Although the titles administrative assistant and secretary describe the same basic job, they are used in different contexts. Administrative assistants typically provide support to a group of people while secretaries generally work for an individual. Additionally, there are a few different subcategories of administrative assistants and secretaries, though the duties are mostly the same:
Medical secretary: These people work for physicians and medical scientists. In addition to typical duties such as taking dictation and preparing reports, medical secretaries order supplies, make arrangements for patient treatments, and obtain basic information about a patient’s medical history. To work as a medical secretary, you must know medical terminology, hospital and lab procedures, insurance billing practices, and other information related to healthcare.
Legal secretary: People in these jobs provide administrative support for lawyers, paralegals, and other legal professions. Like medical secretaries, legal secretaries must be familiar with industry terminology and procedures. They also prepare summons and other legal paperwork under the supervision of a licensed law practitioner.
Executive administrative assistants and secretaries: These workers provide support to high-level executives like CEOs and CFOs. They tend to have expanded job duties that include reviewing reports, doing research, and supervising clerical staff.
Virtual assistants: This is a unique position that arose after the advent of the Internet. Virtual assistants work remotely using the Internet, email, and telephones to provide “virtual” support to their clients. Almost all virtual assistants work on a freelance basis and typically have multiple clients. They perform a wide variety of tasks including making travel arrangements, taking after-hours calls, and even managing web sites.
In general, administrative assistants and secretaries perform the same basic job duties such as:
- Developing and maintaining filing systems
- Sorting through and routing paper and electronic mail
- Replying to correspondence as needed
- Proofreading and editing written materials
- Operating and maintaining various office equipment like fax machines
- Ordering supplies
- Setting up meetings and appointments
- Making travel arrangements
- High-level workers supervise other staff
How to Become an Administrative Assistant
No special education or certification is required to become a secretary or administrative assistant. However, education and certification can improve your chances of finding employment and qualifying for high-paying jobs. At the very least, you will need a high school diploma, a good grasp of basic grammar and spelling, and computer skills.
For specialized positions such as medical or legal secretary, you will need to complete industry-specific training. This training is typically available as certificate programs that can be completed at vocational, technical, or community colleges. Some employers, however, will offer on-the-job training.
Although not required, legal secretaries can earn certification credentials that can give them a leg up over their competition in the job market. Those that have completed a formal training program or who have worked in their position for at least one year can test for the Accredited Legal Secretary or the Professional Legal Secretary credential offered by NALS. Legal Secretaries International, another accrediting body, offers the Certified Legal Secretary Specialist credential to those that have at least 5 years of legal experience.
Administrative Assistant skills
Interpersonal skills: Your entire day will be spent dealing with people in person or on the phone. You must be able to deal with a variety of different personalities in a professional and pleasant way.
Technology skills: Computers are the epicenter of your job. You will be using at least one to complete a variety of tasks. Depending on your employer, you may also need to know how to use a smartphone.
Writing skills: A major part of your job will be to craft different types of correspondence (memos, emails) and proofread or edit materials written by others. A good grasp of language rules is necessary.
Organizational skills: In a well-run office, there must be a place for everything and everything must be in its place. A highly organized secretary or administrative assistant helps the company respond effectively to the needs of customers and personnel.
Administrative Assistant Work Environment
Administrative assistants and secretaries work indoors in an office environment. They primarily work at a desk in front of a computer for long periods of time, though they may be required to walk to other areas of the company and even travel with their bosses.
A large percentage of people in this occupation worked for state, local, and private educational services, government agencies, physician offices, and law offices. Most worked full time, but virtual assistants worked from home and set their own schedules.
Salary for an Administrative Assistant
Though the average for administrative assistants and secretaries was $34,660 for all positions, the actual median is different for each of the specialties:
- Legal secretaries: $41,500
- Medical secretaries: $30,530
- Executive secretaries: $43,520
- All others: $30,830
The top and bottom 10% of the wage spectrum earned $55,960 and $21,730 respectively.
The administrative assistant industry is large with 4 million people holding jobs in this area. Overall job opportunities are expected to grow 12% by 2020. However, some sub-industries are expected to grow faster than other. Medical secretaries will experience the biggest jump in opportunities, about 41% by 2020. This is spurred by the overall rapid growth of the healthcare industry.
Legal secretaries will experience the slowest growth in jobs at 4% by 2020 which is the result of the overall slow growth of the legal industry. While nothing can take the place of human interaction, many job duties performed by secretaries and administrative assistants are being taken over by technology. People who are familiar and comfortable with computer software applications and who have bachelor degrees will experience the best job prospects.