How to become

How To Become A Certified Dental Assistant

How To Become A Certified Dental Assistant


Are you interested in dentistry and passionate about helping people? Then a dental assistant career could be for you. Dental assistants work under the supervision of dentists performing a variety of tasks that help dentists carry out procedures and ensure the office runs smoothly. Dental assistants may assist dentists during procedures by preparing the working area, handing dentists requested tools, and suctioning patients’ mouths. They have excellent interpersonal, organizational and listening skills.

The procedures that dental assistants are allowed to perform on patients can vary by state. Some states allow only registered or certified dental assistants to take x rays or perform coronal polishing, for example.

Dental assistants may also sterilize tools and perform lab work such as x-ray processing or making casts of patients’ teeth. In addition to helping dentists prepare for and carry out dental procedures, dental assistants also take care of office tasks such as scheduling, billing, and record keeping.

They’re different, however, than dental hygienists. The biggest difference between the two is that dental hygienists have less supervision and work more frequently with patients.

Certified vs. Registered Dental Assistants: Differences and Similarities

Dentists hire many types of support staff to help them keep patients’ teeth clean and healthy. In many dental offices, dental assistants perform various administrative and support duties to keep the clinic operating smoothly. If you’re interested in becoming a dental assistant, it’s useful to understand what it means to be a registered or certified dental assistant. In this article, we discuss being a certified dental assistant versus a registered dental assistant and look at some differences and similarities between these two positions.

What is a certified dental assistant?

A certified dental assistant, or CDA, is a dental support specialist with current certification from the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). These assistants complete certification courses to help them understand how to take care of patients and perform organizational duties. They then take an exam to test the knowledge they learned through coursework and apply that knowledge to their job in dental assisting. Many CDAs have little prior experience before starting their courses, although some may work in entry-level positions as unlicensed and supervised dental assistants and take the certification exam using this experience.

What is a registered dental assistant?

A registered dental assistant, or RDA, works in a dental office to help operations run smoothly and has current licensure and registration for the state in which they work. Registered assistants study for state licensing exams to prove their abilities to help dentists complete their jobs and give patients better dental health. While some RDAs may have only entry-level experience in the field, some states require dental assistants to first become CDAs before they can pursue licensure. This means that RDAs may have slightly more responsibility and less supervision than CDAs in certain states.

Differences between certified dental assistant vs. registered dental assistant

There are a few differences between a certified dental assistant and a registered dental assistant title and the requirements for each. To help you better distinguish between these two qualifications, examine this list of differences:

Type of training

The training requirements for CDAs and RDAs differ slightly based on the state in which they work, but RDAs often have more varied and less predictable training and education requirements than CDAs. Most RDAs need to take classes, which can last around a year, and pass a state exam, but they may not take the same coursework or complete the same training programs as dental assistants in other states.

For CDAs, however, the training requirements are always the same because the CDA certification comes from a national board, the DANB. This means the educational or experience requirements for a certified assistant are the same across all states that accept this credential, so most assistants with this title have the same skill and knowledge base.

Professional credentials

One of the biggest differences between a CDA and an RDA is the type of professional credentials each role requires. A CDA may only have national certification and, sometimes, certification in a specialized area, like orthodontics or preventive dentistry. Certifications are useful for dental assistants who want to work in multiple states and transfer their credentials, but some states may require further licensing even with this credential.

The credentials for an RDA often include state licensure and, in many cases, national certification. However, unlike national certification that covers nationwide regulations and knowledge, state-specific licensure allows states to regulate their dental assistants’ knowledge and abilities. This is useful because RDAs can ensure they understand how to work effectively while following their local regulations and providing patients with quality service.

State requirements

Requirements and titles for all dental assistants often differ by state, but there are some common differences between CDAs and RDAs in many locations. For example, an RDA can work in the state in which they’re licensed, but not all states require licensure. This means that some states may have no registered dental assistants, while others require licensing and registration before a dental assistant can perform certain duties. Some states also require RDAs to first become CDAs, while others require only coursework and passing an exam.

CDAs can practice in any state that accepts the dental assisting certification, which makes this credential more easily transferable to different areas. Since the DANB is a national board, states can’t create specific requirements for a dental assistant to get certified, but they may require additional training in radiography and other areas before a CDA can work.

Time to start a career

Since the requirements for RDAs and CDAs are so different, they have different timelines for how quickly you can start working in these roles. For CDAs, the specific requirements from the DANB include completing a CODA-accredited program on dental assisting, which can take up to two years or 3,500 hours of supervised work experience in the field. Since some states only hire dental assistants with a minimum certification, coursework is typically a common option for this credential. This means CDAs may not work using this credential until two years after starting their training.

An RDA’s path to starting their career often takes even longer, especially if their state requires previous certification. The basic requirements in many states include at least a year of educational courses with a hands-on curriculum or around three years of previous experience in a role supervised by a registered dental assisting professional. While it may take longer for RDAs to finish their requirements and receive their credential, they can also continue working during this time as a CDA or unlicensed dental assistant.

Authority level

Many state dental boards consider RDAs higher-level employees than CDAs. This means that RDAs may be the highest level of career growth that dental assistants can achieve in the industry. While this isn’t true for all states, RDAs may have more responsibility and authority than CDAs in the same dental clinics. In states that hire both RDAs and CDAs, an RDA may have more opportunities to become office managers or assign duties to other dental assistants because of their advanced education and experience.

Most times, the CDA credential is the basic requirement for a dental assistant job. While some states hire unlicensed dental assistants or allow interns without certification, many states hire CDAs as entry-level assistants. In these roles, certified assistants might perform more administrative tasks than RDAs and may report to a more experienced dental assistant as their supervisor along with the dentists in their clinic.

Similarities between certified dental assistant vs. registered dental assistant

Jobs for CDAs and RDAs have many similarities, including:

Primary duties

The primary duties of both registered and certified dental assistants are often similar, which is especially true in states that don’t differentiate between these two credentials. Both CDAs and RDAs help dentists care for patients in the treatment room and through administrative tasks. Unlike dental hygienists, most dental assistants don’t perform actual cleanings on patients but support the dentist during cleanings by performing other important tasks. The specific duties that CDAs and RDAs share are:

  • Cleaning tools and handing them to dentists
  • Ordering and organizing supplies
  • Scheduling patient appointments
  • Completing dental X-rays
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Billing patients or insurance
  • Performing basic cleaning tasks, like taking out the trash

Work environment

Dental assistants typically work in the same types of environments, which include adult or pediatric dental clinics and, sometimes, hospital dental departments. CDAs and RDAs perform their work indoors in office settings, either at the front desk or in treatment rooms with the dentist who employs them. A typical dental clinic is a clean and comfortable space that makes customers feel welcome. There is often no difference between the type of clinic a certified assistant may work in compared to that of a registered assistant.


Since dental assistants have similar duties, they also share many skills that help them complete their work, including:

  • Being detail-oriented: Seeing the details of a situation allows RDAs and CDAs to notice errors in patient records, possible challenges a dentist may face with a patient’s dental health and other important elements that could affect a clinic’s ability to care for patients.
  • Patience: Patience is a valuable skill for dental assistants because their work requires interacting with people who may be hesitant about dental care or have multiple questions for the assistant to answer to make them more comfortable.
  • People skills: It’s often necessary for dental assistants to have good people skills so they can interact more effectively with patients and communicate well with the other dental professionals on their team.
  • Organized: Staying organized allows registered and certified dental assistants to keep accurate records and make sure all dental equipment is clean and fully stocked.
  • Focused: Focus and concentration on specific tasks help RDAs and CDAs complete their work with fewer errors, which is especially important when billing patients or their insurance and updating patient records.

Maintaining credentials

Whether a dental assistant has a license or certification, they need to maintain their credentials to ensure they can continue working in these roles. The requirements differ for each state license and for DANB certification, but dental assistants typically need to continue education or training and renew their credential every few years through the board with which they originally applied. Doing this shows employers that RDAs and CDAs are up to date with their credentials and have the most recent information about dental assisting.

Knowledge base

Certified dental assistants and registered dental assistants have a shared knowledge base because they need to know the same information to perform their jobs well at any level. While RDAs typically have more advanced training and education requirements, they still learn the same concepts as CDAs and both assistants further develop their knowledge while working in a clinic. Some basic areas of dental assisting both types of assistants might know include basic dental anatomy, radiography and how to use administrative software.

What does a dental assistant do?

The daily responsibilities of dental assistants can vary depending on where they are employed. Dental assistants typically organize and prep the tools and equipment that dentists use during procedures. Assistants also aid in tasks such as patient care and office administration. 

Common tasks a dental assistant may perform include:

  • Educate patients on proper oral hygiene
  • Preparing, cleaning and sanitizing dental equipment and tools
  • Providing patient care and assistance before, during and after dental procedures
  • Assisting dentist in performing laboratory tasks and procedures, such as taking and reading X-rays
  • Maintaining and organizing patient records and information about dental procedures
  • Scheduling patient cleanings, treatments and procedures

How to become a dental assistant

There are several steps you can take to become a dental assistant, including certification courses and professional education. Many technical and vocational schools offer training programs that you can complete in less than a year. Obtaining an associate degree in dental assistance can give you a competitive advantage when looking for a job, as well as prepare you for further education. Here are some steps to follow to become a dental assistant:

1. Enroll in a dental assistant educational program

In order to become a dental assistant, you must first complete a dental assistant program. Typically, such programs are offered through community colleges, vocational and technical institutes or dental schools. Programs range in length from nine to 11 months and cover a variety of topics such as anatomy and physiology, microbiology, dental science, dental radiology, dental head and neck anatomy and several other specialty courses that focus on the practices of dentistry.

2. Complete an externship

Education programs for dental assistant students may offer an externship program in addition to coursework. Dental assistants receive on-the-job training through an externship or clinical service to help them develop their skills. This type of professional development training may sometimes be a requirement for working in a dental office. Students who participate in externships gain valuable work experience that can help develop their careers, as well as give them opportunities to apply what they’ve learned. 

3. Obtain your certification

Upon completion of a dental assistant program, prospective assistants can take the Certified Dental Assistant exam, Certified Orthodontic Assistant exam or the Expanded Functions Dental Assistant exams. Each exam is offered through the Dental Assisting National Board. You may decide to complete all three exams to widen your skill set.

4. Apply for open positions

Once you have obtained at least the level of certified dental assistant, you may start applying to jobs that fit your career goals. Be sure to review and format both your resume and cover letter and then start submitting applications. As you advance in your career, you may find opportunities for further professional development and continuing education.

5. Advance your career by specializing

Some of the certifications open to dental assistants are for specialty fields that require specific skills. Orthodontics and oral surgery are two fields open to assistants who choose to specialize beyond general dentistry. Also, dental assistants who have obtained an associate degree have the option of pursuing their bachelor’s degree, and further down the line can even become a dentist themselves, should this career interest them. 

Essential Skills for a Dental assistant

A highly skilled dental assistant is an essential member of any dental healthcare team. Dental assisting is a profession that needs integrity, personal responsibility, dedication and a commitment to continuous learning. A dental assistant studies dentistry techniques and performs general office duties, including a range of patient care and laboratory duties.

Dental assistants are required to carry out a variety of tasks. Dental assistant training and certification programs can help develop the required skills of the job. Skills may vary, but typically include:

1. Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills allow people to interact with others. This is an essential quality if you want to work in a dental assisting field. Dental assistants operate closely with dentists and patients. Sometimes, patients might be in pain or stressed, so you may need to be sensitive to the emotions of those around you.

As a dental assistant, you may also interact with people from all backgrounds and circumstances. Adaptable communication is essential to ensure dental office care quality. You may need to tell patients what to expect throughout their appointment. Also, you may act as a link between patients and a dentist, so your communication skills should be exceptional.

2. Listening skills

As a dental assistant, be prepared to listen to patients and other healthcare employees. Dental assistants follow directions from a dental hygienist or dentist to help treat patients and perform tasks, such as processing an X-ray. To be an effective listener, a dental assistant needs to face the patient and maintain eye contact. They can also provide regular feedback to understand better what the patient or dentist is speaking about.

3. Strong organization skills

The dentist’s office setting is fast-paced and ever-changing. As a dental assistant, you will need to be prepared as you may have many responsibilities. Excellent dental assistants demonstrate their preparedness by remaining incredibly organized. From patient schedules to paperwork and examination room preparation, there are several ways organization skills can help you be successful, such as:

  • Maintaining accurate patient information
  • Keeping patient records in the right place
  • Ensuring dental materials and equipment are in the proper place

Organization skills can ensure you remain focused and help keep the office operating smoothly and according to schedule.

4. Detail-oriented personality

Attention to detail is a vital trait in ensuring a patient’s comfort and safety in the office. A detail-oriented person can pay attention and concentrate on the important details. There are advantages to being detail-oriented, such as:

  • Identifying whether your patient is nervous or in pain
  • Recording patient details
  • Ensuring proper sterilization and storage of dental equipment and materials
  • Making sure all tasks are complete

5. Excellent Communication skills

Communication is vital in any workplace, especially in a dental office setting. For the smooth running of schedules, you may require continuous contact with the rest of the team. You may also serve as a link between different parties which requires effective communication. Communication with patients is a critical aspect of the job. Dental assistants should be effective communicators and compassionate when working with patients and office staff. Excellent communication skills are in order when:

  • Describing complex subjects in a simple way, for instance, insurance and billing
  • Explaining dental care instructions
  • Speaking face-to-face or over the phone
  • Starting conversations with patients
  • Defining patient status, change in the daily schedule or room availability

6. Professionalism

Dental assistants’ image can affect the patient’s satisfaction. The way the dental assistant appears can reflect on the dental office. Being professional means:

  • Taking your work seriously
  • Getting to work on time
  • Having a good attitude
  • Dressing properly

7. Excellent dexterity skills

Dental assistants need to work with their hands to help dentists or dental hygienists during procedures. Having excellent dexterity can allow you to use dental tools and equipment during exams. This skill may also help you with administrative tasks such as typing.

8. Basic computer knowledge

Knowledge of computers and average keyboarding speed are some essentials for succeeding as a dental assistant. It enhances your work when maintaining a patient’s records, transcribing notes or insurance claims.

9. Compassion and empathy

An excellent dental assistant needs to care for each patient and make them feel comfortable during their appointment. A patient who is nervous about the dental procedure can highly appreciate an assistant who comforts them while describing what will happen in clear and simple terms.

10. Administrative skills

Dental assistants spend most of their time completing office work, such as scheduling appointments, maintaining patients’ files and answering phones. Attention to detail, proper time management and understanding basic medical files systems and technology is also important.

11. Teamwork 

Dental assistants work with dentists, office receptionists, technology specialists and patients. Teamwork is a necessary component of dentistry work and dental assistants should be both comfortable and motivated working as part of a team.

12. Continuous learning

As a dental assistant, you might require advancing with new dental techniques and technology. Dental assistants constantly need to learn new skills and gain knowledge regarding examination procedures.

13. Following strict instructions

A huge part of a dental assistant’s work is to follow protocols. Each dentist may have their protocol, but every dental office will require infection control. Keeping the dental office sterilized, sanitized and tidy is a crucial part of the dental assistant’s work. Besides, dental assistants need to adhere to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA’s) patient information privacy. The assistant should keep all information confidential and adhere to safety protocols.

14. Multitasking ability

Dental assistants have several work duties. They assist patients in a dental chair, help the dentist during procedures and sterilize tools and equipment. All these dental assistant’s duties require multitasking ability.

15. Quick problem-solver

Dental healthcare centers are usually fast-paced settings. Patients may come in regularly, filling most of the day. The workday pace needs the assistant to think decisively, process information, decide and implement the instructions immediately.

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

16. Positive attitude

Dental assisting is patient-based work. Together with enjoying interpersonal relationships, a positive attitude can take you further into this career. Dental patients are not always excited to be in dental health. The ability to turn a patient’s unpleasant experience into a positive one is a habit that successful dental assistants employ.

17. Technical skills

A dental assistant needs to understand dental medicines and predict the sequence of tasks in complex dental procedures. A dental assistant should also be able to:

  • Process X-rays
  • Prepare dental materials
  • Disinfect tools and rooms
  • Maintain equipment
  • Take dental impressions

All these duties need attention to details, critical thinking and sound judgment skills.

Dental assistants schedule appointments, record patient data and maintain records often with the aid of computer software. Therefore, assistants may be required to be proficient with spreadsheets, record keeping and appointment-setting software.

Dental assistant work environment

Most dental assistants work a standard workweek, which can sometimes include evenings or weekends. Dentist offices must be clean environments, and assistants can expect to adhere to safety and health policies by keeping the treatment area clean, as well as following appropriate protocol for handling and disposing of materials that might pose a potential health hazard.

Assistants often work with X-ray equipment and should have the appropriate radiology certification to do so. Dental assistants also spend much of their time sitting while assisting the dentist in the exam room during procedures and while administering treatments.

Average salary and job outlook For Dental Assistant

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the career outlook for dental assistants to grow by 11% between 2020 and 2030. About 44,000 openings for dental assistants are projected for each year. Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or retire.

The average base salary for the role is $63,302 per year. Dental assistants usually work full-time and their salaries depend upon their experience and the size, type and location of the organization in which they work.

Career Benefits for Dental Assistant

Dental assistants are critical members of dental care teams and enjoy many career benefits. In fact, the American Dental Association (ADA) notes the following advantages of dental assistant careers5:

  • Variety: Dental assistants must be versatile and willing to take on different tasks.
  • Flexibility: Dental assistants enjoy the career flexibility of being able to pursue full- or part-time positions.
  • Superior working conditions: As a dental assistant, you’ll work in a clean, pleasant, people-oriented environment.
  • Personal satisfaction: Dental assistants can gain personal satisfaction from helping patients through their one-on-one interactions.

Highest-Paying Cities for Dental Assistants

Now that we’ve covered the top states, let’s delve into the U.S. cities with the best salaries for Dental Assistants (BLS).

CityDental Assistant Hourly SalaryDental Assistant Annual Salary
Santa Rosa, CA$28.16$58,570
Minneapolis, MN$27.04$56,240
Vallejo, CA$26.23$54,550
San Jose, CA$26.08$54,250
Bismarck, ND$25.77$53,600
San Francisco, CA$25.72$53,510
Boston, MA$25.60$53,250
San Luis Obispo, CA$25.52$53,080
Santa Maria, CA$25.22$52,460
Rochester, MN$25.10$52,210
FAQs, about dental assistant 

Is the dental assistant test hard?

The CDA exam offered by the DANB is the most difficult test they have ever taken.

What education is required to be a dental assistant?

Passed a licensing test and graduated from an accredited programme.

How do I become a CDA in NJ?

Successfully passed the Dental Assisting National Board’s Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination (DANB).

Does Florida require dental assistants to be certified?

Dental assistants cannot be licensed in Florida.

How to become a dental assistant salary?

The average yearly wage for dental assistants was $41,180.

Certified dental assistant salary

A Certified Dental Assistant makes an annual salary total of $42,552.

Certified dental assistant exam

DANB’s CDA certifications are the Infection Control (ICE), Radiation Health and Safety (RHS), and General Chairside Assisting exams (GC).

Certified dental assistant vs registered dental assistant 

The Dental Assisting National Board offers a national certification called Certified Dental Assistant and To become a registered dental assistant, dental assistants must fulfil state-specific standards.

How to become a dental assistant fast?

Completing a one- or two-year dental assistant course at a community college or vocational institution.

Dental assistant certificate online

There are numerous dental assistance programmes available online that you can join.