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Essential Skills for Medical Assisting Students

To rise to the top in your medical assisting program and excel after graduation, master these soft, hard, and online learning skills.

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Author: Paul Blumer

Dayana Camacho

Dayana Camacho is a medical assistant at Apex Spine and Neurosurgery in Atlanta, Georgia. Her career began about three years ago after she graduated with a medical assistant diploma from North Georgia Nursing Academy. Her biggest regret is waiting a year before starting school.

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A smiling Asian female doctor wearing a lab coat and a stethoscope stands confidently in a bright office setting, demonstrating her educational development.

You only get one chance to make the most of your medical assisting program. Whether you’re already a student or considering enrollment, now is the time to learn the skills you need to succeed in your studies. From boosting your GPA to networking with people in your field, success in a medical assisting program requires mastery of a few important skills; both technical and interpersonal. Practice and perfect those skills now so you don’t miss out on opportunities and experiences later because you’re playing catch-up.

On top of good study habits and communication skills, you’ll also want to develop your online learning skills. It’s likely that at least some of your medical assisting education will take place online. Learning how to stay focused on a screen and not get distracted will prepare you for the years ahead. Let the examples in this guide serve as a foundation for developing your crucial skills. From technical hard skills like recording patients’ vitals to interpersonal soft skills like empathy and bedside manner, understanding the skills necessary to be an effective medical assisting student can give you a definite advantage in your career journey.

5 Soft Skills that Matter Most for Medical Assisting Students

Soft skills are often referred to as “people skills.” This includes attributes like teamwork, leadership, and time management. These are the skills you pick up through life experience and interactions with others as opposed to hard skills, which are generally learned as part of a specific strategy or certification — like a medical assisting program.

Even though soft skills are harder to measure, they can be learned and developed just like the hard skills you learn in school. The soft skills are what will set you apart, both as a student and throughout your medical assistant career.

1. Empathy & Bedside Manner

As with any career in medicine, connecting with patients on a human level goes a long way in the healing process and aids in running an effective medical practice with a good reputation. Kindness, patience, understanding, and empathy are the baseline for bedside manner.

Medical assistants are often the first face incoming patients see. As such, you’ll need to understand where they’re coming from and what they may be experiencing. You should be able to have empathy and the ability to put yourself in their shoes and look at their situation from their points of view in order to comfort and prepare them for the next steps in their medical process.

2. Communication Skills

Because they often interact directly with patients, medical assistants must be able to explain and translate medical language for non-medical people. They sometimes have to do it in high-stress and high-anxiety circumstances.

That’s why calm, clear, and empathic communication is a prerequisite for a successful career as a medical assistant. Practice those skills during your program, starting now, by:

  • Taking part in discussions.
  • Asking thoughtful questions.
  • Listening intently.
  • Speaking carefully.
  • Offering to help other classmates if you see an opportunity to do so.
  • Writing down your reflections about other classmates’ views and how they communicate them.

3. Organization

In whatever healthcare facility you work as a medical assistant, you’ll be handling a great deal of sensitive information that other medical professionals need access to. Being entrusted with this private and crucial patient information means organization is a must.

Even in medical circumstances that aren’t particularly stressful or high-stakes, having the right information, tool, or product ready — where and when it’s needed — is crucial to the health of the patients as well as the practice.

Medical students with a good sense of organization, whether learned and cultivated or naturally developed, can help with the smooth functioning of any medical practice. Organization is a valued soft skill and one that can help you become a vital member of any medical team you join.

4. Problem Solving

Whatever your job — from janitor to CEO — you’re being paid to solve problems relevant to your skillset. Medical assistants bring a lot of skills to their game, and all of those are used to solve problems.

Sometimes problems in your medical assisting program or healthcare workplace will arise unexpectedly. Finely tuned problem-solving skills can help you deftly take action to make the most of an obstacle. You can develop such skills during your medical assisting program by putting in your best effort on class projects and critical thinking assignments. You may also get practical experience observing in the field, reflecting on how medical assistants solve problems and approach challenges.

5. Active Listening & Telephone Proficiency

Medical assistants must be able to focus intently on what any patient or colleague is telling them, retaining what they say as well as paying attention between the lines. That ensures the right information gets into the file so other staff can understand accurately what’s going on and how to help. Medical assistants may also:

  • Answer phones at reception
  • Set up and confirm patient appointments
  • Answer questions from patients
  • Field urgent calls from other healthcare professionals

One way to practice your phone skills while you’re a medical assisting student is by making volunteer calls for an organization you support.

More Important Soft Skills

Understanding basic computer programs, including spreadsheets and other productivity technology, can go a long way toward keeping your medical assistant career on track. Reading, writing, and creative hobbies can also help round out your skills and character as a customer-centric health care professional. And depending on where you work, even your social media skills may be called upon — for promoting the practice and its patients, of course.

5 Hard Skills for Successful Medical Assisting Students

The technical skills you’ll learn through your medical assisting program will give you a foundation to prepare you for a career. After that, each job will have its own hard skills that you’ll have to learn in order to be effective there. Taking full advantage of the opportunities your program offers to learn and perfect these skills will not only add to your skillset but will also prepare you better for learning new hard skills in the future. Take a look at these skills you will want to learn as a medical assisting student.

1. Vital Signs & Basic Procedures

Before patients see a nurse, doctor, or physician assistant, a medical assistant often measures and records patient vital signs like height and weight, blood pressure and pulse, symptoms and medications, and other specialty-specific information.

Medical assistants may also take blood and other samples, administer medicine and vaccines, and perform other medical procedures with or without assistance from another staff member. Medical assisting students may learn technical medical skills in the classroom and/or during fieldwork.

2. Bookkeeping & Office Skills

Medical assistants often manage and input information like patient data, payments, insurance requests, prescription and lab orders, and other office administration duties. Basic accounting, data entry, and calendar management skills are a must. In your medical assisting program, you may learn how to use common software, but it’s a good idea to be familiar with a few different platforms to increase your value to employers.

3. Medical Administration & Inventory

Medical practices often move through a lot of products in their patient care. Basic inventory skills can be learned anywhere, but in medicine, keeping track of products comes with much higher stakes. From health concerns to legal issues, diligent recordkeeping and stock upkeep can make or break a medical practice. Medical assistants with more administrative skills can translate to a more effective and efficient practice, which translates to better patient care.

4. CPR & First Aid

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid are essential skills you can learn anytime, within your medical assistant program or even before it starts. Getting CPR-certified ahead of time can leave more room in your schedule for other medical assistant classes later on. Even if you’re required to re-take the class in your MA program, knowing this lifesaving skill ahead of time means you’ll become even better at it.

Even if you’re not likely ever to use CPR or first aid in your practice, knowing the mechanics can help you understand better how the body’s cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems interact, which is relevant to every medical field.

5. Infection Control & Safety Guidelines

Any medical facility will have guidelines and policies for managing the risk of spreading infections relevant to the patients they serve. Depending on what health care aspects they handle, those policies may be more stringent or more generalized.

From cleaning and prepping exam rooms, to sterilization and handling biological material, medical assistants may be responsible for implementing a range of safety protocols. Learning and following general guidelines and medical best practices can help medical assisting students adapt into jobs after graduation. Having a grasp of such protocols can also help new employees learn the practice-specific procedures they’ll need to follow unerringly.

Other Important Hard Skills

Each medical specialization comes with its own unique skills. For example, if you work in a pediatric office, you’ll be measuring growth and administering a lot of immunizations. If you work in an obstetric practice, you may assist in examinations and make sure sonography rooms are set up in advance.

Some important hard skills you’ll learn on the job, and some of them you’ll learn with further certifications. Medical assisting certifications include:

3 Critical Skills for Online Medical Assisting Students

Though your medical assistant education will include practical field experience, you’ll also learn crucial skills in a classroom setting. Even when COVID-19 subsides, there’s a good likelihood that at least some of those classes will still be offered online.

Not only is online learning more convenient and cost-effective, but it can also put you in touch with students from a much broader geographic area, meaning more opportunities for networking and diverse interactions.

Here are some suggestions for online learning skills to help you achieve your goals throughout your medical assistant education.

1. Networking and Mentorship

The best way to get the career you want is to seek out opportunities to connect with people who can help you get there. In this way, you can choose your own path to success. The key to opening doors of opportunity is by knowing people who stand beyond those doors and can help lead the way. Mentorship is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to learn and grow within a field.

An online medical assisting program gives you a digital leg up because you already have contact information for most of the people you interact with. That means all you need is a well-crafted pitch about your goals and the unique qualities you’ll bring to the relationship so you both can learn and grow as a result. The best mentorships are those in which the mentor and mentee learn from each other and lift each other up.

Make it a practice to reach out to one relevant person each week with a question you have about their experience as a medical assistant. Keep it clear and concise. Introduce yourself briefly, compliment their work (this may require research), and ask your relevant question. Most importantly, always express gratitude for every moment of their time.

2. Digital File Organization

You’ll have a lot of files to manage through the course of your medical assisting education. Get organized now so you don’t get overwhelmed later with all the PDFs, course packs, outside reading, spreadsheets, essays, and other digital materials.

Most online programs will have their own system of organizing classes and assignments, but you should also set up your own system for your career down the road. Get familiar with a cloud organizer like Google Docs, and set up files for yourself for classes, financial information, recommendation letters, resume, and the like.

3. Online Writing & Formatting

You may not be interested in writing, but you’ll always have to do it in some form or another. Throughout your medical assistant education you’ll have to write papers and reports in specific styles and formats. Beyond that, you may have to write cover letters for jobs or admissions essays for further education. Some medical assistant jobs may also require grant writing, for practices that include research elements. Whatever your career goals are, solid writing skills will always help you stand out. And they’ll also help you serve your patients better, because you’ll be more precise in your descriptions, notes, and instructions.

From a Medical Assistant: Insight on Key Skills


Dayana Camacho is a medical assistant at Apex Spine and Neurosurgery in Atlanta, Georgia. Her career began about three years ago after she graduated with a medical assistant diploma from North Georgia Nursing Academy. Her biggest regret is waiting a year before starting school.

What are some skills you use frequently — whether learned in your program, on the job, or interpersonal?

One of the most important is having a great attitude and loving what you do, which will make your job easier. I’ve always been a caring person, so that helps.

At work we spend a lot of time with patients who are post-op or pre-op. We sometimes take blood pressure or other patient work-ups. We also remove sutures or staples — which I also learned in school.

And we do a lot of referrals — to pain management clinics, physical therapy, that kind of thing. So we’re on the phone a lot, with patients and medical assistants at other practices. So good communication and multitasking are really important.

What was your education process for getting where you are now?

After high school, I took a year off to work and think about my next step. Then I attended North Georgia Nursing Academy (NGNA). In three months we learned so much — medical terminology, EKGs, phlebotomy, urinalysis, patient communication.

Classes went three days per week from 8:00 to 3:30, so you’re always busy but still have time to keep your job. It sometimes seemed overwhelming, but the teachers were really supportive. And they all had years of experience as MA’s.

How did your career begin after getting your medical assistant diploma?

I applied for a job at a pain management clinic because it’s something I’ve always been interested in, and I learned a lot about it in school. So I worked there for two years doing things like helping in the OR during spinal injections, managing the CR machine, getting medications and supplies, and setting up tools for the doctors.

When it was time for a change, I applied for a job at Apex because, even though neurosurgery isn’t exactly pain management, we’re working with the spine and a lot of the same systems, so I was able to learn it quickly. That’s another good skill I have from school. Learning quickly. We had to.

What’s a difficult aspect of work, and how do you handle it?

Sometimes people who are in pain can seem angry or rude. But they’re just hurting and can’t get comfortable. You have to understand where they’re coming from and help them feel like they’re in the right hands. We’re here to help as best we can. It’s not hard if you have empathy, but I guess it can take some getting used to.

We learned patient communication in school, so you’re prepared for situations like that. After that, it’s just about caring for the person.

Anything else future medical assistant students should know?

Don’t wait! If you know it’s what you want to do, if you’re a genuinely caring person, working in medicine is really rewarding. Medical assistant school is intense — you learn a lot in a very short time — but it’s worth it.

Being a medical assistant is also a great experience if you decide to become an RN or any other type of nurse in the future.

So yeah, I’m glad I did it and I love my job.