Dental assistants serve as invaluable parts of any dental office, sterilizing equipment, teaching patients about oral care, and processing x-rays and other lab work. They also handle office duties like billing, insurance, record-keeping, and scheduling. In many states, certified dental assistants (CDA) must hold a postsecondary certification from an accredited dental assistant program and pass a board-certified exam. Dental assistant certificate programs prepare students for this exam and function as the primary academic path toward becoming a CDA.

Dental assistants enjoy healthy job prospects. Due to an increase in aging patients requiring dental care and research linking oral health to overall physical health, demand for dental assistants may rise in the coming years. The BLS projects dental assistant jobs to increase by 19% between 2016 and 2026, more than double the average rate of job growth for all occupations in the country.

What are the best dental assistance certificate programs of 2020? Here are our top 5:

Rank School Location
1 Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Indianapolis, IN
2 Lake Area Technical Institute Watertown, SD
3 Sinclair Community College Dayton, OH
4 Eastern Iowa Community Colleges Davenport, IA
5 Hudson Valley Community College Troy, NY

How to Choose the Right Dental Assistant Certificate Program

Students should consider several factors before choosing a dental assistant certificate program that meets their lifestyle and academic needs. First, they should determine where they want to apply. Dental schools, universities, vocational schools, community colleges, and technical colleges may all offer dental assistant certificate programs, each one unique in its cost, format, and content.

Second, students should explore each program's location and research cost of living, housing availability, ease of transportation to and from campus, and nearby amenities (e.g., airports, recreation, hospitals, nightlife).

Third, students who wish work or pursue family obligations while attending school might consider attending an online program. In addition to greater scheduling flexibility, online dental assistant certificate programs tend to cost less than their on-campus equivalents. Many online programs require that students complete in-person labs and an internship or practicum component, allowing students to gain hands-on experience while still completing most coursework at home.

Fourth, prospective students might look at the length and cost of a program. Some programs may require full-time enrollment while others allow students to enroll on a part-time basis, a distinction that can affect duration and cost.

Finally, students should research a program's curriculum to see if it offers courses necessary for specialized career goals (e.g., oral surgery, orthodontics). Students should also make sure their program boasts accreditation, a distinction explained in greater detail below.

Employment and Salary Outlook for Dental Assistants

Dental assistants can look forward to significant growth in their field. As aging baby boomers require dental care, more dentists offices need assistants to address growing patient numbers.

As of 2017, dental assistants earned a median annual salary of $37,630, an amount that fluctuates depending on location and amount of experience. The highest 10% of dental assistants earn more than $53,000.

The type of employer also affects income. For instance, dental assistants who work for the government earn slightly more than those who work in private practices for dentists or physicians. The table below details three common occupations for professionals who hold their dental assistant certificate and provides typical median salaries for dental assistants in different phases of their careers.

Median Salary For Dental Assistants by Experience
Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Experienced Late Career
Dental Assistant $29,000 $31,000 $34,000 $36,000
Orthodontic Assistant $29,000 $34,000 $34,000 $36,000
Oral Surgery Assistant $34,000 $36,000 $41,000 $42,100

Career Opportunities

  • Dental Assistant Dental assistants help dentists during procedures and handle front-of-office clerical duties. They also teach patients about oral hygiene, prepare and sanitize dental instruments, and instruct patients about post-procedure care. The job requires good communication skills, as dental assistants make patients feel comfortable and ensure their appointment runs smoothly.
  • Orthodontic Assistant Similar to dental assistants, orthodontic assistants help orthodontists with procedures and office tasks. They may also take x-rays and teeth impressions, complete lab work, and sterilize orthodontic equipment. As the primary point-person for patients, they make patients comfortable and prepare them for procedures.
  • Oral Surgery Assistant Oral surgery assistants work with doctors who perform oral surgeries or operations that require more invasive procedures than typical fillings and cleanings. They may work for dentists, oral surgeons, and periodontists. Their main tasks include helping surgeons during operations, ensuring that patients feel comfortable, and teaching patients about postoperative care.

Accreditation for Dental Assistant Programs

When a dental assistant certificate program boasts accreditation, it means an external agency reviews its offerings and decides the program meets a certain standard of quality.

Students, make sure your program boasts accreditation from the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), the American Dental Association's accrediting body. Students who graduate from CODA-accredited programs stand out among their employers, who recognize the agency and trust its programs meet a level of professional and ethical quality.

In most states, earning a certificate from a CODA-accredited program allows graduates to earn their certification more quickly and begin working as a CDA. The Dental Assisting National Board requires applicants to hold a certificate from a CODA-accredited program in order to take their certified dental assistant exam. Students who attend a program without CODA accreditation must typically demonstrate at least two years of professional experience before taking the exam and earning the certification.

Dental Assistant Certificate Program Admissions

Unlike associate or bachelor's programs, most dental assistant certificate programs offer a relatively simple and noncompetitive application process. Although each school features its own admissions process, most programs accept students who fulfill all application requirements and demonstrate an average level of academic success.

In some dental assistant programs, admission occurs on a first-come, first-served basis. Most programs require that students complete certain prerequisite courses in order to apply. These may include college-level general education courses or courses related to health. Some programs may also require that students document a certain amount of hours observing a dental office. While all schools require at least a high school transcript, some may also request college transcripts and ACT or SAT test scores.

Choosing a program requires a significant amount of time and research. Students should only apply to schools they really want to attend, one of which should serve as a "dream school."

Admission Materials

  • Application: Applications vary from school to school. Most offer online applications that require students to provide their background information and documents such as transcripts, personal statements, and test scores. Students should begin working on their applications as soon as possible, typically a couple of months ahead of the deadline.
  • Transcripts: Most dental assistant programs require students to submit their high school and college transcripts. Programs review transcripts for applicants' GPA and any relevant prerequisite courses. Some schools charge a small fee to send an official transcript but typically provide a PDF transcript for free.
  • Application Fee: Most dental assistant programs require a small application fee, roughly $50. Students who demonstrate financial need can usually apply for a fee waiver.

What Else Can I Expect from a Dental Assistant Certificate Program?

Core Courses in a Dental Assistant Certificate Program

Although individual courses may differ from program to program, most dental assistant certificate programs offer courses that cover fundamental topics in the field. The courses detailed below appear in most dental assistant program curriculums.


In this course, students learn about dental radiographs and their types, uses, and legal aspects. The course also delves into the health effects of radiation, as well as how to prevent infection and expose radiograph film. Students learn how to avoid common errors and achieve safe, successful radiographs.

Dental Materials

This course provides students with an overview of dental materials and products like dental trays, cements, retainers, wedges, and waxes. Students also learn about types of cavities and their preparations.

Dental Office Administration

In this course, students learn about the front-of-office and administrative aspects of working in a dental clinic. Topics of study include customer service, bookkeeping, supply and materials storage, recordkeeping, appointment scheduling, and file management.

How Long Does It Take to Get a Dental Assistant Certificate?

Most dental assistant certificate programs take about a year to complete, making them a faster option than an associate degree. The exact amount of time it takes a student to graduate depends on his or her individual certificate program and circumstances.

Factors such as accelerated course formats, online courses, and summer courses may reduce the time it takes to graduate. Students who take fewer courses each term, to accommodate work or family obligations, may take longer to graduate than those enrolled on a full-time basis. Some dental assistant programs offer weekend-only courses, which may extend the timeline for graduation.

Dental assistant programs also typically require hands-on experience, such as a clinic-based internship or practicum; depending on availability, these requirements may also extend the time it takes to graduate.

How Much Is a Dental Assistant Certificate?

The total cost of earning a dental assistant certificate depends on location, type, and length of program. Location not only affects the cost of tuition, but can also influence the overall price of school.

In addition, students looking for a more affordable option should consider earning their dental assistant certificate online, an option that typically includes cheaper tuition. Distance learners also save money on peripheral costs such as housing, transportation, parking, and dining. Online learners can also typically keep working as they earn their certificate, thereby financing the cost of school.

The length of a program also affects costs. Students in longer programs may end up paying more tuition overall. Students should also consider in-state vs. out-of-state tuition status and financial aid, both of which can dramatically affect the cost of a program. Finally, they should consider the additional cost of books, materials, and academic fees, which do not appear as part of a program's advertised tuition.

Professional Organizations for Dental Assistants

Professional organizations connect recent grads and seasoned professionals, assist members with jobs, and apprise them of current research. Many dental assistant professional organizations offer continuing education credits, career help, conferences, and access to digital or print publications. Moreover, some offer discounts on a variety of goods and services such as insurance, identity theft protection, hotels, car rentals, and medical prescriptions. State and local chapters help dental assistants meet and network with other professionals in their area.

American Dental Assistants Association

ADAA members receive access to free online continuing education credits, professional liability insurance, fellowships, and awards. Regular newsletters and journal subscriptions help members stay up-to-date on news in the field.

National Association of Dental Assistants

NADA helps dental hygienists stay current on advances in the field. It offers free educational trainings as well as discussion boards where members can connect. Members receive discounts on pet insurance, rental cars, lodging, and office supplies.

American Dental Hygienist Association

Members of ADHA enjoy free publications, continuing education opportunities, webinars, and local and national networking events. New professionals gain access to a job board and reference guide.