Learn About Being a Dental Assistant

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

What does a dental assistant do?

Dental assistants are healthcare professionals who assist dentists in completing all dental-related tasks, including examining, cleaning and repairing teeth. A dental assistant may have the following responsibilities:

  • Check patients in, take a medical history and ensure they are comfortable before beginning the dental procedure

  • Assist with taking X-rays of teeth

  • Assist with dental procedures like fillings, extracting and making molds of teeth

  • Use dental tools to clean patient’s teeth

  • Check patients out and give them follow-up instructions

Average salary

Although many dental assistants work in a full-time position, some may work part-time. The expected average salary of a dental assistant varies depending on geographical location, experience and certifications. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $17.97 per hour

  • Some salaries range from $7.25 to $33.15 per hour.

Dental assistant requirements

There are a few educational and experience requirements to become a dental assistant, which include:

Education

Dental assistants must have a high school diploma and complete a technical dental program before working with patients. The program may be offered at the certificate or associate’s degree level and will include coursework in anatomy, biology, chemistry and a supervised dental practicum. The practicum is an important part of the educational requirements, as it gives aspiring dental assistants direct experience in the dental industry.

Training

Many dental assistants will receive the majority of their training in their technical degree program and practicum experience. During the practicum experience, you can expect to observe and interact with patients, learning about the different dental tools and how to properly use them. Once you complete your educational requirements, you may still receive on-the-job training working as an entry-level dental assistant.

Certifications

Certifications are not usually a requirement to work as an entry-level dental assistant. However, dental assistants who want to work with specialized equipment or in a more experienced role may need certification. Certifications available in the dental assistant industry include:

National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)

The NELDA certification is ideal for entry-level dental assistants who want to become certified right after completing their technical program. Interested candidates must successfully pass all three components of the exam, which include anatomy, morphology and physiology, infection control and radiation health and safety.

Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

The CDA is available through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) and is an ideal certification for dental assistants who want to be nationally certified. You are eligible for the certification once you complete an accredited program in dental assisting and have a minimum of two years of experience in a dental assistant role.

Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA) Certification

The COA certification is a good choice for dental assistants who want to work in an orthodontics office. To earn the certification, you will need to complete a two-year program, earn the CDA certification and then successfully pass the COA exam.

Certified Preventative Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)

The CPFDA certification is ideal for dental assistants who want to complete preventative tasks on their own, such as dental cleanings and fillings. The exam covers topics in polishing, sealants, topical anesthetics and topical fluorides. There are no prerequisites, but interested candidates must successfully pass the exam.

Skills

Some soft and hard skills will assist a dental assistant in their role, including:

  • Communication: Both verbal and nonverbal communication skills are important as a dental assistant. The dental assistant will use verbal communication skills to learn about a patient’s medical history and to recommend dental treatments. The assistant may also use nonverbal cues to assist the dentist or to recognize patient discomfort.

  • Organization: It is the responsibility of the dental assistant to maintain and organize all dental equipment. Strong organizational skills will assist the dental assistant in ensuring that the dentist has all of the necessary tools to complete a dental procedure.

  • Dexterity: The ability to accurately and calmly work with the hands is crucial as a dental assistant. Assistants will often handle tools, either handing them to the dentist or using them to assist with dental tasks.

  • Reporting: The dental assistant is often the first contact the patient has, so reporting skills are important. It is the responsibility of the dental assistant to collect medical records and understand dental needs.  Strongly developed reporting skills are also important to record details in the medical file and inform the dentist of any dental concerns.

Dental assistant work environment

The typical work environment for a dental assistant is in a dental office, working closely with the dentist. Dental assistants can expect the following work environment characteristics:

  • Frequent use of dental tools and equipment

  • Regular contact and communication with patients

  • Majority of the workday spent sitting, evaluating the patient’s teeth and mouth

  • Exposure to radiation occasionally

Many dental assistants can expect a typical workday, but some may be expected to work evenings and weekends. Dental assistants can expect to work a similar schedule to the dentist. The day-to-day duties of the dental assistant will vary, depending on each patient and their healthcare needs, but the majority of tasks will include direct contact with patients.

How to become a dental assistant

Becoming a dental assistant requires that you complete certain educational and experience requirements. You can become a dental assistant with the following steps:

  1. Attend a dental assisting technical program: The first step toward becoming a dental assistant is to enroll and complete a dental assisting technical program. Make sure you choose an accredited program and take advantage of any practicum experiences that will allow you to begin developing important dental assistant skills.

  2. Apply for certification: Some aspiring dental assistants may choose to become certified before finding a job. Certifications can make you a more competitive candidate and demonstrate your dedication to the industry. Other assistants might choose to earn industry experience before applying for a dental certification.

  3. Prepare your resume: After completing all educational and certification requirements, it is time to prepare your resume for your upcoming job search. Include all relevant education and experience that relates to the dental assisting industry. Create a new cover letter with each application so you can highlight the specific experiences and skills that are required for that position.

  4. Apply for dental assistant positions: Carefully evaluate the job description of each open dental assistant position to understand its minimum education and certification requirements. Choose the positions that you are the most qualified for and use the interview to demonstrate why you are a good fit for the position.

Dental assistant job description example

Hollman Dental Clinic is looking for an entry-level dental assistant to join our private practice. The ideal candidate will have a minimum of two years of experience in a dental assisting role. Strong communication and dexterity skills are a requirement, as the candidate will work closely with the resident dentist, assisting them in each of their daily dental procedures. A technical certificate from an accredited college, as well as a National Entry Level Dental Assistant Certification, is required for this position. This opening is for a full-time position with some evening and weekend hours required.

Related careers

  • Dental hygienist

  • Practice manager

  • Nursing assistant

  • Dental manager

Explore more articles

  • Learn About Being a Nuclear Engineer
  • Learn About Being a Caseworker
  • Learn About Being a Front-End Developer
  • Learn About Being a Software Developer
  • Learn About Being a Journalist
  • Learn About Being a Desktop Support Specialist
  • Learn About Being a Pathology Assistant
  • Learn About Being a Medical Receptionist
  • Learn About Being a Property Manager
  • Learn About Being a Petroleum Engineer
  • Learn About Being an Orthopedic Surgeon
  • Learn About Being a Preschool Teacher