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Becoming a Dental Hygienist: Step-by-Step

From choosing the right dental hygiene program to applying for your first job, find out how long it will take to become a dental hygienist. Follow these steps to earn an “RDH” at the end of your name.

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A smiling female dentist with a mask pulled down to her chin, wearing a teal medical uniform, seated in a brightly lit dental office.

There are two different paths you can take to become a dental hygienist, with one taking less time than the other. Experienced dental assistants may enroll in a bridge program that allows them to build on their prior education and experience to step up their dental career in less time. On the other hand, those who have no experience in the dental field can begin their dental hygiene training from the ground up and learn all the principles and techniques of the field. Continue reading to find information on the steps involved in becoming a dental hygienist, no matter which path you need to take.

Do Your Strengths Align with a Dental Hygiene Career?

The dental hygiene field is rewarding for many, but it’s not a great fit for everyone. Before applying to a school for training, evaluate whether this career is a good choice for you. The following are some of the most important questions you can ask yourself.

If you are meticulous about details, then dental hygiene could be an excellent fit. While cleaning teeth is not all dental hygienists do, it is important that a dental hygienist takes care of the little things when cleaning teeth and in overall care of patients.

Dental hygienists work in a variety of settings, such as pediatric or hospital-based, alongside dentists and assistants, to reach the goal of complete patient care. As a health care provider, dental hygienist should enjoy helping patients and providing exceptional overall care to every patient in their chair daily.

Everyone goes to the dentist. Patients may not understand the treatment they are about to receive, so dental hygienists need to have strong communication skills to explain procedures to them. Also, they may be required to give patients information on how they can practice good dental hygiene at home.

Patience and empathy are crucial in this field because professionals often work with people — such as children — who may be afraid of the treatment they’re about to receive. People in this field need to be able to calm patients’ nerves and put their mind at ease.

Since the inside of people’s mouths doesn’t leave a lot of room to work in, dental hygienists must have the dexterity and hand-eye coordination needed to work on specific teeth. Without these skills, they may not be able to navigate the tools they use into the correct positions.

If you answered “yes” to these questions, you may be a great fit for dental hygiene. Now that you know this is a good career, continue reading to find out what you need to do next to get started.

Research Dental Hygiene Programs

People seeking foundational knowledge to start up their careers can pursue an associate degree, which provides a comprehensive understanding of the essential principles required for their profession. For those aiming to secure higher-level positions, a bachelor’s degree offers more extensive training and expertise.

Some schools provide dental hygiene master’s degrees, catering to experienced professionals aspiring to transition into administrative roles, educate future dental hygienists, or engage in industry research. This advanced degree equips them with the necessary skills and insights to excel in the top tier of the dental hygiene profession.

Choose Your Education Path

Once you’ve decided where you want to go in your career (or if you have a good idea), choose the starting point that makes the most sense. Here’s some key information that can help you chart your own path to becoming a dental hygienist.

Volunteer at a dental office

Volunteering in a dental office or shadowing a dental hygienist can be a great way to experience the day-to-day life of the job before diving in. Get a good idea of the tools they use, how they interact with patients and co-workers, and the overall feel of the work environment. And don’t forget to ask questions. Ask about the benefits of the job, the challenges of the profession, and how the dental hygienist views career advancement.

An associate degree

Earning an associate degree is the most common path for training to become a dental hygienist. These programs, which take two to three years to complete, are for students who want to get the theoretical knowledge and hands-on training to prepare for an entry-level job and earn the certification needed for employment. In addition to dental hygiene coursework, students in these programs also complete liberal arts classes, such as math, English, and psychology, to give them a broad education and additional skills they can use in the workplace. As a result, students leave the program with important abilities, like critical thinking and problem-solving skills, they can apply to patient care.

A bachelor’s degree

Although associate degrees are the more common training that dental hygienists receive, those who want to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree can stand out from the competition when looking for a job. These programs are designed for students who want to have more options than just clinical practice, such as teaching or research, or to advance their education above an associate degree. In addition to completing dental hygiene training classes that provide a theoretical foundation and clinical training, these programs also require classes such as anatomy and physiology, microbiology, nutrition, and the humanities and social sciences.

Consider a master’s degree

Dental hygiene master’s degrees are for professionals who want advanced training to become leaders in the field. Whether their goals are to become educators, researchers, public health professionals, or managers in oral health clinical settings, these programs build on students’ current knowledge and skills and teach them the leadership principles needed for higher-level jobs.

Sources

Bachelor’s Completion, Dental Hygiene, UT San Antonio

Dental Hygiene Bachelor’s, University of Hawaii

Dental Hygiene, Foothill College

Dental Hygiene, Oregon Institute of Technology

Dental Hygiene Admissions,

School Types

You have several top-notch options when picking a school to earn your dental hygienist degree. Although any school you choose must be accredited, which helps to ensure that you receive a high-quality education, you’ll want to choose a school based on your career goals, area of specialization, and preferences.

Technical colleges

Technical colleges are generally geared to students who want to learn the tricks of the trade quickly without additional requirements, such as general education classes. Programs at these schools take less time to complete and are more intensive, which gives students the freedom to enter the workforce sooner than they would if they attended other schools. For example, in some cases students can complete their degrees in about one year, as compared to the two years it takes to finish a degree at a community college. Although these students benefit from beginning their careers quickly, they may miss out on the skills that other types of coursework provides.

Community colleges

Community colleges provide affordable training for dental hygienists that generally lasts two years. These programs teach students how to deliver comprehensive care to patients by solving problems, critically thinking about what patients need, and performing assessments. In addition to the coursework that teaches dental hygiene clinical skills, students in community colleges take classes that give a deeper understanding of the field. This may include coursework in health care law and ethics or evidence-based research.

Colleges and universities

Colleges and universities offer degrees that provide advanced knowledge that students can use for career advancement. Although some colleges may offer associate degrees, generally these schools are for those who want to earn a bachelor’s and/or a master’s. Four-year schools offer expert faculty, state-of-the-art facilities, and networking opportunities, equipping students with the skills, knowledge, and connections needed to excel in their careers and contribute to advancements in the field. For students who want the university experience and breadth of education, this is a good option.

Online Dental Hygiene Programs

Earning your dental hygiene credential online is becoming a more popular option for students today. Many of the academically focused courses are taken online, with labs and clinicals performed on campus or at a third-party facility. These online programs offer students a level of flexibility that many campus programs cannot. See our full page dedicated to online dental hygiene programs to learn more.

Sources

Chabot College, Dental Hygiene

Dental Hygiene, Mesa Community College

Dental Hygiene, Quinsigamond Community College

Pick a School

Armed with the information about types of dental hygiene degrees and schools there are to choose from, you should feel more confident about making an informed decision about the specific program you want to attend. The following checklist is designed to help you consider additional factors as you research the schools you’re interested in.

  • Is the school accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA)?
  • Is the tuition affordable?
  • Does the length of the program fit your schedule?
  • Is the coursework offered partially, mostly, or fully online?
  • What kind of financial aid is available to help me pay for my education?
  • What kind of clinical experiences does the program offer? Do they last at least two semesters?
  • What kind of experience do faculty members have in the field?
  • Is the equipment for on-campus laboratory work state-of-the-art?
  • Does the school offer additional resources to help students study for their licensing examination?
  • Does the school offer career services to help students find a job after graduation?

Apply to Your Top Schools

Once you’ve made a decision about the type of degree you want to earn and the possible schools you want to attend, it’s time to start submitting applications for admission. To be increase your chances of getting accepted into your program of choice, it’s important to understand how the process works and what schools will expect from you. The following information can help.

Pre-requisites.

As with other types of degree programs, students who apply to dental hygiene schools are expected to meet certain requirements to be admitted. While each program has its own set of requirements, some common application requirements include:

  • Achieving a certain score on entrance examinations, such as the SAT, ACT, or TOEFL
  • Completing a high school diploma or its equivalent
  • Having a minimum grade point average in high school
  • Submitting a personal essay
  • Submitting letters of recommendation
  • Earning a CPR certification
  • Submitting to a background check
  • Passing prerequisite courses, such as biology, algebra, and chemistry

Application process & fees

During the application process, students may be required to interview with the school and complete observation in a dentist’s office for a certain number of hours. Application fees differ from school to school, but prospective students may expect to pay in the $50 to $100 range.

Sources

Dental Hygiene BS Program, Loma Linda University

Dental Hygiene, Diablo Valley College

Dental Hygiene AAS, Rio Salado College

Complete Your Coursework & Clinical Training

Although the exact courses offered at dental hygiene schools differ from program to program, they are all designed to give students the theoretical knowledge and clinical training they need to earn their license and find employment after graduation. Also, students may gain an understanding of the needs of different types of patients they may treat by taking coursework about special populations, which will help them work with children or senior citizens. To give future dental hygienists a deeper knowledge of the field and the professional standards they are expected to adhere to, coursework may cover law and ethics, where students dive into specific state regulations that govern the way they will be required to work. During the clinical portion of their degree programs, students put the theories they learned into practice through simulations and hands-on clinical practice such as X-rays, anesthesia, and scaling of teeth.

Sources

Dental Hygiene Program Requirements, Truckee Meadows Community College

Dental Hygienist Training Requirements, American Dental Association

Earn Your RDH License

Earning a dental hygiene degree is a huge accomplishment, but there’s one more step you’ll need to take before you can start looking for employment. Being licensed is required for dental hygienists because it ensures they’ve got the right skills and know-how to provide top-notch oral care. It keeps patients safe and shows that hygienists are dedicated to staying up-to-date with industry rules, the most recent advances in the field, and ethical practices, while maintaining a high standard of care. The specific process for licensure is determined by the state where dental hygienists’ work,. Generally, dental hygienists are expected to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination along with any state or regional licensing exams. In addition, dental hygienists are required to take continuing education classes to keep their license current, including updating CPR certification annually.

Polish Your Resume & Apply to Jobs

After earning your education and credentials, it’s time to impress potential employers and land your first job. To get started, you’ll need to craft a resume and cover letter highlighting the factors employers of dental hygienists care about, such as your education, the skills you obtained during your fieldwork experience, and any previous relevant jobs you’ve held in a clinical setting. Also think about the type of dentistry you’re interested in, such as pediatric, periodontal, hospital, or general. Since students in every dental hygiene program take similar coursework in school, it’s important for job seekers to focus on what makes them stand out from other applicants to get prospective employers’ attention. The following sites offer examples of cover letters and resumes that dental hygienists can model to help them be successful in their job search.

Prepare for the Interview

Whether dental hygienists are newly certified or experienced professionals, they still need strong interviewing skills to land a new job. The key to honing these skills is to practice the answers to questions you’re likely to be asked by employers. The following are some questions that you may be called upon to answer during your interview for a dental hygienist position. If possible, see if you can secure a working interview. This can be a fantastic way to find out if you’re a good fit in that specific work setting.

  1. How do/would you handle conflicts with a patient?
  2. What is your experience administering and interpreting diagnostic tests?
  3. How do you perform an assessment on a patient to determine the state of their oral health?
  4. Do you have experience working with children and the elderly?
  5. How do you handle stress on the job?
  6. Describe a challenging situation you had at work and how you handled it.
  7. How do you feel about educating patients on their dental home care?
  8. What do you think makes a good dental hygienist?
  9. What other duties do you think this position will require in addition to caring for patients?
  10. Tell me about your biggest strengths and weaknesses. What are you doing to overcome your weaknesses?