Steps to Becoming a Registered Dental Assistant - RDA (AMT)

When people think of jobs related to healthcare, the first words that come to mind are usually “doctor” and “nurse.” Statistics from the Association of Schools of Allied Health Professions paint a more realistic picture: more than 60 percent of the U.S. healthcare workforce is made up of allied health professions. People in these non-nurse and non-physician allied health roles include positions such as dental assistants, dental hygienists, and nutritionists who serve the wellness needs of their patients in providing diagnostic, evaluative, and preventive medical support in clinical settings. For those at the beginning of their professional careers or who want to transition to the field of dentistry, dental assisting is a growing entry-level career to help patients develop good oral health habits and boost their confidence in maintaining a bright smile.

When considering the investment of time and money a career in dental assisting requires, it is nature to ask the question: what does the future look like for this position? The news is positive for those considering the field of dental assisting. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19 percent rate of growth from 2016 to 2026—a rate which is much faster than the national average.

Dental assistants have numerous opportunities for growth and can choose future careers in dental hygiene or specialized aspects of dentistry such as endodontics, orthodontics, oral surgery, and pediatric dentistry. Dental assisting is a rewarding career that is in-demand. There are numerous opportunities for growth, and it is a great choice for people desiring to work in a clinical setting in the field of healthcare.

So what are the reasons behind the accelerated job growth in this field? Research from the American Dental Association (ADA) shows a visible correlation between oral health and general health. Medical science has started to include screening for diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disorders in routine dental care. These diagnostic practices are a diagnostic tool for early detection of the leading causes of decreased immune functions. For example, evidence of periodontal disease and other oral infections can be an indicator of more serious health problems that may have otherwise gone undetected. These findings combined with a large aging population are the two driving factors that can explain the nearly 65,000 dental assisting jobs that are projected to be added to the workforce by the year 2026 (BLS June 2019).

Dental assistants perform a wide variety of clinical and administrative jobs while interacting with patients, dental hygienists, dentists, and administrative professionals. Job responsibilities include scheduling appointments, gathering patient contact information and medical history, and supporting dentists and dental hygienists. Dental assistants prepare and sterilize surgical equipment and communicate post-procedure care instructions to patients. This blend of administrative and clinical responsibility paves a solid foundation for career advancement to positions in other allied health professions in areas like dental hygiene or dental healthcare administration.

There are three main pathways to becoming a dental assistant and the educational and professional requirements for these positions depend on state regulations. Some states require dental assistants to graduate from an accredited educational program and pass a national exam prior to working in a dental clinic. Other states replace formal education requirements with on-the-job training which allows dental assistants to learn skills in a clinical setting. Military service training as a dental assistant is also recognized as valid professional experience.

Certification and training requirements vary by state and students desiring to work in dental assisting are encouraged to check their state’s educational requirements. Asking a dentist office in a particular state or contacting an accredited dental assisting education program at a two- or four-year college are both good places to find out this information.

Once a dental assistant student completes their training, there are avenues to pursue for professional certification. The Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) is affiliated with the ADA and has accredited approximately 270 dental assisting programs in the United States. After graduating from an accredited program, completing designated on-the-job training approved by a dentist, or proving equivalent professional experience through military service, dental assistants can choose to take the registered dental assistant (RDA) exam given by the American Medical Technologists Association (AMT) and earn professional certification as an RDA.

Read on for a step-by-step career guide to becoming an RDA through AMT and a list of helpful resources for current and future RDAs.

Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming an RDA

Step 1: Earn a high school diploma or GED (four years).

High school students wishing to pursue a career in dental assisting must first earn a high school diploma or a general education diploma (GED). Students should consider taking as many math and science courses possible in order to prepare for college-level coursework and may want to explore future career options through national organizations dedicated to helping 14 to 20-year-olds explore future career options such as HOSA – Future Health Professionals and Learning For Life – Exploring.

Step 2: Enroll in a dental assisting program or equivalent professional path (one to three years).

  • 2A: Education Eligibility Route (one year) – Dental assisting degree programs are available through several institutions of higher learning in face-to-face, hybrid, or fully online formats and programs typically take one year to complete. Accreditation of dental assisting program is available through CODA and degrees from regional or nationally accredited educational institutions are also accepted. Check out this list of accredited online dental assisting programs.
  • 2B: Military Eligibility Route (16 months) – People who have completed military dental assisting training program and a minimum of one year of work experience are eligible to apply for the RDA exam. Qualified training programs include dental sciences, clinical procedures, dental radiography, and office skills. If training and work experience was completed four or more years prior to the RDA exam application date, evidence of at least three years of work experience is also required. Here’s an example of a military dental assistant program with the U.S. Air Force.
  • 2C: Work Experience Eligibility Route (three years) – In order to apply for RDA exam certification through the work experience eligibility route, proof of a minimum of three years or 5,250 hours of dental assistant training under the supervision of a licensed dentist is required. A letter of recommendation from a current or former employer is also necessary in order to be eligible to take the certification exam. Official requirements for the work experience eligibility route are detailed on the AMT website.

Step 3: Apply to take the RDA (AMT) (one to three weeks).

After completing a dental assisting program, the next step is to take the registered dental assistant certification exam through the American Medical Technologists Association (AMT). The purpose of this certification exam is to evaluate the professional knowledge and skill-based competence of entry-level practitioners in the field of dental assisting. Students typically wait one to three weeks to receive confirmation that their application has been accepted in order to register to take the exam. For more details on what to expect when applying for the RDA please see the AMT Candidate Handbook.

Step 4: Prepare for RDA (AMT) certification exam (timeline varies).

Although the RDA test will likely cover content learned through dental assisting education programs or professional experiences, it is essential to prepare for any exam in order to be familiar with the test format, content, and time requirements. Free resources for the RDA exam are available and divided into exam content details and reference materials. Materials for students preparing to take the RDA exam are also featured in the form of successful student profiles and test taking strategies.

Step 5: Register and pass the RDA (AMT) certification exam (one day).

After applying to take the RDA exam, approved students will receive an email confirming if their application to take the exam has been approved. Students who receive confirmation should visit the ‘My Homepage’ part of the AMT website in order to download and print an Authorization to Test letter. Students can use this letter to register for the RDA test at a Pearson Vue test center. A complete checklist of tasks to do in applying for the RDA exam can be found on the AMT website.

Step 6: Maintain RDA certification (one to three years).

Examinees who pass the RDA exam are invited to become active certified members of the AMT. Membership in this organization can be renewed annually for $50 and members must comply with the certification continuation program every three years. Belonging to this professional organization ensures future employers that individuals abide by the AMT standards of practice. AMT membership benefits run the gamut of continuing education, career services, and leadership opportunities.

Helpful Resources for RDAs

Being a dental assistant requires a lot more than specialized tools, degrees, and professional experience. Continuing education is essential for maintaining certification and growing as a professional. Best practices, ethical standards, and governmental regulations are constantly evolving and dedicated professionals consistently engage in furthering their skills and competencies. Professional societies and scholarly journals provide a platform from which dental assistants can network, learn, and share their experiences. To be informed on the latest in dental assisting practices, here’s a list of resources below.