CMA Exam

Like most other professionals working in the healthcare industry, medical assistants (MAs) earn official certifications that enable them to obtain paid positions and perform the regular duties of their job. In order to become properly certified in their state of residence, many medical assistants must pass the Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) exam offered by the American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA).

Although most states do not require their medical assistants to earn national certification, many hospitals, physician’s offices, and other medical facilities throughout the country do. The CMA credential will significantly improve a candidate’s standing in the job market and more effectively prepare him or her for the demanding career ahead. By earning a CMA designation, medical assistants have demonstrated competency in the three core areas of healthcare: medical treatment, clinical skills, and administrative responsibility.


I. How Testing Works

The certified medical assistant exam is computer-based and consists of 200 questions and is currently offered at Prometric testing centers throughout the U.S. and Canada. Specific content found on the exam will change slightly each year, but the core subject matter largely remains the same. Test-takers will encounter questions that cover everything from psychology and diagnostic testing to office management and information technology; the test is divided into three main categories: general, administrative, and clinical. Prior to the commencement of the exam, a brief, optional tutorial will demonstrate how to properly use the software. Once the tutorial has concluded, the test will begin. The exam is divided into four segments, with a maximum of 40 minutes allotted to each segment and an optional break between segments. Students must take no longer than 195 minutes (three hours and 15 minutes) to complete all four segments of the exam.Exam-takers are awarded points for each correct answer, although the value will vary between questions and segments. Currently, the minimum passing score is 425. First-time candidates are allowed three attempts to pass before they are deemed ineligible.

II. CMA Exam Eligibility

Aspiring medical assistants who wish to sit for the CMA exam must ensure they are eligible to do so. As of May 2014, candidates must qualify via one of three eligibility categories:

  • Student currently enrolled in a medical assistant program. The program must be accredited by either the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES). Students may not sit for the exam more than 30 days prior to their program's completion.
  • Recent graduates of an accredited medical assistant program. These individuals must sit for the exam within 12 months of graduation. According to current rules, anyone who has graduated since January 2010 and not passed the exam within 60 months of graduation will no longer be eligible.
  • Medical assistants seeking recertification. These candidates must have previously passed the exam within the timeframe allotted to students and graduates; recertification is required every five years in order for the credential to be valid; those who allow their certification to lapse will be charged an additional fee for taking the exam (see 'Cost' below).

Prospective exam-takers will not be eligible under the following circumstances (although a waiver may be given to individuals under certain circumstances):

  • The candidate did not sit for his or her first exam within the timeframe allotted to students and graduates (although different rules apply to those who graduated prior to January 2010).
  • The candidate has been found guilty of or pled guilty to a felony.
  • The candidate has had "a professional license, registration, or certification denied, revoked, suspended, or subjected to probationary conditions by a regulatory authority or certification board."

III. Exam Costs and Registration

The fee schedule for the CMA exam is fairly straightforward. Members of the AAMA or students/graduates of CAAHEP or ABHES programs will be charged $125 for each attempt, while non-members must pay $250 to sit for the exam. Previously certified MAs whose credential has expired must pay a $50 reactivation fee, as well. All charges are nonrefundable and nontransferable; exam-takers may pay with cash, credit or debit cards, cashier's check, certified check, or institution check (no personal checks are allowed at this time).

The first step for CMA exam-takers is to submit an application. Once this application has been received, the individual will be given a 90-day testing period in which he or she must sit for the exam; this timeframe is determined by the preferred testing period start date noted by the candidate on his or her application.

Since the test is exclusively offered at Prometric testing centers (which are open at least five days a week nationwide), candidates can essentially take the exam any time, provided it falls within the 12- or 60-month time limit they have been allotted. According to the AAMA, applicants should refer to the the following timetable when choosing their testing period:

Preferred testing period start date Application deadline Mail application by...
January October 1 of prior year September 20 of prior year
February November 1 of prior year October 20 of prior year
March December 1 of prior year November 20 of prior year
April January 1 of same year December 20 of prior year
May February 1 of same year January 20 of same year
June March 1 of same year February 20 of same year
July April 1 of same year March 20 of same year
August May 1 of same year April 20 of same year
September June 1 of same year May 20 of same year
October July 1 of same year June 20 of same year
November August 1 of same year July 20 of same year
December September 1 of same year August 20 of same year

IV. Exam Format

The exam contains a total of 200 multiple-choice questions, 180 of which count toward the final score and 20 of which are pretested. Exam content is divided into three general categories: General (Clinical and Administrative), Administrative, and Clinical. These three categories are further segmented into 26 different subsections, ordered A through Z. The breakdown guide below is taken from the 2014 edition of the CMA exam. A look at this overview will reveal that the bulk of the exam consists of questions pertaining to medical and clinical care. Although the administrative category comprises the most segments (10), these questions comprise less than a quarter of the final score. So while administrative skills and competencies are crucial to achieving certification, exam-takers should dedicate the bulk of their studying to the medical and clinical aspects of the profession.Part I ― General (A-F): This category consists of a total 65 questions that collectively account for 36% of the final score.

  1. Medical Terminology
    • Common vocabulary terms, prefixes, suffixes, root words, and abbreviations
    • Definitions of surgical/diagnostic procedures, instruments, medical specialties and other terms
    • Spelling, selection, and proper use of medical terms in different formats (such as email, official correspondence, and prescriptions)
  2. Anatomy & Physiology
    • Human body parts, structures, fluids and other components
    • Disease pathology
    • The following anatomical systems:
      • Integumentary
      • Musculoskeletal
      • Nervous
      • Cardiovascular, hematopoietic, and lymphatic
      • Respiratory
      • Digestive
      • Urinary
      • Reproductive
      • Endocrine
      • Sensory
  3. Psychology
    • Basic principles of human reason, thought, behavior, and perception
    • Human stages of growth and development
    • Defense mechanisms (i.e., recognition and management)
  4. Professionalism
    • Positive workplace attitudes, responsible conduct, organizational support, and office etiquette
    • Resume writing, job search techniques, and interview strategies
    • Group dynamics and peer-to-peer collaboration
  5. Communication
    • Methods for building relationships with all patients, with emphasis on the following groups:
      • Blind
      • Deaf
      • Elderly
      • Children
      • Terminally or Seriously Ill
      • Mentally Impaired
      • Illiterate
      • Non-English Speaking
      • Anxious
      • Angry or Distraught
      • Culturally Different
  6. Verbal and nonverbal communication methods
  7. Strategies, styles, and techniques for interviewing patients and collecting medical information in-person or over the phone
  8. Fundamentals of English writing, grammar, and sentence structure
  9. Medicolegal Guidelines and Requirements
    • Policies and laws that impact licensure
    • Laws and overseeing agencies pertaining to the healthcare industry
    • Proper methods for documenting and reporting patient matters
    • Elements of the patient-physician relationship
    • Maintaining patient confidentiality and operating within the boundaries of established medical ethics.

Part II. Administrative (G-Q) This category consists of a total of 50 questions that collectively account for 24% of the final score.

  1. Data Entry
    • Typing and keyboard basics
    • Document formats and templates
    • Proofreading techniques
  2. Equipment
    • Proper usage of the following items:
      • Calculator
      • Photocopier
      • Desktop or Laptop Computer
      • Fax Machine
      • Telephone and Network Devices
      • Document/Image Scanners
  3. Appliance maintenance, repairs, and safety precautions
  4. Computer Concepts
    • Basic computer commands, functions, and terminology
    • The following applications:
      • Word processing
      • Databases
      • Spreadsheets
      • Email
      • Network Administration
      • Security
      • Medical industry-specific software
  5. Internet access and services
  6. Records Management
    • Different filing systems and their purposes
    • Guidelines for storing, protecting, and transferring medical records
    • Techniques for organizing, modifying, and purging medical records
  7. Screening and Processing Mail
    • U.S. Postal Service classifications and delivery services
    • Postal machine/meter guidelines
    • Tips for processing incoming mail and processing outgoing mail
  8. Scheduling and Monitoring Appointments
    • Following different types of appointment schedules
    • Legal and ethical appointment guidelines and protocol
    • Procedures for no-shows, cancellations, physician delays, and other mitigating circumstances
  9. Resource Information and Community Services
    • Patient advocate guidelines
  10. On the 2014 edition of the CMA exam, this section was left intentionally blank
  11. Maintaining the Office Environment
    • Furniture and floor layout planning, facilities maintenance and repairs, and safety regulations
    • Inventory and purchasing methods
    • Obtaining, maintaining, and keeping records of liability coverage
    • Time management
  12. Office Policies and Procedures
    • Established guidelines listed in the Patient Information Booklet, Personnel Manual, and Policies/Procedures Manual
  13. Practice Finances
    • Fundamentals of bookkeeping
    • The following three coding formats:
      • Current Procedural Terminology (CPT)
      • International Classification of Diseases, Clinical Modifications (ICD-CM) (current schedule)
      • Healthcare Financing Common Procedural Coding System (HCPCS Level II)
  14. Healthcare plans, claims processing, referrals, fee schedules, and other aspects of third-party billing.
  15. Procedures for accounts (receivable and payable) and banking
  16. Employee payroll and compensation management

Part III. Clinical (R-Z): This category consists of a total 65 questions that collectively account for 36% of the final score.

  1. Principles of Infection Control
    • Fundamentals of asepsis and medical/surgical aseptic procedures
    • Proper disposal of bodily fluids and other biohazardous materials
  2. Treatment Area
    • Usage and functionality of the following medical instruments:
      • Autoclave/sterilizer
      • Cast equipment/materials
      • Electrocardiograph
      • Examination tables
      • Microscope
      • Ophthalmoscope/otoscope/stethoscope
      • Oxygen
      • Physical therapy modalities
      • Endoscopes
      • Scales
      • Sphygmomanometers
      • Spirometer
      • Thermometers
  3. Inventory management and restocking procedures
  4. Maintaining safe, clean treatment areas
  5. Patient Preparation and Assisting the Physician
    • Measuring and recording vital signs
    • Performing different physical examinations
    • Proper equipment and supplies for different procedures
    • Patient education protocol
  6. Patient History Interview
    • Effective techniques for collecting patient data and medical history
    • Documenting and recording patient data
  7. Collecting and Processing Specimens; Diagnostic Testing
    • Knowledge of the following collection methods:
      • Blood (vein and capillary)
      • Urine
      • Stool
      • Sputum
      • Cultures (throat, vaginal, wounds, urine, and blood)
  8. Guidelines for processing, labeling, and preserving specimens (as published by the Centers for Disease Control)
  9. Quality control
  10. The ability to perform the following tests:
    • Urinalysis
      • Physical
      • Chemical
      • Microscopic
  11. Hematology
    • Hematocrit
    • Hemoglobin
    • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate
    • Automated cell counts
      • Red blood cell (RBC)
      • White blood cell (WBC)
      • Platelet
  12. Coagulation testing
  13. Blood chemistry
    • Glucose
    • Kidney function tests
    • Liver function tests
    • Lipid profile
    • Hemoglobin A1c
  14. Immunology
    • Mono test
    • Strep test
    • C-reactive protein (CRP)
    • Pregnancy testing
  15. Microbiology
    • Theory/terminology
      • Bacteria
        • Gram staining
    • Virus
    • Fungus
    • Parasites
    • Protozoa
  16. Tuberculosis testing
  17. Guaiac testing
  18. Electrocardiography, hearing and vision testing, respiratory examinations, and medical imaging
  19. Preparing and Administering Medications
    • Pharmacology fundamentals, including drug classes and forms, side effects, emergency use procedures, and principles of substance abuse.
    • Calculating medication dosage, identifying routes, and preparing/sterilizing injection sites
    • Techniques for administering different types of parenteral medications
    • Recording and safeguarding prescription medications
    • Vaccine storage and administration
  20. Emergencies
    • Policies and contingency plans for emergencies
    • Proper use of safety equipment
  21. First Aid
    • The ability to assess and administer first aid techniques to individuals with the following conditions:
      • Bleeding/pressure points
      • Burns
      • Cardiac and respiratory arrest/CPR
      • Choking
      • Diabetic coma/insulin shock
      • Fractures
      • Poisoning
      • Seizures
      • Shock
      • Stroke
      • Syncope
      • Wounds
  22. Nutrition
    • Fundamentals of nutrition, including dietary guidelines, nutrients, and certain restrictions.

It should be noted that specific questions and segments will change on an annual basis, but the exam will retain the same core concepts year-over-year. Please review the 2015 edition of the exam to see how the AAMA plans to alter the content for next year's certification seekers.

V. Scores and Confirmations

A "passing" or "failing" grade will be given to each CMA exam-taker as soon as the exam has concluded. The exam's current passing rate is 66.7%, meaning one out of three exam-takers will receive a failing score. First-time candidates are allowed three attempts to pass before they are deemed ineligible. A detailed score report will be mailed to each candidate within 10 weeks; those who have registered with the AAMA may check for updates by logging in and viewing the My Certification Status page. Those who have not received their reports within three months of sitting for the exam are urged to contact the AAMA Certification Department. Those who earn a passing score will be mailed an official certification and wallet-sized card within nine weeks of the exam. Since CMA certification is a matter of public record, anyone can verify the CMA status of anyone who has passed the exam ― or at least claimed to. Recertification of this credential is required every 60 months (five years). Since the CMA certification is a nationwide credential, medical assistants will not be required to retake the exam if they move to a different state.

VI. Recertification Requirements

According to a rule that became effective on Jan. 1, 2010, CMA certification status is valid for 60 months after the final day of the month during which the previous certification was earned. For instance, if someone passed her first CMA exam on March 15, 2011, then her credential will be valid until March 31, 2016. Medical assistants may not claim CMA status if their certification has expired.

There are currently two ways to renew the CMA certification.

Option 1: Retake the CMA Exam

Those who wish to recertify their CMA by sitting for the exam must undergo a nearly identical process as someone seeking certification for the first time. However, there is one key difference: when applying to the AAMA for a testing date, the candidate must submit a copy of her CMA certification along with the completed application and exam fee. AAMA members pay $125 to sit for the exam, while non-members are charged $250. Additionally, recertification seekers who have allowed their CMA status to expire before their testing date must pay a reactivation fee of $50. The exam is identical for first-time takers and previous certification earners.

See section IV of this guide for a detailed outline of the CMA exam.

Historically, "provider-level CPR" certification was required for those who wished to recertify their CMA status. As of July 2013, this requirement is no longer in place. However, most employers who hire medical assistants will require some level of CPR/first aid certification.

Option 2: Complete Continuing Education Credits

This option is only available to CMAs with valid certification, and will not be offered to those who have allowed their status to lapse. Medical assistants who wish to go this route are required to accrue "recertification points." Recertification points are awarded using the formula listed below:

  • 1 continuing education unit (CEU) = 1 point
  • 1.5 continuing education units = 1.5 points
  • 1 continuing medical education (CME) credit = 1 point
  • 1 contact hour = 1 recertification point
  • 1 college credit hour (quarter or semester) = 15 recertification points

According to the most recent AAMA guidelines, a total of 60 recertification points will be required in order to renew the credential; in order to ensure the MA's continuing education is covering all the fundamental areas of their occupation, recertification seekers are required to earn:

  • 10 administrative points
  • 10 clinical points
  • 10 general points
  • 30 additional points combined in any order from these three categories

At least 30 of these 60 points must be derived from AAMA-approved continuing education units (CEUs). These CEUs can be earned by completing tests through the AAMA e-Learning Center; enrolling in AAMA self-study courses; attending the annual AAMA national conference; or participating in workshops, seminars, and other educational programs through a local or state AAMA chapter.

Recertification seekers may also earn up to 30 points through non-AAMA CEUs, but they must first determine if the alternative educational program meets AAMA standards if they hope to accrue points. As a general rule, the AAMA will accept outside CEUs if the "subject matter is relevant" to the medical assisting profession. However, individuals who wish to earn points from these sources should refer to three sets of guidelines published by the AAMA: the CMA (AAMA) Certification/Recertification Examination Content Outline; the AAMA 2007-2008 Occupational Analysis of the CMA (AAMA); and the Advanced Practice of Medical Assisting.

If a CMA earns 60 recertification points prior to her credential's expiration date, she may earn "early recertification"; the new certification will go into effect on the last day of the month in which she renews her status. Recertification through continuing education costs $65 for AAMA members and $130 for non-members. These prices are in addition to any costs incurred from enrolling in and completing CEU courses or programs. Please note that recertification points will not "roll over." Once recertification has been successfully obtained, the CMA must earn another 60 points within the next five years.

VII. Online Exam Prep and Review

Like any major test, the certified medical assistant exam requires thorough preparation in order to earn a passing score. Prospective medical assistants must carefully review the clinical, administrative, and general aspects of their profession, while recertification seekers must revisit the books, journals, and other resources that enabled them to pass their exam the first time.The AAMA offers a detailed exam outline, as well as two practice tests for medical terminology and anatomy/physiology, respectively. Since these two topics tend to require the most memorization, test-takers are urged to complete these practice tests and review the answer key prior to sitting for the official CMA exam. In addition to these AAMA materials, CMA certification seekers can effectively prepare for the exam using the following resources:

  • Medical Assistant Exam: Preparation for the CMA and RMA Exams: This textbook from LearningExpress Editors was published in 2010, but most of the content, guidelines, and tips still apply to current editions of the exam. Used and new copies are available for purchase; additionally, the entire volume is available free-of-charge as a digital book on its Amazon.com product page.
  • Certified Medical Assistant Exam Secrets Study Guide: This detailed study guide examines all of core areas of the CMA exam and includes a section dedicated to 'test-taking secrets.'
  • The Kaplan Medical Assistant Exam Review: This 400-page paperback by Dian L. Martin (the former Dean of Nursing at kaplan) is designed to be a "complete guide to certification for the medical assistant."
  • NCCT Exam Flashcard Study System: This set of flashcards covers all of the fundamental subject areas found on the CMA exam and is available for $39.99
  • CMA Study Guide App: This iPhone app contains 400 different practice questions that cover every section of the CMA exam.
  • Quizlet: This site features a set of medical terminology flashcards designed to assist individuals who are about to take the CMA exam.

VIII. Additional Medical Assistant Certification Options

While it should be noted that the AAMA's CMA is considered the most prestigious medical assistant certification, there are other alternatives. The following three certifications are also available to prospective MAs:

    • Certified Clinical Medical Assistant (CCMA): Certification-seekers may be drawn to the low cost ($149 per exam) and technical emphasis of the CCMA credential, offered through the National Healthcare Association. The exam covers skills like vital sign measurements, medical instrument sterilization, injection and medication administration, and interpersonal effectiveness when dealing with patients and their families.In order to be eligible for the CCMA, candidates must possess at least a high school diploma or equivalent degree, and have completed either a medical assistant training program or at least one year of professional employment in a healthcare setting. Students who wish to sign up for the exam must register for an account with the NHA; their school (which serves as the exam site) will coordinate the exam date with the NHA. Professionals, on the other hand, will sit for their computerized exam at the nearest PSI Testing Center once they have created an NHA account. Score results are available one to two days after the exam; the CCMA credential will be valid for two years before recertification is required.
    • National Certified Medical Assistant (NCMA): The National Center for Competency Testing (NCCT) offers this certification for medical assistants. The curriculum covers "medical terminology, anatomy & physiology, medical law & ethics, [and] medical office administrative procedures." The exam fee in each of the following cases will vary between $90 and $135. Eligibility is divided into six categories:
      • The candidate has graduated from an NCCT-accredited training program within the past 10 years
      • The candidate has at least two years of professional experience as a medical assistant within the past 10 years
      • The candidate has completed medical assistant training (or an equivalent course) with the U.S. military within the past 10 years
      • The candidate has earned another recognized medical assisting credential
      • The candidate is a foreign-born physician or RN with "documented equivalency" within the past 10 years
      • The candidate is a medical assistant instructor with at least 10 years of experience

Candidates must create an online account with the NCCT and then submit an electronic application in order to sit for the exam. Exam-takers are allowed three hours to answer all 150 questions, which are divided into the following segments:

      • Medical Office Management
      • Medical Terminology
      • Pharmacology
      • Anatomy and Physiology
      • Medical Procedures

Candidates should call NCCT at (800) 875-4404 to locate the nearest testing center. The NCMA is available in a paper or electronic format; results from the paper exam will be available four to six weeks after the exam is taken, while the results from the electronic version will be available as soon as the exam concludes.

  • Medical Assistant (RMA): This exam is offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT). There are five eligibility categories for this certification:
    • Students or recent graduates of an accredited medical assisting program who have been out of school for no more than four years
    • Graduates of a formal medical assisting training program offered by the U.S. military
    • A professional medical assistant who has been employed in the industry for at least five of the past seven years
    • An instructor of an accredited medical assistant program with at least five years of professional experience
    • A candidate who meets at least one of the four previously listed criteria and has taken a similar certification exam; in this case, no exam will be required.

 

The RMA exam is divided into three segments: General Medical Assisting Knowledge (41% of the exam), Administrative Medical Assisting (24%), and Clinical medical Assisting (35%). The exam costs $100 for each sitting; candidates must apply online, and then allow up to four weeks for the application to be processed. Once the application has been received and accepted, the candidate must schedule an examination time and date at the nearest Pearson VUE Testing Center. Those who receive a passing score will have valid RMA certification for three years before another exam is required.