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Administrative Assistant vs. Secretary: Similarities and Differences

March 22, 2021

Although administrative assistants and secretaries both provide administrative support within a workplace, there are some distinctions between the two jobs. Learning the differences between the roles and the responsibilities each position has can help you make a more informed choice if you're looking for jobs.

In this article, we explain the differences between an administrative assistant and a secretary, the benefits and duties of working in each role and how to get started in a career within these fields.

What is an administrative assistant?

An administrative assistant supports a workplace, helping employees, managers and visitors with various administrative tasks. Depending on the company, some administrative assistants may even hold leadership positions to oversee and train junior staff members. The day-to-day workload of an administrative assistant can vary greatly depending on the size of an organization and the level of experience within the role. Most administrative assistants perform the following duties:

  • Greeting visitors
  • Answering phones and emails
  • Typing workplace correspondence
  • Processing mail
  • Maintaining electronic filing systems
  • Organizing schedules
  • Creating agendas
  • Purchasing supplies
  • Generating expense reports
  • Taking notes during meetings
  • Making travel arrangements

Related: Administrative Assistant vs. Receptionist: What's the Difference?

What is a secretary?

A secretary is usually the first person a visitor interacts with when they call or visit a workplace. Secretaries complete basic clerical functions, like welcoming guests or clients, recording vital information, answering calls and making appointments. They complete most of the administrative-related duties within a business.

Secretaries could have the following duties:

  • Greeting visitors as soon as they arrive
  • Providing customer service
  • Answering phones and emails
  • Typing workplace correspondence
  • Maintaining records
  • Operating office equipment
  • Running errands

Related: 12 Essential Secretary Duties

Administrative assistant vs. secretary

Here are a few differences between an administrative assistant and a secretary:

Salary

An administrative assistant makes $15.74 per hour, while a secretary makes $13.79 per hour. Since administrative assistants typically have more responsibilities, they receive higher pay than secretaries. However, both salaries can vary based on experience, education, location and the size of the business. For example, a secretary with more experience could earn more pay than an entry-level administrative assistant.

Requirements

Secretaries and administrative assistants typically don't need to meet any requirements other than having a high school diploma or GED. Since administrative assistants often have more responsibilities, employers may seek candidates with at least associate degrees. Education can also act as a substitute for related experience.

Experience can differ based on the role and company. Secretaries typically don't need experience to find entry-level jobs, while some administrative assistant roles may require around one year of experience to qualify. Companies that expect secretaries or administrative assistants to complete more complex tasks could require some related experience.

Both secretaries and administrative assistants who want to work in a specialized field may need specific experience. For example, law firms might ask secretaries or administrative assistants to have some experience or knowledge in a legal setting. The job postings could specify the type of experience needed, such as legal secretary.

Related: How To Become a Secretary in 6 Steps

Advancement opportunities

Both secretaries and administrative assistants have many advancement opportunities. A common path for secretaries is to move into an administrative assistant role after gaining some experience. Administrative assistants and secretaries can also explore these careers:

  • Office manager
  • Office administrator
  • Administrative coordinator
  • Executive assistant
  • Administrative director

Since these roles support entire workplaces and learn different aspects of many jobs, they could transition into another career in a new field. For example, an administrative assistant working for an accounting firm could become a bookkeeper or accounting clerk with some experience.

Skills

Secretaries and administrative assistants often have similar skill sets, including the following skills:

  • Communication: These administrative professionals interact with coworkers, clients and managers regularly throughout their days. Excellent written and verbal communication skills help them work with team members and assist clients.
  • Time management: Many administrative assistants and secretaries schedule meetings, make travel arrangements and manage executive's schedules. Time management helps them plan their own work as well as other employees' schedules.
  • Organization: A main responsibility for administrative professionals is keeping the workspace organized, including physical and digital items. They can use this skill to easily access files, assess inventory and help others locate equipment or information.
  • Computer literacy: Administrative professionals complete most of their work on computers, making computer literacy essential. They should be efficient with email platforms, scheduling software and any specific platforms their companies use.
  • Critical thinking: Since administrative professionals may need to complete many types of tasks, critical thinking is a useful skill to develop. It can help them learn how to solve certain problems with little to no supervision.
  • Teamwork: Administrative assistants and secretaries usually interact with all coworkers in their offices. They should have excellent teamwork skills to collaborate with others and create a positive working environment.

Certifications

Administrative assistants and secretaries can earn certifications to develop their skills and develop a competitive advantage. Here are some common certifications available to both professionals:

  • Certified Administrative Professional: The International Association of Administrative Professionals offers this credential. In order to be eligible for the CAP, you need a mix of professional experience and education. The higher the academic degree you have, the fewer professional hours you need, though you can qualify without having a college degree.
  • Microsoft Office Specialist: Microsoft offers multiple certifications based on different Office programs. You don't need any experience or education requirements to qualify for MOS certifications, though you do need to pass certification exams for each specialty. Since many companies use Microsoft programs, being an MOS could be useful to show your proficiency.

Benefits

Administrative assistants and secretaries share many of the same benefits, including potential for career growth and flexibility. Both of these positions usually work in small administrative departments, sometimes operating independently. This aspect may appeal to those who enjoy working without much oversight. However, administrative professionals communicate and work with many coworkers, so these roles are also good for people who like a team environment.

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