How to Become a Dentist: Step-by-Step Guide

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

Table of Contents

  1. Obtain Your Bachelor's Degree
  2. Pass Dental Entrance Exam & Dental School
  3. Nationally Board Certified & State Licensed
  4. Consider a Specialty
  5. Get Necessary Insurance
  6. Get Experience, if Needed
  7. References

Dentistry is a growing field, and it’s expected to continue to grow in the coming years. Dentists make an average annual wage of over $160,000 per year.

If you want to be dentist, you will need to follow these steps:

  1. Earn a bachelor’s degree with the required prerequisites.

  2. Score well on the Dental Admission Test (DAT) and apply to dental school.

  3. Complete a dental degree of Doctor of Dental Medicine (DDM) or Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS).

  4. Pass the National Board Dental Examination and meet your state licensing requirements.

  5. Decide on either general practice or additional schooling for one of 12 dental specialties.

  6. Obtain the necessary insurance to practice.

  7. Complete an internship or residency, if required in your state.

Becoming a practicing dentist can take some time, effort, and money. It can also pay big dividends, as it is a stable, fulfilling, and well-paying career.

Step 1: Obtain Your Bachelor’s Degree

The first step in becoming a dentist is to get your undergraduate bachelor’s degree. You do not have to major in biology or science to be admitted to dental school, even though many students have these majors.

There are some prerequisites to be aware of that dental schools require you to have. These include the following:

  • 2 semesters of biology, including a lab

  • 2 semesters of physics, including a lab

  • 2 semesters of chemistry, including a lab

  • 2 semesters of organic chemistry, including a lab

Some dental schools will also require the following:

  • Upper-level biology classes, such as anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, and microbiology

  • English composition

  • Courses in the arts

  • Social sciences courses

Dental schools are seeking students who are well-rounded and take a rigorous course load regardless of their chosen major. Check with the dental school you wish to attend to ensure you are meeting their prerequisites.

Step 2: Pass the Dental Admission Test & Go to Dental School

You will need to take the Dental Admission Test (DAT) at least one year before applying to dental school. You can make up to three attempts to improve your score.

The test is multiple choice. It tests your aptitude on reading comprehension, quantitative reasoning, natural sciences, and perceptual ability.

There are 66 dental schools in the United States that are accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA) Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA), and these schools are highly competitive. The admissions committee will look at the following:

  • Grade point average (GPA)

  • DAT scores

  • Letters of recommendation

  • Personal interviews

  • Potential experience at a dental office

You can choose to get your DDS or DDM degree. Each one takes about four years to complete.

Step 3: Become Nationally Board Certified & State Licensed

To become a practicing dentist after graduating from dental school, you will need to become nationally board certified. This National Board Dental Examination has two parts: one on basic sciences and one focused on dental specifics.

Each state is going to have their own requirements on licensing. All jurisdictions require a specific level of education as well as a written and clinical exam.

Depending on where you live, you may also need to become licensed by the state you plan to practice in. Some states use the national board certification to fulfill the local requirement, but others have additional licensing requirements. Check with your state specifically to find out what is needed.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics determined that the employment growth rate for a dentist by 2028 will be 7%, which is 2% more than the average rate for all jobs.

Step 4: Consider a Specialty

The majority of dentists are general practitioners, but you can specialize in one of 12 ADA-recognized dental specialties. Each of these specialties will require more schooling, usually two to four years, and up to two years in a residency program as well.

These are the current approved and ADA-recognized dental specialties:

  • Dental public health: educates the public and serves the community, working to prevent and control dental diseases

  • Dental anesthesiology: promotes patient safety while helping to manage pain for dental procedures and surgeries

  • Oral and maxillofacial pathology: research, investigation, and diagnosis of dental diseases impacting the oral and maxillofacial regions

  • Endodontics: specialty involving dental pulp and periradicular tissues

  • Oral medicine: oral specialty, helping to manage medically related diseases impacting the oral area

  • Oral and maxillofacial surgery: diagnosis and surgical treatment dealing with aesthetic and functional components of both soft and hard tissues of the oral and maxillofacial region

  • Periodontics: prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of supporting and surrounding teeth tissues

  • Oral and maxillofacial radiology: radiology for the diagnosis and management of diseases and conditions impacting the oral and maxillofacial region

  • Pediatric dentistry: preventative and therapeutic oral health care supporting infants and children up through adolescence

  • Orthodontics and dentofacial orthopedics: diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of orofacial structures

  • Prosthodontics: diagnosis, planning, rehabilitation, and treating missing teeth with replacements

  • Orofacial pain: diagnosis, treatment and management of pain disorders impacting the oral region

Step 5: Get Necessary Insurance

To open a practice and work as a dentist, you will need to carry several different types of insurance. This can help to protect you and your patients, and ensure you are following your state’s regulations.

These are the different types of insurance dentists need:

  • Malpractice insurance: This professional liability insurance can protect against claims made against you.

  • Disability insurance: You can often obtain this as a dental student, and it can help protect you in the event of accident or injury.

  • Life insurance: This can protect your current or future family. Along with disability insurance, it is required for new dentists starting their own practice.

  • Facility insurance: This is mandatory for new partners or practice owners. It protects equipment and supplies against loss.

  • Workers’ compensation insurance: This is required for dentists who own or are partners in a practice, to protect employees under your care.

  • Office overhead insurance: This is optional insurance that can be a cost-effective way to protect you if you need to take an extended amount of time off work due to injury or illness.

Check with your state to find out exactly which insurance types you are required to carry. Many policies have waiting periods, so start looking early. Policies are often offered at reduced rates to first-year and new dentists.

Step 6: Get Experience, if Needed

Some states will require you to do a one-year dental residency in a hospital or dental facility before being able to practice on your own. This is required post-graduate work.

For example, New York requires dentists to complete a clinically based postdoctoral specialty dental or general practice residency program that is at least one year in length. This experience is done instead of a clinical state-based test.

You will need to check with your state board to determine specific licensure requirements to practice dentistry locally.

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.