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How to Become a Dentist: Steps to Take From High School

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You don’t need to have a major in mind before starting college. However, students who know what career path they want to pursue are at a distinct advantage, academically and financiall speaking. After all, they’re less likely to have to stay on an extra semester or two to complete course requirements. The end result is that they can start their jobs faster. Additionally, students who explore different careers in high school have more opportunities to evaluate their options and decide what will make them happy. 


Wondering whether a career as a dentist would bring you joy? Read on to learn how to become a dentist and decide whether this field of healthcare is right for you.


What Does a Dentist Do?


Dentists are healthcare professionals tasked with diagnosing and treating conditions related to patients’ teeth and gums. Along with offering instruction about how to preserve oral health, dentists clean and repair teeth, filling cavities and helping to prevent decay. Dentists also perform x-rays and other tests to evaluate the teeth and jaw, and take measurements to create mouth guards and dentures. Additionally, dentists may prescribe antibiotics and painkillers to patients suffering problems related to wisdom teeth, infections, and other dental issues.


Some dentists have specialized training that enables them to perform additional tasks and duties. For example, periodontists specialize in treating periodontal (gum) disease, while orthodontists straighten teeth with wires, braces, and other tools. While specialists tend to earn more than general dentists, the average salary for a person in this profession is $156,240 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics


How to Become a Dentist


Do you dream of a future keeping patients’ teeth healthy? To become a dentist, start by taking the below steps. 


High School


If you’re considering a career as a dentist, it pays to start preparing in high school. As an aspiring dental student, you should pursue a course load with plenty of science and math courses. Additionally, high schoolers can strive to increase their communication skills by studying English, public speaking, and even foreign languages. After all, you’re bound to have patients who don’t speak English. 


In terms of extracurriculars, students should consider activities in STEM, healthcare, or communication. Some ideas of extracurriculars might be:


  • Working in a nursing home
  • Science Olympiad
  • HOSA (Future Health Professionals, formerly Health Occupations Students of America)
  • Debate team
  • School newspaper


Additionally, high schoolers should take steps to determine whether they would enjoy a life of dental work. Think about scheduling an informational interview with your own family dentist or orthodontist. Unlike regular interviews, which are focused on hiring for a specific role, informational interviews are designed to give individuals insight into a career. You may even be able to shadow your dentist to see what their daily schedule entails.


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As an aspiring dentist, you can major in whatever subject you wish. However, individuals who want to practice dentistry will eventually need to attend dental school to earn a DDS or DMD degree. Most dental schools require applicants to first earn a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution. 


Additionally, they may mandate that students take a certain number of science classes. Most dental schools require the following coursework; however it’s always best to check with the school in question to be sure you’re meeting expectations.


  • General chemistry with lab (2 semesters)
  • Organic chemistry with lab (2 semesters)
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology with lab (2 semesters)
  • Physics (2 semesters)
  • Math (2 semesters)
  • English (2 semesters)
  • Psychology


Taking these courses also helps prepare students for the Dental Admission Test (DAT), which is required for admission to dental school. A four-part assessment, DAT features multiple-choice questions in the following areas: Survey of the Natural Sciences, Perceptual Ability, Reading Comprehension, and Quantitative Reasoning. 


Additionally, most dental programs require prospective students to spend time shadowing a working dentist. This a great opportunity to get a first-hand look at what the job entails. While 50 hours is sufficient for the majority of schools, students who want to stand out can aim for 150 hours of shadowing time.


As an undergrad, you should also strive to create meaningful relationships through your extracurriculars and part-time jobs. Dental schools make admissions decisions based in part on interviews and recommendations, so it pays to make a good impression on professors and supervisors. 


Dental School


Once you’ve been admitted to dental school, you will begin studying for your future career. Along with attending lectures covering biochemistry, anatomy, and physiology, dental students get hands-on experience in a dental lab, treating real patients under a professor’s supervision. Additionally, students will practice the clinical procedures needed to pass their board exams. 


You must have a license in the state in which you plan to treat patients. To secure a license, you must earn your DDS or DMD, pass the National Board Examinations, and pass a state clinical examination. Once you’ve achieved these milestones, you’ll be ready to embark on a career as a licensed dentist. 


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Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.