Surgical technologists are relied upon by surgeons and surgical assistants to ensure an operating room runs efficiently and safely. Their attention to detail, ability to communicate under pressure, and adaptability, combined with the technical skills and knowledge they learn in a surgical tech program, puts them in the middle of all the action that an operating room provides.
Surgical tech duties include prepping the operating room, sterilizing surgical tools, draping patients, and assisting with surgical procedures. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts 6 percent job growth for surgical techs between 2021 and 2031, which means the need for qualified professionals will continue.
To prepare for certification and employment, students can enroll in associate degree programs at community colleges or at medical trade schools. With the help of this comprehensive guide, you can learn the steps necessary to becoming a surgical tech today.
Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Surgical Tech?
According to the BLS, the key surgical tech career skills include stress management, physical dexterity, physical and emotional stamina, and professional integrity. Before deciding on the career and selecting a training program, make sure a career as a surgical technician is right for you. If you imagine surgical assisting as a glamorous experience akin to television medical dramas, you should ask a surgeon or physician what really goes on in during a procedure. Realistic questions to ask yourself before committing to a degree or training program include:
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions, becoming a surgical technologist may be a great career move.
Explore Surgical Tech Training
Aspiring surgical techs should explore the many educational options for training. There are public and private schools that offer certificates and associate degrees. Students have the option of taking their didactic training entirely online or on-campus. Both online certificates and associate degrees are accepted by employers and both types of programs prepare graduates to sit for professional certification examinations. No matter your choice, make sure that the program you have chosen is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education (CAHEP). Here are some of the major decisions you’ll need to make in finding the right educational path that leads from the classroom to the operating room:
Pick Your School Type
When pursuing online surgical tech training, you have several types of schools to choose from, including private and public vocational schools, as well as public community colleges. Each institution offers unique features, such as varying curriculum focus and program duration. To better understand your options, let’s take a closer look at each type of school:
Campus, Online, or Hybrid?
Earning an associate degree in surgical technology is possible through online and campus-based programs offered by public/private vocational schools and community colleges. For students with family commitments, job obligations, or limited commuting options, online learning provides a flexible alternative for them to build their surgical tech careers. However, all programs require an on-site, supervised practicum at a hospital or clinic.
Some students might prefer the structure of scheduled on-campus courses, clinicals, and labs. Let’s explore the key distinctions between the following options.
Choose the Degree Type You Need
Surgical tech programs commonly take between 12 and 24 months to complete. Certificate programs offer the quickest times to graduation. Associate degrees take 24 months because of their combined general education and core courses. Both credentials are accepted by employers and fetch similar salaries. Ultimately, the best surgical tech program for you depends largely upon whether you want to jumpstart your career or build a solid foundation for advancing your education.
Determine Entrance Criteria
Although the only common entrance requirement for surgical technologist programs is a high school diploma or GED, prerequisites can vary depending on the educational level you’re pursuing. Some schools prefer prior completion of high school coursework that applies toward tech training. Prerequisites students should keep in mind:
Apply to an Accredited Surgical Tech Program
Once you have done your program research and completed your prerequisites, it’s time to apply to your school of choice. You cannot overestimate the importance of enrolling only in an accredited surgical tech program. Graduates from programs without the necessary academic accreditations are not qualified to take the Certified Surgical Technologist (CST) exam. Two fundamental accreditations are awarded by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) and by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Check the accreditation for each school on your list of potential programs. Then review the precise admission requirements for the school and program.
The type of school, the type of degree you’re pursuing, and your preparation in secondary education are just some of the factors that surgical tech schools use to evaluate applicants. You’ll need to satisfy the entrance requirements for the school itself and then meet the detailed requirements for entering the surgical tech program. Some surgical tech programs will admit students simply based on the completion of a high school diploma or equivalent GED. However, admissions are often competitive and if you haven’t completed basic math, biology, and science coursework in high school, you could be at a disadvantage. Some applicants may be required to take developmental education courses in English, reading and/or mathematics before acceptance into the program. If a secondary school science curriculum is required, you might consider completing these courses in summer school to gain a competitive advantage in admissions. Plus, students must have completed high school or a GED to become eligible for Federal financial aid.
Here are several admission factors you should plan on being evaluated on:
- Overall GPA (reflected in official transcripts)
- Highest level of education completed
- College entrance exam scores (SAT/ACT)
- Skills assessment examinations
- Entrance interviews
- Reference letters if required
Paying for Your Program
Application fees: The process for applying to a surgical tech program at a technical school or community college vary. Most applications can be completed online. There are some schools that have no application fees, but those that do vary in what they charge. For example, a technical college may charge a $125 non-refundable application fee and require the completion of a learning exam and interview for admission. Two-year, public colleges typically charge from $40-50 to apply. Application requirements may include a pre-admission basic skills assessment, and some programs require submission of high school transcripts and SAT/ACT scores.
Program tuition: Standard in-state tuition and fees for associate degree programs at two-year colleges total $3,440, according to the College Board. Program fees may vary based on required materials, lab fees, and clinical equipment. A tuition survey by CostHelper reported that a for-profit surgical tech program can charge from $8,000-$50,000 for tuition and fees. A private Baptist college, for example, currently charges $17,800 for books, fees, and tuition.
Scholarships & Grants: Students in accredited online community colleges and trade schools have access to scholarships and grants to offset their tuition. And the best part about scholarships and grants is that you don’t have to repay them. The following 10 scholarships are created expressly for surgical techs or for undergraduate health science majors:
- The Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (ARC/STSA) Scholarships
- The Foundation for Surgical Technology Scholarships
- Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability
- Maxine Williams Scholarship
- Allied Healthcare Scholarship
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Scholarship
- Bill and Mary Russell Scholarship
- Congressional Black Caucus Foundation General Mills Health Scholarships
- S. Evelyn Lewis Memorial Scholarship
- Gates Millennium Scholarships
Financial aid: Students at accredited community colleges and allied private tech schools who have not completed a four-year degree may receive federal grants (Pell Grants and the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant) that do not have to be repaid. You may also qualify to receive Federal Direct Loans and Federal PLUS Loans. To begin the process, students should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) which determines your eligibility and reports findings to schools of your choice. For more information, visit our own guide to financial aid.
Complete Coursework & Hands-on Training
Before graduating and sitting for certification exams, online students must complete ALL classwork required for graduation. This includes completion of on-campus lab sessions and supervised clinical practicums. Community colleges typically divide online and clinical courses into phases. Through all phases, students should complete college-wide general education requirements in math, science, English, humanities, and history.
The first surgical tech phase may include studies in anatomy, surgical tech theory, completion of a surgical tech lab, and in medical terminology. The middle phase may be comprised of courses in types of surgical procedures and treatment of clinical populations. It includes a supervised, hands-on practicum to integrate and practice your skills. The final phase of procedural studies may focus on orthopedics, ophthalmologic and neurosurgery, thoracic, cardiovascular, gynecological and vascular surgeries. The final phase also requires completion of a supervised practicum. Even if they are not required for graduation, voluntary or paid internships provide an excellent opportunity for students to gain experience in a clinical setting. Some employers may also require applicants to complete a year or more of professional experience.
Qualify for Certification
While certification is voluntary for surgical technologists, the BLS reports that certifications can boost your chances of employment in a competitive field. Nine states currently require certification in order to practice. The Department of Labor recommends two options: certification through the National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting or through the National Center for Competency Testing.
Polish Your Resume
Your resume gets you in the door; your interview lands you the job. To get that foot in the door, you’ll need to prepare a tailored cover letter and resume to address all the requirements cited in the official job listing. While the jobs may call for the same occupational title, each institution and care teams prefer to advertise a precise description of the job and the qualifications of the candidate they’re seeking. Your cover letter and resume should highlight your professional experience, your certifications, and higher education. Because you’re seeking to rise to the top of the pack of applicants, prepare a concise resume summary of your goals, an itemization of your pertinent skills, and any “soft skills” that support your case, such as attention to details, teamwork, and communications effectiveness. Here are some resume samples along with examples of effective cover letters for surgical techs:
- Surgical Tech Cover Letter
- Certified Surgical Technologist Cover Letter
- Surgical Technologist Cover Letter
- Surgical Technician Resume Samples
- Resume Tip for Surgical Techs
- Association of Surgical Technologists
- Operating Room Technician Resume Sampler
Prepare to Interview
Your interview for a surgical tech job identifies your experience, personality, work ethic, and educational assets. You need to make a positive case for yourself, underlining your communication aptitude, how you’ve addressed problems, and educational accomplishments. The interview presents an opportunity to learn more about your employer to determine if the organization and culture is a good fit. To help put your best face forward, dress professionally, saving your scrubs for your first day at work. Learn as much as you can about the organization ahead of time. Practice your interview several times. Prepare to discuss your stress-management skills and how your experience matches the qualifications described in the job listing. Here are seven job-specific questions you may face when trying to land a role as a surgical tech:
- How do you prepare an operating room for surgery?
- How would you handle something unexpected in the O.R.?
- Describe some of the surgeries you’ve assisted with. How involved in the process were you?
- How would you deal with a disagreement with the surgical team?
- Can you share an effective approach to working with large amounts of data?
- Was there a time when you made an error during a procedure? How did you handle the outcome?
- Why do you want to leave your current position or employer?