By James Adjan, DDS
The road to becoming a dentist can be long and challenging, but incredibly rewarding on so many levels. Having an idea of the roadmap of educational requirements can help you discern if this path is right for you, and to chart an efficient course on your educational journey.
First, you’ll need to make sure you complete the necessary prerequisite undergraduate coursework. Although there may be slight variations depending on the particular dental school, you can generally plan on needing:
Biology with lab – 8 credit hours
General chemistry with lab – 8 credit hours
Organic chemistry with lab – 8 credit hours
Physics with lab – 8 credit hours
For each dental school you plan on applying to, you’ll want to look closely at their specific requirements. They may also require additional upper-level science courses.
Even though there are substantial science requirements for admission, that doesn’t mean you have to graduate with a bio-science major. If you want to study theater, history, or business, that’s great! Most people who apply to dental school choose degrees like biology or biochemistry, which can be helpful because those majors include the required courses for dental school admission.
However, admissions teams often appreciate seeing applicants who stand out uniquely in academic disciplines outside of the most common science majors. Just make sure you add-on those required science courses (and do well in them!).
So, just how well do you need to perform? In recent years, the average science GPA for matriculating students has been 3.5, with an overall GPA of 3.6.
You might also be surprised to know that some schools don’t require you to complete your undergraduate degree, as long as you’ve completed the required coursework. Again, each school is slightly different in their requirements, so you’ll have to do your homework.
You can find a list of all the accredited dental schools in the United States through this website: Find a Program (ada.org)
Now that you’ve got your undergraduate coursework precisely plotted, you’ll need to plan for the next big landmark on the journey: the Dental Admission Test (DAT).
The DAT is a computer-based, multiple-choice examination that tests your academic ability, scientific understanding, and perceptual/spatial skills. There are four sections of the test:
Natural Sciences: Biology, general chemistry, and organic chemistry
Perceptual Ability: 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional problem solving
Reading Comprehension: Analyzing basic scientific information
Quantitative Reasoning: Algebra, data analysis, statistics
You can find more details about each component of the exam here: ADA’s 2021 DAT Guide
It’s generally recommended to take the DAT as soon as you finish your required science prerequisites, ideally toward the end of your junior year. You can take it most days of the year at a nearby testing center, and plan on being there for around five hours. You’ll want to give yourself some breathing room if you decide to re-take the exam for a better score. You need to wait 90 days before retaking the test (and you can take the DAT up to three times).
Each component of the exam has a score range from 1 to 30, and the national average for test-takers is 19. For those that were accepted into dental school, the most recent statistics reveal an average of 20 in each section and for their overall score.
The ADA’s website has sample questions and advice on test preparation: Test Preparation (ada.org)
Dental school curriculum
You’ve managed to achieve a high GPA and a solid DAT score, and you’ve earned a seat in the dental school of your dreams. Now what? The journey continues with your dental school curriculum and graduation requirements.
You can usually think of dental school in two parts: The first half is mostly in the classroom and in the simulation lab, where you begin to develop your hand skills while working on artificial teeth. The second half is mostly in the clinic treating actual patients, with a smaller amount of classroom time.
The classroom learning involves generalized science coursework in anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology and physiology. You’ll also take dental-specific courses in oral anatomy, histology, pathology, and the fundamentals of dental procedures and materials.
While in the clinical portion of dental school, you’ll see a diverse population of patients with a wide range of dental problems. Most schools offer the opportunity to see patients outside of the dental school in community clinics under the supervision of adjunct faculty.
In order to graduate, you’ll be expected to complete a minimum number of dental procedures. Each school will require a specific number of fillings, crowns, extractions, root canals, and dentures to be successfully completed.
The final steps to becoming a dentist
Towards the end of your dental school education, you’ll start to see the light at the end of the tunnel – becoming a licensed dentist and finally taking your skills out into the world. There are a few important hurdles you’ll need to navigate before moving on to the next chapter in your career.
Historically, there was a two-part national board exam each dental student needed to pass in order to graduate, called the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE). In 2020, a new examination was launched called the Integrated National Board Dental Examination (INBDE), which combines both tests into one.
This exam tests your scientific and clinical knowledge in a multiple-choice format, and is scored only as pass/fail. The previous examinations totaled 900 questions. However, the new INBDE has 500. It’s a computerized exam taken at testing centers throughout the United States, and it’s a one and one-half day process.
Similarly, each state has their own licensing requirements for becoming a dentist which involve passing a clinically-oriented board exam, often taken during the final year of dental school. One examination accepted by many state dental boards is the ADEX, which has both a computerized testing component and testing on both live patients and artificial teeth on manikins.
You’ve made it!
You’ve finally completed your dental school journey, and have a diploma and dental license in-hand. Most states will allow you to jump right in and start practicing, but some may require at least one year of advanced training in a clinical residency, whether a single-year general dental residency or a multi-year specialty residency, such as oral surgery, orthodontics, or pediatric dentistry.
The educational journey to becoming a dentist requires dedication, persistence, and mindful planning, so remember to take things one step at a time and try to enjoy the process. Once you’re a practicing dentist, you’ll realize that the education truly never ends. The best dentists out there are life-long learners in an ever-evolving field of healthcare.
About the author: James Adjan, DDS, is a pediatric dentist practicing in Austin, Texas. Outside of his dental practice, James works with young adults in developing a contemplative meditation practice and cultivating spiritual well-being.
Photo note: “Short Hike (7)” by Nicholas_T is marked under CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/cc0/1.0/