A dental assistant is someone who usually works in a dentist’s office and helps with procedures like dental fillings, keeps the office organized, and takes x-ray images of patient teeth.
Dentists depend on the help of their assistants to handle delicate instruments and keep the mouth open and free of saliva during procedures.
Dental assistants enjoy a decent salary, good job security, and get to perform meaningful work.
But how do you become a dental assistant?
You can become a dental assistant by obtaining your high school diploma, completing a training program, and passing your certification exam.
This guide will break down the steps required to become a dental assistant, including certification options, resume building, and more.
How to Become a Dental Assistant
If you already have a high school diploma, becoming a dental assistant generally takes between 4 months and 2 years. It usually costs a few thousand dollars for training programs and certification.
1. Obtain your high school diploma or GED
Even if you live in a state that does not require certification, you'll need a high school diploma or GED to start working as a dental assistant. People who did not complete high school but have basic math and English skills can usually get a GED in a few months.
2. Decide whether you need to attend a training program & get certified
In some states, certification is a required step on the way to becoming a dental assistant. Others require only a high school diploma. Some states require both certification and licensing.
You can see a full breakdown of dental assistant requirements by state here.
For example, Ohio requires either Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) certification from the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB), Certified Ohio Dental Assistant certification administered by the Ohio Commission on Dental Assistant Certification (OCDAC), or a Registered Dental Assistant Certification offered by the American Medical Technologists (AMT)
On the other hand, Utah has no requirements for becoming a dental assistant, as long as the dental assistant is supervised by a licensed dentist.
Even if you live in a state like Utah that does not require certification, employers will be more likely to hire someone who has completed a training program and passed an official exam.
States that require dental assistants to earn some type of certification to perform all or some dental assisting duties include:
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- North Dakota
- New York
- New Jersey
- South Dakota
3. Research dental assistant training programs
The dental assistant training program you choose can make a big impact on your career success. There are several different options to choose from, and some programs provide a higher quality education than others.
We’ll review exactly what to look for in a dental assisting program below.
4. Enroll in a dental assistant training program
Enrollment in a rental assisting program typically requires submitting your high school diploma or GED, paying at least part of your tuition, and purchasing a few textbooks and workbooks.
If you choose a college program, the application process requires a little more information such as proof of residency and financial aid forms.
5. Take your certification exam
The most common exam is the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) from DANB, but there are many certification options beyond that. Many states accept multiple types of certifications, and some have state-specific programs.
Many employers prefer candidates who are certified in dental assisting, radiology, and infection control. If you want to work somewhere that specializes in surgeries or orthodontics, you’ll need a few additional certifications as well.
6. Apply for a license (if necessary; varies by state)
Not many states require that dental assistants apply for a license. States that require licensure for dental assistants include Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and South Dakota.
Usually, applying for a license requires you to submit proof of education or certification, go through a background check, and pay a fee to the state board of dentistry. Most licenses must be renewed every year or every other year.
7. Register with your state dentistry board (if required)
Similarly to applying for licensure, not many states require dental assistants to register with the state. States that do require an application and registration include Iowa, Kentucky, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.
Registration generally only requires you to submit an application and pay a fee.
8. Build your resume
When you build your resume, remember to keep it simple, clean, and organized. Many applications like Microsoft Word and Google Docs have templates you can use to create an easy-to-read resume.
If you do not have a lot of work experience, that’s okay. Include any service projects, leadership positions, or special awards you have earned throughout your life. A few strong references can overcome a short resume.
9. Apply for jobs
Websites like Indeed and Monster are great for applying to different jobs. Many job search websites will help you build an online resume and keep all of your applications organized. Creating a strong profile on one of these websites means you may be able to apply for multiple jobs at once.
Be sure to read through the dental assistant job description to make sure the role includes the parts of the jobs you're mainly interested in and you meet all requirements.
10. Maintain your certification
Just because you passed your certification exam doesn't mean you’ll automatically be certified forever. If you earn a certification through the DANB, you will have to complete yearly continuing education courses and pay an annual fee.
Most state certification courses also require continuing education and certification renewal fees each year.
Maintaining your certification is much easier than reapplying and re-taking your exam, so make sure you set some reminders to submit your renewals on time.
Choosing the Right Dental Assistant Training Program
Be careful not to sign up for the first dental assistant training program you find. Do some research to make sure that you are choosing a dental assisting program that will help you reach your goals.
- If it’s accredited. Accreditation means that a program has met specific requirements covering what information is taught throughout the course. Completing an accredited course is one of the requirements for taking most certification exams.
- If it prepares you to be certified (and which certification). Even the best dental assisting program will not help you if it does not prepare you for the correct certification exam. Make sure you check your state requirements carefully and then make sure the program you sign up for meets those requirements. While most states recognize CODA-accredited programs, some states require state-specific courses.
- Cost. Costs of dental assisting programs can range from $1,000 to $20,000. Make sure you double-check any hidden fees or costs before you enroll in a program. Online programs and certificate programs from community colleges are generally much cheaper than an associate’s degree in dental assisting.
- Length. The length of dental assistant programs varies quite a bit depending on the type you choose. Online dental assisting programs can be completed in just a few months, while degree programs can last up to two years. Decide if you would like to study full-time or part-time, and how many weeks or months you will be able to commit to your training program.
- Online vs. in-person. Most online programs are cheaper and shorter than in-person programs. However, if you struggle with online learning, it might be worth it to choose an in-person education. Think carefully about the pros and cons of each before you decide.
- Job placement support. Before you sign up, ask program directors if they offer job placement support. Many colleges and even online programs offer career counselors and job placement assistance. Some programs even offer their students employment guarantees.
Different Dental Assistant Certification Options
Before you enroll in a program, make sure it leads to the dental assisting certification up need for your specific job and state.
There are currently no set standards for dental assistants across the nation, meaning you'll need to do some research to avoid choosing the wrong training program or exam.
Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) by the Dental Assistant National Board (DANB)
You can become a Certified Dental Assistant by passing the CDA exam offered by the DANB. To qualify for this exam, you have to complete a CODA-accredited training program or have 3,500 hours of supervised dental assisting experience, earn your CPR certification, and pay a $450 exam fee.
Most states recognize the CDA exam and accept it as part of the licensing, registration, or certification process. States that do not recognize the DANB CDA exam include Washington, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Illinois, Alaska, Florida, Iowa, New York, and Pennsylvania.
Maintaining your CDA certification requires a yearly fee of $75 and 12 continuing education credits.
National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) by DANB
The NELDA exam is an exam offered to those who don’t qualify for CDA certification. If you completed a non-CODA accredited program, you will need to take the NELDA exam. You can also qualify for this exam by completing between 300 and 3,000 hours of dental assisting work, completing a Job Corps dental assisting program, or completing a high school-level dental assisting program.
This exam costs $400 and many states that require certification do not allow NELDA-certified employees to perform high-level tasks like taking X-rays or monitoring patients receiving nitrous oxide.
NELDA recertification requires each dental assistant to complete 6 continuing education credits and pay a $50 fee each year.
Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA) by DANB
The Certified Orthodontic Assistant Exam is made up of two parts: Orthodontic Assisting and Infection Control. Dental assistants who want to work in orthodontist offices may need their basic Dental Assisting Certification as well as their Certified Orthodontic Assistant Certification.
This is a $450 exam that requires either 3,500 hours of relevant experience or a prior CDA certification as well as a current CPR certification.
COA maintenance requires 18 continuing education credits and a $90 fee each year.
Certified Preventative Dental Assistant (CPFDA) by DANB
Like becoming a COA, becoming a Certified Preventative Dental Assistant requires you to first get your CDA. The CPFDA certification is made up of three exams: Topical Fluoride (TF), Sealants (SE), and Coronal Polishing (CP).
The TF exam costs $245, the SE exam costs $175, and the CP exam costs $175.
To maintain your CPFDA, you must complete 18 continuing education credits and pay $90 annually.
Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) by DANB
A restorative functions dental assistant focuses on dental procedures like fillings, dentures, caps, and crowns. DANB's CRFDA certification is made up of four exams: Temporaries (TMP), Impressions (IM), Restorative Functions (RF) and Sealants (SE).
You must have your CDA or complete 3,500 hours of supervised, relevant work before you can take your CRFDA exam.
The total cost of all four exams is about $875.
Some states offer their own certification exams. States that have their own specific certification exams include Arizona, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Washington.
Paying for Dental Assistant Schooling or Training
Even the least expensive dental assistant programs typically cost at least a thousand dollars to complete. Fortunately, there are several different programs available that can help you pay for your dental assistant training:
- Scholarships. You don't necessarily have to have great grades to get a scholarship. Scholarships are available for minority groups, students who have faced hardship, athleticism, and leadership, and who simply have a need for financial aid. Scholarships are usually only available to students in degree programs.
- Grants. Similarly to scholarships, grants are usually only given to students attending college programs and seeking to earn a degree. You can apply for a grant by filling out the FAFSA. Grants are given based on income and expected family contribution and do not need to be paid back.
- Student loans. Students who do not qualify for enough scholarship or grant money may be able to take out a student loan. If you are attending a college program, you can apply for a student loan through FAFSA. If you need a loan for an online or certificate-only program, you may be able to apply for a student loan through a bank or other private institution.
- Employer sponsorship. Many employers are willing to reimburse their new dental assistants for the cost of their training and certification. This is especially true in states that require certification or licensing. If you hope to have your employer pay for your certification, make sure you make that clear before beginning employment.
Is it Possible to Get a Job With No Experience or Certification?
Depending on your state, you may be able to get a job with no dental assisting experience or certification. States like Utah and Wyoming do not have any requirements for dental assistants. However, even if you live in a state with no official requirements, most employers prefer to hire dental assistants with certifications.
Certifications not only look good on a resume but getting certified also helps you feel more prepared and will give you the training and tools you need to keep yourself and your patients safe.
If you want to start working with no experience or certification, you may have to be prepared to accept a lower starting salary and have a smaller scope of practice than your certified co-workers.
Dental Assistant Salary & Job Outlook
Dental assistants earn a decent salary and have a good job outlook. As of May 2022, dental assistants earn an average of $44,820 per year or $21.55 per hour. Growth for dental assistants is faster than average, with job opportunities expected to increase by 7% between 2023 and 3033.
Benefits of Becoming a Dental Assistant
For those who are debating whether or not it is worth it to become a dental assistant, here are some benefits of becoming a dental assistant to consider:
- Decent salary. Dental assistants earn $21.55 per hour on average. This is a better salary than many other entry-level healthcare jobs.
- Quick training. Some dental assistant training programs can be completed in as little as 12 weeks.
- Ability to help others. Being a dental assistant gives you the opportunity to help people maintain their help, and assistants play a big role in keeping nervous patients calm and comfortable during dental procedures.
- Good job security. Dental assistants are needed all over the country. From remote areas in rural communities to big cities, you'll always be able to find work as a dental assistant.
Skills Required to Become a Dental Assistant
While almost anyone can become a dental assistant with the right training and mindset, there are a few skills that make some people more suited for dental assisting than others. These skills include:
- Attention to detail
- Customer service
- Basic math
FAQs of Becoming a Dental Assistant
How long does it take to become a dental assistant?
It can take anywhere between 4 months to 2 years to become a dental assistant, depending on the type of training you choose, if any.
Do you need a certification to become a dental assistant?
You may need a certification to become a dental assistant depending on what state you live in. If you want to perform advanced duties like taking X-rays or assisting with fillings, you are more likely to need certification.
Do you need a degree to become a dental assistant?
While many schools offer associate degrees in dental assisting, you do not need a degree to become a dental assistant. In almost all cases, being certified is enough to get a job.
Do you need a license to become a dental assistant?
Some states require dental assistants to apply for and maintain their licenses. States that require licensure for dental assistants include; Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and South Dakota.
How much do dental assistant training programs cost?
Online dental assistant programs start around $1,000 and degree programs can cost up to $20,000. Most certification exams cost around $450.
Is it hard to become a dental assistant?
Becoming a dental assistant is not particularly hard. You will have to study for your certification test, but with a little bit of focus, it is an attainable goal.
What is the best dental assistant certification program?
The best dental assistant certification program is one that prepares you for the certification you need, is low-cost and can be completed fairly quickly. Many online certification programs meet all of these goals.
What is the average dental assistant salary?
As of 2023, dental assistants earn an average of $44,820 per year or $21.55 per hour.
What is the job outlook for dental assistants?
Job opportunities for dental assistants are expected to increase by 7% between 2023 and 2033 which is faster than the national average.
What are the continuing education requirements for dental assistants?
Dental assistants usually have to complete about 12 continuing education credits each year. For those with multiple certifications, that number increases to around 18 per year.
Is it worth it to become a dental assistant?
If enjoy working with people, are interested in a healthcare career, and want a job with a decent salary and job security, dental assisting is an excellent career choice. Finding an inexpensive training program makes dental assisting well worth the investment.