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How to Become a Surgical Technologist

Find out what it takes to become a certified surgical technologist. From applying to schools to applying for jobs, follow these steps to success.

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Two surgeons in scrubs and surgical masks focus intently during a procedure in an operating room illuminated by bright surgical lights, with medical monitors in the background.

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:

  • Can you work on your feet for over eight hours at a time?
  • Is your stomach strong enough to handle graphic scenes of blood and open wounds during operations?
  • Do you have a steady hand to handle the sterilization and in handing surgical tools to the operating team?
  • Can you communicate effectively with nervous patients that you wheel into the operating room?
  • Are you willing to be potentially exposed to communicable diseases?
  • Are you comfortable knowing that the very life of a patient depends upon your ability to sterilize surgical equipment and prepare the operating room?
  • Can you work shifts in the evenings, during holidays, and on weekends?
  • Do you have the constitution to work as part of a surgical team where you must accept directions and criticism?
  • Can you memorize the names of more than 100 instruments and how they’re used?

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:

Given your current family or work conditions, can you commit to attending classes on campus for as much as an entire day throughout the week? If you can commute, is there a school reasonably near your home? Perhaps an online surgical tech program will work better for you. Keep in mind you will have to attend clinical sections of your training no matter your mode of didactic education.

No matter your choice of school, make sure that the program you have chosen is accredited by the CAHEP. Accreditation means the quality of the program and its curriculum meet healthcare industry standards. School websites identify the types of accreditations their programs meet.

The program you choose will have a big impact on how much you’ll pay for your surgical tech education. You’ll make the choice between a more expensive program which may take less time to complete or a cost-effective program that may take more time.

A program with a positive reputation can really matter. For example, a hospital or clinic in your community may prefer hiring techs from a program that has already minted well-qualified techs. Take an informational tour of your prospective schools to evaluate their tech labs, the educational attainment and professional experience of the faculty, and which student services are available at the institution. Speak with healthcare employers where you live to learn if they favor graduates from a particular school.

The surgical tech programs on your list should offer statistics on the percentage of their graduates who pass their certification exams and enter the profession. Be wary of schools that don’t compile this key data or that won’t share them publicly.

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.

Students attending on-campus surgical tech degree programs benefit from routine face-to-face interactions with faculty and peers. You can meet up after class to get coffee, join a study group, or hike together on the weekends. On-campus science libraries, labs, and hands-on clinical opportunities are always close at hand. At some schools, students can petition for credits, testing to show what they already know. Campus programs can be completed in two years. The disadvantage of these programs is that courses predictably meet at the same time and place throughout the school year. You’ll have to organize your life around commuting, parking, and attending back-to-back classes over long days.

Online surgical tech degree programs, often called hybrids, combine online and hands-on training. They offer the scheduling flexibility most-sought by distance students. Online didactic learning is asynchronous, meaning you don’t have to show up at a place and time and can complete work at your own pace while still adhering to deadlines. You’ll have to complete your core and general education courses on schedule or fall behind. Clinical components are held at locations that are a reasonable commute from home. With clinicals, you must report on time. A self-paced, online associates of science degree can be completed in as little as 14 months. The downside: A barrage of online courses can be ultimately all-consuming, requiring dedication and at least 10 hours of study per week, per class. Learn more about taking your surgical tech program online.

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.

If you plan on landing an entry-level position as a surgical tech, a certificate program may be the best option for you. A certificate program can be completed within 11 months, plus a summer semester. That includes completing the required clinical fieldwork. Upon completion of your certificate from an accredited school, you can take the National Board for Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting examination. Certificates are typically offered by allied health schools and vocational academies. Admission requirements are high school completion and passing the college’s Academic Skills Assessment (ASA). Certificate programs have no general education requirements. Essentially, you’re gaining speed at the expense of building a bridge to additional degree work.

Expect to spend twice the time on an online associate degree in surgical technology than in an online certificate program. You’ll need two years of tech classes and general education studies to earn the 60-70 credit degree. Admission requirements include submission of your high school transcripts, a satisfactory SAT/ACT score, and school placement test results. When you complete the two-year program, you’ll be halfway to your bachelor’s degree. These programs are well-suited for students who plan on going beyond their short-term healthcare roles. They also deliver a rounded education that increases your skills in mathematics, writing, and speech. Since courses from a certificate program won’t satisfy general education requirements from degree-granting schools, you could be set back at least one year when you transfer.

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:

  • High school diploma or GED.
  • High school courses. Have you completed studies in pre-college anatomy, biology, mathematics, and hard sciences?
  • Healthcare experience. Your program may require a specified length of experience (paid or voluntary) in a healthcare setting.
  • Health Occupations Aptitude Exam. Your school may want to measure your analytical reasoning skills, math knowledge, reading comprehension, and natural science aptitude prior to admission.
  • Criminal background check. Schools may require a background check since you will be in close contact with lab students and patients.

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.

Getting Accepted

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:

  1. The Accreditation Review Council on Education in Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting (ARC/STSA) Scholarships
  2. The Foundation for Surgical Technology Scholarships
  3. Frederick J. Krause Scholarship on Health and Disability
  4. Maxine Williams Scholarship
  5. Allied Healthcare Scholarship
  6. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Scholarship
  7. Bill and Mary Russell Scholarship
  8. Congressional Black Caucus Foundation General Mills Health Scholarships
  9. S. Evelyn Lewis Memorial Scholarship
  10. 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.

Certification Types

The two common types of certifications are offered to graduates of accredited online surgical tech programs. Some employers may require job applicants to hold current certification in one of them. In addition, many employers want surgical techs who hold a current certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Let’s examine tech certifications, one by one:

  • Certified Surgical Technologist (CST): The National Board of Surgical Technology and Surgical Assisting exam takes four hours to complete and, if passed, the TS-C (Tech in Surgery-Certified) designation is conferred. The exam is made up of 175 questions covering pre-surgical care, intra-operative care, post-operative care, administrative and personnel duties, and equipment sterilization and maintenance. The exam costs $190 for AST members and $290 for nonmembers.
  • Tech in Surgery-Certified: By passing the NCCT exam, surgical techs demonstrate to employers that their educational preparation has met certifiable industry standards for entry-level positions. The certification is good for up to five years, providing the tech completes continuing education requirements every year. The 175-question exam tests knowledge in preoperative care, postoperative procedures, ancillary duties, and basic science knowledge. The cost is $199 for registered students at an NCCT-accredited school.

Take a Certifying Exam

CST Exam. The National Center for Competency Exam takes four hours to complete and, if passed, the NCC confers the TS-C (Tech in Surgery-Certified) designation. The exam is made up of 175 questions covering pre-surgical care, intra-operative care, post-operative care, administrative and personnel duties, and equipment sterilization and maintenance. The exam costs $100, or $50 for recent graduates. For more information, email the NCCSA board.

NCCT Exam. In passing the NCCT exam, surgical techs demonstrate to employers that their educational preparation has met certifiable industry standards for entry-level positions. The certification is good for up to five years, providing the tech completes continuing education requirements every year. The 175-question exam tests knowledge in preoperative care, postoperative procedures, ancillary duties, and basic science knowledge. The cost: $155 for registered students at an NCCT-accredited school. For more information, contact the NCCT.

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:

  1. Surgical Tech Cover Letter
  2. Certified Surgical Technologist Cover Letter
  3. Surgical Technologist Cover Letter
  4. Surgical Technician Resume Samples
  5. Resume Tip for Surgical Techs
  6. Association of Surgical Technologists
  7. 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:

  1. How do you prepare an operating room for surgery?
  2. How would you handle something unexpected in the O.R.?
  3. Describe some of the surgeries you’ve assisted with. How involved in the process were you?
  4. How would you deal with a disagreement with the surgical team?
  5. Can you share an effective approach to working with large amounts of data?
  6. Was there a time when you made an error during a procedure? How did you handle the outcome?
  7. Why do you want to leave your current position or employer?