How to Become an Orthodontist & What You Can Make

Clinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
Last Modified:

Table of Contents

  1. What Do Orthodontists Do?
  2. Educational Requirements
  3. Accredited Orthodontic Programs
  4. Orthodontist Salary
  5. Other Dental Specialties
  6. References

Orthodontics is a highly competitive field, with residency-seeking applicants outnumbering available openings in programs every year.

Once training and education are complete, a career in orthodontics can be very rewarding, offering the chance to fix people’s smiles and improve their oral health. Orthodontists earn a healthy salary and often enjoy the freedom of making their own schedule.

The road to becoming a licensed orthodontist isn’t an easy one. Most students will need an impressive undergraduate GPA with science-specific coursework as well as a satisfactory result on the Dental Admission Test (DAT) in order to be accepted into a four-year program at a dental school.

After four years of rigorous coursework and clinical training, they’ll need to pass the National Board Exams to graduate. Then, they can pursue a two- or three-year residency in order to become a specialist in orthodontics.

What Do Orthodontists Do?

For those interested in entering the dental and dental specialist fields, becoming an orthodontist may be an appealing option. After all, orthodontics is one of the most well-known and popular branches of dentistry, meaning that those who succeed in the field will likely not have to worry about finding patients or struggling to maintain a practice.

But even though most are familiar with the term orthodontist, and many have had experience in an orthodontist’s office themselves, even those considering a career in orthodontics may be unsure what exactly an orthodontist does. After all, they are most commonly known for braces. But what other issues do orthodontists handle?

Orthodontists specialize in dental irregularities, which sometimes also include facial irregularities. The treatment they provide may be to diagnose and correct these irregularities. They may also prevent irregularities or stop them from developing further.

Common irregularities treated by orthodontists include crooked teeth, teeth crowding and spacing, jaw problems, and bite alignment issues (like overbite, underbite, and open bite).

Educational Requirements for Orthodontists

Like medical doctors, dentists must complete four years of schooling after finishing their undergraduate degree. So, education for an orthodontist includes three steps: college for an undergraduate degree, dental school to become a dentist, and orthodontic school to get a specialty in orthodontics.

Undergraduate Degree

Undergraduate college students who are interested in pursuing a career in orthodontics (or in dentistry in general) need to keep a few things in mind:

  • GPA: Dentistry school is highly competitive. It’s important to keep a good grade point average to improve your chances of admission.

  • Science courses: While most dentistry schools don’t require a student’s undergraduate degree to be in the sciences, most require the successful completion of multiple science courses, including biology, organic chemistry, chemistry, and physical science. Many also require standard English courses to be completed.

  • Internship or dentist shadowing: Many dentistry schools require new students to have spent time shadowing a dentist or working in a dental office.

  • Dental Admission Test (DAT): Accepted by 60 dental schools in the U.S. and 10 in Canada, the Dental Admission Test (DAT) covers topics like natural sciences, organic chemistry, reading comprehension, and reasoning and perception skills. It is used to measure whether a student is ready and able to succeed in dental school.

    According to the American Dental Association, the test should be completed in the second trimester of junior year or in the summer between junior and senior year. The DAT takes 4.5 hours to complete.

  • Personal interview: Many dental schools require a personal interview. During the interview, a school representative may ask you about your education and background as well as assess your interpersonal skills, confidence, and desire to work in the dentistry field.

  • Associated American Dental Schools Application Service (AADSAS): For a fee, students can use the AADSAS to apply to multiple dental schools with one application.

Dental School

Most people will complete dental school in four years.

Once you’re admitted to dental school and begin classes, you can expect your first two years to consist of coursework, including classes on the following:

  • Health care for diverse populations

  • Anatomy and physiology

  • Biochemistry

  • Pharmacology

  • Dental sciences, including oral anatomy and oral histology

During the first two years of dental school, most practical training outside of coursework will involve performing procedures on models of teeth and mouths.

The third and fourth years of dental school are mostly clinical, with students involved in clinical study with direct patient care. Many schools direct their students through a rotation of supervised clinical training in order to provide experience in a variety of clinical environments, such as hospitals and clinics.

Coursework in the final two years of dental school may emphasize practice management, caring for special populations (such as children or the elderly), and health care ethics.

Dental Licensure

Some dental licensure requirements vary from state to state, but the three standard requirements demanded by every state are as follows:

  • Education: Completion of a DDS or DMD degree from a recognized university dental program accredited by CODA (Commission on Dental Accreditation).

  • Written examination: Every state in the U.S. requires candidates for dental licensure to pass the Integrated National Board Dental Examination (INBDE). In 2020, the INBDE replaced Parts 1 & 2 of the National Board Dental Examination (NBDE).

    These exams are designed to test a candidate’s knowledge of relevant biomedical and dental sciences as well as their ability to problem-solve and apply this knowledge in a clinical or practice setting.

  • Clinical examination: Most states in the U.S. also have a clinical examination requirement, which is usually administered by a local or regional testing agency or an administrator.

Orthodontic School & Training

After completing dental school, the next step in becoming an orthodontist is to seek out an accredited residency program in orthodontics. Residencies can be hard to come by in this highly competitive branch of dentistry, with approximately 15 residency candidates applying to each open spot. Residencies also vary greatly in cost and in the stipend they provide to students.

Programs generally take two or three years. Upon completion, depending on the program, graduates leave with an orthodontics certificate, and/or a master of science or doctor of science degree.

Once your orthodontics residency is complete, you can seek licensure as an orthodontist. This may require an additional exam, depending on the state in which you wish to practice.

You’ll also have the choice of opting to become board-certified by the American Board of Orthodontics (ABO). In the U.S. (unlike in Canada), becoming board-certified is optional. Orthodontists who choose to become certified are known as Diplomates of the American Board of Orthodontics.

Accredited Orthodontic Programs

Many universities across the country offer orthodontics programs accredited by the American Association of Orthodontists, including these schools, which accept at least seven applicants:

How to Become an Orthodontist & What You Can Make
LocationApplication deadlineProgram start dateTuition (year one)Stipend
Roseman University of Health SciencesHenderson, NVSeptember 1July 10$74,000$20,000 yearly, full health benefits
University of California, Los Angeles School of DentistryLos Angeles, CASeptember 1July 1Varies$57,020
University of Colorado School of Dental MedicineAurora, COSeptember 15August$52,673N/A
New York University College of DentistryNew York, NYAugust 15July 1$66,674N/A
University of Connecticut Health CenterFarmington, CTSeptember 15July 1$31,221$24,000 (year one)
Stony Brook University School of Dental MedicineStony Brook, NYSeptember 1July 1$46,105N/A
Jacksonville University School of OrthodonticsJacksonville, FLSeptember 1July 12$85,000N/A
University of Illinois at Chicago College of DentistryChicago, ILAugust 15July 1$115,596Varies
Indiana University School of DentistryIndianapolis, INAugust 3July 1$33,676$12,000
Seton Hill University Center for OrthodonticsGreensburg, PASeptember 1July 6$86,400N/A
Tufts University School of Dental MedicineBoston, MAAugust 15July 1$91,672N/A
Saint Louis University Center for Advanced Dental EducationSt. Louis, MOSeptember 1June 21$39,600N/A

How Much Do Orthodontists Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for orthodontists in 2021 was $208,000 or more, while the median annual wage for general dentists was around $163,000.

Other Dental Specialties

In addition to orthodontics, there are nine other dental specialties recognized by the National Commission on Recognition of Dental Specialties and Certifying Boards (NCRDSCB):

  • Dental public health: This involves promoting dental and oral health through community action and organization, and treating the community rather than the individual. It is focused on research, administration, and prevention and control within a group or community setting.

  • Endodontics: This field focuses on the tissues at the root of the tooth and with dental pulp.

  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology: This is the study of diseases affecting the oral and maxillofacial areas, including the diagnosis, treatment, management, and causes of these diseases.

  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology: This field focuses on the production and reading of data and images related to diseases and treatment of the oral and maxillofacial areas.

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery: This area is concerned with the surgical treatment of oral diseases and issues.

  • Pediatric dentistry: This field provides comprehensive and general care for infants, children, and adolescents, including young people with special needs or disabilities.

  • Periodontics: This field covers the treatment, prevention, and diagnosis of issues related to the teeth’s supporting structures and tissues.

  • Prosthodontics: This area focuses on the treatment planning, rehabilitation, maintenance, and management of tooth loss issues and the use of compatible substitutes.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.