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How Does One Become a Certified Medical Assistant?

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Medical assisting is one of the hottest career fields of today. This excellent career offers tremendous employment potential, a lucrative salary, fantastic employment benefits, and job security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are expected to be over 150,000 new medical assisting jobs by 2020. The BLS also reports that the average hourly wage of medical assistants is around $14 per hour, which can be substantially higher depending upon location and experience. This salary is often accompanied by a full range of employment benefits including vacation pay, health and dental insurance, retirement benefits, and more. While this career may not be suited to everyone, those who are flexible, service oriented, and dedicated will find many benefits to making this career choice.

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Paths to Becoming a Medical Assistant

There are several options available to those wishing to enter the medical assisting field: unofficial on-the-job training, on campus training, online training, and hybrid programs. While it is possible to become a medical assistant with no more than a high school diploma or GED and on-the-job-training, increasing numbers of employers are choosing to only hire applicants who have received medical assistant training and certification through a properly accredited program. As such, it is advisable to train through a program that is accredited through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).

Option 1 – Unofficial Training and Education

Choosing to become a medical assistant through on-the-job training is the fastest way to enter the field and allows you to earn money while you are learning. However, choosing this path requires a great deal of persistence because it can be difficult to find a doctor who is willing to hire an untrained applicant. If you choose this path, here is what you need to do:

  • Have a high school diploma or GED. The minimum educational requirement for medical assistants is a high school diploma or equivalency degree. If you do not already have this level of education, the first step is to take a GEDprep class and to pass the examination.
  • Find a doctor who will provide training. Although most employers now prefer medical assistants with a formal education, there are some who will provide on-site training. Arrange to meet with several doctors and express your passion for medical assisting and your desire to become a medical assistant. If you are accepted, you will receive intensive hands-on training under the direction of the doctor, nurses, and other medical professionals.

Option 2 – Official Training Programs Through Accredited Programs

There are many colleges, universities, and technical schools that offer medical assistant training programs. Depending upon your preferences, you may choose to earn a certificate or diploma in as little as 9-12 months or an associate’s degree in 18-24 months. These programs typically include classroom and laboratory training as well as an externship assignment. Students may choose a school that offers all work on campus, online, or a hybrid of the two. If you want to become a Certified Medical Assistant after graduation, be sure to choose a program that is CAAHEP or ABHES accredited.

- On-Campus Training Programs -

On-campus medical assistant training programs are those that require students to attend all classes and laboratory sessions on a physical campus. The programs have set schedules and may be held during day, afternoon, or evening hours.


  • Face to face interaction with instructors
  • Opportunities to collaborate with other medical assisting students
  • Highly structured learning environment
  • Access to campus resources and assistance


  • Lack of flexibility in scheduling
  • Time and money expenditures for commuting
  • Sacrifice of time for work and family

- Online Training Programs -

Online programs allow students to complete all work online from the comfort of home. This is the method of choice for many students who want to work a full-time job and/or take care of a family while getting an education. If you want to perform clinical medical assisting duties, however, you will be required to complete an externship or other hands-on experience at a physical location before graduation.


  • Flexible scheduling
  • Studies can be completed from any location
  • Ability to work and care for family while getting an education
  • Access to online resources and technology


  • Lack of structure requires high student motivation and organization
  • Little interpersonal interaction
  • Students must still schedule around externships and other on-site requirements

- Hybrid Training Programs -

Hybrid medical assistant training programs allow students to complete at least part of the class work online, but require students to complete laboratory practice or other training on campus. This allows students to have more flexibility than an on-campus only program and can reduce the need to commute.


  • Combines flexibility and interaction with teachers and other students
  • Reduces expenses associated with commuting
  • Access to online and on-site resources and services


  • Requires a high level of organization and motivation
  • Less flexibility in scheduling than online programs

Step 2 – Becoming Certified

While it is certainly not required to become certified, it is highly recommended. Employers are more likely to hire candidates who are certified and typically offer higher pay to Certified Medical Assistants. In order to be eligible to sit for the examination, you must have recently completed a medical assistant training program through an accredited school. The examination is given in January, June, and October of each year. Since the examination costs between $95 and $145 for AAMA, ABHES, CAAHEP, and NCCA members and $195 for non-members, make sure to allow yourself plenty of time to study before taking the examination. There are many exam prep programs available, both free and paid, that can help you prepare. In addition, the American Association of Medical Assistants offers Certified Medical Assistant practice examinations, an exam content outline, and links to study resources for extra help.

Step 3 – Preparing Your Resume

Once you have completed your training and passed your certification exam, it is time to prepare your professional resume. Your resume and cover letter are your chance to make an excellent first impression with potential employers. Take the time to prepare a resume that will present you as a highly qualified and desirable professional. Keep both the cover letter and the resume concise while still providing ample information of your skills and qualifications. Define your knowledge and abilities using specialized health care industry terminology and include keywords that will capture the attention of anyone scanning the resume. Finally, take the time to research each employer to which you will be applying and customize your cover letter and resume to fit the mission and values of the business. Although it takes a little more time and effort to customize your submissions, it will show employers that you are serious about becoming a vital part of the team.

Step 4 – Finding a Job

Although there are many medical assisting jobs open across the nation, finding and landing the right position can be somewhat tricky for those with no experience. The key is thinking outside the box. Instead of simply applying with physician’s offices and general care clinics, expand your job search to include specialists such as podiatrists, chiropractors, obstetricians, and more. In addition, you may have more luck landing a position with a smaller facility in the early stages of your career. You can then work up to your dream job as you gain experience in the field.

It is also a great idea to take full advantage of your school’s job placement services and to become a member of your local AAMA chapter. By becoming an AAMA member, you can make many valuable network contacts that may help you connect with various employers. Finally, employment websites such as Monster and Indeed are great resources for locating and connecting with healthcare employers.

Acing the Interview

Getting invited for an interview is only the first part of getting your dream job. A great interview will almost surely land you the job while a few less than perfect answers can let your chance slip by. Since the interview is so important, it is vital to know what types of questions you can expect so you can be fully prepared. While each interview is unique, there are basically three types of questions involved in interviewing for a medical assistant position: hard skills questions, practice specific questions, and cultural fit questions. Here are some sample questions you may be asked:

Hard Skills Questions

  • Where did you receive your education? Are you certified?
  • Are you experienced with medical software?
  • Explain your knowledge of HIPAA.
  • What OSHA training have you received?
  • Are you CPR certified?
  • What skills do you have in phlebotomy and/or x-ray?

Practice-Specific Questions

  • What (podiatry, cardiology, etc.) procedures have you assisted with?
  • Do you have experience with patient education duties?
  • What type of decisions have you made on your own in a medical environment?
  • Are you prepared to switch roles and tasks as needed?
  • Have you worked with (children, teens, elderly patients, etc.) in the past?
  • What interests you about this practice?

Cultural Fit Questions

  • How would you handle a difficult patient?
  • How do you deal with stress?
  • Are you a capable multitasker?
  • What would you do if you did not get along with a coworker?
  • Are you comfortable making decisions on your own?
  • Do you take initiative to complete tasks without direction?

These are merely samples of the types of questions you may encounter during a medical assistant interview. Since the actual questions you will encounter can vary greatly, it is important to spend time truly thinking about why you are applying for a position, what you love about medical assisting, and what skills and talents you bring to the table.

Once you have fully prepared yourself to answer interview questions to the best of your ability, you must make sure you present yourself well. Dress professionally by choosing stylish but conservative attire. Also be sure to stand straight, make eye contact, speak clearly, and exude confidence. This shows potential employers that you believe in your value and abilities and that you can confidently tackle the demands of the job. While talking with the interviewer, mimic his or her level of familiarity and be sure to answer questions succinctly with professional language and without rambling. Be prepared to relate specific incidences from your experience without being overconfident or cocky. In addition, be sure to ask questions that demonstrate your interest in the business and the position. End the interview with a handshake and a thank you for the opportunity. While it is okay to express hope that you will hear from the interviewer soon, avoid sounding needy and desperate as this will undermine your professional image.

Becoming a medical assistant is a relatively simple process considering the many rewards the profession offers. If you are truly interested in this career and have the work, drive, and dedication needed to get your training and to land a job, you will find yourself in one of the most promising careers in modern healthcare.

Still want to become a medical assistant? Check out our list of the top regionally accredited medical assistant programs.


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