versus actually learning how to become a PA. 

From that standpoint, it is fair to say that your score on a certification exam whose content blueprint tests concepts that demonstrate the extent of your capability to practice as a PA should matter. Moreover, your passing score should, in fact, indicate a level of knowledge and understanding of relevant medical concepts and how to apply them in real-life scenarios.

Real-World Readiness: Selling Yourself Short

One could argue that preparing to just pass the PANCE is selling yourself short. The NCCPA has designed the certification exam to assess whether you’ve gained an increased level of content knowledge and are ready to begin practicing as a clinician. Sure, the PANCE is unlike other medical exams where your score is directly correlated to a distinct “reward” so to speak. For example, a high MCAT score may get you into your dream medical school or earn you a scholarship, while a high USMLE Step 1 score may get you matched with your top choice for residency. By contrast, your PANCE score only ensures that you receive your license and become a certified PA. 

Nevertheless, the outcomes of succeeding on the PANCE are also significant. One litmus test to determine if going above and beyond passing an exam is worth the test taker’s effort is to identify the purpose of the exam. If PA students didn’t need to master the concepts we studied in school, which are by and large the same concepts we encounter on the PANCE and scenarios we face in the real world, then we wouldn’t need to take a licensing exam to practice in the first place. Like students in other graduate programs, we could just as easily get out there and start working right after receiving our master’s degree and securing our first post-graduation job.

Responsibility: Higher Stakes Require Greater Expertise

It is the prerogative of each individual to decide what levels of success they want to achieve in any pursuit in life. But after going through the rigorous efforts to become a PA, we believe it is worth preparing to understand the concepts tested on the PANCE versus settling for just a passing score. The reality is that ours is one of the most important careers in one of the most essential industries, where the stakes can sometimes involve making a judgment call on matters of life and death.

So, in our opinion, this uniquely challenging nature of our profession compels us to strive to master the concepts tested in the one exam that demonstrates to ourselves, our peers and, most importantly, our patients, that we can be trusted to provide adequate health care in the communities we serve. In our view, this is the responsible approach. In a nutshell, with great responsibility comes great expertise, and with great expertise, comes great trust.

To learn more about our comprehensive PANCE online exam prep resource, which helps you prepare for more than just the PANCE but to also become a better clinician from day one, visit

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