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, and follow the steps that lead to “RDH” at the end of your name.

Fastest-Growing

If you want to become a dental hygienist, there are different paths you can take. Some people who have experience in dental assisting already may enroll in a bridge program that allows them to build on their prior education and experience to start a new career. On the other hand, those who have no experience in the health care field can begin their dental hygiene training from the ground up and learn all of the principles and techniques of the field. Continue reading to find information on the steps involved in becoming a dental hygienist.

Do Your Strengths Align with a Dental Hygiene Career?

The dental hygiene field can be rewarding, but it is not necessarily 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.

Are you detail-oriented?

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

Do you enjoy working and interacting with people?

Dental hygienists work in a variety of settings, such as pediatric or hospital-based, alongside dentist and assistant 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 individual in their chair daily.

Do you have great interpersonal communication skills?

Patients may not necessarily 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.

Do you have patience and empathy?

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.

Do you have excellent hand-eye coordination and dexterity?

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

Sound like a career for you? Now it’s time to pursue your degree. Those who want to get fundamental training to begin their career can earn an associate degree to familiarize themselves with the principles they need to know to do their job. Those who want more in-depth training to obtain higher level positions can earn a bachelor’s degree. In addition, some schools offer dental hygiene master’s degrees, which are for those who already have experience and want to move to administrative roles, teach future dental hygienists, or conduct industry research.

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 a path from aspiring dental hygienist to working in an office.

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 of the job before diving in. Get a handle 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, challenges, and how the dental hygienist views career advancement.

An associate degree

A bachelor’s degree

Consider a master’s degree

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, UCSF

School Types

Students have several options when it comes to picking a school to obtain a dental hygienist degree. Although it is imperative that any school they choose is accredited, which will ensure that they receive a high-quality education, students may choose a school based on their goals and preferences.

Technical colleges

Technical colleges are generally for 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 may provide.

Community colleges

Community colleges provide 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.

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, prospective students can make an informed decision about the specific program to attend. The following checklist is designed to help people consider additional factors as they research the schools they’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. In order to be successful, it’s important to understand how the process works and what schools will expect. 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 in order to be admitted. While each program has its own set of requirements, some common examples 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 graduates need to take before they can start looking for employment. The specific process for licensure is determined by the individual state where dental hygienists’ work, however, generally people are expected to pass the National Board Dental Hygiene Examination, as well as a state or regional licensing exam. 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 getting the education and credentials you need, 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 to highlight the things that employers care about, such as your education, the skills you obtained during their 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 in order 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 — and the key to honing these skills is to practice the answers to questions they’re likely to be asked by employers. The following are some questions that prospective employees may be expected to answer when they interview for a position. And, if possible, see if you can secure a working interview. This can be a fantastic 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?