Steps to Becoming a DANB-Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

Certified dental assistants are a critical component of an efficient dentist’s office. Without these knowledgeable professionals, dentists would not be able to do their important work. Certified dental assistants (CDAs) offer chairside support on industry equipment, as well as surgical and procedural assistance with fillings, extractions, and crowns. Responsibilities also include patient care, laboratory testing, and administrative duties such as scheduling and bill processing. In the United States, there is only one way to earn a dental assisting certification: through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB).

DANB certifications and exams are required by 39 states by law, including the District of Columbia, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and even the U.S. Air Force. The most commonly obtained certification through the DANB is that of the Certified Dental Assistant (CDA). Applicants must pass three individual exams to receive a CDA certification through the DANB, which includes the General Chairside Assisting (GC) exam, the Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) exam, and the Infection Control (ICE) exam. The DANB offers three dental assistant certifications:

  • National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA)
  • Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA)
  • Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) certification

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the field will add 64,900 jobs between 2016 and 2026. The most common level of education of CDAs is postsecondary nondegree, typically an associate’s degree. It should be noted that those who go on to become CDAs are professionals who often hold a two-year dental hygienist degree at a minimum.

Keep reading to learn more about how you can become a certified dental assistant, including information about education, career pathways, industry certifications, and specialization. Please note that no two states have precisely the same requirements for licensure or certification and only 39 require certification through the DANB. This piece covers the three eligibility pathways for dental assistant certification outlined by DANB, going into detail about further requirements below. CODA, the Commission on Dental Accreditation, oversees accreditation, curriculum, and compliance for educational programs in the United States.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming a DANB-Certified Dental Assistant (CDA)

Step 1: Graduate from high school (four years).

Before graduating from high school, there are many ways that students can prepare for a career as a DANB-certified dental assistant. Focus should be on courses in biology, anatomy, and biology, which will help prepare oneself for specialized medical work. The DANB accepts high school dental assisting programs for its National Entry Level Dental Assistant certification, or NELDA, so long as the program includes at least a single semester of dental assisting coursework or curriculum.

Step 2a: Graduate from a dental assisting program (nine months to two years).

The most common places to obtain dental assisting credentials are community colleges and training or vocational schools. Depending on whether a student is pursuing a certificate, diploma, or associate degree program, it can take one to two years. A key element of a cutting edge CDA program is a hands-on component that provides ample opportunities to test skills.

Students interested in pursuing these sorts of careers might be overwhelmed by the various paths available to them. The standard diploma and certificate programs offer practical educational options for people who might not be interested in earning a more advanced degree. Another benefit of this is that CDAs are able to enter the workforce more quickly because the educational period is shorter. Some of the most common courses include office administration, dental materials, communications, radiography, anatomy, biology, physiology, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and virology.

For certificate programs, coursework is usually completed within 12 months, while an associate’s degree in dental assisting takes two years. Schools like the Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis’ School of Dentistry and the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s School of Dentistry maintain top-rated programs for dental assistants and hygienists.

In recent years, many career schools, technical and vocational colleges, and community colleges have begun to offer distance-based and online dental assisting degrees. While the bulk of the work is in modules and browser-based courses, there are always practicums at the end of the program to test the technical skills necessary to the profession. An institution such as Penn Foster Career School has a fast-track online program that graduates certain students in as little as 4 months, while a school like Hudson Valley Community College maintains a more traditional and hybridized online course.

Step 2b: Complete a minimum of 3,500 hours of DANB-approved work experience (two to four years).

This pathway is for those individuals who have experience in the field but lack the traditional diploma, degree, or certificate of a formal dental assistant education. It requires that a registered, licensed dentist confirm that you have accrued thirty-five hundred hours of dental assistant work in a facility or state that might not expressly require CDAs to be officially licensed. If accepted, the thirty-five hundred hours count as a full course of study in hands-on CDA training.

Step 2c: Complete an externship (timeline varies, optional).

An excellent means of gaining further dental training is to sign up for an externship. These positions often run concurrently to education or post-certification training and reskilling programs and give dental assistants a way to gain experience and make their job applications stand out.

Many academic programs host externships as an ancillary component of a CDA curriculum. This helps students to sharpen their CDA skills as well as gain valuable chairside experience in oral anatomy, dental pathology, oral hygiene, radiology, dental pharmacology, and oral hygiene.

Step 3: Earn certification in CPR from a DANB-certified provider (one to three months).

While this certification might seem obvious, it’s crucial that all dental professionals be trained in CPR, basic life services, or advanced cardiac life support. The DANB accepts CPR, BLS, and ACLS credentials from many providers below, provided that the course is partially based on CPR and a hands-on exam. These include the American Environmental Health and Safety, American Heart Association, the American Red Cross, the American Safety and Health Institute, the Canadian Red Cross, the Emergency Care and Safety Institute, Emergency First Response, Emergency Medical Training Associates, the Emergency University, EMS Safety Services, Medic First Aid, the Military Training Network, the National Safety Council, and ProCPR.

Step 4: Apply for the DANB CDA exam (timelines vary).

The cost of DANB’s CDA exam is $425. This breakdown of exam eligibility requirements describes varied pathways and how to go about applying for the certifications. Aspiring dental assistants can use the CDA Application Packet to determine whether they would like to submit the application digitally or via mail or fax.

The DALE Foundation, the only official affiliate organization of the DANB, hosts study aids, review courses, and practice exams. These include a CDA exam outline, the CDA application packet, and a list of relevant areas to study. DALE boasts extensive study aids for all three CDA exams, which includes reviews and practice tests for the RHS, ICE, and GC areas of expertise. The DANB RHS Review, along with the DANB ICE Review and parts one and two of the DANB GC Review are offered free of charge.

Step 5: Pass the DANB CDA exam (six to eight weeks).

Certification and licensure requirements for the CDA exam can differ from state to state, but the DANB has curricular authority in all 50 states. In the 39 of these states where certification is necessary, the three exams that constitute the DANB certification total 320 questions.

Pearson Inc.’s VUE testing centers host the tests. As mentioned above, there are three individual exams required to receive a CDA certification through the DANB, which includes the General Chairside Assisting (GC) exam, the Radiation Health and Safety (RHS) exam, and the Infection Control (ICE) exam. The test has a possible 900 points; a passing score is 400.

Again, the DANB offers various dental assistant certifications. These include the National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) certification, the Certified Preventive Functions Dental Assistant (CPFDA) certification, and the Certified Restorative Functions Dental Assistant (CRFDA) certification. Additionally, a general CDA certification or a certified orthodontic assistant (COA) certification.

Areas of specialization under these certifications include periodontics, endodontics, prosthodontics, pediatric dentistry, dentofacial orthodontics, and maxillofacial surgery. Digital imaging techniques, advanced radiography, diet and nutrition for oral health, and dental care for infants are just a few of the other areas one might be interested in studying.

CDAs who have obtained certification through the DANB are required to stay up to date on industry standards and re-certify their credentials each year through continuing dental education courses.

Step 6: Get an entry-level CDA position (timeline varies).

As demand for dental assistants is high, graduates should find no shortage of available jobs in any of the positions or specializations listed above. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of dental assistant positions grew by nearly 20 percent, and by 2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that almost 70,000 new CDA positions will be added to the American market.

Dentistry-centric job boards such as the one operated by the American Dental Assistants Association (requires membership), DentalGrind.com (requires membership), or iHireDental.com host job listings for dental professionals of all walks and degree levels.

Helpful Resources for DANB-Certified Dental Assistants

There are many valuable and informative resources available for prospective dental assisting students, from non-profits to representative organizations to job boards. Below are some of the most salient and useful resources for those wishing to pursue a career pathway via DANB-certified dental assistants.