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How to Become a Dentist

Most dentists are general practitioners who diagnose and treat problems with teeth and gums, although some become orthodontists or other types of specialists. The majority of dentists work as sole proprietors who must hire, train and oversee staff, but a growing number choose to practice initially by working for another dentist. In addition to 8 years of education, there are other requirements to become a dentist.


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    Determine whether you possess general characteristics to become a dentist. You'll need a high aptitude for science, outstanding manual dexterity, and good communication skills. You will also need time and family support. You will have to take the required undergraduate courses, which will take 3-4 years, followed by 4 years of dental school.
    • A dentist who runs his or her own practice needs employee management skills, a willingness to work 60+ hours weekly (at least in the early years), good business sense, plus capital for the investment.
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    Complete your prerequisite educational requirements. In the US you will need to attend high school and college before you are qualified to apply to dental school. Take useful courses in high school, such as chemistry, biology, physics, math, and health so that you will be prepared for your college coursework. You will take your prerequisite courses for dental school at a college or university.
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    Be smart about the undergraduate classes you choose. Also, be aware that most dental schools will require that you have a bachelor's degree. Many undergraduate students who apply to dental school choose a science major, though it is not required.
    • All US dental schools have undergraduate course requirements, which will be published on their websites. If you do not have credit in these courses, your applications will not be considered complete. Fortunately, most dental schools require similar courses. Nonetheless, it is your responsibility to know where you plan to apply, and what each particular school requires.
    • 2014 example course requirement list from Baylor College of Dentistry: 6 hours of English, 8 hours of Chemistry, 8 hours of Organic Chemistry, 8 hours of Physics, 3 hours of Biochemistry, 14 hours of Biology, 3 hours of Statistics. [1]
    • Take an anatomy and/or comparative anatomy course in your biology mix. This will give you a head start in Gross Anatomy, which is one of your first major classes in dental school. Universally, Gross Anatomy is an extremely demanding and heavily weighted course. If you have familiarity with mammalian anatomy you will find it a little easier.
    • Take at least one 2D and one 3D studio art class. Your fine motor skills are imperative to your success as a dentist. If you do not enjoy and do well in the studio courses you may want to reconsider applying to dental school. Unfortunately, many academically strong students will start dental school, only to find later in the game that they do not have the necessary natural talent or interest to succeed as a clinical practitioner.
    • If your goal is to own a practice, consider taking Business Management and Basic Accounting so you'll understand the fundamentals for business success and sustainability.
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    Take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). The DAT tests for spacial relationships ability whereas the MCAT (required for medical school) does not. Taking the test requires paying a fee and scheduling a date to take the test at a Prometric Test Center. See the ADA (American Dental Association) website for more information.[2]
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    Apply for admission to a dental school. Most applicants apply to more than one dental school. Only apply to dental schools that are accredited by the ADA's Commission on Dental Accreditation.
    • Your undergraduate grades, score on the DAT, recommendations, and interviews are considered in the admission process.
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    Attend dental school. Once accepted, you will attend for 4 years.
    • Take didactic courses. You will continue to study anatomy, microbiology, biochemistry, and physiology in the classroom and lab.
    • Take clinical courses. You will also learn how to treat patients in the school's dental clinics. The clinical courses you will take include but are not limited to pedodontics, restorative dentistry, endodontics, dental radiology, oral surgery, removable prosthodontics, fixed prosthodontics, periodontics, and oral diagnosis.
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    Get professional experience. If you can manage your time effectively, get a part-time job in a dental office as a dental assistant or receptionist while you are in dental school. Chances are, you will not be able to work more than 10 hours a week. But, this will help you gain much needed behind-the-scenes experience at a dental office that you will not learn in dental school.
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    Graduate with a degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD). Your graduation will be the happiest day of your life!
    • Strangely enough, the only difference in the DDS or DMD degrees is the names themselves. The variation in the degree names is a matter of historical significance that has never been homogenized.
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    Take your board exams:
    • National: The National Board Dental Examinations are written tests. Usually, your dental school will have this test arranged for the graduating class to take together.
    • State: Your state will grant your license to practice dentistry. Among other requirements, in order to qualify for a license you will need to pass the state's particular dental board exam. Some states administer their own board exams, like Louisiana. Other states accept a regional exam, such as the Western Regional Examining Board or the Northeast Regional Board. These exams are clinical and will require you to perform treatment on patients. Usually, you will need to supply your own patients. If you plan to practice in your dental school's state, then your dental school will often host the exam annually or semiannually. Laws frequently change, it is smart to contact your state's dental board for up-to-date information about licensure requirements.
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    Consider specialization. Becoming an orthodontist or oral and maxillofacial surgeon are the two most prevalent specialties. Altogether, there are 9 recognized dental specialties:[3]
    • Dental Public Health
    • Endodontics
    • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
    • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
    • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
    • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
    • Pediatric Dentistry
    • Periodontics
    • Prosthodontics
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    Take the required steps for specialization, if desired. Becoming a specialist requires acceptance into a residency or postgraduate program and continuing with postgraduate education for 2-6 years, depending on the specialty.
    • If you believe that you want to become a specialist you will need to need to be at the top of your class in dental school and be involved in research and/or other extracurricular activities. The competition for dental specialty programs is rigorous and only the very top candidates will earn a position. When you are in dental school you will want to talk to the directors of the specialty programs there in order to have an idea of what you will need to do to be accepted into a program. The directors will be invaluable resources for you.
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    Start your career. You are officially a dentist with a license to practice! Once you graduate from dental school, pass your board exams, and receive your license, you may practice dentistry.
    • There are a few ways to get started. You may start as an associate or partner in an existing practice, buy an existing private practice, or open your own private practice.
    • Opening your own private practice requires leasing or purchasing an office space, obtaining the necessary equipment and supplies, and hiring your dental assistants, hygienists, and receptionists. When starting a private practice, you may need to work considerably more hours and accept appointments in the evening to build a solid patient base.
    • In most cases, you will also want to be licensed to prescribe drugs. This requires obtaining both a Federal and state specific license. As you must maintain and renew your state dental license, you will also need to do the same with your federal and state drug licenses.


  • Some dental schools will accept you with only 2 or 3 years of undergraduate coursework and allow you to complete a bachelor's degree during dental school.
  • Consider accepting a military program to pay for dental school. With most graduates racking up $150K+ in debt from dental school, many are too indebted to open a practice upon graduation. If accepted into a program, the military pays your tuition and sometimes other expenses, and you repay by serving (in a Captain rank) and gaining the needed experience for a few years after graduation.


  • Dental school acceptance is very competitive

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