How To Become a Dental Assistant in 5 Steps

Updated April 28, 2023

Well-trained dental assistants help with dental procedures, work on administrative tasks and communicate dental care tips for brushing and flossing to patients. In this article, we explain what dental assistants do and the steps to becoming one, plus answer some common questions about the profession including average salary.

What does a dental assistant do?

A dental assistant prepares patients for dental procedures or appointments with a dentist. They’re often the first person a patient encounters during an appointment for dental care or cleaning.

A dental assistant’s responsibilities typically include:

  • Scheduling appointments

  • Preparing examination rooms

  • Preparing patients for treatment

  • Assisting the dentist during procedures

  • Making tooth impressions

  • Providing oral hygiene supplies and informational materials

  • Sterilizing equipment

  • Developing X-rays

  • Teaching patients how to floss and brush

If a patient is in surgery, the dental assistant gives the surgeon equipment and helps patients with mouth rinsing. Overall, dental assistants ensure operations proceed smoothly as the dentist treats patients.

Read more: Learn About Being a Dental Assistant

How to become a dental assistant

The following steps will help you get ready for a career as a dental assistant:

1. Complete a dental assistant program

Dental assistant programs are usually available through a local vocational school or community college. Look for one accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). A high school diploma or GED is required, but additional education and training varies by state.

The dental assistant program will take one to two years to complete depending on whether you get a certificate or an associate degree. Coursework includes classroom and laboratory work to learn about teeth, gums, dental instruments, CPR and other related instruction.

You might also consider enrolling in an externship before you go into the workforce. This can be integrated into your dental assistant program or completed on your own to learn more about specialties like orthodontics or restorative care.

Related: Orthodontic Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: What's the Difference?

2. Get certificated and/or licensed

Once you finish your education, you can proceed to earn a state license to become a dental assistant. Check with your state's dental board or the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) on the requirements you need for certification.

In some states, you'll have to take a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) exam administered by the DANB, containing 320 questions on three topics: general chairside assisting, radiation health and infection control.

If you want to work within a dental specialty, you should consider seeking additional DANB certification. Some available certifications, with exam focus areas, include:

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA): Anatomy, morphology and physiology, plus infection control and radiation health

  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA): Orthodontic assisting and infection control

  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA): Coronal polishing, sealants and topical fluoride

  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA): Impressions, sealants, temporaries and restorative functions

  • Registered Dental Assistant (RDA): State-specific knowledge and abilities

4. Obtain a job

Apply for entry-level dental assistant positions and highlight your educational experience, plus any externship or volunteer experience. Prepare a resume that showcases your familiarity with the professional setting, terminology, tools, patient relationships and workflows.

Read more: How To Write an Entry-Level Dental Assistant Resume

5. Consider an advanced degree

Once you've worked for a couple of years as a dental assistant, consider getting a bachelor's degree in dental hygiene to improve your chances of higher pay or a promotion. You should be able to transfer credits and put them toward a bachelor's in dental hygiene or another related discipline of your choice.

Read more: ​​​​How Long Does It Take to Become a Dental Hygienist?

Dental assistant FAQs

Here are answers to some common questions about becoming a dental assistant:

How much do dental assistants make per hour?

The average salary for dental assistants in the United States is $18.88 per hour or $62,321 per year, but may vary depending on the size of the dental practice, your experience and your geographical location. Dental hygienists, meanwhile, make an average of $39.78 per hour or $82,338 per year. For the most up-to-date salaries from Indeed, click on the links provided.

Related: How Much Does a Dental Assistant Get Paid? Top 20 Cities for Dental Assistant Salaries

What’s the job outlook for dental assistants?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 11% employment increase for dental assistants between 2020 and 2030, which is faster than average for other occupations. Growth factors include an aging population, increased awareness of preventive dental care and ongoing research linking oral health and general health.

Is becoming a dental assistant easy?

Becoming a dental assistant doesn’t require an associate or bachelor’s degree, unlike many other career paths. You’ll need a high school diploma or GED and to complete a one- or two-year dental assistant program at a vocational school or community college. Becoming a dental assistant also requires you to volunteer or complete an externship. An externship may be part of the dental assistant program you enroll in, so make sure you confirm before enrolling.

What skills do I need as a dental assistant?

In addition to technical training, dental assistants need soft skills to interact with other staff and patients. Some of those skills include:

  • Interpersonal skills: Interpersonal skills are used to interact with people around you, including your colleagues and employers. These skills are important in all roles but especially in jobs where you work closely with others, including patients.

  • Communication skills: Communication is a key skill for employees as it ensures effective teamwork, creates a more positive environment and helps solve issues. Besides, dental assistants need to adhere to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for patient information privacy. You should keep all information confidential and adhere to safety protocols.

  • Time management skills: Dental assistants have several work duties that may require time management or multitasking, such as assisting patients in a dental chair, helping the dentist during procedures and sterilizing tools and equipment.

  • Problem-solving skills: Reading X-rays, providing treatment and offering assistance to patients during procedures may sometimes present problems like an unexpected cavity or dental emergency. Dental assistants should possess superior problem-solving skills in helping to identify and solve any issues that may arise.

Read more: 17 Essential Skills for a Dental Assistant

Where do dental assistants work?

There are a variety of settings where dental assistants are needed, including:

  • Private dental practices

  • Specialty practices, such as oral surgery and orthodontics

  • Public health program sites, such as clinics and schools

  • Hospital dental clinics

  • Dental school clinics

Related: Dental Assisting Interview Questions and Example Answers

Related dental care careers

If you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant, there are some other roles you may want to consider as well:

  • Dental receptionist

  • Dental office manager

  • Dental laboratory technician

  • Dental hygienist

  • Oral surgery assistant

  • Orthodontic assistant

  • Dentist

Related Articles

Orthodontic Assistant vs. Dental Assistant: What's the Difference?

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