How to Become a Certified Dental Assistant

how to become a certified dental assistant

If you want to help people look their best all while staying healthy by promoting dental care, you may be wondering how to become a certified as a dental assistant. The answer depends on both your personal education choices and your long term goals, so here’s a brief rundown on the basic process for becoming a dental assistant and earning your certification.

Getting Your Dental Assistant Education

First, you should decide on your long term goals. If you’re pretty sure becoming a certified dental assistant is where you want to be in life, and you don’t want to advance into other areas later on, then you might consider a shorter, more focused program, such as one offered by a technical school or community college. These typically take between nine and 11 months to complete and usually involve some clinical time so you’ll have a bit of experience with real-life work situations when you’re through.

If your long term goal is to become a dental hygienist or another higher-level dental career, you should consider a longer program, such as an associate’s degree. While this will typically take two years to earn, you’ll have a well-rounded education in supplemental subjects such as business, and be ready to expand into the field of oral hygiene once you have some experience.

Whichever route you take, before you enroll you should make sure the program is accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), which is part of the American Dental Association.

This is the standard educational requirement for taking the certification exam; you can also qualify to sit for the exam if you have two years of on-the-job experience as a dental assistant.

Certification Exam for Dental Assistants

While in most states you may work as a dental assistant without certification, you’ll be limited on what procedures you can perform. Since the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA) examination is the standard dentists look for when hiring assistants, becoming certified could broaden your employment prospects. Here’s a brief rundown on the certification test:

First, fill out the exam application provided by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). The application process will ask you for documentation of education or work requirements, and you’ll need to submit the fee when you apply. You should receive a notice within four weeks as to when you can take the exam.

The exam itself will consist of three parts:

Radiation health and safety (100 questions)
General chair-side test (120 questions)

Infection control test (100 questions)

You will have four hours to complete the test, and the three test components will be graded on a scale of 900 total points. You’ll need a score of 400 or higher to pass the test and become certified.

Special Certifications

Once you have earned your national certification you may choose to earn other DANB credentials.

If you wish to further your career there are three areas of specialty where you can also become certified by taking a DANB exam:

  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant
  • Certified Preventive Functions dental Assistant
  • Certified Orthodontic Assistant

Other more specialized certifications include the following:

  • Advanced radiology
  • Techniques of digital imaging
  • Nutrition and diet for oral health
  • Infant dental care

Once you have experience as a certified dental assistant you can apply to take the exam for Registered Dental Assistant, which will show your expertise and skills within the field of dentistry.

Staying Current and Re-certification

Your CDA is good for one year, and you’ll be required to take continuing education classes during the year to maintain your certification status. In addition, you’ll need to hold a valid CPR certificate at the time you renew your certification. You’ll need to check with your home state for other regulations that may be in effect.

State Regulations

One thing to remember if you want to know how to become a certified dental assistant, is to check the regulations in your home state.

Some states require licensure or registration in addition to national certification through passing the CDA exam, and other states might recognize specific components of the exam such as the Infection Control portion as well as specific schooling or experience. For example, in Arkansas you may not operate X-ray equipment unless you’ve passed a state test and meet other requirements. This is why it’s vital that you check your state requirements as well as the accreditation of your traditional or online school before enrolling to become a certified dental assistant.


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