Dentist How To Become

Becoming a dentist can be a rewarding career.

The steps to becoming a dentist are:

  1. Attend college or university and earn your degree in dentistry.
  2. Take the National Dental Board Examination, which is administered by the American Dental Association (ADA). You must pass this exam before you can practice as a dentist in the United States.
  3. Apply to one or more dental schools that are accredited by the ADA and have a residency program approved by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA). There are many accredited dental schools throughout the country, including those at Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA School of Dentistry among others. They all offer residency programs that allow students to pursue advanced training within their chosen field before practicing as an independent dentist upon graduation from college or university.
  4. Complete an accredited residency program within two years of matriculation into dental school if you want to become licensed as a general dentist; otherwise known as an RDH (registered dental hygienist)

Dentist How To Become

A career in dentistry is an excellent choice. The 2021 U.S. News & World Report rankings of the “100 Best Jobs” placed dentistry in the top 10 of all career options, and had three dental specialties (oral and maxillofacial surgeon, prosthodontist, and orthodontist) ranked in the top 35. 

In addition to the inherent satisfaction of helping patients improve their oral health, average salaries for these dental professions are high, ranging from $150,000 to $210,000.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how to become a dentist and provide you with recommendations for how to get started so you can maximize your chances of pursuing your dream dental career.

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How to become a dentist

Becoming a dentist requires a significant investment in your education. The vast majority of dental schools require a bachelor’s degree to apply, with only a couple of schools offering accelerated admissions after just two or three years of undergraduate studies. Of the 68 currently-accredited dental schools in the United States, all are four-year programs with the exception of the University of the Pacific Dugoni School of Dentistry, a three-year program in San Francisco. 

Like medical school admissions, dental schools don’t require a specific major. However, you will need to complete dental school requirements, which include certain courses (primarily in the sciences), a Dental Admissions Test (DAT) score, letters of recommendation, a dental school personal statement, and relevant extracurriculars.

Upon completion of dental school, a student will receive either a DDS or DMD.  These degrees are in all aspects equivalent, having the same accreditation body and curriculum requirements.

A quick history lesson explains the difference between the two. The first dental school in the United States was the Baltimore College of Medicine founded in 1840, which began granting the DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) degree. Harvard founded a dental school shortly thereafter. Because all of their degrees are in Latin they chose to grant a DMD (Doctor Medicinae Dentariae or Doctor of Dental Medicine) degree. Since then, universities choose which degree to grant, with two thirds currently offering the DDS.  

How hard is it to become a dentist?

Becoming a dentist is challenging in a number of ways, including the years of schooling required, the financial cost of education and setting up a dental practice, and the competitive dental school application process.

Because dental school acceptance rates currently hover around 55 percent nationally—in other words, 45 percent of applicants each year don’t end up enrolling anywhere—to gain admission to dental school, you’ll need to demonstrate a strong academic performance. In recent years, the average college GPA and DAT score for successful dental school applicants have stayed steady at approximately 3.5 and 20, respectively, with the most prestigious schools boasting much higher numbers.

(Further reading: How Hard Is It to Get Into Dental School?)

How long does it take to become a dentist?

It generally takes eight years to become a dentist: four years to earn a bachelor’s degree as an undergraduate and four years to earn a DDS or DMD in dental school. If you’re interested in specializing, you’ll also need to complete a dental residency (more on that below).

For high schoolers who are 100 percent committed to the field, there is another path towards dentistry that may shorten the time commitment needed. BS/DDS programs, or “direct dental programs,” pair an undergraduate institution and a dental school, allowing students to gain acceptance to both straight out of high school. These programs typically take seven or eight years to complete, though there are a few that can be completed in as few as six or even five years.

Residency training for dental specialties

Dentistry is a diverse field. Career opportunities in dentistry include academics, private practice, public health, and more. A dentist could work in several different settings across the course of a career—for example, starting in public health, moving into private practice and finishing in academics. 

In addition to becoming a general or family dentist, dentistry also offers a number of specialties. The American Dental Association (ADA) recognizes 12 dental specialties within the field:

  • Dental anesthesiology
  • Dental public health
  • Endodontics
  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology
  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology
  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery
  • Oral medicine
  • Orofacial pain
  • Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics
  • Pediatric dentistry
  • Periodontics
  • Prosthodontics

To enter a specialty, you’ll need to do a residency following dental school. Most residencies range between two and three years, with oral and maxillofacial surgery requiring between four and six years. Some programs offer a stipend and pay students during the training, while others require students to pay tuition and can be very expensive.

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How to become a dentist: Tips for high school students

If you are a high school student interested in dentistry, there are several things you can do to set yourself up for success.

1. Talk to and shadow dentists.

One of the best things you can do to investigate a career is to spend time with people who are already in that field. Often, the best place to start is with your own family dentist. Talk to your friends and family to see if anyone knows a dentist and would be willing to introduce you. See if you can shadow in a dentist’s office and increase your experience and understanding of the field of dentistry. 

2. Prepare academically in the sciences.

The path to and through dental school will require science classes ranging from biology to chemistry to anatomy to pharmacology. Taking science classes in high school will help prepare you for college by providing a strong foundation. 

Additionally, high school science classes can help you decide whether you enjoy some of the material that will come up in dental school. Don’t get discouraged if biology isn’t your favorite subject—many dentists and dental students majored in the humanities, business, or other fields. For some, studying the sciences is a means to an end to becoming a dentist. In any case, ensure that you understand the prerequisites for dental school that await you.

3. Pursue meaningful extracurricular activities.

If you decide to pursue a career in clinical dentistry, you’ll be interacting with and delivering healthcare to patients on a daily basis. Many will be coming to you with distressing dental problems. To develop the skills you’ll need to serve others, pursue meaningful extracurricular activities that give you experience working with the public. The activities you select need not be directly related to dentistry.

Final thoughts

The road to becoming a dentist is a long one. You can embark on your journey now by acing your science classes and pursuing extracurricular activities that will prepare you for a career in dentistry. By the time you are ready to apply to dental school, you’ll be armed with the skills and experiences you need to become a great dentist.

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