Moving from mannequin heads to real-live talking heads can be a massive transition, and serving as a salon assistant can help make the transition a smooth one.

Many salons have assistant programs in place for new grads and those looking to further their education via shadowing a mentor. Being an assistant at a salon you desire to work at is a sneak-peek of what it would really be like to work in that salon, and can often lead to a foot in the door into a full-time position.

Salon assistants have to be alert, tuned in, one-step ahead of the stylist, taking care of the client but also the stylist above you. As a bonus, while you perfect your skills studying skilled professionals work in the salon’s methodology, the salon is able to assess your potential.

“I loved being an assistant,” says Amanda Ludwig, Philadelphia-based balayage and bridal stylist, @thehairwhich and member of MODERN SALON's Artist Connective. “I worked under six different people at once and took bits and pieces of their styles and made them my own. My foundation is so solid because of the men and women I was under. What a wonderful experience.”

But being at the bottom of the totem pole doesn’t mean you’re exclusively ripping foils, washing coffee mugs and folding towels. But … those responsibilities do happen, too.

“The job may not be glamorous—getting coffee, lunch, cleaning bowls, folding towels—but everyone has to start somewhere, and the knowledge you will gain while helping your stylists will be worth it for your career,” says Katie Deluca, a stylist in Ohio who specializes in styling and member of our Artist Connective. “I assisted for two years. I loved it so much. I didn’t mind getting lunch and coffee, because I also got to mix and apply color and learn about formulas and color placement.”

Expect to learn—a lot. During your assistantship, it’s critical that you behave like a sponge, soaking up everything from how to best greet a client, conduct a thorough consultation, formulating and guaranteeing the client leaves satisfied.

“Learning while you’re getting paid is an amazing bonus,” Deluca says. “Ask questions even while the client is in the chair. The more knowledge you have as an assistant before you’re on the floor, means the more comfortable and confident you will be with your clients. And clients love to hear what kind of knowledge and work goes into their service.”

So what makes a great assistant vs. a so-so assistant?

“A great assistant arrives 15 minutes early to help set up,” Ludwig says. “Comes to work with a big smile and readiness to learn! Understands they’re going to make mistakes but prevails anyway. Speaks up every moment to solidify their foundation."

She says "so-so assistants" are there for the hourly pay. They show up not eager to learn, they don’t connect with the clients, and are constantly spending time on their phone."

“A great assistant always asks what they can do for you. Their job is to make your job easier,” Deluca says.

Saretta Bowerman, a stylist and salon owner in Naples, Florida, put together her do/don’t list for success:

DO show up early with a smile on your face, setting up exactly how your stylist likes it without being told.

DON’T come in three minutes before the first client.

DO consistently check in with your stylists so they don’t ever have to come find you. 

DON’T be more preoccupied with your phone than what the stylist needs from you. 

DO have a cheerful attitude and soak up every bit of knowledge while making your stylist’s life easier and prepare for all the next steps without being told. 

DON’T be found in the break room and begrudgingly do “everything for the hairdresser” instead of realizing that it took maybe years for that stylist to build up to where they currently are. 

DO realize that the BEST part about being an assistant is having the excitement to see what you one day can achieve and honestly getting much more knowledge than you will ever learn at a beauty school. 

Deluca echoes the sentiment.

“Don’t expect to assist for a short period of time,” she says. “Most amazing and successful stylists that I know assisted for years, not months—including me. Even now, 16 years in, I will assist session stylists on shoots or at Fashion Week. You’re never too old or too experienced to learn from someone.”

The biggest theme here, is that schooling doesn’t stop after you pass your state board exam. Education extends beyond cosmetology school and, if you pick the right mentor and the rights salon, an assistantship can be one step toward a successful future.