June 13, 2024

How to Become a Dental Assistant (2024)

A detailed primer on the education and certification requirements for becoming a dental assistant.

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How to Become a Dental Assistant (2024)

In the field of dentistry, dental assistants play a crucial role in ensuring that dental practices run smoothly, and patients receive the best possible care. Serving as a vital link between dentists, dental hygienists, and patients, dental assistants have a diverse range of responsibilities that make them indispensable members of a dental team.

As the demand for dental services continues to grow, the need for skilled dental assistants is on the rise, making it an excellent career choice for those interested in the health care field. In this blog post, we will explore the steps you need to take to become a dental assistant, from understanding their role and responsibilities to completing the required education and certification, and ultimately finding a rewarding job in this rapidly growing field.

Understanding the Role of a Dental Assistant

Dental assistants play a crucial supporting role in dental offices, facilitating efficient patient care and treatment, and contributing to office management. Their responsibilities can be broadly classified into three categories:

  1. Patient care: Dental assistants help put patients at ease and prepare them for treatments, procedures, or examinations. They are also responsible for taking and developing dental X-rays, applying sealants and fluoride treatments, and providing oral care and hygiene instructions to patients. Dental assistants must have interpersonal skills and help patients feel comfortable.
  2. Office management: In addition to clinical duties, dental assistants often handle various administrative tasks, including scheduling appointments, maintaining patient records, and managing billing and payment processes. This helps ensure the smooth functioning of the dental office.
  3. Dental procedure assistance: During dental treatments, a dental assistant works alongside the dentist or dental hygienist to provide the necessary support. They pass instruments, prepare materials, and serve as an extra pair of hands to increase efficiency and ensure the dentist can focus on the patient. All of this must be done with strict adherence to infection prevention protocols using sterilization, sanitation, and disinfecting procedures.

Dental assistants can find employment in various settings, such as private dental practices, dental schools, public health clinics, and even dental insurance companies. It's important to note that dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dentists have distinct roles and responsibilities within a dental practice. While dental assistants provide support to both dentists and dental hygienists, dental hygienists focus on preventive care and cleaning procedures. Dentists diagnose and treat dental issues.

Additional Duties that May Be Included in the Dental Assistant Role

In addition to the above responsibilities, some dental assistants may also assist with dental lab procedures, including the fabrication of prosthetics, such as dentures and bridges. Some may also specialize in specific areas, such as pediatric dentistry, orthodontics, or oral surgery.

Work Environment for Dental Assistants

Dental assistants typically work in clinical or office settings, where they often stand for long periods. The work can involve interactions with patients, so the ability to handle stress and remain calm and composed is essential. They must also wear personal protective equipment, including face masks and gloves, to minimize the risk of exposure to infectious diseases. Good communication skills and attention to detail are required to ensure accurate dental records and charts. Working hours often include evenings and weekends. Many dental offices are open on Saturdays, and some offer extended hours during the week. Dental assistants typically work full-time, which is defined as 35 hours or more per week.

Dental Assistant Education and Certification

Educational Requirements

Becoming a dental assistant starts with a solid educational foundation. Here's how you can prepare:

High School Preparation

For those looking to become a dental assistant, high school preparation is key. Maintaining passing grades and finding hands-on learning opportunities can help you later succeed after applying to dental assistant programs.

  1. Diploma or GED: Prerequisites for dental assisting programs require a high school diploma or the equivalent. They may also require a certain grade point average (GPA). Generally, the minimum GPA requirement is 2.0.
  2. Volunteer work: Volunteering in the community can help high school students to learn multiple skills that are valuable in the dental assisting world. These skills may include administrative skills, communication skills, and responsibility among others.

Dental Assisting Programs

After completing high school, the next step is to enroll in a dental assisting program. There are two main types of programs:

  1. Certificate or diploma programs: These are typically offered by community colleges or technical schools and can be completed in 9-12 months.
  2. Associate degree programs: An associate degree in dental assisting, which usually takes two years to complete, provides a more in-depth education and may offer better job prospects and higher starting salaries.

Regardless of the type of program, it is essential to choose an accredited dental assisting program recognized by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Accredited programs combine classroom instruction with hands-on training, ensuring that students gain the necessary knowledge and practical experience to excel in their field. When applying to programs, it's best to consider the cost (including scholarships), accreditation and job outcomes for the program's graduates.

Continuing Education

A commitment to lifelong learning is essential for dental assistants, as the field of dentistry is continually evolving, and staying up-to-date with advancements and best practices is vital for success. Dental assistants can participate in workshops, seminars, and online courses to further their dental education and enhance their skills.


Certification and Licensing

Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) Certification

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification, which is recognized nationwide and often required by employers. To be eligible for the CDA examination, candidates must have graduated from a CODA-accredited dental assisting program and possess current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification. The CDA exam has three components: General Chairside Assisting (GC), Infection Control (ICE), and Radiation Health and Safety (RHS). Obtaining CDA certification demonstrates a dental assistant's commitment to competency and professionalism.

State-specific Licensing Requirements

Licensing requirements for dental assistants vary from state to state, and it is essential to be familiar with the regulations in the state where you plan to work. Some states may require additional examinations, certifications, or permits for dental assistants. Conduct thorough research and ensure that you obtain all necessary licenses before starting your job search.

Additional Certifications

Dental assistants can further their skills and job prospects by obtaining additional certifications, such as:

  1. Expanded Functions Dental Assistant (EFDA): This certification allows dental assistants to perform advanced procedures, such as temporary crown fabrication and dental restorations, under the supervision of a licensed dentist.
  2. Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA): COA-certified dental assistants can assist with orthodontic procedures, such as placing and removing braces and appliances.
  3. Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA): This certification enables dental assistants to perform preventive dental care procedures, including coronal polishing and fluoride treatments.

Finding a Job as a Dental Assistant

Job Search Strategies

Landing your first job as a dental assistant can be challenging, but these strategies can increase your chances of success:

  1. Networking: Connecting with dental professionals in your community, such as dentists, dental hygienists, and fellow dental assistants, can help you learn about job openings and make valuable contacts.
  2. Online job boards: Websites like HealthJob can be helpful resources for finding dental assistant job postings.
  3. Dental associations and organizations: Joining professional associations, such as the American Dental Assistants Association (ADAA), can provide access to job listings and networking opportunities.

Preparing a Resume and Cover Letter

To make a strong first impression, craft a resume and cover letter that highlight your skills, education, certifications, and any relevant experience, such as volunteering or internships. Customize your application materials for each job you apply for, ensuring that they align with the job's specific requirements and emphasize your unique qualifications.

Advancing Your Career as a Dental Assistant

As a dental assistant, there are several ways to grow and advance in your career:

Gaining Experience

An entry-level dental assistant will typically advance with experience. Working in different dental specialties can expose you to varied procedures and patient populations, expanding your skills and knowledge. You can also pursue additional certifications to expand the scope of your practice and increase your value as a dental professional.

Professional Development

Joining professional organizations and attending conferences and workshops can help you stay informed about the latest trends and advancements in dentistry, as well as provide networking opportunities. This type of professional development provides a pathway for reaching professional goals.

Exploring Further Education

Dental assistants may choose to further their education by enrolling in dental hygiene programs or even pursuing a degree in dentistry, enabling them to take on more advanced roles within the dental profession.

Expected Wages as a Dental Assistant

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dental assistants earn a median salary of $38,660 per year. Salaries may vary depending on education, experience, certifications, and geographic location. The job outlook is faster than average, as demand for qualified professionals in this position is growing in demand.


In conclusion, a career as a dental assistant offers many opportunities for growth, learning, and personal fulfillment. By understanding the role of a dental assistant, completing the required education, obtaining certification and licensure, and embarking on a strategic job search, you will be well on your way to becoming a valuable member of a dental care team. With dedication and hard work, this can be a very rewarding career.

More Resources

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Program outcomes may vary depending on each institution's specific curriculum and employment opportunities are not guranteed.