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How to Become a Dental Assistant

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If you love working with people, helping with complex tasks, and want to get to work in as little as nine months, a career as a dental assistant may be right for you. Dental assistants help dentists with basic tasks such as impressions and handling equipment during procedures. This exciting career blends office administration and scheduling with health care tasks. Learn more about dental assisting and find out if a Dental Assisting program is right for you.

Why Become a Dental Assistant?

Dental assisting is an exciting career that combines the service elements of health care with the operational structure of an office.

Dentists are likely to continue to hire dental assistants to complete routine tasks, allowing dentists to work more efficiently. As dental practices grow, demand for dental assistants should increase.

Additionally, the BLS states that as the baby-boom generation ages and as more people keep their original teeth later in life, the need to maintain and treat teeth will continue to increase the need for dental care and thus dental assistants.

Dental assisting is often the first step in a career in dental medicine. It can lead to a number of other roles later on. Since a dental assistant is well versed in minor dental procedures, one may be interested in getting additional training to become a dental hygienist. Or, because they have experience with scheduling, clerical and front office they may be interested in moving more into office administration.

Start Your Career as a Dental Assistant

Carrington College focuses on small class sizes and hands-on training. Here you’re more than a face in a room. Take the first step on your way to a new career in dental assisting.

What Does a Dental Assistant Do?

Dental assistants work with dentists, dental hygienists and office staff to help keep a dental office running smoothly. Exactly what a dental assistant does will vary based on the dentist one is working for, office environments and state regulations, but some common dental assistant job responsibilities include:1

  • Ensure that patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Prepare patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilize dental instruments
  • Hand instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Dry patients’ mouths using suction hoses and other equipment
  • Instruct patients in proper oral hygiene
  • Process x-rays and complete lab tasks, under the direction of a dentist
  • Keep records of dental treatments
  • Schedule patient appointments
  • Work with patients on billing and payment

Dental assistants will typically spend much of their day working closely with dentists and patients. Dental assistants may take a patient’s medical history and vital signs like pulse and blood pressure before a procedure. They also can act as patient support systems, explaining procedures to patients before they occur so as to put patients at ease. During a procedure, dental assistants may pass instruments to the dentist or use equipment such as suction hoses, matrix bands, or dental curing lights.

Other tasks commonly performed by dental assistants include preparing treatment rooms, sterilizing equipment and tools, documenting procedures and scheduling appointments.

Some dental assistants are trained to take x-rays of teeth and make sure the images are clear. Also, they may, under the supervision of a dentist, perform lab tasks including taking impressions of teeth, preparing materials for dental impressions or temporary crowns.

States regulate what dental assistants can do. Some states allow dental assistants to polish teeth and apply sealants, fluoride, or topical anesthetics, but not all do. You’ll want to check with your state’s regulatory board about what exact tasks are allowed.

Dental Assistant vs Dental Hygienist

When considering a career in a dental office, you may be wondering what is better: dental assistants or dental hygienists? The fact of the matter is that the two roles are very different. A dental assistant works closely with a dentist to help with patient care. A dental hygienist, on the other hand, works closely with patients to do the bulk of the work of a routine dental appointments.

Dental hygienists are more hands-on with patients and have training in coronal polishing, tartar removal, and other skills that affect oral health. Learn more about how to become a dental hygienist.

Skills for Dental Assistants

Many skills you need to become a dental assistant can be taught at a qualified dental assistant program, but some are more innate. Just like someone who doesn’t like working with their hands would be ill-suited for work in construction, some skills and preferences are required to become a dental assistant.

Dental assistants need to be able to work well with people, since they often interact with patients. While dentists spend time manipulating the teeth, a dental assistant will often explain procedures and make sure a patient feels at ease.

Some other soft skills and abilities that a dental assistant needs include2:

  • Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Reading Comprehension — Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents.
  • Speaking — Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Critical Thinking — Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.
  • Service Orientation — Actively looking for ways to help people.
  • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Monitoring — Monitoring/Assessing performance of yourself, other individuals, or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action.
  • Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Oral Comprehension — The ability to listen to and understand information and ideas presented through spoken words and sentences.
  • Oral Expression — The ability to communicate information and ideas in speaking so others will understand.
  • Written Comprehension — The ability to read and understand information and ideas presented in writing.
  • Arm-Hand Steadiness — The ability to keep your hand and arm steady while moving your arm or while holding your arm and hand in one position.
  • Deductive Reasoning — The ability to apply general rules to specific problems to produce answers that make sense.
  • Inductive Reasoning — The ability to combine pieces of information to form general rules or conclusions.
  • Written Expression — The ability to communicate information and ideas in writing so others will understand.
  • Finger Dexterity — The ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects.
  • Information Ordering — The ability to arrange things or actions in a certain order or pattern according to a specific rule or set of rules.
  • Problem Sensitivity — The ability to tell when something is wrong or is likely to go wrong.
  • Control Precision — The ability to quickly and repeatedly adjust the controls of a machine or a vehicle to exact positions.
  • Selective Attention — The ability to concentrate on a task over a period of time without being distracted.

How to Become a Dental Assistant

There are several paths to becoming a dental assistant, depending on the state in which you want to work. Some states require you to attend an accredited dental assisting program, while others may allow for on-the-job training. Even if you live in a state without education requirements, some employers may prefer that you have formal training before hiring.

The steps to becoming a dental assistant are3:

  • Attend an accredited dental assisting program. These programs are offered through community colleges, technical or vocational schools, or some colleges and universities.
  • Pass a dental assisting exam and obtain certification. Most states do not require entry-level dental assistants to be certified. However, some states require dental assistants to be licensed, registered, or certified for entry or advancement.4 For example, states may require assistants to meet specific licensing requirements in order to work in radiography (x-ray), infection control, or other specialties. For specific requirements, contact your state’s Board of Dental Examiners.
  • Receive on-the-job training. While some states allow dental assistants to skip formal education and just receive training from experienced assistants, hygienists and dentists, many employers may prefer you have some formal education. Once you start an entry-level job in dental assisting, you may receive training on how your particular employer conducts business.


What to Look for in a Dental Assisting Program

Choosing the right dental assisting program for you is a big decision. The right training can open doors for better jobs and possibly salary down the line. While many institutions may offer dental assisting classes, it’s important that you look for the one that fits your goals and lifestyle.

A few core things to look for when considering dental assisting programs include:

  • Small class sizes. When learning to be a dental assistant you want individual attention from your instructor.
  • Hands-on training. When dealing with tasks like taking impressions and sterilizing equipment, it’s important that you have time to practice those skills hands-on.
  • Externships or career training. Most programs include an opportunity to learn in the real world before you even graduate! You’ll earn an impressive experience that looks great on your resume.
  • Cost. Education is a major investment, but it’s an investment in your future. At Carrington College and many other institutions, we participate in most financial assistance programs, both federal and state, as well as private financing. Student loans, grants, and scholarships are available to those who qualify. For complete information on current tuition costs, please see the academic catalog.

Should I Get a Dental Assisting Associate Degree or Certificate?

When choosing a dental assisting program to attend, you may have to decide if you want to complete a certificate program or earn an associate degree. There are benefits to both options. With a certificate, you can get into the working world much faster, with completion times in as little as nine months. In programs that cost based on credit hours, this option may be more affordable.

An associate degree, on the other hand, takes longer to complete but does arm you with general education classes that may benefit your career overall. Some employers may prefer candidates with degrees. Additionally, holding an AS may qualify you for more career advancement opportunities later on.

dental exam room with patient in chair

Discover Your Career as a Dental Assistant

Carrington College’s Dental Assisting Program offers you the hands-on training you need for a job in dental assisting. Take the first step on your way to a new career.

Prepare for a Career in Dental Assisting With Carrington College

Carrington College’s Dental Assisting program offers hands-on training with small class sizes and individualized attention. Students learn everything from chairside assisting to helping a dentist with procedures, all while supervised by a world-class faculty.

Carrington College’s Dental Assisting Faculty and Students

Carrington College takes great pride in its faculty and students. Faculty are experts in their field, most of whom have real-life experience working in medical facilities.

Our students come from many backgrounds but are driven to succeed. Whether you’re just starting your education or your transitioning to a new career, you’ll find students like yourself at Carrington.

Dental Assisting Programs Near Me

Carrington’s Dental Assisting program is offered at 15 locations in Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Find a campus near you.


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