Female dental professional against a pink backdrop

How to Prepare for Dental Assistant School

The Complete Study Guide to Help You Prepare for Dental Assistant School and Pass the CDA Exam

Female dental professional against a pink backdrop

Have you ever thought about a career as a Dental Assistant? Assisting a dentist during important dental procedures for children and adults can be extremely rewarding. With its great starting salary* and strong job outlook, Dental Assistant easily earned its number 11 spot on our list of 17 Best Entry-Level Medical Jobs in 2022. If the thought of working in this field makes you smile, keep reading.

Of course, the first thing you need to do to become a Dental Assistant is to prepare for Dental Assisting school—including finding a school, understanding what to expect, and how to prepare for your certification or licensing exams. But it all begins with finding an accredited school and program that fits your goals.

This guide provides you with everything you’ll need to confidently choose a Dental Assisting school, including essential tips, suggested steps, and valuable resources. If you’re considering this program, you may want to read about what makes the Dental Assisting program at Brookline College a great choice.

Why Become a Dental Assistant?

From preparing exam rooms for a patient’s arrival to helping make children feel more comfortable in a scary situation, Dental Assistants help create a warm, welcoming atmosphere. Following are some of the tasks you may perform in this job under the direction of a dentist:

  • Ensuring patients are comfortable in the dental chair
  • Preparing patients and the work area for treatments and procedures
  • Sterilizing and handing instruments to dentists during procedures
  • Processing x-rays and completing lab tasks
  • Scheduling patient appointments and keeping records
  • Instructing patients in proper oral hygiene

For more details on this career, read our article on How to Become a Dental Assistant.

Although the work can be fulfilling, another reason to choose this popular medical career is its strong job outlook. Employment for Dental Assistants is projected to grow by 8% over the next decade, faster than the average for all occupations. In May 2021, the average salary* for Dental Assistants was over $38,000, with the top 10 percent earning more than $59,000.

Find the Right Dental Assisting Program for You

If this career piques your interest, you’ll want to know how to prepare for Dental Assistant school. Finding the right school for you requires some careful consideration. First, you’ll want to choose a school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). Many states require that you graduate from an accredited program to work.

By searching the CODA website, you can find schools based on the type of dental program, accreditation status, and state. This will help you narrow your search for an institution that meets your desired school requirements.

You can learn more about each program by contacting the school, program director, or counselor. You’ll also want to consider other factors, like whether you’d prefer a large university or a smaller school. Be sure to ask about financial aid options, student life, and how long the program usually takes to finish.

The length of programs can vary, but most take about a year to earn a certificate or a diploma. Some accelerated programs can be completed in a shorter time. For example, in the Dental Assisting program at Brookline College, you can earn your certification in as few as 40 weeks. Costs for Dental Assisting programs vary and can be as much as $7,500.

How to Get Into Dental Assistant School

The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) website allows you to look up Dental Assisting requirements by state. Most states require that students graduate from an accredited program and gain certification in the state they work. However, some states may differ. When applying for admission to a program, typical Dental Assistant school requirements include the following:

  • Providing a high school transcript or GED
  • Submitting an admission application
  • Completing additional assessments

Most schools allow prospects to start programs several times a year. For instance, at Brookline College, courses are offered frequently so that Dental Assisting students can begin their course work in only a few weeks.

If you don’t get into your desired program on the first try, don’t worry. You can reapply or consider programs at other locations.

Female dental workers examining a young patient

What Are the Dental Assistant School Prerequisites?

Most Dental Assisting programs require graduation from high school or completion of a GED. Some Dental Assistant programs may require specific prerequisites, but that is only sometimes the case. You can ask a school counselor or program advisor at each prospective school for a complete list of requirements.

Some programs may require you to take an entrance assessment exam or take part in an interview. For example, Brookline College requires that prospective students pass the TEAS exam (Test of Essential Academic Skills), a comprehensive exam to determine a student’s readiness for school.

The TEAS exam tests students in four subject areas: Reading, Math, Science, and English/Language Usage. More challenging questions are given more weight, but the score needed to pass varies by school.

Is Dental Assistant School Hard?

How hard is Dental Assistant school compared to other degrees? Although programs can be completed in about a year, much shorter than a typical two-year associate degree program, you’ll still need to attend classes, study, and take exams. You’ll learn about teeth, gums, jaws, and dentists’ many instruments. Plus, you’ll also be expected to complete laboratory work.

It may sound like a lot, but it’s manageable. But don’t worry if you don’t ace every assignment or exam. If you don’t do well on a test, it’s not the end of the world. You’ll have the necessary resources to get back on track and finish your diploma. Read about some of them in the next section.

Dental Assistant School Study Tips

Surviving Dental Assistant school is easier when you make a success roadmap. That means choosing the right school for your needs, understanding what your program requires of you, and following a study plan. Following are five study tips for Dental Assistant students.

1. Get Organized

You’ll be juggling a lot while in school. You’ll have classroom time plus clinical work. You’ll need to set aside time to do homework. If you have a part-time job, you’ll need to fit it into your work schedule, too. Taking time to map out your schedule and create a study plan will keep you organized and help you succeed.

2. Follow Your Plan

Once you create a plan and set aside time for studying, working, and sleeping, follow your plan. Be on time for class and labs. Don’t skip study time, but don’t skip time to recharge. Get into a routine, and you’ll have time to finish everything. Using a calendar, daily schedule, and to-do-list reminders can be lifesavers.

3. Relieve Your Stress

Do your homework. But you can’t study 24/7. You may feel the stress of an upcoming exam or a difficult assignment. But don’t be tempted to burn the midnight oil constantly. Getting enough sleep and regular exercise will help you recharge your batteries and relieve stress.

Dental team treating a patient

4. Ask for Help

Most likely, you’ll hit a point where you need some help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Your instructors and aids are there for a reason. If you’re struggling with an assignment or having trouble mastering a concept, reach out. You can even tap one of your classmates for some tutoring or form a study group that benefits everyone.

5. Focus on Your Clinical Skills

Don’t assume that you can breeze through your clinical work if you ace your classwork and exams. When learning hands-on skills and clinical procedures, pay attention to detail, ask thoughtful questions, and take notes. Some of your most important learning will be in a hands-on environment. The more engaged you are, the more you’ll learn.

What Is the CDA Exam?

Once you finish your program, it’s recommended that you earn your certification. CDA stands for Certified Dental Assistant, a certification offered by the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). Their CDA certification is widely recognized as an indicator of proficiency in the field, and more than 35,000 Dental Assistants hold this certification. The organization reports that certified workers may qualify for more job opportunities, earn higher salaries, and receive more raises.

Many states require CDA certification, which is comprised of three individual exams, which include: General Chairside Assisting (GC), Radiation Health and Safety (RHS), and Infection Control (ICE). Depending on your career preferences and goals, you can also take two of the three exams in combination. To take the CDA exam, you must graduate from a CODA-accredited program.

How to Study for the CDA Exam

Once you graduate from your program, you’ll be qualified to take the CDA exam and become certified. Despite your preference to take the full exam or a combination exam, you’ll find some great resources to help you prepare for your exam. To study for and pass the exam, DANB suggests the following three steps:

Review the Exam Outline

Before you create your study plan, review the exam outline. The exam outlines list the topics covered on the exams and can help you identify the areas you want to study. You’ll also want to consider the percentage next to each exam topic. The topics with the more significant percentages are important ones to learn. Note that you can download an exam outline for each of the three parts of the CDA exam: GC, RHS, and ICE.

Select Your Study Materials

The exam outlines also include the list of exam references, which are often textbooks or other materials referenced during the exam development. It’s a good idea to have access to at least one recommended Dental Assisting textbook.

Study with the DALE Foundation

The DALE Foundation, the official DANB affiliate, offers interactive, online practice tests and review courses on various topics. Taking practice tests can help you build your confidence and get comfortable taking a test while being timed. Completing review courses can help you deepen your knowledge and understanding.

What Is the RDA Exam?

The RDA exam is another test an applicant takes to become licensed as a Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) in states that require licensure. The exam is administered by American Medical Technologies (AMT). It covers four content areas with a total of 210 questions. The breakdown of the exam content is as follows:

  • Office Assisting Skills (28 Questions)
  • Dental Sciences (70 Questions)
  • Clinical Procedures (61 Questions)
  • Dental Imaging (51 Questions)

Some states require Dental Assistants to become CDAs before pursuing RDA licensure. Those who become licensed may be given more responsibilities and require less supervision than CDAs.

How to Study for the RDA Exam

Should you live in a state where it makes sense to pursue licensure by taking the RDA exam, you’ll also want to prepare by becoming familiar with the content covered on this exam and creating a study plan.

First, you’ll want to become familiar with all four parts of the RDA exam content. Next, a study from AMT’s suggested reference materials. But remember that the list of materials is considered illustrative, not exhaustive. Many other resources are also suitable for exam preparation, including some you may have studied during your Dental Assisting program.

Close up of female dental professional

Get Started on Your Dental Assistant School Search Today

If your interest level in Dental Assisting is growing, maybe it’s time to think about a future career in the field and begin your search for an accredited Dental Assisting school. The tips and resources mentioned in this article will help you as you start your journey. After reading this school preparation guide, you’ll have the background and confidence you need to make a great choice.

Take a few minutes to read more about what makes the Dental Assisting program at Brookline College a great option.