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What Type of Training and Education is Available to Aspiring Medical Assistants?

If you want to become a medical assistant, or MA, then you’ll need some specialized training to improve your employability and to succeed in your career. There are a few different ways in which an MA can get all of the training and education he or she needs to enjoy a prosperous and fulfilling career, including on-the-job experience and training, a diploma program, a certificate program, or an associate’s degree program.

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On-the-Job Training

While it is possible to become a medical assistant with nothing more than a high school diploma and a desire to succeed, you’ll need extensive experience in the healthcare field before you’ll be considered for the position. The best way to climb the career ladder into an MA position without obtaining post-secondary education is to work for the same physician or facility for several years and prove your ability to provide all of the clerical and clinical assistance necessary.

Associated Costs: There are no costs associated with becoming an MA through on-the-job training. In this case, there’s no need to pay for post-secondary education.

Prerequisites: In order to become a medical assistant through on-the-job training, you’ll need to have a high school diploma or a GED. A high school diploma with a healthcare focus is preferred. This includes courses in subjects like human biology and anatomy.

Benefits: The benefits of taking this path to becoming an MA include the ability to work as you gain experience, which is a great choice if you are helping to support a family. You can also get all of the training you need without having to attend classroom lectures or participate in a practicum.

Disadvantages: The disadvantage to this choice is the fact that most employers prefer to hire MAs who have formal training of some sort. In May 2015, medical assistants earned between $22,040 and $43,880 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those without formal training and certification earned wages at the lower end of the scale, while those who had associate’s degrees and more than one certification earned almost double. Finally, credentialing organizations often do not allow individuals without post-secondary education to sit for exams. When they do, they require anywhere from one to three years of practical experience as a medical assistant.

Certificate Programs

Certificate programs take about the same amount of time as diploma programs – between nine and 12 months. However, unlike diploma programs, you can transfer any credits you earned while studying and apply them toward an associate’s degree program in the future. Obtaining a certificate from an accredited school also prepares you to sit for any credentialing exam, including those offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants, the National Healthcareer Association, and the American Registry of Medical Assistants.

Associated Costs: A one-year certificate program offered through community and vocational colleges will typically cost anywhere from $2,200 to $20,500 depending on the area, the included courses, and the length of the externship. If you attend a community college in your state of residency, you can cut those costs in half in many cases.

Financial Aid: The same scholarships available for those who attend diploma programs are also open to those who attend certificate programs. However, a certificate program makes you eligible for government grants, as well. For example, the Federal Pell Grant is a great option if you are interested in obtaining your MA certificate and you have never earned a bachelor’s or professional degree in any field. The maximum award as of the 2016-17 school year is $5,815, but this may change from year to year.

Prerequisites: In order to enroll in a certificate program, you’ll need to have a high school diploma or a GED. Although no specific high school coursework is required, you might find that courses in basic biology, chemistry, and health will help you better understand the materials covered during the program. You’ll also need to provide proof of immunization to complete your externship.

Benefits: The biggest benefit to obtaining a certificate program is employability. Individuals who attend certificate programs for medical assisting learn more both in and out of the classroom. While someone who graduates from a diploma program might only learn how to take vital signs and give injections, an individual graduating from a certificate program may learn to take x-rays and perform other, more complex procedures. This improves employability significantly.

Disadvantages: Certificate programs also require students to attend on-campus lectures, which can be difficult for individuals who are working and/or raising families. Although these programs are offered at community colleges, the schedules are not quite as flexible as diploma programs. Finally, while obtaining a medical assistant certificate can make you more employable than someone with a diploma, many employers prefer candidates who have obtained associate’s degrees.

Online Options: Because medical assisting certificate programs tend to be more popular than the less comprehensive diploma program, you can find dozens of schools across the country offering online coursework. These include Kaplan University and Herzing University. Your local community college may offer a hybrid program, as well, that allows you to complete some of your coursework online and some on-campus. This offers a little more flexibility than a traditional on-campus education, but provides you with the opportunity to interact with students and professors from time to time.

Diploma Programs

Diploma programs are short in nature and can be completed in anywhere from nine to 12 months depending on the education provider. If you attend an accredited school, you can qualify for certification, including the prestigious CMA designation offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants. MA diploma programs are offered at a variety of community colleges and technical schools, as well, so it is easy to enroll.

Associated Costs: The average cost associated with obtaining a diploma in medical assisting ranges from $3,400 to $27,100 depending on your location, the school you choose, the number of courses included, and the length of the externship you’ll need to complete.

Financial Aid: There are a couple of different ways in which you can obtain financial aid to cover the cost of a diploma program. First, many vocational and technical schools will offer significant discounts during enrollment drives. Second, you can apply for scholarships, though many only apply to students seeking a degree. Some who give scholarships for diploma programs include the Maxine Williams Scholarship Fund, which gives students $1000 to cover tuition and a one-year membership to the American Association of Medical Assistants, and the Outstanding Student Award, which is a $250 scholarship provided to students who are nominated by their faculty members.

Prerequisites: In order to apply for and attend an MA diploma program, you will need a high school diploma or its equivalent. Previous work experience is not required since an externship with an average length of 150 hours is provided as part of your training. You’ll need to prove that you have been properly immunized in order to particulate in your externship, as well.

Benefits: The benefits associated with choosing a diploma program to become a medical assistant are many. It’s the most affordable option for obtaining post -secondary education in your field. What’s more, community, technical, and vocational schools in highly populated areas provide you with the opportunity to attend classes during the day or evening hours.

Disadvantages: The disadvantages to earning a diploma include the financial burden, and the need to attend classes on campus regularly. Diplomas are not considered as prestigious as degrees, and this may hinder you a bit when it comes time to seek employment.

Online Options: Fortunately, there are many different schools that offer you the opportunity to earn your diploma online. While the overall tuition cost is still in the same ballpark, you will not be required to attend classes on a campus. Depending on the program, though, you may still need to complete laboratory work, and you’ll need to finish your externship before you can graduate. Both of these must be completed on-site.

Associate of Applied Science in Medical Assisting Degree

An Associate of Applied Science in Medical Assisting Degree is the right choice if you want the best possible education and employability. It takes between 45 and 60 credit hours to graduate, and these can be earned in anywhere from 18 to 24 months. The courses are far more detailed than those provided in diploma or certificate programs, and they also include some general education courses such as college-level English, psychology, mathematics, and sociology.

Associated Costs: The average national cost associated with earning an associate’s degree in medical assisting ranges from $8,000 to $3,100 per semester for residents and more than double that for students who reside out of state. Students may also be required to purchase books and cover laboratory expenses, as well.

Financial Aid: There are many different ways to obtain financial aid to get your associate’s degree. You can apply for scholarships, such as the Allied Healthcare Scholarship, which awards up to $8000 to a student who lives and can work in the state of California and who agrees to work in an underserved area in that state for at least one year after graduating. Students may also apply for the Federal Pell Grant or even federal student loans to help them cover the cost of their education.

Prerequisites: In order to apply for and attend an associate’s degree program, you will need a high school diploma or GED. Some schools may have more stringent requirements, such as a high school GPA above 2.0. You’ll also need proof of immunization before you can complete your externship.

Benefits: There are many benefits associated with obtaining an associate’s degree in medical assisting. Not only does it make you more employable than someone with a diploma or certificate, but it may entitle you to a higher salary and better benefits in terms of pension plans, health insurance, and more. If you choose to further your career later and become a nurse or radiologist, your associate’s degree can go a long way toward helping you get the education you need to get started in those careers.

Disadvantages: Associate’s degree programs are usually more difficult and rigorous than either a diploma or certificate program. You’ll need to attend classes on-campus for up to two years, as well. Associate’s programs are not as flexible as diploma or certificate programs, which means you may have to adjust your schedule in order to attend, especially if you are working.

Online Options: Many community colleges and universities provide the opportunity to earn an associate’s degree in medical assisting online. For example, the online medical assistant degree program at Penn Foster College is accredited by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools, and it prepares students to sit for both the Certified Medical Assistant and Registered Medical Assistant exams. Coursework takes place entirely online over the course of three semesters, but students will need to complete externships in semesters two and three. The college, like many others offering associate’s degrees online, does not provide externship placement. You will be required to find and pay for your externship separately.


As you can see, there are several different ways in which you can start your career as a medical assistant. Although all you need is a high school diploma, having a diploma, certificate, or associate’s degree will make you more desirable to employers and help you earn more money in the long run.