How to Become an Orthodontic Assistant: Education, Skills, Programs & More

Orthodontic assistants receive largely the same training as dental assistants, but they serve in orthodontic offices as assistants to orthodontists. Orthodontic assistants serve a wide variety of roles that vary depending on the needs of the office – assistants help with front-desk tasks such as billing and scheduling, as well as clinical tasks such as taking x-rays, making dental molds, and sterilizing instruments.

Orthodontic assistants enjoy great job security, a comfortable salary, and excellent work-life balance. According to research by U.S. News, dental assistant (which includes orthodontic assistant) was ranked #7 in a list of Best Jobs Without a College Degree, as well as #12 in Best Healthcare Support Jobs.

The median salary for an orthodontic assistant is $40,080, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). And the job outlook for this career is good: the BLS expects the dental assistant field to grow 7% in the next ten years, which is faster than average.

This guide has all the info you need to learn how to become a certified orthodontic assistant.

Orthodontic Assistant Education & Training Requirements

To become a certified orthodontic assistant requires a high school degree (or equivalent GED) and some amount of training, depending on the state requirements for dental and orthodontic assistants and the needs of the employer who will hire you.

The most common way to become a dental assistant or orthodontic assistant is to attend a training program, which may confer a certificate or an associate’s degree and can take from 9 months to 2 years. Some may pursue a career in dental assisting from a vocational high school or government job training program, and still, others earn their certification through on-the-job training.

The degree and licensing requirements for orthodontic assistants are the same as dental assistants; orthodontic assistants gain clinical work experience in an orthodontist’s office in order to become skilled in this field, either as part of clinical training during education or as an employee after finishing school.

The educational institution where you pursue your diploma must be accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). The ADA maintains a database of every accredited dental assisting program where you can compare locations, tuition, requirements, and more. There are currently 241 accredited dental assisting programs listed as CODA-approved.

It is possible to do a portion of your orthodontic assistant training online: many programs offer remote coursework that can be done from home. However, orthodontic assisting requires clinical and lab training, to gain experience in the many hands-on aspects of dental and orthodontic work, so those pursuing an online degree will need to supplement their training with a clinical externship.

Dental assistant training programs cover the many areas of expertise needed to work as a dental or orthodontic assistant, through coursework and clinical training.

Coursework includes:

  • Oral anatomy
  • CPR & first-aid
  • Office administration 
  • Dental radiography 
  • Dental pharmacology

Clinical and lab training include: 

  • Dental radiology 
  • Dental pathology 
  • Oral hygiene 
  • Dental pharmacology
  • Chairside assistance

If your program includes, or you choose to pursue, an externship, you will gain additional experience through hands-on learning in a real dental office. If you are interested in pursuing an orthodontic assistant job, seek an externship in an orthodontist’s office for this specialized training.

How to Get Into an Orthodontic/Dental Assistant Program

Enrolling in a dental assistant program requires a high school degree, or equivalent passage of the General Education Development test (GED), which allows those who did not complete high school to demonstrate their academic competency.

Once you have secured your high school education, you can apply or enroll in a dental assistant program. Find a program that works for your schedule, needs, and budget: programs can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $13,000, depending on the length of the program and what it offers. Be sure to enroll in a program that complies with the certification requirements of your state.

Certification programs are shorter than degree programs and generally do not require an application; you simply enroll in the course and set up a payment plan.

Applying to a community or technical college program may require a lengthier application process. Depending on the program, you will likely need to submit an application fee and send transcripts of your prior education, and may also need to take college aptitude exams like the SAT or the ACT. If the college is a public state school, you may also need to submit proof of residency in the state.

If you have to write a statement of purpose explaining your interest in orthodontic assisting, this is an excellent place to let your personality shine and offer details of your life to explain what led you to pursue this career. Share the qualities you possess that you believe will make you a good dental or orthodontic assistant, and include a personal story to make your unique life experience stand out.

What to Do After Graduation

Once you’ve completed your training, you will need to get certified to practice orthodontic assisting in most states.  Each state has its own certification requirements for practicing as a dental assistant: you can find your state’s dental assisting licensing requirements on the Dental Assisting National Board website. Depending on your state, you may also need to pass an exam administered by the Dental Assisting National Board.

There are a variety of certifications you can pursue from the DANB: which certification is right for you depends on the state’s requirements, the needs of your employer, and your experience level.  Entry-level dental assistants, for instance, are eligible to take the National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) exam, while those wishing to become certified dental assistants (CDA) must take the Certified Dental Assistant Exams.

Whether or not your state requires certification, many dental and orthodontic assistants choose voluntarily to become certified: being certified demonstrates that a dental assistant has extensive training and experience in their field, making an applicant more competitive on the job market.

After you achieve your necessary certification, you can look for jobs as a certified dental or orthodontic assistant! There are a variety of methods for finding a great job in your area.

  1. Use your school’s job resources. Educational institutions want their students to find great jobs, so if you completed a dental assisting certificate, diploma, or degree, ask your school about job resources they offer. This may include online job boards, email list-serves, or dedicated career counselors.
  2. Online job sites such as ZipRecruiter, Indeed, CareerBuilder, etc. These online sites are huge clearinghouses for jobs across the nation, and more and more companies use these sites to post open positions. You can filter for preferences like part or full-time, minimum hourly pay, or distance from home.
  3. Ask your externship office about joining their team. If you’ve had a positive experience at the office where you completed your externship, ask them about applying to work with them when you’ve achieved your certification. You’ve already built a relationship with their staff, which can go a long way towards getting hired.
  4. Contact local orthodontic practices. It never hurts to call, email, or even stop by offices in your community. Building a relationship can open the door to open positions, and even if they aren’t hiring for an orthodontic assistant, ask if you can leave your contact information in case a position becomes available.