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Becoming a Medical Assistant

Learn the key steps to become a medical assistant, from choosing the right program to applying for and nailing the job interview

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A female healthcare professional with a stethoscope smiling at an older female patient wearing a sweater, both seated in a medical office.

There are many paths you can take to become a medical assistant. Certificate programs offer the fastest way to entering the field, with many programs lasting just a few months. Diploma programs run a bit longer and focus more on the clinical aspects of the career, while associate degrees take two years to complete and include general education courses.

Choosing your path is just one decision you’ll need to make when it comes to selecting a medical assisting program. You’ll also need to decide where you want to learn: on campus, partially online, or mostly online. This page offers future medical assistants a detailed look at all their educational options, including what each option entails, the types of programs available, the costs, and the financial and career benefits you can look forward to after graduation. Get a new career started today.

The Right Career? What Is a Medical Assistant?

To be a successful medical assistant, you’ll combine your clinical knowledge with administrative and communication skills. Before diving into a training program that lasts a year or more, you’ll want to assess whether you’re a good fit for the profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that key attributes of successful medical assistants include:

  • Analytical skills to follow medical diagnoses and charts.
  • Commitment and focus to accurately record details of patient vital signs and insurance codes.
  • Significant interpersonal skills to communicate with physicians and patients.
  • Technical skills with basic clinical instruments used for taking patients’ vital signs.

In addition, job recruiting site Monster.com suggests that potential students answer the following questions:

  • Do you enjoy working with people?
  • How many years can you commit to training (1, 2 or 4 years)?
  • Can you apply yourself to handling different tasks every day?
  • Are you comfortable with multi-tasking?
  • Do you enjoy performing administrative duties along with clinical work?

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be well-suited for a career as a medical assistant and for subsequent advancement in the healthcare professions. The next important step is to identify the ideal educational pathway that maps to your career aspirations.

Choose Your Educational Path

Vocational schools, public community colleges, and private career institutes help prepare aspiring medical assistants for positions at physician’s offices, medical clinics, and hospitals. You can choose from a wide range of educational opportunities, each with its own set of strengths and options. There are programs that lead to certificates, diplomas, or associate degrees. Each program addresses specific skills for employment and a range of wages by role. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Medical assisting certificate programs take from 9 months to a year to complete, depending on the school and curriculum. A certificate program usually targets students who intend to take a national certification examination following graduation.

A program leading to a diploma in medical assisting offers much the same curriculum common to certification programs. Time to completion of the diploma runs from nine to 15 months, depending on the school. Diploma programs take longer to complete than certificate programs because they are more focused directly on clinical experience and require 7-8 additional credits than a certificate.

This two-year option gives students a more well-rounded education, which includes liberal arts and other general education courses. It may be the slowest education path to becoming a medical assistant, but it could give you better long-term prospects should you wish to move beyond medical assisting.

Where to Become a Medical Assistant

There are four major types of medical assisting schools, each varying by the method of course delivery, the length of program, and cost of tuition. Your school may offer seasonal tuition discounts. Another institution may offer more than one completion option including a diploma, certificate, and associate degree. Here’s a breakdown of school types to compare:

Medical assisting trade and vocational schools offer dedicated career-prep programs. They often include participation in externships in a professional setting.Read More

Colleges and universities may host a specialized academy to prepare students for certificates, diplomas, and degrees in medical assisting.Read More

Private, accredited, for-profit colleges have certain advantages. Depending on the college, the course of study mirrors medical assistant curriculums at many other educational institutions.Read More

Accredited certificate and diploma programs and associate degrees at community colleges are widely accepted among employers. Program credits may be transferable to four-year schools.Read More

Can I Become a Medical Assistant Online?

Online medical assistant programs are great for busy students juggling family duties because they offer flexible schedules and let you study from anywhere. Many schools and institutions offer online courses that cover theoretical aspects, such as medical terminology, anatomy, and administrative tasks. You can research, learn, participate, and submit assignments via your school’s own online portal or through a third-party system such as Blackboard. However, it’s essential to note that medical assisting also involves hands-on clinical skills, which typically require in-person training. Some online programs address this by offering hybrid courses, combining online classes with on-campus or externship experiences for practical training. Through an accredited program, you’ll receive the same rigorous education and training as students in campus-based programs.


Apply & Enroll

Application and enrollment procedures are tailored for each program and the type of post-secondary credentials it offers. Some may require completion of an extensive list of courses to prepare for college-level academics. Others allow students to pick up their mathematics or science courses in their first semester or at summer school prior to their first semester. Research and review each of your prospective programs carefully to find the best fit. Compare admission requirements, application deadlines and fees. Look into the types of financial aid each offers. Here’s a roundup of essential points to compare:

Prerequisites

Each college and vocational training program for medical assistants may set its own prerequisites for entry based on its curriculum or state requirements. Some programs favor applicants completing high school classes in mathematics, science, and anatomy. However, there is a common set of prior education or qualifying experience needed for admission. These can include:

  • Completion of a high school diploma or GED
  • Proof of personal healthcare coverage
  • Completion of a compliant HIV/AIDS education course
  • Current American Heart Association training and CPR card
  • 100%-compliant immunization records

Completion of high school classes in mathematics, science, and anatomy may improve your chances of acceptance to a program.

Application process & fees

The process for applying to a medical assisting certificate and degree program varies by intuition and type of school. For example, a community college in Washington State requires applicants to file an enrollment packet by the deadline immediately preceding the upcoming semester. Applicants submit an official copy of high school transcripts and pass a State Patrol background check and blood test result ($12). The application process includes payment of first semester tuition. In comparison, an online private business college in Indiana offers year-round admission applications and charges students a flat $50 application fee.

Funding your program

Paying for your medical assisting program may seem tough, but each student can choose from a range of effective funding options. These can include Federal grants and loans, scholarships, work-study programs, or a combination of each.

Complete Your Coursework

Coursework for medical assistants combines several critical components of working in a medical facility. This includes clerical and administrative tasks, front office communication, electronic records, and understanding how the body works. Here’s a sampling of the courses you’ll take in a medical assistant training program:

Anatomy and Physiology

Anatomy and Physiology. Covers immunity, medical terminology, bone and muscular structures, the cardiovascular system, infection control, respiration and genetics.

Electronic Medical Records

Electronic Medical Records. Learn how digital health information technology applies to medical settings. Students focus on basic accounting transactions, insurance billing cycles, billing patients, and recording payments. Training in digital software may include studies in MEDITECH, eClinicalWorks, and Epic Systems.

Ethics and Professionalism

Ethics and Professionalism. This course focuses on maintaining patient confidentiality and data security pertaining to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations.

Medical Assisting Exam Preparation

Medical Assisting Exam Preparation. This seminar directs students though a review of topics routinely measured in national certification exams. Most include practice exams and test-taking strategies.

Finish Clinicals & Externships

Near the end of a medical assistant program, students must complete several clinical laboratory requirements and an internship or externship in medical assisting. These opportunities take the hands-on clinicals to the next level, enabling students to complete real-world duties in a healthcare facility under the supervision of experienced assistants. The working medical assistant shadows the student, offering useful feedback toward performing medical and administrative duties. In addition, a successful externship can result in broad networks essential for finding employment. Students may acquire mentors to help them as they build their careers. Here are some courses that students might expect to complete in clinicals and externships:

Medical Clinical Assisting Lab

Students gain practical experience in preparing patients and taking and documenting vital signs. In addition to the clinical practice, students will compile pertinent administrative records. Students are expected to learn effective and professional communication techniques with physicians and patients alike.

Advanced Clinical Assisting Lab

Students learn electrocardiography, specimen collection protocols, hematology, injections, respiratory testing, quality control and supply inventory. The student also learns the fundamentals of emergency preparedness.

Externship

Students must complete a 180-hour externship within one year of completion of their coursework. They will integrate classwork and clinicals into supervised practice under the guidance of a professional medical assistant.

Become Certified as a Medical Assistant

According to the BLS, certification isn’t a requirement for medical assistants, but it is highly recommended. Employers tend to hire Certified Medical Assistants (CMA), and pay more to job candidates who have been certified.” Each state may require a minimum age of 18 and completion of an accredited program with practical externships. Some states do not require certification.

The National Commission for Certifying Agencies cites these five certifications for medical assistants:

CMA

Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) from the American Association of Medical Assistants

CMAA

Certified Medical Administrative Assistant (CMAA) from the National Healthcareer Association

NCMA

National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) from the National Center for Competency Testing

RMA

Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) from American Medical Technologists

For more on certification, read our detailed page on earning your medical assistant certification online.

Resumes & Job Applications

When you apply for a medical assistant job, you should be able to demonstrate fluency in medical terminology. Other skill sets can further increase your chances for success. Employers want to know that your formal training has readied you for patient preparation, vital signs measurement, injections, and electrocardiograms (EKG). You should also demonstrate readiness for organizational duties such as appointment scheduling, digital billing, and administration of electronic medical records (EMR). Requirements for formal certification vary by role and employer. The following sites can show you examples or templates for creating an effective medical assisting resume:

Nail the Interview

The BLS predicts there will be 105,900 job openings for medical assistants from 2022-2032. Will you take one of them? A post-secondary credential or certification may not guarantee that you land a position, but it can help get your foot in the door. Your performance during an interview can go a long way to helping you go from graduate to job holder. Here are ten key questions you may face when interviewing as a medical assistant:

  1. What medical procedures have you assisted with?
  2. Have you worked with children or the elderly?
  3. How would you handle a difficult physician or patient?
  4. Have you had experience in patient education?
  5. Which certifications do you have?
  6. What training have you completed in medical software?
  7. Can you tell me the HIPAA protocol for medical record-keeping?
  8. Are you CPR certified?
  9. Have you developed phlebotomy or X-ray skills?
  10. Are you now taking or plan to enroll in continuing education and reflated classes?