Getting Started Healthcare

6 Steps to Becoming a Dental Assistant

Written by Miranda Pennington

If you’ve had a dental appointment recently, odds are a dental assistant helped you schedule the appointment, took your X-rays, explained your procedure, and, behind the scenes, sterilized instruments, ordered supplies, prepared the instrument trays, and maintained your treatment records!

DAs need to have excellent communication skills in order to set people at ease. They must also be organized, proficient writers, and prepared for the rigors of a full-time job that may require some evening hours.

So how do you get there?

Step 1: High School Preparation

Whether you’re reading this as a high school student or as a graduate with some holes in your coursework to fill, you should make sure you have the basics covered: Science classes, Communication and writing courses, and Business management classes will all help prepare you.

Step 2: Get Dental Assisting Training

  • Dental Assistant Certificate Program: 3 months – 1 year
  • Dental Assistant Associate’s Degree program: 2 years

Step 3: Complete an Externship (Optional)

This can be a great way to get your feet wet on the job and to find out if you like the work and the responsibilities you’d have if you went pro. Externships also give you the opportunity to develop a speciality within dentistry, like orthodontics, pediatrics, or prosthodontics.

Step 4: Get Licensed

While the requirements vary from state to state, the most common ones are 1) completion of an accredited postsecondary educational program and 2) successfully completion of a practical or written exam.

Step 5: Get a Certification

Since requirements vary from state to state, there are a variety of certification options you can pursue. They all require different investments of time and money, so you should explore each of them and see which one is right for you.

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA™)
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant (COA®)
  • Certified Dental Assistant™ (CDA®)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA®)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA®)

Step 6: Advance Your Career (Optional)

Consider joining an association or pursuing additional certifications that will boost your profile as a dental assistant. You can also apply your existing credits and time logged towards a dental hygienist degree if you’re interested in moving onwards and upwards.

 How to Become a Dental Assistant


About the author

Miranda Pennington

Miranda K. Pennington is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared on The Toast, The American Scholar, and the Ploughshares Writing Blog. She currently teaches creative nonfiction for Uptown Stories, a Morningside Heights nonprofit organization. She has an MFA from Columbia University, where she has also taught in the University Writing program and consulted in the Writing Center.