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Dental Assistant Training: Learn How to Become a Dental Assistant

Gayle Morris, BSN, MSN
Updated July 20, 2023
The demand for dental assistants is growing faster than average. Find out how to begin this rewarding career.
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Are you looking for a new career? You may be interested to know that dental assistants have a strong work/life balance and are part of a unique family of healthcare professionals who develop long-lasting relationships with their patients.

Dental assistant programs prepare a candidate to help patients restore their oral health and develop a care program to prevent future problems. Dental assisting positions are expected to grow by 11% from 2020-2030.

This guide explores what dental assistants do each day and the steps needed to enroll in a dental assistant program. Read more about how to become a dental assistant and step into this fast-growing career in healthcare.

What Is a Dental Assistant?

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, dental assistants are not the same as dental hygienists. A hygienist does regular cleanings and teaches patients about good oral care. A dental assistant handles a wider range of dental care tasks.

The duties include assisting during dental procedures, taking X-rays, and serving as the infection control officer in a practice. A dental assistant may also teach patients about good oral care and nutrition to support their dental health.

Dental assistants take impressions for models of the teeth and may be responsible for administrative and office management tasks. This can include scheduling appointments, billing, or ordering supplies.

Since the position is in demand, dental assistants may choose full- or part-time work. This offers work flexibility to help meet life’s demands outside of work.

The work environment varies each day and dental assistants work under excellent conditions. The role offers the personal satisfaction of helping patients improve their oral health.

Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

The steps toward becoming a dental assistant varies by state. Many states require formal education in dental assistant programs, but others accept on-the-job training.

Some states, such as North Carolina, have different requirements for various levels of practice. Dental assistants may also be certified and licensed in their state. California recognizes unlicensed and licensed dental assistants.

Additionally, candidates who have not attended a formal program can be licensed when they have 15 months and 1,280 hours of work experience. In this section, you can find general requirements for education and certification for dental assistants. Candidates should determine the requirements for their practice state at the Dental Assisting National Board website.

  1. 1

    Enroll in a Dental Assistant Program

    There are two types of dental assistant programs. The first is a certificate program (CCL), which a candidate may complete using one of three options. The educational option takes up to 11 months. The associate of applied science (AAS) path is a two-year program. Admission requirements vary but often include high school transcripts and a placement examination.

  2. 2

    Graduate With Your CCL or AAS in Dental Assisting

    Students who choose to complete a CCL can enroll in an in-person or online program. Courses are generally available at community colleges, dental schools, and vocational schools.

    Coursework includes the basic tasks a candidate needs to be successful. AAS coursework includes these tasks and information to support an expanded role. Not all programs are accredited. However, to take the certification examination, a student must have graduated from an accredited program.

  3. 3

    Become a Licensed or Certified Dental Assistant, If Required

    The state requirement for licensure, certification, or registration varies across the United States. Licensed dental assistants must have graduated from an accredited program, passed the certified dental assistant examination, have at least two years experience, and pay the applicable fees. There are three component tests for the certification examination. To qualify, a candidate must have graduated from an accredited program or have a minimum of 3,500 hours of work experience.

  4. 4

    Find Employment

    The dental assistant field continues to grow. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) anticipates the addition of 36,900 jobs between 2020 and 2030, much faster than average for all occupations. While certification may not be mandatory in your state, it can make you a more desirable candidate for employment.

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Dental Assistant Education

Formal education is required in most, but not all, states. Some dental assistants can gain experience through on-the-job training or in the military. Dental assistants without a formal degree can earn certification. However, states that require licensure to practice also require dental assistants to have graduated from an accredited AAS program.

Dental Assistant Licensure and Certification

The Dental Practice Act in the state where you work dictates the requirements and responsibilities of a dental assistant. The American Association of Dental Assistants is working toward standardized credentialing and education across the U.S. to validate competency.

To date, each state determines the requirements for licensure or certification. States may also require registration and include various levels, depending on the duties and responsibilities of the dental assistant.

At this time, each state’s Board of Dental Examiners determines the functions a dental assistant can perform, and the training, registration, certification, and licensure necessary.

Dental assistants must meet entry-level requirements in their state to practice. Each state may refer to this entry-level position differently. For example, in California, the position is called an “unlicensed dental assistant,” while in Iowa, they are “dental assistant trainees.”

Requirements for licensure may also vary by state, and states may administer individual examinations, as they do in California where candidates must pass the Registered Dental Assistant Examination.

The Dental Assisting National Board offers a Certified Dental Assistant certification. There are three parts to the test. Only one part has eligibility requirements, and a candidate may meet them in one of three ways:

  • Graduating from an accredited program
  • High school or GED diploma and a minimum of 3,500 hours of approved work experience
  • Lapsed certification or graduating from an approved program outside the U.S. or Canada

All candidates must have current CPR, BLS, or ACLS certification from an accepted provider. Certification must be renewed each year. Dental assistants must earn Continuing Dental Education credits each year, maintain a DANB-accepted CPR certification and submit an annual renewal fee.

Working as a Dental Assistant

Dental offices employ the majority of dental assistants in the workforce. However, according to the BLS, 2% of dental assistants work in physician offices and 2% work for the government.

The median annual salary for dental assistants in these areas is $38,000 in physician offices, $38,500 in dental offices, and $46,090 in government positions.

Dental assistants with job experience may have a greater potential of finding a job after graduation. Consider volunteering or working through a temporary agency to build your skills and references.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Dental Assistant

question-mark-circleWhat is the difference between a certificate and a degree for dental assistants?

A degree is a formal education through a university, college, or vocational school. Graduates are eligible to take the certification examination and can become licensed in states that require licensure. Dental assistants may also take the certification examination with a high school or GED diploma and 3,500 hours of work experience. However, certification alone is not enough to make a dental assistant eligible for licensure in states that require a license to practice.

question-mark-circleIs a degree required to become a dental assistant?

This depends on the state. The American Association of Dental Assistants is working to standardize credentialing across the U.S. to validate a dental assistant’s knowledge and expertise. At this time, the requirements to practice in the state are determined by the state’s Dental Practice Act and the Board of Dental Examiners.

question-mark-circleHow long does it take to become a dental assistant?

Depending on where you live, you may be able to get a job directly out of high school and acquire 3,500 hours of paid on-the-job training and work experience. Dental assistant candidates living in states that require formal education may complete a two-year degree.

question-mark-circleCan you become a dental assistant online?

There are several online programs that offer either a certificate or associate degree. The certificate programs can be completed in 5-11 months, and an associate program may take up to two years, although some programs offer an accelerated option.

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