Medical assistants play a vital role in health care facilities across the country. As a result, the profession should experience an increase in job opportunities in the coming years – but that doesn’t mean there won’t be competition. What’s more, incomes for medical assistants can vary, with a $21,320 gap between the lowest and highest paid workers in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). So how can you increase your chances of landing a solid position and earning a higher salary?
Earning your medical assistant certification online is one way to set yourself apart from other job candidates. Employers often pay more for trained professionals who have demonstrated their knowledge and expertise. The following guide walks through everything you need to know to earn your medical assistant certification online, from the types of certifications available to how to crush the CMA exam (AAMA®). Take the next step toward medical assistant certification.
Types of Online Medical Assistant Certification
Deciding to pursue certification can be an easy decision to make. After all, it can open the door to new job opportunities and possibly greater income potential. More difficult is knowing which certification option to pursue. Medical assistants have several choices, each offered by a different professional organization, but we’ll focus on the gold standard certification in the U.S.; the CMA exam, administered by the AAMA. Here’s a look at some of the available programs, their eligibility requirements, and who may benefit from them.
The Medical Assistant Certification Exam: How to Crush the CMA (AAMA®)
You passed all your medical assisting courses and your hard work and determination has prepared you for this moment. Now, all that stands between you and your medical assistant certification is the CMA exam. Administered by the American Association of Medical Assistants, the CMA exam is the main credentialing test for medical assistants in the US. The certification earned by passing the CMA exam can help newly graduated medical assistants find better jobs, earn more money, and stand out among competing candidates.
However, with only 60% of students passing the exam on their first attempt, knowing how to effectively study for the test is an absolute must. From understanding how the test is set up to constructing your study plan and executing it, learn how you can crush the CMA exam with these helpful tips and expert advice.
The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) has eligibility requirements and other guidelines for who can sit for the test. Once you’ve determined your eligibility, it’s important to understand the exam format and how it’s scored. Here’s what to expect.
Completing student or recent graduate of an accredited medical assisting program.
- The CMA certification exam can be taken no earlier than 30 days after completing your education program and must be taken within 12 months of graduation.
A non-recent (greater than 12 months since graduation) graduate of an accredited medical assisting program.
The CMA exam covers a wide range of information and applicable skills in the three general, administrative, and clinical sections of the exam. You will complete 200 multiple-choice questions (180 scored, 20 unscored) on the CMA exam in total, which cover everything from medical ethics and professionalism to administrative duties and clinical practice. There are 50 questions in the general section, 45 in the administrative section, and 85 clinical questions. You will take the exam on a computer in four 40-minute segments, so that’s 160 minutes for the whole test. You’ll also get some additional time for optional breaks between the segments.
Your final score on the exam depends on your total number of correct responses. Your performance will be compared to a fixed scale that ranges from 200–800. The lowest score you can earn and still pass the exam is 430. The test can be tricky depending on your level of education, experience, and overall preparedness, but the odds of passing the exam are in your favor. Approximately 60 percent of test-takers pass it on the first try.
Getting to Know the CMA Exam
In order to properly prepare for the exam, you’ll need to understand what to expect. When you engage with practice materials such as flashcards, sample questions, and practice exams, you’ll get a clearer sense of what’s to come. This table provides a good snapshot of what’s on the test and the topics you can expect to see in each section.
|Number of Questions
|Time to Complete
|Psychology CommunicationProfessionalismMedical Law/Regulatory Medical Ethics Risk Management, Quality Assurance, Safety Medical Terminology
|Medical ReceptionPatient Navigator/Advocate Medical Business PracticesEstablish Patient Medical Records Scheduling Appointments Medical Practice Finances
|Anatomy Physiology Infection Control Patient Intake, Care DocumentationPatient Prep Assisting Provider NutritionCollection Processing of SpecimensDiagnostic TestingPharmacologyEmergency Management Basic First Aid
The General Section
The psychology section tests your understanding of the basics of human behavior, human growth and development, and the stages of death and dying. You’ll need to know Maslow’s and Erikson’s behavioral theories, common types of defense mechanisms, and developmental patterns or milestones in the human lifespan. A potential question you may encounter in the psychology section might be:
Who proposed the hierarchy of needs?
The communication section digs into your understanding of a variety of thoughtful communication skills that you’ll need as a medical assistant. Subjects in this area include nonverbal communication, interpersonal skills, therapeutic and adaptive responses to diverse populations, and even telephone call techniques. Ranging from theoretical knowledge to practical, hands-on skills, a potential question in this area might look like:
When speaking on the telephone about confidential information, it is most important to ________________.
A. Direct all patient questions to the physician
B. Confirm the identity of the caller by asking for identifying demographic information
C. Not discuss any patient health information over the phone
D. Provide detailed information accurately
An important part of being an AAMA-certified medical assistant is the ability to act professionally in the clinical work environment. This section of the test assesses how you might navigate scenarios in the medical workplace with integrity and how you’ll follow professional norms in the field. You’ll get questions that ask you about the dynamics of working as part of a healthcare team, time management, and the prioritization of tasks.
If a medical assistant is __________________, it means that the medical assistant performs his/her duties in compliance with the standards of his/her job description.
Medical Law/Regulatory Guidelines
The medical law and regulatory guidelines section of the exam covers a hefty number of healthcare laws and established rules from several organizations. You will need to understand the primary guidelines for medical assistants from several entities, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. This section also tests your knowledge of advance directives such as a living will, power of attorney, and the Patient Self-Determination Act, among several others. A type of question that might appear in this section is as follows:
A woman is being accused of failing to pay her medical bills. Which of the following classifications of law is she violating?
A. Criminal Law
B. Civil Law
D. Family Law
One of the most important principles for healthcare professionals to abide by in the workplace is the code of medical ethics. This is critical for all healthcare workers, not only medical assistants. The exam in this section typically offers scenario-based questions to assess how you would abide by standards and common practices as a health professional. The CMA exam also gauges your understanding of how legal and moral factors impact ethical decision making in the field.
A medical procedure cannot be performed on a patient until the doctor obtains _____________.
B. Informed consent
C. Insurance authorization
D. Vital statistics
Risk Management, Quality Assurance, & Safety
This section of the test concerns general safety in the workplace. The AAMA wants to ensure potential employers that the medical assistants it certifies are able to carry out their job duties in a way that does not negatively impact clients, patients, or other healthcare workers. Additionally, it wants to be sure that CMAs are aware of various workplace accident prevention tactics, fire prevention, electrical safety, compliance reporting, healthy ergonomics, and more.
If an individual is going to be using a computer for long periods of time, they should do which of the following?
A. Adjust the chair height and monitor to a comfortable position
B. Sit as long as you can so you do not break concentration
C. About once an hour, stand and stretch
D. Both A and C
The medical terminology section requires you to understand basic words structures as it pertains to medical assistant rules. This includes root words and combined forms, prefixes, and suffixes. You’ll also need to know standard definitions of medical terminology, including those in categories related to diseases and pathologies, diagnostic procedures, surgical procedures, and medical specialties.
The term, “Afferent Nerve,” means:
A. Carrying an impulse to the brain
B. Carrying an impulse away from the brain
C. Carrying impulses to the motor neurons of the appendicular muscles
D. None of the above
The Administrative Section
The reception area of the medical facility is responsible for establishing a good first impression with patients. It must also be a functional space that works for everyone who uses it. The section of the test evaluates how much you know about the procedures that take place in medical reception areas. You may encounter questions that cover things like patient information packets, patient check-ins, patient comfort, environmental cleanliness, verification of insurance records, and more.
When checking the identity of a patient, most healthcare facilities require that the patient present ________ forms of identification.
Medical assistants are often called upon to guide patients in a variety of ways to better their health. As a patient advocate or navigator, you may find yourself having to connect a patient with available resources for their specific situation. You may be tested on the process for referring patients to outside professionals in their communities, as well as what the follow-up and status check processes look like in these scenarios. A sample question in this area might be:
The nursing case manager meets with a 15-year-old patient with type 1 diabetes, who has a recent A1C of 8%. The patient reports smoking two to three cigarettes per day, denies using alcohol, and states, “I hate having diabetes; I just want to be like my friends.” Which referral will benefit this patient’s immediate needs?
A. A smoking cessation group for adolescents
B. A support group for adolescents with diabetes
C. An education session about insulin, aimed at adolescents
D. Family counseling
Medical Business Practices
Professionals working in healthcare need an extremely good eye for detail. Medical assistants must understand what’s happening not only on the medical side of things but also on the business side too. With this in mind, you will need to have a general understanding of medical office inventory needs, including the necessary equipment that the facility uses on a daily basis. On the CMA exam, you might be tested on a variety of areas, from maintenance, team communication, and computer application issues to database and management systems, security issues, and office safety concerns.
Good team members in the office ______________________.
A. Focus on their tasks and not on some lofty goal.
B. Do not communicate with or interfere with others.
C. Do their job well without helping others with theirs.
D. Accept responsibility and accountability.
Establish Patient Medical Records
Keeping track of a patient’s health information is of the utmost importance for medical facilities. As a medical assistant, you play an integral role in this aspect of the system. Most importantly, you should be able to recognize and interpret patient data and know about charting systems. The CMA exam is concerned with two types of charting systems: the problem-oriented medical record and the source-oriented medical record.
Which of these is not an advantage of electronic medical records (EMRs)?
A. They offer great accessibility.
B. They eliminate the security threats
C. There are fewer lost records
D. Multiple users can view a record at one time
Medical clinics and practices are very busy places, with people coming and going all the time. It’s essential that patient appointments and other scheduling matters are kept straight and in a uniform manner for the facility to run smoothly. The AAMA exam tests your understanding of protocol for scheduling new patients, returning patients, and outside services. They might also be questions that address legal aspects of appointment-making, physician referrals, cancellations, and appointment reminders.
The patient is always late for their scheduled appointments. The office manager spoke to the patient about the issue but it has not changed the patient’s behavior. Which of the following is an appropriate next step?
A. Always schedule them at the end of the day
B. Charge them a late fee
C. Force them to find another doctor
D. Have a heart-to-heart talk with him about the situation
Medical Practice Finances
The medical practice finances section of the exam includes questions on financial terminology, common financial protocols, diagnostic and procedural coding applications, and third-party payers and insurance. In order to handle these questions, you may need to brush up on general accounting terms such as liabilities, debits, credits, and assets. Additionally, you might encounter questions about payment processing, coding applications for diagnosis and procedures, and working with Medicaid, Medicare, and government insurance plans.
If a medical assistant managing patient payments learns that a patient’s check has been returned due to insufficient funds, what step should the medical assistant take first?
A. Call the patient
B. Call the police
C. Notify the collection agency
D. Call the patient’s employer
The Clinical Section
Anatomy & Physiology
This subsection exam will incorporate questions from several broad topics. You will need to answer questions on how the body functions as a complete unit, including questions that address the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, nervous, reproductive, digestive, and respiratory systems. This section can also include questions on pathophysiological conditions and diseases and how they relate to the previously mentioned systems. These questions may not be super complex but they do include the specialized knowledge you get from a medical assisting program. This question, for example, simply asks you to locate a particular region on the body:
The _________________ region of the abdomen is inferior to the umbilicus.
A. right lumbar
B. left hypochondrium
Since you’ll likely be working in a healthcare setting, the AAMA wants to ensure you have knowledge and understanding of transmittable diseases, controlling and limiting the spread of infections, and how to identify related warning signs in healthcare facilities. This subsection of the exam explores your understanding of a variety of topics in this area, including the precautions you need to take for specific pathogens, means of disease transmission, the infection cycle, and the disposal of waste. You may also get questions on viruses and bacteria, airborne infection transmission, hygiene, and pre-surgical procedures.
Which of the following vital signs can be expected in a child that is afebrile?
A. Rectal temp of 100.9 degrees F.
B. Oral temp of 38 degrees C.
C. Axillary temp of 98.6 degrees F.
D. All of the above are incorrect.
Patient Intake, Care Documentation
As a medical assistant, you’ll probably be involved in the patient intake procedures at your care facility. This section of the CMA exam focuses on documentation and medical records. Specific topics include a patient’s personal and family history, social history, current illnesses, and descriptions of symptoms. You will also need to know common procedures for correcting errors in patient documentation in compliance with privacy standards.
Who owns a patient’s x-rays?
A. the patient
B. the physician
C. the facility that performs the procedure
D. none of the above
Nutrition is an important part of everyone’s health. Medical assistants need to know about common dietary needs and restrictions, weight control, macronutrients, and other nutrition-focused topics. You may encounter questions that test your understanding of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and vitamins. The CMA exam may also include questions on eating disorders, diabetes, cancer, lactose intolerance, or glucose intolerance. You will need to be able to answer common nutrition-focused questions, such as this one pertaining to a patient’s diet.
If the physician prescribes a low-fat diet for a patient, which of the following should they be able to eat?
A. Whole milk
B. Chicken with skin attached
C. Cake with icing
D. Boneless, skinless chicken breast
Collection & Processing of Specimens
One task you’ll do on a regular basis as a medical assistant is collect and process specimens from patients. These include fecal specimens, blood, and urine. The CMA exam tests your knowledge of common procedures to collect these specimens as well as the equipment used to manage and maintain them. Topics you’ll find in this area include swabbing procedures, following protocols in keeping records, using an incubator and microscope, control tests, fecal occult tests, and hematology panels. You might see a question like this on the collection and processing of specimens subsection:
When performing a 12-lead EKG on a patient, the patient should be placed in which position?
C. high-Fowler’s position
Medical assistants carry out different types of diagnostic tests in clinical settings. The exam tests your knowledge in major categories, including cardiovascular, respiratory, vision, allergy, and auditory tests. You may also get questions that focus on specific functions, such as speech recognition, pulmonary function tests, cardiac stress tests, and spirometry.
What does a spirometer measure?
A. The rate and amount of air that is moved in and out of the lungs
B. The capacity and functional differences between the superior and inferior lung lobes
C. General lung capacity
D. The peak expiratory flow rate
The pharmacology sections are designed to ensure that you understand general pharmacology and commonly prescribed medications. You will be tested on a variety of specific topics such as classes of drugs, medication storage, medication conversions and dosages, and procedures for administering medications. Larger topics in pharmacology include record-keeping procedures, immunizations, and preparing and administering drugs. You might see a question like this in the pharmacology section:
If a drug has been defined as a schedule 2 drug, it is true that the drug:
A. has the highest potential for abuse
B. is more dangerous than a schedule 1 drug
C. has no documented medical use
D. can lead to psychological dependence
Emergency Management & Basic First Aid
In this subsection, the exam covers how to assess patients and understand their needs during emergencies, and how to respond. You will also be tested on your knowledge and understanding of at-risk populations and what emergency situations mean for them. You may get questions covering common emergencies including seizures, concussions, burns, shock, and bleeding. A question that addresses your understanding of at-risk populations might include something like:
The elderly and very young:
A. have increased susceptibility to infectious pathogens.
B. are more sensitive to heat and cold.
C. have a higher risk of falls.
D. all of the above.
5 Strategies for Crushing the CMA
Most of us have a few studying and test-taking strategies that have worked for us in the past, and you should definitely call upon those strategies when taking the CMA exam. Nevertheless, the CMA exam is probably a little different than other tests you’ve taken, so here are some additional tips and tools to help you in preparing specifically for the CMA exam.
Use Practice Exams
One of the best ways to prepare for the CMA exam is by using practice exams that contain retired CMA test questions. The AAMA also offers an online practice exam of its own. The great thing about practicing with retired or authentic test questions is that you’re getting a taste of the real thing. With unofficial practice tests, or a test that comes from an unreliable source, you might be studying questions that aren’t quite what you need. They might contain outdated or inaccurate information and be misleading about what will actually be on your CMA exam. A lot of students find that coupling legit practice exams with a review course to be one of the best strategies for preparing. We recommend you try both, too.
Develop Your Study Plan
We all have a lot going on these days. From work and school to obligations with family and friends, our schedules are pretty tight most of the time. Developing a study plan is really the best way to stay on track and get the most out of your dedicated study time. There are many different techniques out there to help you create the best study plan, and we’ve listed a few here. Bear in mind that it’s best to find something that works with your own preferred learning style. There’s no one-size-fits-all study plan. Regardless, make a plan and stick to it.
The SQ3R Technique
The SQ3R technique is designed to help retain the most information possible when studying written content. Using this technique, you’ll employ a few different types of learning mechanisms that involve quick-scanning headings are bodies of information, writing your own questions to improve memory, and more.
Short Interval Studying
Education experts have repeatedly told us that studying for long periods of time (i.e., “cramming”) isn’t the most effective way to study. In fact, you’re much more likely to forget the info you crammed after only a few days. As a future healthcare professional, you’ll need to understand and retain the content on the CMA exam for your entire career, not just to pass the exam itself. Try scheduling three to five 30-minute study sessions a day. This method is particularly effective for those with exceptionally hectic schedules.
Review and Revisit Regularly (RRR)
Even with a lot of information to digest, a carefully scheduled RRR technique allows you to re-read and re-think through content more than once. As part of your study plan, make sure you carve out time to circle back through topics, review your notes, and think long thoughts about each major section we’ve outlined above. Your ability to retain and recall information will exponentially increase with RRR.
Analyze Each Question Thoroughly
One of the biggest mistakes that CMA exam candidates make is not taking the time to read questions thoroughly. CMA test questions intentionally include irrelevant information meant to distract you from the important information. The best way to avoid getting sucked into the wrong answer is to read all of your multiple-choice options carefully. Don’t just jump at the one that at first seems correct. In short, make sure to read all choices fully and carefully before answering.
Answer the Easy Questions First
One test-taking strategy that could work for you on the CMA multiple-choice exam is to answer the questions you’re sure you know first. By answering the easy questions right off the bat, you give yourself a small sense of victory. This helps battle any kind of test anxiety you might have about a particular section. Then, once you get a good sense of forward momentum and realize how prepared you are, you can return to the questions you skipped with more confidence when you’re warmed up.
Think of the Answer Before Reading the Options
This might sound counterintuitive, but this is actually a quicker way to move through a multiple-choice exam than it might sound. Read the question and then, without reading the multiple-choice options, try thinking of the answer on your own. Then, read the answer options. If one of the options matches what you originally thought the answer was, then you can mark it and move on with confidence.
CMA Exam Advice from an Expert
Dr. Aragona is a family doctor and medical advisor for a prescription doctor telemedicine service. He’s also a general practitioner with a broad range of medical skills and has practiced medicine in three countries. He has prepared for and taken the CMA exam.
Q. What challenges, modes of thinking, or skill sets do you think students should be prepared for when taking the CMA exam?
Dr. Aragona: With the content outline set to change July of next year, students need to spend time on the clinical skills section, as the focus will be working on bedside manner and skills other more traditional admin duties.
Q: There are questions on the CMA that focus on professional ethics, medical records, cost management, safety and risk management, and more. Which parts of the exam are the trickiest, in your opinion? How can students prepare?
Dr. Aragona: I struggled most with the technology and analytics part of the course, as I feel the other subjects include a mixture of common sense and things you deal with in everyday life. So you already have some kind of base knowledge on these.
Technology changes quickly anyhow, but it’s never been more true than it is today. Keeping up the tech can be a part-time job in itself. Students should read medical journals, follow medical/tech blogs every day, as part of their regular reading. It is much easier to absorb if you’re treating it like daily/weekly news.
Q: What would you recommend in terms of a study plan? What materials should be utilized in order to put their best foot forward? Any particular kind of strategy you’d recommend?
Dr. Aragona: Breaks are important, as cramming in medicine will lead to sub-par performances. There’s a lot of information to learn, so practice and rehearse more than any other topic on earth. Stressing overstudying and exams will have the opposite effect, where your brain will bounce off information rather than absorb it.
Everyone learns differently so people should find out the most enjoyable way they learn and use that method. However, please note not to neglect the necessary elements no matter how much you hate them. I tended to place my blocks of studying into enjoyable subject, hated subject, enjoyable subject, hated subject, then lunch break. Rewarding yourself after a difficult session motivates you to get through it.
Q: What are some important things you wish you knew going into the CMA exam?
Dr. Aragona: I almost ran out of time in my exam as I was answering too thoroughly. I wish I had timed my practice exams more rigidly. I was more concerned about knowing the answers and structuring them properly, rather than ensuring I was within the time limit. It almost cost me big, suffice it to say my last few answers in the test were not of the best standard.
Q: Any tips for what to do on test day or during the week leading up to the exam?
Dr. Aragona: I learned pretty quickly never to study the night before, as I just tried to do too much, as in cover all the subjects, which of course is impossible. Tapering off my studying over seven days worked well for me. Each day I spent less and less time revising and I felt the pressure ease off. I found that I remembered almost everything when I sat down to take the exam. Try and mix up your week with some exercise and/or social activities to try and take your mind off the exam.
- ECPI UniversityThis blog post adds some good supplemental tips to what we’ve included in this guide.
- Exam ShazamThis site lists its top-ranked CMA exam study materials and where to find them.
- MedPreps.comFor a small subscription fee, you can gain access to over 1,000 CMA-style practice questions.
- Mometrix FlashcardsThis CMA exam flashcard study system helps you get through a lot of information really quickly. These are good for fast study sessions while you’re on-the-go.
- ProvoCollege.comThis site offers 10 good tips on how to prepare for the CMA exam.
- ScopeNotes.orgThis company offers more than 2,500 sample questions and video tutorials for the CMA, for a small subscription fee.
- Test-Guide.comThis site offers five free practice exams that were updated for 2020.
- Tests.comHere you’ll find some quick, easy-access questions in most of the main topics without having to log in or sign up for anything. It’s a good quiz when you’re in a time crunch. It also has a 750-question practice exam available if you’re interested in going further.
- Trivium Test PrepFor those of us who enjoy studying from hardcopy materials, Trivium offers its CMA exam prep study guide, which you can order on Amazon.
- TrueLearn.comThis company offers several test prep services, including practice test questions, customized quizzes, detailed explanations, and personal performance metrics for a small subscription fee.