Medical Assistants: Choosing a School to Embarking on a Career
Medical Assistant Expert Contributor: Nora Lepe
Choosing to go into the healthcare field is a noble decision, one where opportunities will arise to help other people on a daily basis. Healthcare is also a growing industry, with many people choosing to become a medical assistant. This choice opens up doors to working in a variety of settings, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, offices of physicians and more. This guide explores the common concerns of medical assistant students and offers helpful resources that can aid students in making the best decisions.
Medical Assisting by the Numbers
There are over 1,000 medical assisting programs accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES).
Medical assistants can expect job growth of 23 percent between 2014 and 2024. (BLS)
Medical assistants report that they are “extremely satisfied” with respect to job satisfaction. (Payscale)
According to the American Association of Medical Assistants, most medical assistants, approximately 60%, work in physician's offices. Other large employers of medical assistants include hospitals (14%) and other healthcare practitioners (10%).
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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.
What is a typical day like for you as a medical assistant?
Any advice you might offer to students who are preparing to become a medical assistant?
Common Concerns of Medical Assistant Students & Helpful Resources
Students thinking of a career in medical assisting have questions such as:
- Would I be happy in a medical assisting career?
- How can I embark on a new career when I'm so busy already?
- Which medical assisting school is the best for me?
- What's required to become a medical assistant?
Below, we've assembled dozens of resources for students in all phases of their medical assisting education, from choosing medical assisting as a career to finding their first jobs.
Deciding on a Medical Assistant Career
Is a career as a medical assistant the right move? Medical assistants work closely with patients, doing everything from taking their blood pressure to processing their payments. They might give injections (depending upon state law), draw blood, keep up with medical records and otherwise help ensure the office runs smoothly. Medical assistants should have excellent technical and analytical skills, be very detail oriented, and communicate very well with others. If all of these points sound interesting, further investigation into the medical assisting career is definitely called for. Here's how to start.
Job shadowing is an awesome way to decide if being a medical assistant is the right career path. Shadowing programs are available through many technical schools and career schools, and might be possible through simply contacting a local medical assisting program director and asking for leads. They might have a short list of medical assistants who are okay with accepting a potential student for a day of shadowing.
Audit a Class
Still not sure? Auditing a class at the local technical school or community college can offer a taste of what students might expect to learn throughout the educational pursuit. Auditing a class that requires some hands-on clinical work might give the best overview of what to expect.
These online resources can also help aspiring students make a decision.American Registry of Medical Assistants
A professional organization which aims to improve and advance the medical assisting profession.Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Medical Assistants
The United States Department of Labor has comprehensive job descriptions for hundreds of professions (including medical assistants) detailing what they do, how to become one and employment information.ExploreHealthCareers.org, Medical Assistant
A comprehensive overview of what it takes to have a career in medical assisting, along with many other healthcare professions.O*Net OnLine, Summary Report for Medical Assistants
Provides a background explanation of the medical assisting profession including what they do, employment data and skills used while on the job.PayScale, Medical Assistant Salary
Home to very detailed salary information based on experience, location and other variables.
Choosing a Medical Assistant School and Program
Once the decision is made to become a medical assistant, it's time to figure out the best school or program to get there. Students can narrow down the options, however, by using the right tools and resources. Start with people in the know – counselors and administrators – and then look into the things that matter most, such as which schools offer the most in financial aid, which programs or schools are accredited, and what makes the most sense in terms of online courses, in-person classes or something in between. These resources can help students get started.
High School Guidance Counselor
Your high school guidance counselor should be able to point to a list of local schools which have medical assisting programs, as well as financial aid options to help pay for the medical assisting degree. Already graduated high school? Contact the counselor anyway – they are there to help alumni, too.
Speak to Administrators
Yes, the administrators of the medical assisting program will be a bit biased, but they will also provide very valuable information about what to expect from their program. They should be able to answer questions about the curriculum, admissions requirements, preparation for certification and more.
The following online resources can enhance the help received from general resources.Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES)
One of the two major organizations that accredits medical assisting programs; this can help students choose the right program.American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA)
In addition to offering one of the most widely recognized medical assisting certifications, the AAMA offers opportunities for professional development, career advice and networking and educational opportunities.Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs (CAAHEP)
The CAAHEP is a top accrediting organization for medical assisting, having accredited over 600 programs.Institute for Credentialing Excellence (ICE)
ICE helps set the standards for education credentialing, such as the overseeing the organizations that approve medical assisting schools and programs.Medical Assistant Web Forum
A message board dedicated to answering questions related to medical assisting, including deciding on which school or program to attend.
Medical Assistant Programs by State
How to Pay for Medical Assistant School
Choosing the proper school is important; figuring out how to pay for it matters, too. Though some students might get enough federal aid to cover their schooling, there are other options as well, including scholarships, grants and tuition assistance. Students who aren't eligible for any sort of aid will have to get creative when figuring out how to pay their way through the necessary schooling. This might include taking on an extra part-time job to pay tuition costs, requesting tuition payments in lieu of gifts for special occasions, and choosing an employer that provides tuition assistance.
The following sources can offer help for those who are finding it difficult to pay for school. Additionally, please visit our Medical Assistant Financial Aid Guide for more information on scholarships, grants and loans.
Look to the surrounding community for scholarship opportunities. Some organizations offer scholarships to students based simply on the fact that they reside in a particular community and intend on going to school; others base their awards on certain factors, such as the course of study, GPA, minority status and other points.
Financial Aid Office
Every school will have a financial aid office, and the professionals there are trained to help students seek out the financial support they need to attend and complete their chosen program. Make an appointment with this office early in the school admissions cycle to get the proper information, expectations and deadlines for applying for financial aid.
In some cases, employers offer students the opportunity to enhance their education through tuition assistance or reimbursement. Essentially, this means that the employer might pay some or all of the tuition expense for one of their employees, sometimes with the caveat that the employee will continue working for them for a specified period of time after earning the certificate or degree.
Students can also check out these online resources for help with paying for a medical assisting program.American Medical Technologists, Scholarships and Awards
For students with financial need, the AMT offers several annual scholarships to help pay for their healthcare education. There are also cash awards for those with exceptional merit.Federal Student Aid
This site is where students should always begin when seeking out financial aid, as it provides a wealth of information for any educational situation.The Maxine Williams Scholarship
Offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA), this scholarship provides $1,000 and a one-year membership to the AAMA to meritorious medical assisting students.Medical Assistant Degrees Scholarship
This organization offers two $500 scholarships awarded annually to students enrolled in a medical assistant program.Scholarship of Excellence
The Association of Schools of Allied Health Professionals has a $1,000 scholarship available to students enrolled in an eligible Allied Health Program, including medical assisting.
How to Balance Clinical Work and Externships with School
Many medical assisting programs require some clinical work in order to complete the program requirements. But how can a student complete that work while they are focusing so hard on completing school? In addition, students might already have a full-time job to help them pay the bills. Between school, that full-time job, family obligations and more, it might seem impossible to find the time to fit in a clinical work or externship requirement as well.
If a student already has a job in a medical office or other healthcare setting, he or she simply needs to ensure that the work they are currently doing fits the standards the school expects and get the proper paperwork that asserts their work will be used to fulfill the clinical requirement. For those who are working in a different field, however, getting that requirement in might require some serious creativity or a shifting of schedules for a time. Fortunately, there are resources to help students make this work.
Employee Assistance Program
Many employers offer employee assistance plan services to their employees. Students who are working while in school may be able to take advantage of these services, which include how to address stress and achieve a work/life balance.
Student Services Office
Depending on the school, it might be known by another name, such as student academic center or academic success office. Most schools will have an office where students can go for time management help and advice.
The following online resources might be helpful as well.Oregon State University – Academic Success Center
Has dozens of worksheets and forms available to help students get organized and study more effectively.Dartmouth University – Academic Skills Center
Handouts, links and other resources for helping students manage their time.Bucks County Community College – The Basics of Effective Learning
Provides a ton of advice on how to more effectively manage time and make better use of study materials.Bloomsburg University – Academic Coaches Resources
Has a long list of links to other sources for study skills, academic organization, time management and note-taking tips for students.California State University – San Marcos – Undergraduate Academic Advising
A PDF of a PowerPoint presentation on how to improve student success and better manage time.
Once balancing clinical work with school has been worked out, the next issue is where to find the proper opportunities to fulfill the externship, clinical work or volunteer requirements. Though some colleges set students up in clinical work opportunities, just as many schools will tell students to find their own opportunities and then seek approval through the appropriate channels. This provides a great deal of freedom, but might also leave students wondering where to start their search. The following resources offer a great place to begin.
- Career Services Office This office is a very valuable resource for finding a job, either paid or unpaid. They will have contacts and advice on how to find the best volunteer and externship openings.
- Local Healthcare Provider Your local hospital probably welcomes volunteers in all areas. They might also have information on internship and externship opportunities for local students among healthcare providers in their medical system.
- Online Resources These online resources are a great way to start the search, too. American Association of Medical Assistants – State and Chapter Listings The AAMA provides a list of AAMA affiliated state societies, as well as local chapters for each state, which can help with professional networking. Go Overseas Allows individual who desire overseas experiences, including volunteering, to search for international opportunities; many of these are in the healthcare field. Idealist Provides volunteer, internship and job opportunities for those who want to make a difference in their local communities and beyond. Network For Good - Volunteer Users can take advantage of the search tool to find a volunteer opportunity based on interest and geographic location. VolunteerMatch.org Helps connect nonprofit organizations that need help with volunteers willing to provide that help.
Passing a Medical Assistant Certifying Exam
Students who are serious about becoming a medical assistant should look into the possibility of certification. In some cases, becoming a certified medical assistant is a requirement; in states where it isn't a requirement, some employers prefer to see it on an application anyway. Getting certified not only proves a certain level of knowledge has been reached, it also proves that the applicant is motivated and truly committed to continuing work as a medical assistant.
Certification exams can be tough. They should be; they are designed to ensure that a person has a strong grasp of the necessary knowledge and skills to do a top-notch job in the field. Therefore, passing the certification examination can be a daunting task, and studying for it might take up a great deal of time.
In order to help students study, the following medical assistant resources might be of help. We've also created a certification guide for medical assistant students.
- Certification Exam Prep Class There are several well-known organizations that provide comprehensive and rigorous exam preparation. Some of these are free, while some are paid; some are a one-off class, while others are a series of classes that last several weeks.
- Study Group The majority of a particular program class might be preparing for their certification; in that case, study groups are ready and willing to be formed. If there aren't any created by the professor or the school, students should create one of their own.
- Online Resources These online resources might also prove helpful in the quest to obtain certification. AAMA CMA Exam Study Resources The AAMA has an exam content outline and practice exam questions available to help applicants study for the CMA exam. Des Moines University – Online Medical Terminology Course A free online class discussing medical terminology and medical concepts. NCCT's Interactive Review The NCCT makes an online review system available to medical assisting students who plan on taking the National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA) exam. University of Minnesota – Web Anatomy The University of Minnesota as a free online tool to test anatomical knowledge. Wisc-Online Medical Assistant: Medical Assistant Study Guide A free, online and interactive study program designed for medical assisting students.
Finding a Medical Assistant Job after Graduation
Once schooling is done and the certification has been obtained, it's time to find a job in which to employ those skills. The very lucky ones might already have jobs lined up, which means that becoming certified equate to a boost in pay and better job security. But for many graduates, finding a job is still up in the air. The good news is that employment opportunities for medical assistants are expected to grow by 23 percent from 2014 to 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These resources are a great place to start for those entering the job market. You'll also want to visit our Medical Assistant Career Advancement Guide for a comprehensive look at medical assisting careers.
- Career Services Students should never hesitate to take advantage of their schools' career services. Employers will get in touch with the career services center directly with their job listings, requests for internships and the like, which will then be passed on to the students. In addition, counselors are available to help graduates make the right choices to start off their career.
- Alumni Network Those who have “been there, done that” can be a valuable resource for those who are just starting out. A school with a strong alumni network should have ways for students to contact those who have graduated in years past, and that networking can help them get the inside track on various jobs out there.
- Online Resources These online sites are popular medical assistant resources. American Association of Medical Assistants Career Center The AAMA provides employment advice to those seeking a career in medical assisting. Resume help, improving marketability and interview tips are a sample of what's available. indeed.com A very popular job search engine which combines job listings from thousands of websites for users to browse. Monster.com A very high traffic employment website in the United States. In addition to job postings, Monster.com also has career resources, including medical assistant resources, available to anyone who logs in. National Healthcareer Association – Career Resources The NHA makes job listings and career development resources available to those who sign up for free registration.
Sometimes the educational or career path is put on hold, or is a little more difficult, thanks to special circumstances. These might include anything from the disabled student trying to find the right school that has the proper facilities, the non-traditional student who must juggle work and school along with the welfare of a growing family, or even the student who is in such financial straits that going to school is a very difficult dream to achieve. There are numerous special circumstances that can make education tough – but as so many have proven, these can be overcome with a little help from the right places.
There are many services out there designed specifically to help students who are facing those special circumstances. From charity organizations to associations dedicated specifically to a certain need or disability, students can almost always find a helping hand. In most cases, it comes down to simply knowing where to ask for help, and then being willing to take that leap and request assistance. Here are a few places to start.
- Local Charity Organization or Church If a unique set of circumstances is in place or a tragedy has struck, a local religious organization or charity may be able to provide the assistance and emotional support for a student to push on with their lives and complete their goals. At the very least, these organizations can offer assistance to students in a variety of ways, including counseling of all kinds, some financial assistance, help with basic needs, food, and the like.
- Student Services Office A school's student services office (which could go by several other names) has the goal of helping students succeed. If a student is struggling with a certain situation or needs additional help, the student services office will provide assistance in the hopes of helping that student get back on track. Everyone, including the school, loses when a student cannot graduate.
- Online Resources The following online sites offer medical assistant resources for non-traditional students. Visit our College Guide for Low Income Students Money is often tight for students. This guide provides advice and resources to help low income students complete their academic training. Read our guide Supporting Students with Hearing Impairments To learn how students with hearing difficulties can still make the most of their higher education experience. Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) CAEL is a nonprofit that works with public and private sectors to make it easier for low income people to get the education and training they need. Careers in Healthcare for Low Income Individuals Hostos Community College offers a program for low income students who wish to embark on a healthcare support career such as medical assisting. There are similar programs throughout the country, so it would be smart to see if something similar is offered in your area. Indeed.com – Medical Assistant Jobs Forum An online message board where anyone can ask questions about a career as a medical assistant.