How to Become a Dental Assistant: Education, Skills, Programs & More

Written by: Andriy Gaydaychuk, Registered Dental Assistant

Date: November 16, 2020

Dental assistants serve a variety of roles in a dentist or dental specialist’s office, depending on the specific office and the licensing requirements in the state. Jobs responsibilities vary from taking x-rays and dental molds to billing and ordering supplies.

U.S. News & Reports ranks dental assistant as #7 in a list of Best Jobs Without a College Degree and #12 in Best Healthcare Support Jobs. The median salary is $40,080, but the highest earners can make as much as $52,000. It’s also a fast-growing industry: according the U.S. Bureau of Labor, employment of dental assistants is projected to grow by 19% from 2016 to 2026.

Dental assistant jobs require a combination of technical skill, administrative skill, and people skills. Dental assisting provides a challenging and rewarding career for those who choose to pursue it.

Dental Assistant Education & Training Requirements

Dental assistant education requires post-high school training, and it takes from 9 months to 2 years, depending on the licensing requirements in your state and what kind of certification you seek (you can also become a dental assistant through a vocational high school program, though you may require supplemental training depending on the state).

Certain states require a certification exam at the end of your training, while other states simply require on-the-job training (OJT) to start working as a dental assistant. You can find out the licensing requirements in your state with this guide from the Dental Assisting National Board.

Many states regulate dental assistants using a tiered system. In New York, for instance, the tiers range from Unlicensed Dental Assistant, to Dental Assistant with a Limited Permit,  to Registered Dental Assistant; in New Jersey, they range from Unregistered Dental Assistant, to Limited Registered, to Registered Dental Assistant.

If your state requires certification, look for a training program that is accredited by the American Dental Association’s (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). If the program is accredited by CODA, it means the program is held to the highest professional and ethical standards, making it the gold standard for securing certification from the Dental Assisting National Board, which certifies dental assistants.

According to the ADA, there are currently around 250 dental assisting programs in the U.S. accredited by CODA. Check to see if the program is accredited by the U.S. Department of Education as well.

Skills Required to Be a Dental Assistant

Because the job responsibilities can vary widely for dental assistants, a wide array of skills is helpful for this rewarding and demanding job. As a dental assistant, you may be tasked with many different projects in a day.

Some common duties of dental assistants include:

  • Taking and developing dental x-rays
  • Sterilizing instruments and managing infection control
  • Office administration and management (billing, calling patients, ordering supplies, etc)
  • Taking dental impressions/molds
  • Assisting the dentist during treatment
  • Getting patient medical history, taking blood pressure, etc.
  • Teaching patients about oral health

Successful dental assistants should have great organizational skills, stay on task, work well under pressure, and thrive in a busy, fast-paced environment. The job is very people oriented, so this job is best for extroverts or anyone comfortable working with people.

Teamwork is also an important part of a successful dental office, so having good team-building skills and being a supportive team member is critical to being a great dental assistant.

Dental Assistant Training: Coursework & Clinical Training

During dental assistant training, students will take a variety of courses to cover the basics of dental assisting. Some common courses include:

  • Oral anatomy
  • CPR & first-aid
  • Office administration
  • Dental radiography
  • Dental pharmacology

Coursework is supplemented by clinical training, where aspiring dental assistants will work in a lab and/or clinical setting to gain valuable hands-on expertise. Clinical training covers:

  • Dental radiology
  • Dental pathology
  • Oral hygiene
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Chairside assistance

There are several specialties within dental assisting, including pediatrics, orthodontia, or periodontics, so clinical experience helps students determine their preferred specialty and gain expertise in that area.

Online Certificate in Dental Assisting

It is possible to do some of your training online through an accredited online program. However, clinical training is an important part of the training experience, so if you pursue an online program, you’ll need to seek out an externship where you can get hands-on experience.

Online training can also help you prepare for your certification exams and pursue continuing education: The DALE Foundation offers online exam-prep courses and continuing education.

Top Dental Assisting Programs

University of Alabama – Birmingham, Alabama: One of the top-rated dental assistant programs, University of Alabama offers a 1-year program in dental assisting, which includes in-depth coursework and 500 hours of experience in clinical rotations. UA’s program is CODA-accredited and accredited by the Alabama state board of dental examiners.

Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis – Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University-Pursue University Indianapolis offers both in-person raining and an online program in dental assisting. Students must complete 31 credit hours over two full-time semesters. Graduates of this program qualify to take the DANB exam to become certified dental assistants. With coursework, clinical experience, and lab work, the program totals over 1,000 hours of instruction.

University of Georgia – Athens, Georgia: This 100% online program in administrative dental assistance is a great option for those who want to get started working right away. The self-paced administrative dental assistant certificate program can be started at any time throughout the year. Its tuition covers 150 hours of course content, all online. Graduates of this program are not eligible to become certified dental assistants without further training, but they can begin entry-level administrative and office management work at dental offices after finishing.

You can search accredited dental assistant programs through the DANB’s program search tool.

Dental Assistant vs. Dental Hygienist

While most dental offices are staffed by both dental assistants and dental hygienists, they are different positions with different responsibilities and training.

Dental assistants serve an all-purpose role in the dental office, with job duties ranging from front-office billing and patient communications, to clinical duties like sterilization and assisting with procedures. This job requires training in dental assisting, and has specific certifications overseen by the Dental Assisting National Board.

Dental hygienists, on the other hand, perform duties more closely related to clinical dentistry: they clean teeth, examine patient’s oral health, and advise patients on proper dental care. They are trained to use a variety of dental instruments and tools and confer with the dentist on patient cases. Dental hygienist typically need to earn an associate’s degree in dental hygiene, and are also subject to certification requirements that vary by state.

  • Learn more about becoming a dental hygienist

Many dental assistants eventually go on to become dental hygienists: these positions tend to pay slightly more than dental assistants. The experience gained as a dental assistant can prove extremely useful in becoming a skilled and experienced dental hygienist.

How to Get Into a Dental Assistant Program

Eligibility for dental assistant programs depends on which kind of training you select, and the qualifications you want to receive when you’re finished with your training.

To become certified with the Dental Assisting National Board, you’ll apply to an accredited program at a university, technical school, or community college. Some of these programs have selective criteria; others simply permit you to enroll.

You may also become a dental assistant by attending a vocational high school with a dental assistant program, or by doing an online accelerated course. For these programs, you will have to complete a certain number of clinical hours before being eligible to take your certification exams, generally two years of full-time work.

To obtain an associate’s degree or a diploma in dental assisting, students will have to complete a high-school degree first or take the General Education Development test (GED) instead.

Most dental assistant programs do not require an application: technical schools and community colleges allow anyone to enroll in coursework at their schools. You may have to fill out an application, including an explanation of your program of interest, before you can enroll.

For a program at a university, such as the dental assistant program at University of Alabama Birmingham, you will likely have to fill out a more extensive application, and send high school transcripts to the program. Some programs require a college entrance test like the SAT or the ACT to apply for the associate’s degree.

The application may ask why you are interested in the dental assistant program: use this space to share a bit about yourself and what draws you to this career. Be honest – and be yourself! Showing that you are enthusiastic about the field of dentistry will help make you stand out as a candidate for the program.

Getting Certified as a Dental Assistant

According to the American Dental Association, dental assistants can become certified by passing an examination to evaluate their knowledge and expertise in the dental assistant field. Generally, aspiring certified dental assistants take the Dental Assisting National Board’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination.

If your training program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) as described above, you can take the exam directly after finishing the program.

If your program is not CODA-accredited, or you’ve received on-the-job training rather than a formal program, you can take the CDA exam after completing two years of full-time work as a dental assistant.

DANB also offers a variety of other certifications, some of which don’t require completing a CODA-accredited program. For instance, the National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) certification is for dental assistants just joining the workforce and requires less training than is required for the CDA.

The Dental Assisting National Board offers exam prep materials, as does its affiliate, the DALE foundation. There are many free resources available to help you prepare for your dental assistant exams: look online for free or affordable test prep materials to help you prepare.

You don’t necessarily need to become certified in order to work as a dental assistant: there are a variety of entry-level or assistant positions that require less training. Each state varies in what is required to begin work as a dental assistant, so check your state’s requirements and consider what kind of position is best for you.

Getting a Dental Assistant Job

Once you are done with a dental assistant program, you can start seeking jobs. Which jobs you are eligible for varies depending on the type of training program you’ve completed, and the certification requirements in your state. Search your state’s dental assistant requirements with this DANB link.

There are many helpful tools for finding a job as a dental assistant:

  1. Your school or program’s job board. Getting their students placed in jobs is always a priority for training programs or universities: job placement after graduation is a big marker of a school’s success. Ask your professors or school administrators about an online job board or other job resources. You can also ask for personal assistance in finding a job in a particular specialty field or region.
  2. The office where you did your externship or clinical rotation. Many offices are more likely to hire a dental assistant they’ve already worked with: if you had a positive experience at an office where you did part of your training, ask them if they would consider hiring you as a paid team member. Or ask for recommendations of nearby offices – the dentist or specialist you worked for may have colleagues looking for an assistant, and you’re sure to get a more personalized recommendation from someone you’ve already worked with.
  3. Online job sites like Indeed, CareerBuilder, or ZipRecruiter. These sites allow you to post a profile notifying you are looking for a position, and to search open positions in your area. If you’re looking for work out of state, be sure to check that state’s eligibility requirements.
  4. Dental career sites such as DentalPost, or a local ADA Chapter. Dental-specific sites and organizations can help connect you with local dental offices that may be hiring. Don’t be afraid to connect with the local chapter of the American Dental Association near you to find out about hiring opportunities.
  5. Federal government job sites. The U.S. government hires a wide array of medical professionals to staff its nationwide health centers. These positions often offer competitive benefits.