Dentist Requirements: What it Takes to Become a Dentist

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Have you ever wondered what it takes to become a dentist? Just as medical doctors and lawyers need to complete years of schooling beyond their undergraduate coursework, dentists are required to attend four years of dental school. Dentist requirements extend beyond an additional education, though. Your dentist needed to pass a number of tests and, in some cases, complete even more training before they were able to work with patients.

Although the road to becoming a general dentist or a dental specialist is a long one, it's well worth it for many. In 2016, U.S. News and World Report ranked being a dentist as the second-best career in the U.S., with orthodontist topping the list. The publication looked at salary, work-life balance and challenge when determining the best careers. Here's what a person has to go through before becoming a dentist, and the credentials to look for when you're searching for dentists.

1. Take the Test

Any college student thinking about becoming a dentist needs to take the Dental Admissions Test (DAT). As the American Dental Association (ADA) notes, it's typically recommended that students take the DAT at least a year before they apply to dental school, usually during their junior year of college. Before taking the DAT, it's helpful to complete any dental prerequisites, such as taking certain biology classes or other science courses.

2. Attend Dental School

Along with their DAT scores, most students also need to have a good GPA, experience shadowing a dentist and excellent letters of recommendation to get into dental school. Although a student doesn't need a science degree to enroll, most programs require that students take at least eight hours worth of biology, chemistry, physical science, organic chemistry and English courses as an undergrad before they apply, the ADA states.

Most dental schools are four-year programs, completed after a student earns their bachelor's degree. Schools either award a DDS, known as a doctor of dental surgery degree; or a DMD, a doctor of medicine in dentistry degree. The two degrees are the same, according to the ADA, meaning they involve the same coursework and methods of practice. The only difference is the name. Look for either degree when searching for dentist requirements.

Typically, the first two years of dental school are focused on coursework and the second two years are focused on clinical training, as the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) points out. The exact course of training a dentist receives will vary slightly from school to school, but you can rest assured any dentist who successfully earns a DMD or DDS designation will have had the training needed to professionally clean your teeth, diagnose problems and offer the best course of treatment.

3. Pass Exams

To officially become a dentist after dental school, a student needs to take and pass a series of examinations. The National Board of Dental Examinations (NBDE) issues a two-part written test every hopeful dentist needs to pass. Additionally, most states have a clinical examination requirement that needs to be met before a dentist can practice there. In some states, such as California and Ohio, an aspiring dentist can skip the clinical exam and complete a postgraduate training program instead. In New York, a postgraduate training program is a must, rather than an exam, says the ADA.

4. Consider a Specialty

About 20 percent of dentists in the U.S. are specialists, such as oral surgeons, orthodontists and pediatric dentists. Becoming a specialist requires more training – in some cases as many as six extra years of education and clinical experience.

Once a dentist has completed dental school and all the necessary exams or postgraduate training, they are good to go. They can then set up an office as a private practice dentist, teaching patients the benefits of using a soft-bristled toothbrush like Colgate® Enamel Health™ Toothbrush over a brush with firmer bristles, diagnosing cavities or other problems and generally helping patients have the healthiest mouths possible.