How to Get Into Dental School and Become a Dentist
Aspiring health care providers who are interested in preventing and addressing cavities and other oral health problems often hope to become dentists . These highly trained clinicians take care of everything in and around people’s mouths, including teeth, gums and jaws, and they have doctorates in dentistry.
A career as a dentist typically results in a six-figure annual salary. The median salary for a U.S. dentist in 2018 was $156,240, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; dentists who specialize in fields such as oral and maxillofacial surgery and orthodontia typically earn salaries of $208,000 or more.
However, getting accepted into dental school is not easy. Only 55.3% of dental school applicants who sought admission to the 66 accredited dental schools in the U.S. for the 2018-19 school year actually enrolled in one that year, according to admission statistics from the American Dental Association.
“Every dental school has different requirements and suggestions for applicants, and it is important for each applicant to fully research each institution they plan to apply to,” Naty Lopez, assistant dean of admissions and diversity at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, wrote in an email.
Before attending dental school, a future dentist will typically obtain a bachelor’s degree and must complete prerequisite undergraduate courses with labs in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry and physics, according to the “Preparing for Dental School” section of the American Dental Education Association website.
Plus, some dental schools require undergraduate coursework in anatomy and physiology, microbiology, biochemistry and English composition, according to the ADEA website. Aspiring dentists should also be aware that there is a dental school entrance exam, the Dental Admission Test . This multiple-choice assessment includes science puzzles, math problems, spatial reasoning exercises and reading comprehension questions. Scores range from 1 to 30, with 19 as the national average.
However, Lopez advises dental school hopefuls to remember that their competitiveness is not determined entirely by their academic statistics, such as their GPA and DAT score.
“Ultimately, schools are interested in applicants who show an interest in the field of dentistry, which includes a strong interest in science, competitive academic scores, passion for volunteering and service, and desire to help those in need,” says Lopez, who has a Ph.D. in health professional education.
Lopez notes that the University of Minnesota uses a holistic admissions process to identify compelling dental school candidates, adding that dental schools with a holistic admissions process consider many factors besides grades and scores. They also consider the time someone has spent shadowing dentists, community service and volunteering experiences, leadership accomplishments, research background and interpersonal skills, she says.
Dentists say their profession requires strong spatial awareness and excellent hand-eye coordination, since it involves performing delicate procedures in confined spaces.
Dr. Inna Chern, a dentist based in New York City, says one sign that a person has what it takes to be a dentist is if he or she enjoys building or crafting. Those hobbies involve the type of artistry and dexterity that are necessary for dentistry, Chern explains.
Another indication that dentistry is a suitable profession for someone is if he or she is intrigued by scientific advancements that are improving preventative dental care, says Dr. Edward Coryell, vice president of clinical affairs at DentaQuest, a multistate network of dental health care centers.
One example of groundbreaking dental technology, Coryell says, is an innovative method of identifying and addressing cavities early, before the structure of a tooth has been compromised. “We can hopefully treat disease at the earliest stage without waiting until it is having a devastating effect on the patient,” he says.
Chern adds that dentists, like all health care professionals, need to be empathetic, compassionate and calm.
Dr. Marc Lazare, a general and cosmetic dentist in New York City, emphasizes that dentists need to be versatile. “With patients,” he wrote in an email, “you are not only their oral health care provider, but at times you are their therapist, health educator, and the quarterback who coordinates between other dental specialists and other medical providers.”
A dentist who runs his or her own practice is not only an owner and manager but also a “staff coordinator and peacemaker,” Lazare says. Such a dentist may also be responsible for marketing and promoting a dental practice, he says.
Dentistry requires strong people skills, Lazare adds. “The challenging part of working with teeth is that they come attached to people … and each person is different,” he says. “Each patient comes with his or her own past dental history, phobias, concerns, desires, physical limitations, health issues and neuroses.”
A dentist may have a DDS, or Doctor of Dental Surgery, degree or a DMD, which is a Doctor of Medicine in Dentistry or Doctor of Dental Medicine degree. These degrees are basically the same.
Dental school typically lasts four years, although an accelerated degree may take only three years to finish. A dental graduate program usually involves science coursework and a clinical curriculum.
Dr. Ronnie Myers, dean of the Touro College of Dental Medicine at New York Medical College , says the dental school curriculum typically involves an abundance of hands-on practice, in part because all dental school grads are expected to be “practice-ready” on graduation day.
“We have to teach students all the hand skills of procedures that they will be able to perform once they are licensed,” says Myers, who is also a professor of dental medicine.
According to the ADA, anyone who hopes to become a U.S. dentist must obtain a license to practice within the state where they intend to work, and every U.S. state requires that its licensed dentists pass the National Board Dental Examination.
Aspiring dentists can opt for a career in general dentistry or focus on a dental specialty , in which case they must complete a residency within that specialty. The length of a dental specialty residency depends on the specialty and the school it is affiliated with, so a specialty residency can range from two years to six.
Dr. Shahira Saad, a general dentist in Los Angeles, says prospective dental students who intend to specialize should investigate dental schools’ residency placement rates. “Some dental schools are known to have a higher match rate than others and therefore a higher percentage of students that historically get accepted into residency,” she wrote in an email. Dental anesthesiology , which focuses on pain mitigation and overall patient well-being during dental procedures.
Dental public health , which is about optimizing the dental health of a community.
Endodontics, which focuses on the pulp within teeth and often involves root canals.
Oral and maxillofacial pathology, which centers on the diagnosis of mouth diseases using various techniques such as microscopic examinations.
Oral and maxillofacial radiology, which involves the use of data and imaging technologies like X-rays to identify injuries and illnesses.
Oral and maxillofacial surgery, which entails performing operations in and around the mouth.
Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics, which focuses on the prevention and correction of misaligned teeth and jaws.
Pediatric dentistry, which centers on the dental needs of infants and children.
Periodontics, which involves addressing gum problems.
Prosthedontics, which involves the creation of dentures and providing other treatments to address missing or deficient teeth.
Dental school grads embarking on a career in general dentistry sometimes pursue a general dentistry residency, which in some cases is mandatory. In the state of New York, for example, new dental school grads must spend at least one year as residents in order to qualify for a license to practice dentistry independently.
Dr. Samuel Low, chief dental officer and vice president of dental and clinical affairs for BIOLASE, a medical device company, says general practice dentistry residencies are becoming increasingly popular.
Dental school grads sometimes want to supplement their school lessons with “in-depth training” on how to perform certain types of procedures, treat a particular health condition or use a specific type of technology, Low says. For example, he says, many dental school grads are intrigued by the idea of learning and mastering laser dentistry.
“Unfortunately, not all dental schools can afford new dental technology to train their students,” Low wrote in an email. “In response, many dental graduates are turning to postgraduate education, such as residencies, specialty training or continuing education courses to grow their knowledge in cutting edge dental technology.”
Aspiring dentists should conduct a cost-benefit analysis when deciding whether to specialize, Low says.
“When considering pursuing a specialty in dentistry, there are two factors aspiring dentists must consider: how much will student debt increase and the additional three years spent in a program without the opportunity to earn money,” he wrote. “However, there is a significant increase in earnings as a dental specialist compared to a general dental practitioner, which is why many aspiring dentists decide to pursue specialty training.”
Dr. Krysta Manning, owner of Solstice Dental & Aesthetics practice in Louisville, Kentucky, says dental training is a “marathon, not a sprint,” so dental school hopefuls need to understand the time commitment.
“Dental school is a four-year commitment, during which you’re going to be expected to spend nearly 40 hours a week in classes and clinics in addition to the time needed to study for exams,” Manning wrote in an email. “Due to the time commitment, it is difficult to hold down additional jobs to supplement living expenses. Therefore, most students require loans not only for tuition, but also for living expenses.”
The median amount of dental school debt among dental school grads in the class of 2018 who had taken out student loans to finance their education was $280,410, according to the ADEA.
Although the cost and time involved in dental training can be intimidating, the profession can be personally fulfilling and financially rewarding, Low says.
“Though it is a serious investment financially and timewise, the rewards of being a dental health professional are extensive,” Low wrote in an email. “Caring for patients is extremely rewarding, and there is financial security that comes with being a practicing dental health professional.”