Helping people takes many forms. Dentists help people develop self-confidence by helping them have a healthier, prettier smile. If you enjoy helping people, think teeth and medicine are nifty, and might enjoy performing surgery, perhaps consider a career in dentistry! Before jumping into the field of dentistry, you’ll need to ask the question “What training do you need to become a dentist?”
Deciding on a Career in Dentistry
Since dentists are a type of doctor, you need to prepare yourself for a significant amount of time in school. The total years of college plus residency require a ten-year commitment. That’s four years for your undergraduate degree, four years for the dental medical, then two years as a resident. If you want to become an oral surgeon, you will also need to attend medical school for the medical degree. Maybe you think some of the things dentists do seem cool like braces, dental implants, emergency dental care, teeth whitening, dental fillings, and making dentures. Your pediatric dentist probably helped you learn to brush your teeth or helped pull a stubborn baby tooth. Perhaps you have received treatment at a dental clinic and visiting that affordable dentist in a friendly dental office made you want to become one.
Talk to Your Dentist
If that sounds daunting, you may not be ready for the commitment it takes to become a dentist. One of the best ways to learn what it is like is to talk to your own dentist. You can call for a different kind of appointment. Ask to meet for coffee or to get together on the day their office is closed. You can interview your dentist to learn what their schooling was like and how much time they had to devote to their studies. They can also offer you invaluable advice on developing your high school activities to maximize your chances of getting into a good college and then a good dental school.
Vo-tech Short Programs for Preparation
Your dentist may suggest that you complete a short program while in high school that provides you with exposure to a dentist’s office. Many vo-tech schools that partner with high schools offer a dental technician program. Where you once had to attend a community or technical college for this type of program, you can now earn this certification in high school in many larger cities.
This does more than provide you with valuable exposure to actual dental work. Dental tech or dental assistants make pretty good money. You will need that to put yourself through dental school. Many people earn this initial training and go to work in a dentist’s office part-time. The experience plus the superb recommendation from a dentist who knows them well and can attest to their abilities first-hand can prove invaluable to gaining admittance to dental school.
By taking this route, you put yourself ahead of the curve. Your dentist can help you determine whether this would work well for you and what other opportunities exist. They may have an internship program or hire office staff part-time. Either option gets you experience and lets you earn money to pay for school.
Getting a Bachelor’s Degree
Your Bachelor’s degree needs to be in a science-related field, such as biology or pre-dentistry. After earning the BS, you earn the DDS or DMD degree. On your way to that degree, you have to take a graduate entrance exam. While your friends might be studying for the GMAT or GRE, dental school, like law school, has its own entrance exam. You need to study for and ace the Dental Admission Test (DAT).
You also need to complete an interview process with the school. Until COVID-19, these were all in-person interviews. Your application schools may choose to still conduct interviews via video call, or they may require an in-person interview. Much competition exists to gain entry to dental schools. You should prepare to apply to at least five schools with the expectation of gaining acceptance to one.
Colleges Look at Your High School Classes
While admittance strategies vary, expect each school to review your full academic career. You need to have performed well in high school as well as college. Schools will look for a strong background and long-term interest in the sciences. They favor candidates with Advanced Placement (AP) coursework, who entered college with existing college credit earned while in high school. The US offers AP exams in Calculus, Statistics, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, Algebra-based Physics, Electricity and Magnesium-based Physics, and Mechanics-based Physics. If your high school offers courses in Forensic Science or Trigonometry, those also provide an important foundation, although the formal AP program does not offer tests for those topics.
Applying to Dental Schools
Also, each dental school has different requirements. While you might have used the same essay for all of your college applications, that won’t work for dental school admission.
You will need to prepare each school’s package separately. This includes sharpening your base resume to slant it toward the school.
Take great care in preparing yourself for your on-campus interviews. If you can speak with a recent graduate of each school before the interview, you can glean tips on how you should dress, behave, and what to say. You will need to put forth this level of effort for each school since entry is that competitive.
Strategies for Applications
Do not expect to gain admittance to all of the schools to which you apply. Expect to apply to many, all at once. This means you need to save up some money while you attend undergraduate school because graduate school applications cost more in application fees than undergraduate admission fees. Expect at least a $100 application fee for each school.
As mentioned, you will apply to a minimum of five schools. The maximum number of applications usually numbers about 15 schools. You’ll need to save up between $500 to $1,500 in application fees.
You need to develop a strategy for choosing schools. As long as you know that you genuinely have your heart set on becoming a dentist, you invest the copious amount of time to conduct the research needed into the schools to apply. Yes, you need to do the research on what the schools offer, the specialties for which they’re known, how tough admittance is, their graduation rates, mentoring programs, placement assistance, any residency programs with which they have placed numerous graduates. Most successful college students apply to a mix of three different levels of schools:
- Reach schools,
- Match schools,
- Safety schools.
Those terms mean the same thing and different things to every student. A reach school refers to a school that would be a reach if you gained admittance, but it remains a possibility. The term match school refers to a school in which you meet all the requirements and to which you would likely gain admittance. The term safety school refers to a school that would gleefully accept you since you exceed their minimum requirements.
Here is where the research comes into play. You need to know the requirements for each school and the percentage of students each year for the past five years that they accepted with your qualifications. You cannot fudge your qualifications. Be utterly honest with yourself when you examine your own high school, college, and extracurricular activities. Schools look at your courses, the course level, your GPA, extracurriculars in which you participated, and whether you also worked at a part-time or full-time job. If you held down a job while earning a 4.0 or close to it, plus you excelled in student leadership positions, they know you will do well in dental school.
Each person’s reach, match, and safety schools will differ. You must research based upon your own credentials. You cannot pick the same schools as your best friend. Your willingness to conduct the research into your schools decides whether you will waste money on applications or quickly gain admittance to a dental school that suits your needs.
Preparations for Becoming a Dentist
In addition to your initial discussions with a dentist to decide that you really want to become one, you need to also shadow a dentist. This is a more formal program, and it consists of you working as sort of an intern in the dentist’s office, although you may not perform any dental work. You would simply observe the medical portions and might file papers or answer telephones. Every school will look at this information and consider letters of recommendation from this dentist.
You should have multiple letters of recommendation. Some schools require a specific number while others allow you to add extra letters of merit. The better these letters represent you, the better your standing with the schools.
Strong candidates for dental school should expect to gain admittance to one school out of each five to which they apply. If you apply to five and do not get into any of them, you probably applied to five reach schools instead of creating a mix of schools. You do not need a big-name school to become a superb dentist. You do need an accredited school with a good reputation and a string of graduates who have gainful employment in their chosen field.
Look at which schools have the best percentages of graduates actually working as dentists. It says a lot about a degree program when its graduates get a job in their field right out of college or professional school. It says they care enough to assist with the job hunt and placement. Prioritize schools with a strong alumni program that actively have their graduates visit campus to meet with potential graduates. This shouldn’t be a once-per-year event, but a weekly or monthly event that lets students build rapport with dentists in that area who graduated from the program. These dentists would ultimately become potential places of residency, the two years after grad school when a dentist learns the trade side of the profession after obtaining the book knowledge in school. During this time, the recent graduate takes their qualifying exams and earns the right to refer to themselves as a dentist and doctor.
Yes, even after you finished college, graduate school, and you complete your residency, you have one more hurdle. You need to pass the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE) and your clinical exam. The NBDE comes in two parts, and you must ace both. Your clinical exam refers to a monitored, live, in-person examination in which you treat a patient. Each state varies its requirements for this exam. You must also ace the clinicals to receive your license to practice dentistry.
Dentists Can Specialize
You can specialize in a field of dentistry. This requires added schooling. Some dentists decide to specialize after developing an interest once they practice general dentistry for a little while, but others know when they begin dental school that they want to specialize. The ADA recognizes ten specializations and each requires a specific course load:
- Dental Anesthesiology
- Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
- Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery
- Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
- Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics
- Pediatric Dentistry
- Dental Public Health.
You might lament the thought, but you would need to go to school a little longer for any of these specialties. If you choose to become a maxillofacial surgeon, you will need to complete medical school, too. This means you will earn an MD on top of your DDS. You also will need to pass a second licensing exam that tests your specialty training.
Dentists spend a lot of time and money becoming doctors, but it pays them back to become a dentist. Not only do they gain personal satisfaction by helping people every day, they earn a pretty fabulous income. The median salary for a general dentist is $151,850. Specialists earn about that and more. Dental surgeons earn a median income of about $208,000 per year.
By putting yourself through school so that you avoid taking out college loans, you might make things tougher, but you enable yourself to maximize your earnings once you graduate. If you continue to live frugally, working as a dentist in general practice or a specialty and earning the median income, you can become a millionaire in less than a decade. That’s a pretty decent payback for years of hard work studying. You can avoid needing dental equipment loans to get started with your own practice by purchasing an existing practice. Yes, there is such thing as dental practice sale, and you can walk into a median salary by purchasing a practice from a retiring dentist.