All the Help You Need to Find, Choose, and Earn a Certificate, Diploma or Degree

Medical assistants play an essential role in the health care world. As part of a medical team, these versatile professionals work with nurses, doctors, and other support professionals to ensure medical offices and facilities run smoothly and patients receive excellent care. There are two main educational paths to a career as a medical assistant: a certificate/diploma or an associate degree in medical assisting. Vocational schools, community colleges, and online colleges and universities offer medical assistant training. The following guide is brimming with information and resources on how to find a medical assisting program, certification requirements, salary and job growth, training, and career advancement.


Medical Administration Assistant

With Penn Foster Career School’s 100% Online Medical Administrative Assistant Program, you’ll get the training that will help you take the first step towards your career in this booming healthcare field. Whether you’re looking to work in doctors’ offices, hospitals, insurance companies, or public health clinics, our program can help you begin your path to a new career.

Our program is convenient, affordable, accredited, and supported with expert faculty. Since there is no set schedule, you study at a time, location, and pace that works for you.


Medical Assistant Student Resource Center

Medical Assistant Career Center

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Medical Assistants in Real Life

Nora Lepe and Lauren Brown discuss their careers as medical assistants in California and New York, respectively.

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  • What is a typical day like for you as a medical assistant?

    A day as a medical assistant is a fast paced environment, it makes for an exciting workday with rarely a dull moment. I love going out of my way for others. Coming out of high school I saw medical assisting as an opportunity to help.

    Roxana-VazquezEach day at the office, I assist the doctor in her care for patients. I help set up patient exam rooms, clean instruments, prepare biopsies to be sent to pathology and I help write patient prescriptions. I am also responsible for taking patients’ medical histories when they arrive, helping with bandaging of wounds and scribing patient notes. On some days, I also scrub in for skin surgeries to assist the doctor, after which I explain post-op care instructions for the patients.

  • Any advice you might offer to students who are preparing to become a medical assistant?

    Keep focus, there’s a lot of information to take in along with new medical vocabulary. Also take the certification test as soon as possible while everything is fresh in your mind. All my notes and books had the perfect criteria, while taking the test was rewarding, knowing the answers to the question and not feeling clueless.

    Roxana-VazquezI suggest gaining as much medical knowledge in the particular specialty in which one is interested in becoming a medical assistant. I also recommend becoming a medical assistant through on-the-job training. By finding a doctor who is willing to hire you as an untrained applicant you will be able to gain hands-on experience under the direction of the doctor and fellow senior medical assistants. You will also be paid during your training, allowing for an easier transition into the daily work you will do as a trained medical assistant. Additionally, I strongly recommend gaining clinical experience before applying for any medical assistant position, whether that is through shadowing doctors in a hospital or performing clinical medical research. Face to face interaction with patients and other healthcare providers will allow you to have a greater understanding of patient care before you become a medical assistant in a hospital or doctor’s office.

Paths to Medical Assisting: Program Choices

Most employers prefer candidates who have completed some form of postsecondary education such as a formal medical assisting program. However, there are a few different paths that one can take to become as a medical assistant.

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On-the-Job Training.

Although formal education is general preferred, not all employers require it. Some medical offices offer on-the-job training for would-be medical assistants with a high school diploma or equivalent. Working health care professionals, including doctors, nurses, experienced medical assistants, and other allied health care workers, demonstrate the skills necessary for new medical assistants to function in that environment and supervise them as they put their knowledge to practice.

Medical Assistant Certificate/Diploma

Many technical and vocational schools offer classes to help people obtain the skills they need to work as medical assistants. A certificate or diploma program typically takes a year to complete and includes both classroom and clinical experiences. Coursework in a certificate/diploma program covers the basics of medical assisting and often includes classes such as medical terminology, anatomy, physiology, record keeping, and medical administration.

Medical Assistant Associate Degree

An associate degree in medical assisting takes about two years to complete and is offered at most community colleges. Associate degree programs in medical assisting cover many of the same classes that are offered through certificate programs, but go more in-depth. In addition to core courses, students also take general education classes such as English, math, and humanities. This two-year degree can help students enter the field after graduation or serve as a foundation for a bachelor’s degree in a related medical field.

Life as a Medical Assistant

Most medical assistants work in doctors’ offices, though some work in hospitals, surgical centers or long-term care centers. Because most medical assistants work in clinical offices, they interact frequently with patients, families and other health care workers. Some medical assistants work part-time, while others work full-time. Working hours can extend into the evenings and to weekends or holidays, particularly at hospitals, since health care is a 24/7 industry.

Although medical assisting can be a rewarding career, working in a medical clinic or hospital can be stressful. Medical assistants may be on their feet for many hours and tired and emotional patients and family members may take their frustrations out on the staff. As a result, medical assistants must be compassionate, patient, open-minded, and flexible.

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What’s the Difference?

Trained to perform both routine administrative duties and assist doctors/physicians with basic clinical tasks.Perform secretarial duties such as answering and directing calls, greet patients upon arrival, maintain medical records and correspondence files, and order supplies.These professionals perform more of the back-office duties, such as scheduling appointments, updating calendars, maintaining databases and files, and arranging staff meetings.Performs more advanced patient-oriented tasks, such as examining, diagnosing, and treating patients, under the supervision of a physician.
Minimum education required:Formal training, postsecondary certificate or diplomaMinimum education required:High school diplomaMinimum education required:High school diplomaMinimum education required:Master’s degree

Medical Assistant Specializations

There are two primary areas of specialization for medical assistants. First, the medical assistant can primarily work directly with patients doing clinical work. Second, the medical assistant can mostly work with administrative tasks, such as answering the phone and processing medical documents and information. Some schools offer a separate program for medical assistants who focus on administrative work. Sometimes these medical assistants are referred to as medical office assistants.

With respect to medical assistants who focus on clinical work, there can be further subdivision as to areas of specialization. Specializations can include:

Ophthalmic/optometric medical assistant

These medical assistants help optometrists and ophthalmologists provide medical care relating to the eyes.

Podiatric medical assistant

A podiatric medical assistant helps a podiatrist provide medical care relating to the patients’ feet.

Oncologic medical assistant

This type of medical assistant works primarily with cancer patients, especially with in an administrative capacity, in order to handle the medical billing and insurance paperwork.

Medical Assistant Program Q & A

  • How long will it take to become a medical assistant?

    That depends on the path you take. If you find a medical office that offers on-the-job training, you could be working as a medical assistant in a few months. This option, however, is becoming less common and may be reserved for those already working in a closely related field. A certificate program typically takes one year, while an associate degree in medical assisting usually takes about two years.

  • What’s the difference between a medical assistant (MA) and a certified medical assistant (CMA)? Between a registered medical assistant (RMA) and a certified medical assistant (CMA)?

    A medical assistant is someone who has completed the required coursework or received on-the-job training to function as a medical assistant. A certified or registered medical assistant is one who has achieved certification or registration from a professional organization, such the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) or the American Registry of Medical Assistants (ARMA). Certification and registration provide validation of a medical assistant’s skills and training. Although no federal or state government currently requires such designations, most employers prefer—some require—certification and/or registration through a state or national agency.

    To become a certified medical assistant (CMA), one must be a graduate of (or within 30 days of completing) an accredited medical assisting program. You must also pass a certification exam.

    The American Registry of Medical Assistants grants registration to medical assistants who are recommended by a representative of an accredited, affiliated medical assistant school, to MAs who are recommended by a physician employer after one year of on-the-job experience after graduation from an accredited but nonaffiliated school, and to MAs who have completed three years of on-the-job training and are recommended by a physician employer. The ARMA does not require an exam for registration, but other organization may.

  • What kind of courses will I have to take?

    If you go to school to become a medical assistant, you’ll take classes in medical terminology, medical law and bioethics, professionalism in health care, human anatomy and physiology, medical office management, medical coding and insurance, pharmacology, introduction to health care computing, medical assistant laboratory procedures, and other clinically-focused classes. If you decide to pursue an associate degree in medical assisting, you’ll take similar medical courses, as well as general studies courses in English, mathematics and humanities.

  • What about online programs? Can I do all my coursework online?

    Although online programs are available, you cannot complete coursework/requirements entirely online. Because medical assistants perform clinical tasks, real-world clinical experience is necessary usually through an externship or practicum. It’s possible to complete most of your coursework online, but you’ll still need to set foot in a health care facility or hospital to learn the necessary clinical skills. Most online medical assisting programs help students connect with nearby health care facilities so they can conveniently complete the clinical portion of their education.

  • What are the technology requirements for an online MA program?

    The exact technical requirements vary from school to school, but in general, you’ll need a computer with plenty of memory, a fast processor, audio and video capabilities, an up-to-date web browser, and a reliable high-speed Internet connection. You may be required to install and use certain software as well. Some schools, for instance, require students to use Microsoft Office or Open Office. You may also need certain browser plug-ins, such as Adobe Acrobat and Quicktime. Contact your school to determine exactly what equipment and technology you’ll need to successfully complete your online program.

  • How can I find a good online MA program?

    Look for an accredited program. Accreditation signifies that the program meets certain minimum standards that have been established by professionals in the field of medical assisting. Accreditation is a good indicator of quality.

    To find an accredited medical assistant program, search the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP) directory. You can search for programs in your home state, around the country or online.

    You’ll also want to look for a program with a good reputation and a good job placement rate (placement rate indicates how many of the program’s graduates were able to get a job in medical assisting). Many medical assisting schools now publish such information on their websites; however, if you can’t find it, contact the school for more information.

  • How much will it cost to become a medical assistant?

    The cost varies widely, depending on the path you choose. Medical assistants who learn on-the-job may be paid for the time they spend learning. However, it’s more common to attend school and tuition costs vary widely. In general, a certificate program costs less than an associate degree program. It’s wise to shop around, as the cost of a medical assistant certificate program or associate degree education can range from $4,000 to $34,000.

  • Is financial aid available?

    Yes. Grants, loans and scholarships are available to individuals who want to pursue education as a medical assistant. Grants are sums of monetary support that can be put toward tuition and do not need to be repaid; grants are often based on financial need. Loans, on the other hand, must be paid back and with interest. Scholarships are monetary awards that can be used toward education and do not need to be repaid. Most scholarships are awarded based on merit – demonstrated ability to succeed in the program – but some consider financial need as well.

    To see if you’re eligible for financial aid, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can do so online at The financial aid office at your chosen school should also be able to guide you through the process, answer your questions, and point you toward school and community grants and scholarships. It’s also a good idea to conduct your own research and to apply for as many scholarships as you possibly can.

  • Do I have to pass a test to work as a medical assistant?

    No. Some medical assistants learn via on-the-job training, though formal education via a medical assisting certificate, diploma or associate degree program is the most common path for a career as a medical assistant.

    Some medical assistants choose to take a certification exam after graduating from an accredited program. This test, however, is not required and you may be able to find employment without becoming certified. Certification, however, may increase your employment opportunities, as some physicians prefer to hire CMAs.

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