Administrative Assistant Job Overview

Consider becoming an administrative assistant; could it be a good way for you to enter the corporate world? Yes, it could; but do you know exactly what administrative assistants are and what they do?

Would the role of secretary be more likely to lead to increased authority and responsibility, along with greater possibilities of progression within the organization? No. Let us take it a step at a time, though, commencing with a quick look at the two roles and what they actually cover.

Administrative assistant: The title of administrative assistant can often cause confusion because its meaning is somewhat vague, one that can be applied to a wide variety of positions with varying duties.

An administrative assistant's duties can end up covering all kinds of job functions, ranging from filing, processing correspondence, and dealing with administrative tasks to carrying out a range of minor decision-making activities to free up an executive for more significant duties.

Secretary: A secretary's job by definition is usually more specifically oriented to personal tasks, including incoming and outgoing correspondence for a particular executive or executives. Correspondence refers to the full gamut of both verbal and written communications of all kinds, including internal and external e-mail, hard-copy letters, telephone calls and messages, and other general personally oriented tasks.

Secretaries are assigned a range of clerical duties, such as typing, filing, copying, etc., as well as some basic scheduling tasks. Some are still required to take dictation using shorthand, a dying but valuable craft and one not often utilized these days.

Secretaries are not normally given many decision-making responsibilities or authority to act on behalf of the boss or the employing organization.

General: Although the duties of each role can be blurred at times, this is a generalization of the positions, with the caveat that particular organizations can and do differ in how they use these positions. It is the writer's experience, gained over more than 40 years, that the essential differences involve (1) the level of decision-making authority and duties, and (2) the level of difficulty of tasks that are assigned to any particular individual.

So let us get started, shall we?

  Why might I be needed?

For a multitude of reasons actually, but we need to be more precise than that.

Broadly speaking, administrative assistants are hired to relieve an employer of the minutiae and many tasks associated with office procedures and a variety of other matters that do not require the personal attention of the boss. They also act as liaisons or buffers between supervisors they work for and the remainder of the organization.

A must: Everything you do in your role as an administrative assistant must duplicate as closely as possible the style in which your boss would perform that task if not absorbed in other tasks. In time, the methodology may be changed; but as a new administrative assistant you must start off with this directive in mind: It is a golden rule for new administrative assistants!

What do employers really want?

Following is a list of the qualities that bosses look for in the administrative assistants they choose to hire. This list is culled from years of experience as an administrative assistant and office manager, including experiences hiring and unfortunately firing a number of administrative assistants.

  • Consistent punctuality.
  • Dependability, even in crises.
  • Ability and willingness to learn.
  • Willingness to follow instructions.
  • Loyalty.
  • Ability to keep a confidence.
  • No. 1: Do not be late!
  • No. 2: Be well-groomed and neatly dressed. Depending on the organization, you may need to be smartly dressed and more formal. It is up to you to find out the normal standard of dress expected within the organization.
  • No. 3: Be as relaxed as possible. This is not easy. You may be thinking, "It's all very well to tell me to be relaxed, but interviews are stressful. How on earth do I go about appearing and/or feeling relaxed?"

Some tips: Before you go into the interview, focus your mind on a recent positive and/or happy event. Take several deep breaths in and out; it works!
  • No. 4: It is important to give the impression to the interviewer that he or she would be doing the right thing selecting you for the job; that is, you have the right attitude and skills. Be careful, though, not to oversell yourself, as this can come across as arrogance. Appear confident but relaxed and flexible.
  • No. 5: If asked what outside interests and hobbies you have, be careful that you do not list too many, as this may give a prospective employer the impression that you will not really have the time to work.
  • No. 6: Be completely honest and forthright with your answers. Most, if not all, things can be checked.

While it is important that you have a good opinion of yourself, your skills, and talents, it is equally important that you promote yourself with a sense of reality.

In other words, you should realistically assess your skill base and experience, if any. A good way to go about this is to do a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats). The best way is to take four sheets of paper and make a list for each characteristic. Then, if you have a good friend that will be honest with you and from whom you can accept suggestions, have the friend perform the same exercise for you. This can help you prepare for the job interview.

Do not skip this analysis. If you are fully aware of any weaknesses, you can allow and even cover for them. As for strengths, you should emphasize them to a prospective employer. Opportunities and "threats" can be viewed in several ways; they may come into your assessment of the job, people, etc. Think about this. Look closely and consider. However, the main focus initially should be your strengths and weaknesses.

Remember: Awareness gives you power. Do not weaken yourself and your chances by burying your head in the sand.

CHECKING THE JOB DESCRIPTIONS The first thing to look for when reading through job descriptions is honesty. It does not always pay to go for the glamorous, interesting, or high-powered job, the one that is made to sound as if it has no drawbacks. All jobs have at least one or two.

Read through all the ones you think may suit and appeal to you, then read through the rest. Without encouraging cynicism, if a job description sounds like a dream of a job, think twice, as there is every chance it is just that: a dream!

It really is a positive thing if an organization mentions in its job description some perceived negatives that come with the position or some difficulties that may arise. Such honesty in promoting or advertising a job is to be treasured. It usually means you have found an honest, forthright employer.


It does not really matter whether you are looking for your first job as a teenager or young person or as an older person possibly returning to the workforce after a number of years away.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Administrative Assistant course?

The basics are the same: You need to prepare for the job search; i.e., you need to gather information, including the details and dates to go with the details of your educational background. Also list your skills and any other jobs you have had, including volunteer work, babysitting, delivering papers, etc. They all count, even if they were part time.

What employers are usually looking for in first-job applicants is a picture of reliability and responsibility, and they can garner that from volunteer or part-time work. Sometimes even your participation in sports or after-school activities, which signifies your ability to work as a team player, or your membership in organizations can impress a potential employer.

It all counts when you are putting together your résumé.
Job Duties and Skills

The U.S. Department of Labor defines administrative assistants as those being responsible for a variety of administrative and clerical duties necessary to run an organization efficiently. Administrative assistants, according to the department, disseminate information by using telephone, mail services, Web sites and e-mail, as well as carrying out such assignments as making travel arrangements.

Any administrative assistant worth his or her salt, however, will advise you very quickly that this does not even scratch the surface of what the person does. An efficient administrative assistant is always intimately tuned into how the office functions.

Each organization and office is different. Consequently, the duties and responsibilities of administrative assistants from one office to another, from one company to another, can differ radically and are often naturally influenced by the industries they serve.

Some organizations you work for as an administrative assistant will work via a casual chain of command and others will be very formal. Therefore, you will need to be flexible, sometimes very flexible.


Level of Skills

The level of skills administrative assistants require depends to some degree on the type and style of industry they work in. Therefore, it is very important at the outset of your career that you define as clearly as possible any preference you have as to the direction you wish your career to move.

Of course, there are basic fundamental skills required of all administrative assistants. We will itemize these later in this article. To give you an amusing glance of the breadth of skills that may be required, let us turn to the movies.

The movie The Devil Wears Prada is an amusing and very revealing look at the inner workings and world of the administrative assistant. What level of skills did the boss, Miranda Priestley, require of her administrative assistant in that movie? When you think about it, how on earth could Miranda have done all that she did without her administrative assistants being at the top of their game? They were the ones that really kept all the balls up in the air. If you have not actually seen the movie, rent it. Watching it might frighten you a little, but be comforted by the fact that few employers are quite that manic!

Brushing Up on Basic Skills Before You Apply

In order to brush up on the skills required, naturally you need to know what they are. A lot of people would respond to that by saying, "Everyone knows what the basic skills for administrative assistants are." A fair number of people probably do, but there are still a lot of people who would leave a few items off the list.

The basics for most administrative assistants include typing, word processing, and at least an average working knowledge of office software skills. They also must have the ability to spell correctly and use grammar properly in order to string words together well enough to write letters, reports, etc. on behalf of the employer.

The basic skill that a lot of people leave off the list is an above-average ability to communicate verbally in such a way that you can make yourself understood and your employer's message passed onto others and translated properly. These skills are the most basic because they are required on a daily basis in the life of any administrative assistant.

Level of Training Required: Should You Go Back to School?

The level of training you should strive for depends on a variety of factors, including your own personal objectives and aims and the requirements and aims of the employer.

You should have developed typing, word processing, and some software skills while you were in high school. If you did not, these are the first skills you should acquire. If you did acquire them, polish them to as high a gloss as you possibly can before applying for your job as an administrative assistant.

Make sure that you aim for a better-than-average level of spelling, grammar, writing, and verbal communication. This may win you that longed-for job over other applicants.

Consider getting, or at least commencing, an associate's degree or certification at a community college or going to a business school for a certificate after high school. Of course, lower paying, entry-level clerical positions can be obtained by raw high school graduates, but would that be the goal of people wanting an interesting career? That type of job is unlikely to lead you to an administrative assistant position, with promotion hopes, in the future.

When Training Is Not Required

Of course, if you are someone who has previous office experience, you know how to type, use computers, and perform the basic job functions, and you have no high aspirations to further improve yourself and your career, you may not need additional training.

You may be a stay-at-home mom who is returning to the workforce for some extra money, or you are bored at home now that the kids have gone to school and you have too much time on your hands. You may need some brushing up on certain software, though, and a good way to do this
at no cost to yourself is to ferret through temporary work agencies and find those that offer free office software training for those individuals who agree to sign on with them.

Some people returning to the workforce after many years away have used this avenue to either brush up on or learn completely new programs, including word processing, spreadsheets, and computer graphics programs. If you look for this kind of opportunity, you will find it – guaranteed!

Going Beyond the Basics

If you want to rise beyond an average job, you need to appear to be more than an average person. You need to give the impression of aiming higher.

Keep in mind that companies with both the room and the inclination to promote administrative assistants are those of medium size and up. Small companies will not usually be in a position to offer you the opportunity to go far.

The best way to appear as if you are above the run-of-the-mill employee is to ask questions; such as:

  • Who is who in the company? In other words, ask for an overview of who the central characters are in your bosses' professional and personal lives.
  • Ask for a thorough explanation of the phone system, not just how the phone works but how the messages are recorded and what should be said when the phones are answered. Also ask whether you should forward the phone to someone else, or to voice mail, when you leave your desk.
  • Ask about important dates, not only birthdays and anniversaries but important regular meeting dates. Is there possibly a list of them somewhere?
  • Find out about the office equipment. It may seem obvious, but where is it and how does it work? That way you will not be caught trying to operate the fax machine, copier, or video conferencing equipment on the fly.

Two things are guaranteed:

Nothing irritates a boss more than a new administrative assistant who does not know how to work the fax, copier, or video conferencing equipment.

Nothing impresses a boss more than the new administrative assistant who has made sure that he or she has made a point of finding out where these tools are and how to work them before being asked to do so.

Computer Hardware

You can be sure in this day and age there are very few companies that do not routinely use personal or desktop computers in their offices. Not only do computers allow employees to be more productive by automating many tasks, but they also allow employees to be more creative. They also handle routine tasks such as word processing, accounting, and data entry.

Computers also give employees the opportunity to load and use software design programs that will progress the growth of the organization.

An office may on some occasions have only one computer. If this is the case, it is highly likely that the administrative assistant will be by far its most frequent user. Therefore, you could also be responsible for seeing to the maintenance and repair of the computer and investigating the different types of hardware and software available. Ultimately, you may be responsible for recommending which personal computer the company should buy next time it is upgrading.

If you find yourself in this position, make a point of investigating all options, even if a new purchase is not currently in the wings. After all, it is a lot more impressive and reassuring to your boss if you give the impression of having some knowledge about the subject.

Computer Software

Administrative assistants are not programmers; therefore, they need operating systems and software that talk directly with the computer's hardware in order to get it to perform various tasks.

An operating system is the underlying software that permits one function – for example, word processing programs, spreadsheets, databases, and graphics programs – to operate with another.

Everyone has heard of the Microsoft Windows operating system. It is by far the most widely used computer operating system in the world today. Others include Apple, Unix, and Linux.

The ins and outs of various computer software programs are far too extensive to cover in this article, or for a whole book of lessons actually, so you will need to access the knowledge you require elsewhere. It will always pay, though, for everyone to be familiar with some computer lingo; that way, you will be somewhat more comfortable when approaching people for computer advice.
Of course, the best place to look for any type of computer information, whether software or hardware, is the Internet.