If you are interested in dentistry, you may be considering becoming a dental assistant. Dental assistants earn a decent salary, get to help people, work closely with dentists, and enjoy good job security.
But how long does it take to become a dental assistant?
The time it takes to become a dental assistant depends on which state you live in. Some states have very few requirements for dental assistants, while others have strict education, certification, and licensing requirements.
If you already have a high school diploma, you may be able to get a dental assistant job immediately in certain states. In states with stricter requirements, it can take up to 2 years to become a dental assistant.
If you plan to go through a training program and earn your certification, it will typically take between 4 months to 2 years to become a dental assistant.
This guide goes over how long it takes to become a dental assistant, including timelines for different types of training programs, certification, and licensing, as well as requirements by state.
Overview – How Long Dental Assistant School & Training Take
Before you can work independently as a dental assistant, you will need some kind of training. You may be able to complete on-the-job training and start getting paid immediately or you may have to complete a training program first.
Dental assistant school can take anywhere between 3 months to 2 years to complete depending on the type and specific program.
How Long Online Dental Assistant Training Programs Take
Length of time: 3 to 12 months
Online dental assisting programs are gaining popularity with students everywhere. Online programs are often self-paced, meaning you can complete them as quickly or as slowly as you want, within reason.
Students who can commit to full-time study and are fast learners can complete some programs in as quickly as 3 months. Those who have jobs or other responsibilities at home may need closer to 12 months to complete their training.
Most programs allow you to schedule your own learning, giving you flexibility if you work throughout the program or have family or loved ones to care for.
Online programs will cover everything you need to know to pass your certification exam, including healthcare laws and ethics, basic anatomy and physiology, different dental specialties, how to use and sterilize different dental equipment, and how to handle administrative duties in a dental office.
After you complete some or all of your online learning modules, most online programs will help you set up an externship. During an externship, you will have the opportunity to shadow a working dental assistant and practice some of your skills with supervision.
Online dental assistant training programs will prepare you to take the Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) exam offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT) or the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Many of these programs include the exam fee in their tuition.
Online dental assisting programs cost $3,000, on average, but some are as cheap as $1,000 or as expensive as $10,000. Many of these programs offer payment plans, but as you lengthen the payment time period, the cost of the program increases.
How Long a Dental Assistant Certificate from a Community College Takes
Length of time: 12 to 24 months
Community college programs often take longer than online programs, usually lasting between 12 and 24 months. While they take longer and offer very little flexibility, some people learn better when they are in an in-person environment with a more structured schedule.
Like online certificate programs, community college programs will cover everything you need to know to pass your certified dental assistant exam and begin a successful career. Classes will cover dental materials, infection control, chair-side assisting, general dentistry, and dental specialties.
Most community colleges have partnerships with local dental offices can help you find externship opportunities. In addition to an externship, most colleges allow their students to gain hands-on experience in a student laboratory.
A certificate program from a community college can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $7,000. This may not include all classroom fees, books, and dental tools you will need to purchase for practicing.
How Long an Associate Degree from a Community College Takes
Length of time: 18 to 24 months
Getting an associate degree in dental assisting takes the longest and is usually the most expensive option for dental assistant training. Most associate degree programs take about 2 years, but some accelerated programs can be completed in 18 months.
The first year of an associate degree program is usually focused on general education courses like basic math, writing, and sociology courses. After that, students focus their learning on topics specific to dental assisting such as oral anatomy, chair-side assisting, and infection control.
Associate degree programs generally include preparation for the CDA exam and other helpful certifications like radiation health and safety, and CPR.
Associate degree programs can cost as little as $6,000 for in-state students and up to $40,000 for out-of-state students.
While many people are encouraged to get a degree and advance their education, an associate degree may not be worth it when compared to a cheaper and shorter certificate program. Most employers are satisfied with a dental assisting certification and do not expect their assistants to earn a degree.
>> Learn More: Cost of Different Types of Dental Assistant Programs
How Long Each Step of Becoming a Dental Assistant Takes
While there are many different options for certification and they each take a different amount of time, you can expect the process of becoming a dental assistant to follow a predictable pathway:
- Earn your high school diploma or GED (4 years). You will need a high school diploma or GED before you can enroll in a dental assistant training program. If you did not complete high school, you can earn a GED in as little as 3 months.
- Enroll in a training program (0 to 4 months). Online programs often allow you to enroll and begin your coursework right away. If you choose a community college program, you may have to wait until the beginning of a semester to start your class.
- Complete your training (3 to 24 months). If you have chosen an online program, you may be able to study hard and complete your training in just a few months. If you participate in a self-paced program, make sure you take the time to study and understand the material well. There is no sense in rushing through the course if you don’t learn the information well enough to pass your exam.
- Get your CPR certification (1 to 3 hours). If your chosen program did not include a CPR certification, you will have to get one before you will be eligible to register for the DANB exam. You can use the Red Cross to find CPR certification classes in your area.
- Take your certification exam (up to 4 months). When you have finished your classes, you can register to take your certification exam. It takes up to 4 weeks for an application to be approved to register. Then, you have up to 60 days to complete your exam. Official results will be sent to you 2 to 4 weeks after your exam.
- Start your new job (1 week to 30 days). For most companies, the hiring process takes between 1 week and 30 days. If you impressed an office during your externship hours, you may be able to transition from student to employee immediately after passing your exam.
The total time required to become a dental assistant is about 4 months to 3 years depending on where you live, if you go through a training program and get your certification, how long your job search takes, and other factors.
Do I Have to Complete a Dental Assistant Training Program or School to Work?
Whether you have to complete a dental assistant training program or not depends mostly on where you live.
Each state has its own education, certification, and licensing requirements for dental assistants. Some states allow you to work as a dental assistant without experience, certification, or going to school. For example, Utah has no requirements for dental assistants while others, like Texas, require certification to perform specific tasks like taking X-ray images or monitoring nitric oxide medication.
Still, other states have even stricter requirements. For example, Tennessee requires dental assistants to be licensed and registered with the state along with completing 24 hours of continuing education each year.
Even if your state does not require training and certification, you will be a much more competitive job applicant if you complete a training program and earn your certificate.
Is Dental Assistant School Worth It?
If you are interested in dentistry and want to become a dental assistant, getting a certificate is worth the time, money, and effort. Being certified shows potential employers that you are serious about your career, helps you feel more confident at work, and gives you the skills to keep your patients safe.
While earning your certification is a good idea, make sure you choose a program carefully. Online programs are typically cheaper and faster and lead to the same types of jobs as associate degrees or longer programs.
While getting a degree may seem like the best choice at first, a dental assisting degree will typically not get you any closer to your goals than a certificate-only program.
Is Dental Assistant School Hard?
Dental assistant school is generally considered fairly easy, but you will have to study and put some work into passing your exam.
In dental assistant school, you will learn about basic anatomy, how to handle delicate tools, infection control, insurance and billing, and all about different dental specialties. Students who already have a good understanding of math, science, and customer service will have an easier time completing their dental assistant classes.
In 2021, the pass rate for the chair-side assisting, infection control, and radiation certification portions of the DANB exam were 77%, 71%, and 63%, respectively.
How Long the Dental Assistant Certification Process Takes
Once you have completed your training, you can apply for your exam. The entire process takes about 12 weeks. These are the steps you will follow:
- Check if you’re eligible. Look on the DANB website to make sure you meet all eligibility requirements for the exam. This should take less than 10 minutes.
- Apply for the exam. Applying for the exam is straightforward, just create a DANB account and follow the steps to register for the exam. You will need to submit proof of education or experience, CPR certification, and identification, and answer a few background questions. Processing your application can take up to four weeks.
- Study for the exam. While you wait for your test application to be approved, start studying for your exam. Once you receive an email that you are authorized to schedule your test, you must take the exam within 60 days.
- Take the exam. You can schedule your exam at a testing center or via an online proctor. The exam time limit is 195 minutes.
- Wait for the results. You will be able to see your unofficial results as soon as you submit your exam. However, official results will be sent to you 2 to 4 weeks later.
After you pass your exam, make sure you meet the requirements to maintain your certification. Certifications must be renewed yearly and requirements include completing continuing education credits and paying an annual fee.
The fee and continuing education requirements vary based on how many extra certifications you have.