How to Become a Dentist
Being a dentist isn’t just about filling cavities, making crowns, or whitening your smile. What most people don’t realize is the health of your teeth, gums, tongue, and cheeks are gateways into your overall health. While dentists primarily look after your oral health, problems in the mouth can often indicate issues elsewhere in the body.
That is why becoming a dentist requires a multitude of courses that overlap with requirements med school students also take. Doctors obviously need to understand body systems, but so do dentists if they are going to provide proper care.
Now, let’s take a look at how to become a dentist.
Dental School Admission Requirements
According to the American Dental Association (ADA), required courses in undergraduate programs include:
- 8 hours: Biology with lab
- 8 hours: Physics
- 8 hours: English
- 8 hours: General Chemistry with lab
- 8 hours: Organic Chemistry with lab
You don’t have to major in science, but you must complete pre-dental science courses. You should hold a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science degree from an accredited institution when applying to dental school.
Once you have completed your undergraduate work, you can start applying to dental schools. You should start by taking the Dental Admissions Test (DAT) at least a year before seeking admission to dental school.
This test measures general academic ability, comprehension of scientific information, and perceptual ability. Make sure you take at least one year of college level courses in biology and general and organic chemistry before taking the DAT. The average score for the DAT is 17 and a perfect score is 30. The test takes 4.5 hours to complete and costs $445.
After you have your DAT results, you can begin to collect letters of recommendation to add to your application. Admissions committees review credentials including academic qualifications, DAT scores, grade point average (GPA), letters of recommendation, personal interviews, and dental office shadowing experiences. You can get your shadowing experience during your undergraduate years or even during high school.
Most dental schools require personal interviews with candidates to assess soft skills like a desire to help people, self-confidence, the ability to meet challenges, the ability to get along with others, and the capacity to work independently. Plan to apply for admission at least a year in advance of your anticipated start date.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Dentist?
Once you have been accepted to dental school, it takes four years to earn either your degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD).
The American Dental Association breaks down the course of study as follows:
Years One and Two
- Classroom and laboratory instruction in basic health sciences (including anatomy, biochemistry, histology, microbiology, pharmacology, and physiology), with an emphasis on dental aspects.
- Basic principles of oral diagnosis and treatment, may practice on manikins and models, and may begin treating patients later in the second year.
Years Three and Four
- Students treat patients under the supervision of a licensed dental faculty. Procedures cover the broad scope of general dentistry and include opportunities to work in a variety of settings, e.g., community clinics, hospitals, and outpatient clinics.
- Practice management courses include instruction in effective communication skills, the use of allied dental personnel, and business management.
To graduate from dental school, you must complete all coursework and clinical practice with satisfactory grades. After graduation, you must begin studying for the license exams. There are both written and practical exams to pass in order to qualify for a dental license. Each state has their own unique State Board requirements, so be sure to study for your state’s exam.
Being a Practicing Dentist
Beyond the educational requirements for becoming a licensed dentist, there are other aspects to the practice that you must consider. According to the American Dental Education Association, working with your hands, helping people, being creative, and being a leader are important skills in being a good dentist. You must also demonstrate the following:
- Good judgment
- Excellent organization
- Critical thinking skills
- Negotiation skills
- Networking skills
- Manual dexterity
- Maintain continuing education requirements
Many people dive into studying the profession before actually understanding it. Dentistry is about so much more than routine care. Despite what many people may think, dentists also do the following:
- Restore oral health and transform the lives of their patients
- Are independent in their careers
- Earn a good salary
- Can choose from a number of career options
- Maintain a flexible lifestyle
- Shape the future of oral health care
- Are respected members of their communities
- Exercise creativity in their daily work
- Work as part of a team
- Provide benevolent care to their communities
A good personality, empathy, and compassion are critical when practicing as a dentist. Most patients have at least some anxiety when they go to a dental office, and it is essential that the patient is relaxed before any dental work begins. The patient’s comfort will make the appointment easier and go smoothly.
Practicing dentists are kind, artistic, detail-oriented leaders with a passion for helping people. Before considering entering the dental field, spend some time shadowing a dentist, interview a dentist, or read extensively on what a good dentist should be. Your future patients will thank you for it.