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How to Become a Dentist: A High School Student’s Guide

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Interested in becoming a dentist? Considering applying to dental school, but unsure of where to start? You are at the right place.

This article will guide you through the pros and cons of the profession as well as the necessary skills and information you will need to pursue this career.

Why should I become a dentist?

There are so many perks to being a dentist that dentistry-related careers have been in the U.S. News lists of “Best Jobs” for several years running.

General dentists are ranked at #2, orthodontists at #4, and oral and maxillofacial surgeons tied for #9 in 2020. (Don’t worry – we will be talking more about these subfields later in the article!)

Being a dentist often allows for a great work-life balance. Many dentists own their own practice. This means that dentists are able to set their own hours, deciding if they want to work during normal business hours or if they would prefer to work evenings and weekends. Being able to set your own hours means that you can set your schedule around the other important things in your life, such as family and friends.

And, of course, dentist’s offices are often community fixtures. Dentistry is a respected profession, and being a dentist means that people put their trust in you. Dentists make a difference in their patients’ smiles, health, and well-being.

Dentists work with their patients’ best interests at heart. If you have a passion for helping others, dentistry is a great avenue to do so!

What’s the salary range and job outlook of a dentist?

Another huge benefit of pursuing dentistry is that the field both is high paying and has a very low unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2018 median pay for dentists was $156,240 per year.

The salaries of dentists span a huge range, depending on specialties. About 80% of dentists are general dentists, whose median salary clocks in at $151,850. Oral surgeons, however, have a median salary of $208,000 or more!

The unemployment rate for dentists sits at a very small number: 0.4%! If you are looking for job security, dentistry might be a great option to consider.

The high salary and low employment rate mean that often being a dentist is a very stable career choice. And the outlook is only improving. The field is expected to grow 8% by 2028, which is faster than the U.S. average.

What kind of skills do I need to become a dentist?

So, now you are interested in dentistry as a career – but do you know what it takes? There are many skills dentists need in order to be successful.

  • Compassion: If you’ve ever felt nervous before going in for a dental cleaning or filling, you know that a compassionate dentist can help patients feel comfortable and at ease. Many people get nervous just walking into a dentist office, and a little bit of compassion can go a long way!
  • Problem-Solving: Once a dentist identifies a problem, they must decide the best course of action, taking into account cost, effectiveness, and the patient’s age, health, and prior conditions.
  • Leadership: In addition to working with patients, many dentists also are leading a team of administrative staff, human resources, dental assistants, and dental hygienists.
  • Dexterity: Dentists are working with their hands constantly, using a wide array of tools in a small space
  • Communication: When speaking with patients, dentists have to clearly communicate the patient’s condition, problem areas, and options for solutions in a way that makes sense. They also must communicate with the rest of the dental staff in their office.
  • Detail-oriented: When completing oral exams, dentists must pay attention to the size, shape, color, and spacing of their patients’ teeth and gums in order to provide the best treatment.

What are the drawbacks of becoming a dentist?

One of the biggest drawbacks to pursuing dentistry is the amount of schooling required to get a degree, which we will explain in detail further in the next section of this article. Dental school is a doctoral program that lasts four years.

This means that if you spend four years completing your undergraduate degree, and another four years completing dental school, you will have been in college for at least 8 years before you can start working as a general dentist! If you want to be a specialized dentist, add on another 1-2 years of schooling.

Related to the amount of schooling required is the amount of debt many dental students take on to pursue this career. Dental school has some of the highest tuition rates of any graduate or doctoral program, and its students graduate with some of the highest amounts of debt in the United States.

On average, dental school will put students in $250,000-350,000 worth of debt, but more expensive schools can add up to over $500,000 – and that is without considering annual raises in tuition. Add on any undergraduate loans you have on, and the debt can quickly become staggering.

Because of the high salaries, however, many dentists find the return on investment to be worth it. However, it might be smart to find an affordable option for your undergraduate degree to mitigate some of the debt you will likely accrue in dental school.

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What degrees and requirements do I need to become a dentist? What kind of training do I need to become a dentist?

The first thing you need to do to become a dentist is to graduate high school. Get good grades and take college-level courses if you can (AP, IB, and/or concurrent enrollment), particularly in math and science.

There is no required major for undergraduates in order to get into a dental school. However, almost all dental schools require some manner of a bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite. Different dental schools require different prerequisite courses for admission, so do your research! Generally, these courses include:

  • Biology (with lab)
  • General and Organic Chemistry (with lab)
  • Physics
  • Calculus
  • Anatomy
  • Genetics and/or Biochemistry
  • English

Many students will earn a degree in a science-based field, such as biology or health sciences. However, as long as you take all of the required prerequisite courses, you can major in anything you want in undergrad and still be eligible for dental school.

While completing your undergraduate degree, many students hoping to attend dental school will try to volunteer with or shadow a dentist. This is a smart move, as it gives students a feel for what the profession is really like.

Also, during your undergraduate years, it is important to maintain a high GPA so you can be competitive when applying to dental schools.

Additionally, most pre-dental undergraduate students spend their junior year studying for and taking the Dental Admission Test (DAT). The DAT is a timed multiple-choice test used to determine an applicant’s potential success in dental school.

There are four sections to this test: Survey of the Natural Sciences (this covers biology, chemistry, and organic chemistry), Perceptual Ability, Reading Comprehension, and Quantitative Reasoning.

During the junior and senior year of college, pre-dental students apply and interview for various dental schools (we will cover this process in more detail later in the article).

Once you have been admitted into and selected a dental school, you will begin earning either a Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) or a Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM). Despite the different names, the degrees are the same; both degrees have the same curriculum requirements and job prospects, according to the ADA. It is up to each dental school which degree they will award.

Dental school training is much more specific and specialized than the curriculum for a bachelor’s degree. Some courses include:

  • Dental Development and Anatomy: Most students who have taken all the necessary science prerequisites will be familiar with human anatomy, but dental anatomy is much more specific. This subject focuses on the development, classification, arrangement, and structure of human teeth. This includes both baby teeth and adult teeth.
  • Oral Microbiology: Often taught with an immunology focus, this subject covers the microbiological processes that cause common dental problems.
  • Professionalism: Teaching students professionalism is a huge priority for many dental schools because professionalism often translates to credibility. These courses will also often cover ethics as a health professional.
  • Oral Health and Nutrition: This subject can cover the connections between oral health and overall health. It also covers the impacts of diet and nutrition on oral health. It’s these courses that emphasize the importance of brushing and flossing at least twice a day!
  • Pain and Anxiety Management: Whether dentists use a local numbing agent for a cavity filling, or need an oral and maxillofacial surgeon to administer a general anesthetic prior to a major oral surgery, pain management is often a crucial part of dentistry. Especially due to many patients’ high anxiety and nerves, having a solid foundation on pain and anxiety management techniques is a critical skill for any dentist.
  • Pre-Clinical labs: Clincals are real-world experiences where students have hands-on experiences performing cleanings, fillings, and other procedures. Generally, the first two years of dental school include pre-clinical labs where students do not see patients but still practice procedures on plastic teeth.
  • Clinical Experiences: In your third and fourth years, students begin seeing actual patients and performing exams and procedures on them in clinical experiences. This may be in a student dental clinic operated by the school. Everything is checked and approved by a supervisor. Students are only asked to perform tasks that they have covered in the classroom, so the complexity of tasks increases as students get older and move onto the next semester.

What kinds of dentists are there?

Eighty percent of dentists are classified as general dentists. These are the dentists who you see to get your twice-yearly cleaning and who fill cavities. The other 20% of dentists, however, are what the American Dental Association call specialists.

There are ten dental specialties that the ADA recognizes. After attending dental school for four years, dentists attend another degree program to get the advanced training necessary to become a specialist in any of the following fields. This training lasts at least two years.

A helpful word to know before we get started on this list is maxillofacial, which refers to the face and jaws. This is often used in conjunction with oral, which refers to the mouth.

  • Dental Anesthesiology: Dental anesthesiologists provide advanced anesthesia and pain management for patients undergoing dental, oral, and maxillofacial procedures. Most dental anesthesiologists work at general practices and assist in administering pain and anxiety management medication. In the field, there is a particular focus on patient safety and scientific research.
  • Dental Public Health: Professionals who specialize in dental public health share the goal of improving oral health in entire populations, rather than individuals. This work includes improving access and quality of care for underserved populations, encouraging preventative care, and working to further research.
  • Endodontics: This field focuses on the tissues and pulp surrounding the roots of teeth. Endodontists are the specialists who perform root canal surgery, which is a type of endodontic surgery. Endodontic surgery can also save teeth after traumatic accidents. Many diseased teeth can be recovered via endodontic surgery.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology: This field covers the study of the causes, processes, and effects of diseases and infections that impact the mouth, jaws, and face. People who enjoy searching for answers and problem-solving may enjoy this specialized field. These professionals identify and mitigate diseases and constantly research and use new technology and diagnostic techniques.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology: Oral and maxillofacial radiologists are dentists who specialize in reading and interpreting radiographic images (x-rays) for conditions in the head, mouth, jaws, and face. These specialists are skilled in reading and interpreting CT, CBCT, MRI, and ultrasound results. Due to rapidly changing technology, this field is dynamic and constantly growing.
  • Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery: Specialists in this field are unique from other dental specialties. After dental school, oral and maxillofacial surgeons spend another four years in a surgical-based residency program, training alongside medical students. In residency, they learn about the anatomical structures of the mouth, face, and jaw. They also are trained to administer anesthesia and perform complex surgeries, such as wisdom teeth extraction and cleft lip/palate surgery. These specialists are often MDs in addition to dentists.
  • Orthodontics and Dentofacial Orthopedics: Many might associate orthodontics with braces, and that is exactly correct; orthodontics focuses on managing the movement of teeth. Orthodontists also identify and create treatment plans for missing teeth or any other abnormality. Dentofacial orthopedics is a closely related field which focuses on the development of facial growth and facial development. This is an especially important field to consider when working with children. As children grow, so do their jaws and other facial bones. Dentofacial orthopedics works to improve both the position and dimensions of the jaw so that orthodontic work is as effective as possible.
  • Pediatric Dentistry: Pediatric dentists specialize in dental care for children. General dentists can also work with children, but pediatric dentists are specialists who had to take courses in child orthodontics, infant oral healthcare, child-related pharmacology, care for patients with special needs, conscious sedation and general anesthesia, and child development and psychology. Pediatric dentists complete infant oral health exams, early orthodontic assessment and treatment, treatment for traumatic oral injuries, and more.
  • Periodontics: This specialty focuses on diagnosing and treating diseases of the gums and other structures that support teeth. Periodontists treat gum diseases ranging from gingivitis to severe periodontitis using a variety of techniques, including cleaning infected roots, removing damaged tissue, and reversing bone and tissue loss. Periodontists also are experts in placing dental implants and performing cosmetic periodontal procedures.
  • Prosthodontics: Prosthodontics is the field that deals with replacing just about anything in the mouth from teeth to gums to jaws. The field is also known as dental prosthetics. Prosthodontists make sure that any replacements are functional and look natural in their patient’s mouth (e.g., the shade of the replacement tooth matches the shade of the rest of the teeth). Many times, a general dentist can replace crowns and missing teeth. Prosthodontists, therefore, are the experts in more complicated procedures and surgeries. They often work alongside general dentists and oral and maxillofacial surgeons.

Now that you know all the different possibilities for post-graduate work after dental school, let’s backtrack a little bit and talk about getting into dental school in the first place.

How hard is it to get into dental school? 

As mentioned, dental school hopefuls spend their junior and senior years of undergraduate school applying to and interviewing for dental schools. Dental schools look at several factors to select who gets in.

  • GPA: The average GPA for students accepted into dental school is about 3.5. Those with GPAs under 3.3 will have a hard time even getting interviews! GPA is important because it shows the potential of a candidate to succeed academically in dental school.
  • DAT: The Dental Admission Test is scored on a scale of 1-30. The average score for students admitted into dental schools is usually around 19. A lower score than this, or a particularly low score on one of the sections, can hinder a student’s ability to be accepted into dental school.
  • Personal Essay: While a student’s GPA and DAT scores might tell one side of a student’s academic potential, the personal essay addresses the Why are you applying to dental school? Why do you want to be a dentist? What experiences have shaped you and your career path? The personal essay is a great way to give the admissions committee a glimpse of the person behind the numbers.
  • Interviews: After applying, dental schools hold interviews to determine who they actually admit. These interviews test confidence, interpersonal skills, and the ability to prepare and think quickly. These interviews are also a great opportunity for applicants to get a feel for the school and staff, as well as ask any questions they may have.

The process of admission is very selective. There are only 65 dental schools in the United States. The schools with the highest acceptance rates sit at only around 17%. On average, the acceptance rate for dental schools in the United States is around 6%.

The process of applying to dental school can be pretty long and daunting. With proper planning and a schedule, though, it doesn’t have to be nearly intimidating as it looks!

Conclusion: How to Become a Dentist

As you can tell, becoming a dentist takes a lot of dedication, patience, and commitment.

With the right attitude and plenty of planning ahead, however, it can definitely be in your future!

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