Becoming a Dentist

Becoming a Dentist
If you are interested in a career in dentistry, it is important to understand the process for becoming a dentist. Below are answers to many frequently asked questions about becoming a dentist.

What do dentists do?

Dentists diagnose and treat problems in the mouth related to teeth and they promote oral hygiene. They also perform a variety of other tasks including repair of decayed teeth, tooth removal, and dental care instruction. Some dentists are specialists practicing in areas such as orthodontics (teeth straightening), oral surgery, periodontics (treatment of gums), endodontics (root canals), prosthodontics (tooth replacement), pediatric dentistry, oral pathology (study of mouth disease), and public health.

What do I have to study to become a dentist?

You would need to complete a professional doctorate in dentistry. Prospective dentists must complete a Doctorate in Dental Medicine (DMD) or a Doctorate in dental Surgery (DDS). Although the degree names are different, the course of study is similar in each program.

A doctorate in dentistry typically requires four years of study beyond undergraduate coursework. Many dentists also complete two to five years of advanced training. Dentists must obtain a license from the state in which they intend to practice.

What are the entrance requirements for dental school?

Entrance requirements vary among dental schools. Check the admissions requirements at all schools you are considering. While some schools will accept students who have not completed a bachelor’s degree, bachelor's degree completion is encouraged. The majority of dental school students have completed a bachelor’s degree prior to entering the dental school program.

All schools require the completion of specific coursework (prerequisites) prior to entering the doctorate. A few of the prerequisite courses generally required by dental schools include General Biology, General Chemistry, and Organic Chemistry. Some schools will give preference to students who have taken science courses beyond the required courses. Specific entrance requirements can be found by contacting the admissions office of the dental schools of interest to you.

What is Dental School like?

Dental school is a professional school that generally lasts four years. During the first two years of dental school, students will typically study related sciences such as microbiology, biochemistry, anatomy, and physiology. During the following two years of dental school, students will often begin clinical rotations where they treat patients under the supervision of a licensed dentist. Programs vary from school to school; some schools have students begin clinical rotations during their first year.

What is a pre-dental student?

If you intend to apply to dental school, you are a pre-dental student. There is no specific prescribed major for pre-dental students; however you will need to be certain that are completing all of the courses required for admission (prerequisite courses) for the schools where you plan to apply.

What should I major in?

If you plan to complete a bachelor’s degree prior to applying to dental school, you will need to select a major. Choose a major that will allow you to complete the prerequisite courses either by choosing a major that already requires many of the prerequisite courses or a flexible major that has enough available electives to allow you to take the prerequisites as electives. When selecting a major, also consider your interests, strengths, and alternative career choices.

What is required to apply to dental school?

More students apply to dental schools than there are available spaces; therefore, admission is competitive. Admissions committees decide which students to admit based on a variety of factors that they believe will predict the student’s ability to excel in the program and to be a successful dentist.

Admissions committees want to ensure that the students who are admitted will be able to handle the rigorous coursework required in dental school. To determine this, they typically consider students’ overall grade point average (GPA), their science GPA, and their score on the Dental School Admissions Test.

Prospective dental students must also provide "evidence of manual dexterity" because a lot of what dentists do requires the use of their hands. The perceptual ability section of the Dental School Admissions Test measures manual dexterity.

Admissions committees also use letters of recommendations to determine the candidates' fit for the dental school and the career of dentistry. It is important to start early thinking about who you will ask to be a reference for you.

What is the Dental School Admissions Test?

This test is designed to measure general scientific understanding, reading comprehension, mathematical skills, and perceptual ability.

Are there any licenses required to become a dentist?
To practice as a dentist, a state license must be obtained. A board examination is often required for state licensure.

Dentistry can be a very rewarding career. However, if you are considering if a career in dentistry, you want to make sure it is the right career for you. There are a few questions you can ask yourself while you are making your decision:
  • Do I care about the oral health of people?
  • Am I good with my hands?
  • Do I enjoy studying sciences?
  • Do I do well academically?
  • Am I able to complete the necessary coursework?
  • Am I willing to invest the time, money, and energy necessary?

Students who are interested in oral health may also wish to consider related fields of study such as dental hygiene, dental assisting, or other allied health fields.

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This content was written by Susan D. Bates. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Eliza Morrison Nimmich for details.