Group of smiling medical professionals

How to Prepare for Your Medical Assistant Program

Tips for Surviving Medical Assistant Training: Expectations, Requirements, and Challenges

Group of smiling medical professionals

Today’s Medical Assistants (MAs) perform more complex administrative and clinical tasks than ever before. As a result, the best MA training programs include a more extensive and rigorous curriculum than they may have in the past.

Administrative duties for medical assistants may now include maintaining patient records, bookkeeping, and billing and insurance processing. In addition, clinical responsibilities can consist of preparing patients for procedures, performing lab tests, administering medications, drawing blood samples, and other tasks under the supervision of a doctor or nurse. For this reason, most employers now require formal training, and many require certification.

This article will provide you with insight into the various medical assistant programs in order to help you choose the right one for you.  After reading this guide, you’ll understand the admission requirements of an MA program and know what to expect after enrollment. Completing any qualified MA program can prepare you for employment but graduating from the right program can empower you to excel as a well-trained medical assistant.

Why Become a Medical Assistant?

Medical assisting is an exciting profession that makes an important difference in the success of healthcare delivery and the lives of patients. Medical assistants play a vital role in a variety of healthcare teams in hospitals, doctor’s offices, outpatient clinics, and other healthcare facilities. Though the duties vary by employer, MAs provide essential clinical and administrative support to the healthcare practice.

Typically, the responsibilities of a medical assistant include updating medical records and insurance forms, admitting patients, billing and bookkeeping, and scheduling appointments. MAs may also perform a range of clinical functions, such as assisting in exams, explaining procedures, collecting and preparing lab specimens, and changing dressings. Without MAs, many vital examinations and procedures would not be possible, and doctors and nurses would have less time to treat patients.

Medical assistants are in growing demand. In fact, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that overall employment of medical assistants is projected to grow 18 percent through 2030, which is much faster than the average for all occupations (8%). As a result, medical assistance pays relatively well for the amount of education required. According to the BLS,  the average salary* for medical assistants was about $37,000 or about $18 per hour.

To learn more about medical assisting and becoming a medical assistant, read our comprehensive guide on how to become a medical assistant.

Finding the Right Medical Assistant Program for You

The first step to becoming a medical assistant is choosing the best school or program for your goals, timeline, availability, and budget. Below are eight essential factors to consider when selecting your Medical Assistant program:

Diploma or Degree. MA training programs typically offer either a diploma or an associate degree upon completion. Diploma programs can require a few weeks to a year to complete, while degree programs generally require two years of schooling. If you’re looking to enter the workforce as soon as possible, a diploma program can qualify you for employment and prepare you to excel in the MA role in a very short amount of time. On the other hand, suppose you intend to continue your education and pursue different roles in the healthcare field, including a nurse, doctor, or healthcare administrator. In that case, an associate degree may provide greater value in the long run.

Accreditation. In order to qualify for certification through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) and use the credential of Certified Medical Assistant (CMA), you will need to graduate from an accredited program. Only graduates of an accredited program are allowed to take certain professional certification tests, including the CMA. The two main accreditation organizations for medical assisting programs are the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) and the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). These organizations assess several factors about the school or program, including the quality of the curriculum, student outcomes, program administration, and other variables.

On-Campus or Online. Most of the accredited MA programs are offered at a physical campus, but many programs are offered online or through a combination of online and on-campus instruction. Online MA programs typically combine web-based lectures, assignments, and exams with in-person training or externships at approved facilities close to the student’s home. Both formats can provide comprehensive training. For many students, it’s a matter of their preferred learning style. Campus programs offer the structure and live interaction of traditional learning. On the other hand, online programs provide greater convenience and scheduling flexibility, allowing many students to maintain their current jobs or busy lifestyle while pursuing their education.

Medical professional assisting a woman

Clinical or Administrative Specialty. Most medical assisting programs train their graduates to perform the full range of clinical and administrative MA responsibilities. However, many programs enable the student to specialize in clinical or administrative roles. If you have a preference, you may want to specialize and obtain a greater depth of knowledge in that area.

Externship. Most MA programs require you to complete an externship that allows you to gain clinical experience before entering the workforce. During your externship, you will likely work alongside certified medical assistants and other healthcare professionals in a real-life clinical setting. Most schools will connect you with a local clinic or medical facility for your externship. Unless you already have this type of hands-on experience, you will want this type of real-life, supervised practice to fine-tune your knowledge and skills.

Certification (Optional). While certification is not technically required for employment as a medical assistant, the majority of employers either require or prefer MAs with at least one certification. These credentials will demonstrate your medical assisting knowledge and skills and can give your employers the confidence to assign you greater responsibilities. There are a number of different certifications available for MAs (see Certification section below). If your future employer or field of specialty values a particular certification, you should make sure your MA program will prepare you to pass that certification exam.

Cost. Depending on the school and the length of the program, medical assisting programs can cost anywhere from $1,200 to $20,000 or more. For example:

  • A training school program can range from $1,200 to $4,200 and require a few weeks to a year, depending on the school.
  • A one-year certificate program at a community college can average $2,500 to $10,000.
  • A two-year associate degree program can range from $600 to $5,400 per year for residents and up to $10,800 per year for out-of-state students.

Reputation or History. There are some key questions you should ask regarding the reputation or history of a potential MA training program that may impact its value to you as a graduate. Here are the most important questions to ask:

  • How long has the school been around?
  • How many students have graduated?
  • Are graduates happy with their education and training experience?
  • Do potential employers hire graduates from this type of program or this specific school?
  • What is the graduation rate for this program?

How to Get into a Medical Assistant Program

Demand for medical assistants is high. As a result, the demand for admission into MA training programs is also high. Because most schools accept students on a first-come-first-served basis, you should start the enrollment process as early as possible—at least two months prior to your desired start date. Be sure to ask the enrollment counselor to explain all the requirements and prerequisites needed to qualify for admission. If you are denied enrollment, don’t be discouraged. It could be a simple matter of the program being full for that starting date. But in any event, find out why you were denied, so you can fix any issues and try again.

While admission requirements will vary depending on the program and the school, most of them require a similar set of criteria for enrollment. Below is a list of typical admissions requirements drawn from programs around the country.

Student completing the admissions process

Admission requirements for medical assistant programs typically include: 

  • Submit a completed application and fee
  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Send official transcripts from a high school or GED program
  • Show proof of prerequisite classes (e.g., biology, chemistry)
  • Have proof of immunizations to work in a healthcare setting

While uncommon, some schools may ask for additional materials such as a personal essay, test scores, or candidate interviews. Some schools will not require prerequisite classes. For example, to enroll in the Medical Assisting program at Brookline College, you only require a high school diploma or GED, plus a passing score on a Scholastic Level Exam.

Is Medical Assistant Training Hard?

The best medical assistant programs are not easy. But if you apply yourself, pay attention, and study the materials, you will gain the knowledge and skills you need to perform brilliantly as a medical assistant.

You can pass almost any MA program with flying colors with diligence and dedication. However, if you fail a course or test during your program, don’t panic—it happens. Typically, you can retake that course or test or apply additional study time to the material and demonstrate your understanding of the subject in an alternate way. The best MA programs want you to succeed, both in their program and in your career.

Today’s MAs are tasked with more and more complex duties than ever before, both clinically and administratively. To be properly prepared, you must learn a lot of material and master a variety of skills. Although the curriculum will vary by medical assisting program, here are some of the most common courses.

The following are some of the most common topics you’ll cover throughout your medical assistant training:

  • Anatomy, physiology, and pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Medical office software
  • Basic insurance
  • Medication administration
  • Office practices
  • First aid
  • Patient relations
  • Clinical and diagnostic procedures
  • Laboratory techniques
  • Medical law and medical ethics
  • Record-keeping and accounting
  • Career development
  • Medical terminology

If your goal as a medical assistant is to concentrate on a clinical or administrative role, some programs focus specifically on one of those areas. In addition, some MA programs allow students to specialize in specific medical practices, such as internal medicine, emergency medicine, podiatry, family medicine, geriatrics, OB/GYN, cardiology, urology, and other areas.

Medical Assistant Program Tips

As mentioned earlier, medical assisting programs are challenging. You have to absorb a lot of information and acquire a variety of skills in a relatively short amount of time. But with hard work and diligent study, you can graduate with high grades and a thorough understanding of the MA role. Below are a few tips to help you make the most of your MA program.

1. Talk to Other Students or Graduates

If you can find a current student or graduate of your MA program, ask for their advice. Do they have any tips? Were they surprised by any aspect of the program? Can they provide insight into the instructors, classes, materials, and exams? As experts on this subject, they can actually teach you the best ways to learn.

Aerial view of students at a table

2. Schedule Study Times

Schedule set times each week to review what you’ve learned in class and study for the final exam and any certification exams you plan to take (optional). Remove all distractions during these periods. Start studying as soon as possible to avoid last-minute cramming and give yourself more time to review areas you are not confident about.

3. Treat Yourself Right

It’s important to be in good mental and physical shape while attending a rigorous learning program. Here are a few tips:

  • Before any school day, get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy meal, and drink plenty of water.
  • Pack smart snacks for ongoing energy.
  • Avoid stress as much as possible.

4. Avoid Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can be debilitating during an exam. The symptoms can include the inability to concentrate, feelings of dread, a fast heartbeat, headache, and nausea. Here are a few steps you can take to avoid test anxiety:

  • Study the material thoroughly. It may seem obvious, but nothing cures test anxiety like confidence in knowing your stuff.
  • Don’t worry about the other test-takers. Scope out the whole test before you start and allocate enough time for all sections.
  • Breathe calmly and think positively. The very act of concentrating on breathing and thinking can physically reduce anxiety.
  • Read the questions thoroughly and read all answers before making a choice.
  • Get to the test early, so there’s no rush.
  • Don’t worry! If you’ve studied the material, you should pass the test with flying colors.

Earning Your Medical Assistant Certification

Medical assistants are technically allowed to practice without a state license or certification, however, most of today’s employers either require or strongly prefer MAs with at least one certification. MAs who perform specific duties (such as phlebotomy or x-rays) or who work in specialized fields (such as podiatry or ophthalmology) may be required to have specific training and certification in their area of specialty. In 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also ruled that only credentialed MAs are allowed to enter the laboratory, radiology, and medical orders into their computerized system.

Even if not required, certification shows that you have met specific, industry-recognized standards for competence as a medical assistant. It also assures your employer that you are prepared to begin work in a medical assisting position or to take that role to the next level of performance. As a result, certification can offer opportunities for greater responsibility, more career options, and higher income.

Below is an overview of six popular certifications:

1. Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) Certification

The Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) recognizes a medical assistant who has been credentialed through the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA). According to the AAMA, CMAs are proficient in a multitude of administrative and clinical tasks and are widely viewed by physicians as vital partners in increasing medical office productivity. MAs with a CMA certification enjoy increased respect and recognition from professional peers and benefit from broader career advancement opportunities and enhanced job security.

2. The Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) Certification

The Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) certification confirms a medical assistant who has been credentialed through American Medical Technologists (AMT). According to AMT, the benefits of the Registered Medical Assistant (RMA) certification include:

  • Getting Hired. Employers look for AMT credentials when hiring
  • Cost-Effective Maintenance: Practical requirements and reasonable costs
  • Easy Process: Simple and straightforward testing and credentialing process
  • Exclusive Membership Benefits: Includes continuing education, career development, networking opportunities, and others

Young Latina medical receptionist

3. The National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) Certification

The National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) is offered by the National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT). This credential reflects the critical medical assistant (MA) job competencies identified by a national job analysis study. NCCT believes people can learn in a variety of ways, so they offer multiple routes of eligibility for certification testing. Students and graduates of NCCT-authorized schools, working professionals, and military-trained professionals may all qualify to take the NCMA exam.

4. The Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) Certification

The Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA) certification confirms a medical assistant who has been credentialed through the National Healthcareer Association (NHA). According to NHA, earning your CCMA credentials may help you:

  • Meet employer requirements
  • Access better career opportunities
  • Maximize earning potential
  • Enhance knowledge and skills

5. The Podiatric Medical Assistant Certified (PMAC) Certification

The Podiatric Medical Assistant Certified (PMAC)credential is offered through the American Society of Podiatric Medical Assistants (ASPMA). The ASPMA certification sets the standard for excellence in the profession of podiatric medical assisting. It is the only assistant certification recognized by the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA). According to the ASPMA, when you become a PMAC, you may:

  • Increase your prestige and status among your peers
  • Gain satisfaction in the proof of your expertise
  • Enjoy additional competence in your work
  • Upgrade the professionalism of podiatry in your office
  • Enhance your credibility in caring for patients in your doctor’s practice

6. The Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA) Certification

The Certified Ophthalmic Assistant (COA) from the International Joint Commission on Allied Personnel in Ophthalmology (IJCAHPO) is the entry-level core designation designed to start eye care professionals on the path to success. According to the IJCAHPO, four out of five ophthalmologists agree that certified Allied Ophthalmic Personnel (AOP) render their practice more productive. Studies have shown that certified AOPs contribute more than non-certified personnel to the efficiency and quality of care in a practice.

Start by Enrolling in the Medical Assistant Program at Brookline College

Medical assisting is a challenging and rewarding career, and the demand for MAs has never been greater. Completing a degree or diploma program in medical assisting and earning at least one certification is best to prepare for success in this important and dynamic role.

We hope this article helps you choose the right MA program for your goals, timeline, and budget and gives you some idea of what to expect from the training experience. As you begin your journey into the field of medical assisting, do so with the utmost confidence in yourself, your ability to learn and master the role, and the difference you will make to your healthcare team and the lives of countless patients. You can do this. You will be a success.

To provide you with the most well-rounded and robust education, Brookline’s Medical Assistant program combines traditional classroom instruction with hands-on learning. Our experienced instructors are dedicated to helping you succeed both in the classroom and on the job. Throughout the program, you will gain an in-depth understanding of all the important MA skills, including patient interaction, coding and billing, medical office procedures, and electronic medical records. You’ll also learn how to appropriately assess patient situations and intervene within the scope of an MA’s practice. Upon earning your Medical Assistant diploma, you will have the knowledge, skills, and credentials you need to excel as a medical assistant.

Click here to learn more about the medical assistant program at Brookline College.

Group of students sitting in the grass